James 3:1–12 (NRSV)
Taming the Tongue
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
What do people say about you? A simple question that depending on your age, or current circumstance may be something encouraging or devastating. It is ridiculous really how much weight many of place in the words that people speak to and about us. It is ridiculous but we cannot help ourselves. People talk, people listen, we are concerned that maybe what people are hearing might be untrue or even worse the truth we do not want others to see. The spoken word.
How we speak to others and how we speak of others can reveal a great deal about the character of an individual, and even the community in which individuals participate in. Yet do we really consider what the words we speak to those around us are doing?
James the brother of Jesus speaks a great deal about the words that we speak for a reason. The words that people spoke got someone very close to him killed. Have you ever considered that our words could be taken to that level? That concept struck me over the course of this past week. I spent a great deal of time contemplating speech, words, how words can be perceived and how they could be twisted. The spoken word.
All week I have scrolled though news feeds, viewing picture after picture, editorial after editorial of people urging us to remember a day fourteen years ago. It is a day most of us will never forget, a day where the foundations of a mighty nation of people were shaken, a day where we were faced with a very grim reality. How often have we considered what was spoken around that event?
I do not want us to brush this to the side but I want us to consider it fully. That day happened because people spoke words carefully strung together to drive emotional response that may or may not have been true, they spoke these words in such a manner that those who heard the words would not question the validity of what was being said but would believe. People were blamed for the situations that others found themselves in, guilt was professed, a solution was proposed, and promises were made. This was done over the course of a lifetime, and slowly through the use of carefully manipulated words people within a community were moved to such a degree that they felt it was not only permissible but a righteous requirement to kill.
Now on the flip side of the equation, words were also spoken, words that assessed blame, guilt was announced, sentences were carried out and promises were made. Carefully formulated words that were spoken in a tone, manner, and location to move people in such a way that they would feel that it was not only permissible but a righteous requirement to kill.
How many of us have considered how much power the spoken word has over people. The spoken word can encourage an individual to strive for greatness, or it can feed primal instincts of survival. Yet so often words are spoken with little regard. This is why James says that not many of you should become teachers. Last week I said that James was probably the most controversial book of the New Testament and this is just another example of why this controversy is there. For most Christians in the protestant branches of the faith we have an understanding that every person that is a disciple of Christ is a priest of a minister. That every man, woman, and child has the ability and directive to spread the Gospel of Jesus. Especially among the Friends traditions, of which for most of its history did not have an office for a position in the church meeting of Pastor. Because we have a strongly held belief that we are all called to be ministers.
Not all of you should become teachers. I have to admit that this statement does not set well with me, because I firmly believe that if God wants something to be said or done He will empower that person or group of people to act. Because the words did not set well with me, because they challenged my understanding of what I thought to be true, I studied what was going on. I must study because I might have missed something important and it is my responsibility to seek out answers. Does James just come right out and say that not everyone should preach the Gospel? Did James say that there is an ordained office of teacher that we must submit too? The short answer is yes, yes he really did say that, but that is not the total answer.
All too often we fail to fully hear when words are spoken. We catch a part and if the words do not fit well with our preconceived ideas we stop listening and often if we were just able to listen to the second half of a sentence we would have found an explanation for the perceived discrepancy. James says not all of you should be teachers. The word we translate as teacher in the ancient world does not only mean Pastor, even though it is often used in that sense. The word used is probably more clearly understood as skilled master.
In college I took a couple of semester of Taekwondo to fulfill a physical education requirement. I learned a great deal in these classes, I moved up in stature among the community of students, but I am not a skilled master. I should not be a teacher of Taekwondo, because if I were to claim to be a teacher of Taekwondo someone might get hurt because there is much more I would need to learn. I can however assist the master in teaching those that have not yet made it to the same level I am at. If you have ever hired skilled laborers, there are various levels of expertise: apprentice, journeyman, and master. A master plumber, is more skilled than the apprentice because they have spent many hours perfecting their trade and skills. The Master plumber is the one that trains those beneath them and the one that we feel the most confident with. The other levels we probably would not even call. With this in mind not everyone should be considered a skilled master. Does this mean that an apprentice plumber cannot fix a leak in your pipes? Does it mean that a yellow belted Taekwondo student is incapable to defend themselves in a fight? No it simply means that there is more that can be learned from others. Not all of us are master teachers, but we can assist people along their journey to the place where we are.
