(James 3:1-10; 5:13-16)
When Matt was a young boy, he took piano lessons with a lovely and prim and proper Christian woman, Sylvia Swisher. One day, she reported an interaction during a piano lesson. When Matt hit a wrong note, he said “Jesus Christ” under this breath. To which Mrs. Swisher responded, “I hope that was a prayer.”
Being of a conservative Christian bent, she believed that the only time we should invoke the name of God or Jesus was prayerfully. While she may have been more pious than our family, Mrs. Swisher had a point. Words matter. What we say and how we say it matters.
James believed that the words we use can change the world. The tongue is like fire, it can warm and soothe, and burn and destroy. Teachers and other leaders had better be careful of what they say – they can harm peoples’ souls or provoke violence by the words that are demeaning, angry, excluding, dishonest, and divisive.
We know that James’ admonition is true. Think of words that have hurt you. Think of words used to describe women, persons of color, and persons with disabilities. Think of how many people have died this past year due to misleading comments or ambiguous counsel regarding the Coronavirus. Think of death threats to Dr. Anthony Fauci due to negative comments by politicians. Think of the divisive political speech and social media incivility we hear every day, often from otherwise decent people.
The Buddhist Eightfold Path says that “right speech” is essential to spiritual maturity. Jesus told his followers let your “yes” be a “yes” and your “no” be a “no.” Do not call your brother a fool or you will be in danger of losing your soul. And, of course, the Ten Commandments proclaim. “Do not bear false witness.”
I once saw a poster that counseled, “every hello is a prayer.” This is true – we can say “peace be with you,” “Namaste,” or the “spirit in me greets the spirit you,” and we can speak truth to power and challenge others with words aimed at healing and not destruction.
Words can transform, one of my spiritual mentors Howard Thurman remembers President John Hope of Morehouse University referring to the young men in chapel services as “Young Gentlemen.” It transformed their lives:
He always addressed us as “young gentlemen.” What this term of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against the backdrop of the South of the 1920’s. We were black men in Atlanta during a period when the state of Georgia was infamous for its racial brutality. Lynchings, burning, unspeakable cruelties were the fundamentals of existence for black people. Our physical lives were of little value. Any encounter with a white person was inherently dangerous and frequently fatal. Those of us who managed to remain physically whole found our lives defined in less than human terms.22
Words matter. That is why we speak versions of this to our children at church – and to you as well – “God loves you. We love you. Your life matters and you can make a difference.” In a world of negativity and fear our children need to have a haven of affirmation and love and grow into the words we speak to them. That is why we have the rainbow symbol on our marquee. It says that LGBTQ people have a place here, that they are God’s children and not second class, spawns of Satan. That is why we put a Black Lives Matter sign on the door of our home or why we are part of Outdoor Worship in Hyannis. We are affirming the dignity of people who are often seen as nuisances and nobodies, not worthy of consideration. You matter, we love you, you are God’s child, you can do great things.
Words can heal and transform bodies, souls, relationships, and communities. They can change a nation and they can transform our lives. Think of the greatest of presidents – “with malice toward none, charity toward all” – even the rebellious South.
James concludes his Letter with an exhortation to pray in all the circumstances of life. Prayer changes things – it can change your cells, but more importantly your soul. If you are suffering pray, if you are afraid pray, if you’ve done something embarrassing or fallen off the moral path, pray. Certainly, we want to say “thank you” to God and others and ask for guidance in our daily lives and citizenship. Sometimes we need simply to ask for help. I’ve shared before the statement that “courage is fear that has said its prayers.” There is a lot of fear nowadays, and we need to acknowledge it.
The philosopher Kierkegaard once said that authentic living has moments of “fear and trembling” every day. And I must attest to that: I am a hopeful and affirmative person. I look for the sunny side of life, but each day I experience a few moments of terror and tears about the virus, about the dangerous path our nation is on, about not finishing my work as your pastor and most importantly as a grandparent of two boys who need a grandparent’s love and guidance. I never deny my fear. Denial of fear or downplaying the virus can be dangerous. When I am afraid, I go to prayer – to the Jesus prayer –
Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy
And then I make an affirmation like “Nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Fear doesn’t disappear magically – and I don’t want it to. If you are not afraid of the state of our nation and the realities of the virus, you are in deadly denial. When I pray, my fears find a home – in God’s love, in my care for others, in the day I currently live, in this moment, and the call to do and be the best I can be as your pastor, a parent and grandparent, writer, friend, husband, citizen…and I experience a sense of wholeness in this wondrous unrepeatable moment.
So, pay attention to what you say. Words matter, your self-talk matters. Let your words be true, healing, reconciling, challenging, loving, and always remember God is with you, God loves you, we love you, and you matter.