Sunday, September 13, 2015

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Controlling your tongue

“Controlling the tongue”
Psalm 19:1-4a; Luke 6:43-45; James 3:1-12

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          Please join me in prayer: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”  (Ps. 19:14.) 
          Those words I just prayed might be familiar to some of you. Maybe you memorized them as a child, or heard a preacher begin a sermon with them.  They are words uttered to God by the Psalmist that whatever words came out of the mouth and whatever thoughts were in the heart, may they be acceptable!  The prayer is the last verse of Psalm 19.
          We sometimes here the popular expressions, “It’s not what you say, but what you do that counts.”  OR “Actions speak louder than words.
Yet we know that words ARE important, words matter, words are powerful!  And what comes out of our mouths often reveals what is in our hearts.  The Luke 6 passage, words of Jesus, makes clear that what one says reveals what one is as surely as the appearance of fruit announces the nature of the tree.  “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.”
          Our speech reveals a lot about who we are and what is in our hearts and whether the Holy Spirit is present.
          “Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart.  For out of the overflow (abundance) of the heart the mouth speaks.”  (Luke 6:43-45)

          So what is coming out of your mouth and mine?  Each week day morning our staff has morning prayers together.  Part of that litany includes these words:
                             “Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
                             in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.”

What we say, how we say it, what is said to us and how we receive what is said to us.......  all of that is important!

(Story: When I was a young child, maybe in 3rd or 4th grade, I had an experience that left a huge impression on me, in more ways than one.  I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember enough.  I was very upset, angry about something, and getting ‘mouthy’ with my mother...You know talking back, being disrespectful.  Maybe I was asked to do something and disobeyed, maybe I didn’t do something I was supposed to do, maybe I was just arguing and fighting with my brother.  Like I said I don’t remember all of the details. What I remember is that I said to my mother, “Shut up!  Not a good thing to do!!!  I was standing close to my father with my back to him while he was reading the newspaper.  The next thing I remember is feeling the sting of his open hand across my bottom.  It was swift,  accurate and it hurt!  I quickly learned that what I had done was wrong, hurtful and disrespectful to my mother.  I never did that again.  It left an impression on me in several ways!  As I reflect on that, I think it was so significant because my parents were never harsh, punitive or abusive in their discipline.  It was always appropriate, in my memory and if discipline needed to happen, it usually came from my mother, at least for me.  But this time my dad, who was quite easy going and had a tender heart, was the one who let me know that the words that came from my mouth and directed to my mother were harsh and inappropriate. That never happened again.)

In the passage from James 3:1-12, we read, “With the tongue we praise ourLord 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.”
          How true that is.  We know from our own experience that out of the same curse mouth, our mouth, can come good and evil, the best and the worst, blessings and curses!  Joyce Rupp, wrote in a devotional book, “I am always appalled at how verbally nasty human beings can be toward one another.  That is, until I find myself doing the same things!”

                   What else does this text from this small book of James tell us?

          Since we have so many educators, teachers, professors in this congregation, we certainly should look briefly at the opening verses of this chapter 3.  Now keep in mind that teaching was highly valued and a respected profession in Jewish culture and many Jews who embraced Christianity wanted to become teachers. Apparently there was a tendency to self appoint and give advice.  James writes that not all should be teachers!
          “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  We all stumble in many ways.  Those who are never at fault in what they say are perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” 

          So teachers are given greater responsibility and will be judged with greater strictness!

          Then James picks up an important theme of how Christians should live and exhibit wisdom on a daily basis and that is they/we need to pay attention to our speech.  We need to ‘control our tongue”!  This very small part of our whole body gets us into trouble!
          A bit placed into the mouth of a horse allows the rider to give direction to a large animal like the horse.  A small rudder underneath the ship of a sailing vessel allows the captain to steer a ship to safety.  A small bit, a small rudder used to control a larger entity...that is good! “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts!”  (It brags about big gets us into trouble).
          A spark from a forgotten campfire, a carelessly tossed match or cigarette butt can start a huge forest fire that rages out of control for days and weeks.  And we have seen evidence of that in the NW part of the US in recent months.  An uncontrolled tongue can do the same kind of damage.
          Words have power.  They can ruin a reputation, destroy a career, damage a marriage, break up a friendship, alienate a son or daughter or parent, take down a company, destroy trust with a business colleague.
          We can soon think of examples of an untamed tongue:

complaining, lying, bragging, gossiping, putting others down, belittling, false teaching, manipulating, speaking too much, boasting...

