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Thursday, 15 March 2012

Taming the Tongue

Last week was a fairly challenging week: one of those weeks where God gives you several nudges (each one slightly harder and more painful than the last) about a particular aspect of your life that isn't very sorted out. For me, that's my mouth. I have been reading Proverbs (that probably counts for prods one through to fifty as every other verse is a reprimand to those who misuse their tongue) and was already finding it quite uncomfortable going, and then, at our church weekend away at home, our minister challenged us to do some true fasting (Isaiah 58:10 "do away with the yoke of oppression,with the pointing finger and malicious talk") for the remaining 30 days of lent and fast from negativity in our attitudes towards and conversations about our church family. Finally, just to drive the already rather sore point home ("For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." Hebrews 4:12. Ouch) I have been reading through James with one of the brilliant young people who live near me and we had reached the mighty chapter 3: The Taming of the Tongue. I often complain that God doesn't seem to be saying anything, but His message to me over the past few days has been quite explicit. (That doesn't mean that I've got it yet!) 

In Proverbs, the wise are juxtaposed against the foolish. One of the key distinctions between the two is the way in which they use their mouth: is it for building up or for breaking down? Is it for stirring up discord or promoting peace? The tongue is both a weapon and a healer. It is not only destructive to the one who uses it incorrectly, but to those around him; it is the means of "preserving life" (13:3) or causing "ruin" but not simply ruin of oneself but of an entire community: "The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts." (18:7-8) Thus, the snare traps the foolish speaker but also those who are abused by what he says. In direct contrast to this, is the one who understands the power of what is said and uses words wisely: "The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction. Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." (16:23-4).

Proverbs has some truly awesome things to say about a mouth that is used wisely, things that make me long to be one who waits and speaks with wisdom rather than rushing in "airing my own opinions" (18:2): "The soothing tongue is a tree of life" (15:4); "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life" (10:11); "The lips of the righteous nourish many" (10.21). Just as the tongue has the power to tear down and to wound, so does it have the power to build up and to heal. More than that, the mouth becomes a fount of salvation, the means by which people are turned from their foolish ways and directed towards Jesus. 

James perhaps goes even further in his comments about words. In chapter 3 of his letter, he claims that anyone having the ability to perfectly guard their tongue would be able to guard all of their other behaviour: "Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check." (3:2) I find this an almost unbelievable statement: the one who never says a word wrong will never do anything wrong; the one who has control of their mouth will be able to control everything else for the tongue, like the rudder on a ship or the bit of a horse (3:3-4), controls something much bigger than itself - controls and "corrupts" (3:6). The only one not to be corrupted by it was Christ and it was for his words that he was famous: "The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law." (Mark 1:22) ""No one ever spoke the way this man does," (John 7:46). He was himself the perfect Word (John 1:1) of God.

When reading James last week, I was struck by the severity of his rebuke against those who fail to speak as they ought: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water." (3:9-12) There is a profound hypocrisy in praising God with the same mouth with which we mar his precious and valued creation. Ouch. God prompted me, under the verse which James references in Genesis ("Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness."" Gen 1:26) to write a list of names of people in my life that I struggle to tame my tongue with - either in talking to them or about them. It was a long list. A callous word is all too easily said, gossip indulged in, anger allowed to blurt itself out. But how is to be avoided?

I don't think there is an easy solution. As with most things in the Christian life it seems that "little by little" (Exodus 23:30) we are saved. God is a God of full redemption (Psalm 130) but it is a slow process. One of my all time favourite holy people quotes comes from the awesome Communist turned Catholic, Dorothy Day (check her out if you have not already!) I paraphrase because I have forgotten but she says (roughly): "to love God and our fellow man - this is our lifetime's job...we are never going to be finished." I love the honesty of that - we will be made perfect but, for our time on earth, it will be a struggle. " I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19) Amen to that Paul. And yet, and yet...that does not mean that we resign ourselves to do nothing whilst we wait for our perfection. What is the solution to negativity, to pointing fingers and malicious tongues? Honour.

The opposite of negativity, of bitching and complaining, is not positivity (Does anybody else remember this terrible advert?) but honour. As well as being challenged to fast from negativity, our church has been challenged to take up a culture of honour. This makes sense to me in a way that fake, plastic smile positivity doesn't. Honour is not caking over negativity with some kind of non commital compliments; honour is, as Mark Stibbe so wonderfully phrased it, searching the treasure in the trash. His reasoning is based on Jeremiah 15:19: "if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman." God is looking for those who will ask for his eyes to see humanity as he sees them. God is searching for those who will persevere to speak worth into lives that may seem broken and unworthy. This is truely beautiful. It is also doable in a way that positivity isn't. It is doable because it forces us to ask God what he sees in someone - what is there of his wonderful likeness in a hard to like individual?

When I was a teacher in Croydon, I spent three years asking God to teach me to love the unlovable. I need his help to do the same again. Instead of seeing a scrappy, messy tomboy who loves to cause fights to see the courage of a potential soldier of God; instead of seeing the loud mouthed brashness of a boistrous fourteen year old to see the skills of a leader and the beauty of someone who is fiercely loyal to their friends; instead of complaining about what I haven't liked about a church service, honouring the individuals who have spoken and seeking out the Christlikeness in them. It is difficult. There are still 20 days left of lent and I have failed many times already. But, if we are to be God's spokesmen, if we are to represent him and speak for him, if we are to reach out to the lost and proclaim their value in the eyes of a loving God then a culture of honour must extend way beyond a 30 day fast. It must become a daily commitment, not simply a Lenten one.

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