Why are most of us not able to be teachers? Discipline, or more accurately disciplined speech. I have just illustrated that the spoken word can be used to manipulate people, to move them to do things that they were incapable to do before, this can be either positive or negative depending on the will of those speaking. James says that the tongue can be like a small fire that consumes a forest, or a deadly poison that can become a curse to those that hear. Discipline is key. Fire is not always a threat to the environment, in many ways fire is a necessity for the health of an ecosystem. This is why ranchers and scientists have continued to utilize this primitive tool when managing range lands of the prairies. Fire is also a powerful tool that can be used as a method of controlling unwanted weeds within croplands as well. But we all know fire, when not controlled, is dangerous. At this moment there is currently 1.6 million acres of land being burned by 33 uncontrolled fires in the American west, communities are threatened, families are being displaced, and lives have been lost.
Now let us consider poisons. What is a poison? A poison is a compound that can cause illness or death. These poisons can be naturally occurring or they can be compounds manipulated by man to produce some sort of desired effect. Many things could be poisonous if they are used improperly but under disciplined care many poisons can actually be lifesaving elements. Something as simple as Visine which can be used to lubricate dry eyes if used improperly can cause severer illness, and something like rat poison if used properly can manage cardiovascular disease. So fires can promote or destroy the environment, and chemical compounds can promote or destroy life, how are you using your words?
Not all of us should be teachers, or more accurately not all of us should be considered speech masters. This does not mean that we cannot encourage those around us to follow Christ. It simply means that we should be very aware that we need to have discipline when we speak. One of the most recognizable traditions of Friends worship is that we utilize times of silence to encourage communion with God. During these periods of Silence we not only hope but expect that the Spirit of God will speak and move us as individuals and as communities. This can be a powerfully spiritual experience, but it can also be a place where people can cause great spiritual harm. During those periods of silence no one really knows what might happen, we just wait in spiritual limbo. It can be awkward at times, it can be enriching, it can be rest for your souls, or it can be convicting, and during this time anyone can speak. There is an old proverb that states, “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.” I do not know where this comes from, or who originally said it, but it is profound. Just because words are not being spoken does not mean there is a void of concern or activity. But the idea that words should improve the silence points to the fact that what we say should be out of discipline. Or as James says earlier in his letter to the church, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Silence allows the words to settle before they are reacted to, it allows one to consider fully what has been said so that when we respond it is not out of anger but out of the desire to improve. When we are able to listen before we speak and to discipline our speech to improve those around us we can control the burns, instead of causing wild fires. When we are quick to listen and slow to speak we are better equip to administer healing balms instead of poison.
Just as a Taekwondo master spends a lifetime in practice, just as a musician spends years practicing an instrument, just as a doctor spends time in study, and plumbers fine-tuning their skills we must practice the discipline of speech. Jesus taught us this through his life and his ministry. Throughout the scripture we are told that He made it his custom to worship in the synagogues, that he would withdraw to the isolated places to pray, and that he would go out to the community to minister though teaching and healing. This I have often called the Holy Rhythm, but it is simply a life of discipline and devotion. It is no different than a doctor learning their trade, or any other skill humanity has mastered. This holy rhythm is a life devoted to the Kingdom of God. We have incorporated this in our mission as a church to be a people loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with other. This is a call to a different life, a different life style, a lifestyle that does not look at personal gain but community improvement. It is a lifestyle where we listen first and speak only if we can improve those around us, by pointing them to the source of true hope.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy consider the way you have used your words this week. Have they been used to improve those around you, or have they caused harm to the environment? You may also want to ask God how to help you in this area and just sit in the silence until you can improve it with your voice.