James is pretty negative in these verses when he writes that,...  all kinds of animals can be tamed by human beings, but no one can tame the tongue!  That is not very encouraging.  So what do we do?
We do what we need to do in so many areas of our lives..... we accept that we can’t do these things in our own strength.  We may not ever achieve perfect control of our tongues, but the Holy Spirit can and does help us learn self-control.  The Holy Spirit will give us increasing power to monitor and control what we say, how we say it.  The Holy Spirit will remind us of God’s love when we are offended by what someone might say about us or to us and help us restrain ourselves from reacting in a negative manner.  The Holy Spirit can and will bring healing when we have been hurt by the words of others and can help us practice restraint and not lash out.  But it is hard.  It is often painful.  I have personally experienced some of this and know it to be true.

How do we work at ‘controlling or taming’ our tongue?

1.)  We need to examine our heart.  Ask ourselves, what is our heart full of?  Is it full of love, anger, fear, resentment, cynicism, pain, bitterness?  Jesus spoke from the fullness of his heart, out of love.  He spoke words of wisdom, of care and compassion, of challenge and exhortation.  Words spoken out of love. (When we speak to another, we usually know whether we are speaking out of love and compassion OR out of anger, pain and resentment.
2.)  We need to search out our own motivations and desires.  Ask ourselves ‘what do we want our speech, our words to do?  Do we want our words to encourage, to impress, to build up and edify, to praise, to compliment, to hurt, to put down another’s thoughts or ideas, to confront, to challenge?
3.)  We need to practice restraint!  That is before speaking, or sending that e mail or text message, ask,”Is what I want to say true?  Is it accurate?  Is it job necessary?  Is it kind?  Is it important enough to risk a broken relationship, loss of job, a damaged reputation? (How many of you have said some things to another that you wish you could take back?  How many have sent an e mail or text that as soon as you sent it, you regretted it?  How many of you have received something from another that was hurtful?)  We know that when these hurtful things happen, apologies can be offered, relationships restored, to a certain extent, but often scars remain.  A few words spoken in anger can destroy a relationship that took years to build.  Practicing restraint might mean waiting for a day before replying to an email that has been hurtful.  It might mean having a trusted friend or partner read over your words to offer some advice and feedback, before sending off that message that you may later regret sending.  It might mean practicing some ‘time out’s for yourself when you know you are stirred up, hurt, bitter...maybe taking a cooling off period, taking some deep breaths, meditating, praying, practicing some mindfulness, before you re-engage in conversation with the other person.
4.)  We need to become more aware of the presence of God in the other...they too are part of God’s created order, made in the image of God, as you and I are, imperfect and in need of God’s grace.
5.)  We need to speak from a calm heart, out of the overflow, the abundance of the heart.  The tongue problem is really a heart problem.  If we are filled with God’s love and live our lives with the assurance that the Holy Spirit is present within us, then we can trust that the Spirit will give us strength for what we need for daily living, including how to control our tongue and how to use our speech to glorify God and to build up people around us.
          When I leave my office at the end of each day, I face a small piece of paper taped to my file cabinet, where I have written, “Is it well with my soul?  I am thinking maybe I need to ask myself at the end of each day, “Did my words and actions today come from a loving heart?

Closing hymn is verse 4 of the earlier hymn we sang:

“Words today are cheap and many, used for ends both good and ill.  How we need Your Word for living with its words that heal and fill! God, we praise You for the message you have given us to share, as you offer, now as always, Living words to answer prayer.”
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