September 12, 2021
Water is absolutely necessary for life. Up to 60% of the human body is water. The whole creation depends on water in all its forms for life. Water can also be dangerous and destructive—storms, floods, undercurrents, and crashing waves can do so much damage. Anyone who’s been responsible for maintaining any kind of building—home, office, church—has likely learned that water can be one of the most persistent and challenging issues to manage. In both my home and here at Foundry, I’m constantly reminded that water not carefully contained or directed will flow any and everywhere. A water spot in my bedroom ceiling doesn’t necessarily identify where the water is breaching the roof, since water runs along any unbounded channel and finds a low place to seep into things. Over time, water causes rot and mold, rust and erosion.
Words are like that. Today we are given our every three years reminder from the epistle of James that our words can do serious damage. Words and language are, of course, beautiful gifts and provide ways for us to communicate and connect with others, and to describe our deepest thoughts, feelings, and truths. I imagine most of us could tell of a time when someone’s words encouraged, comforted, affirmed, or inspired us. I remember once when I was feeling discouraged about things at a former congregation, a lay leader sent me a message with a list of all the things he saw that I’d helped to accomplish. Words of poetry, prayers, and scripture feed my spirit daily. My father was a man of few words and I have kept every little scrap of paper with any message he ever wrote to me. Words can be profoundly life-giving and sustaining.
But words can also do great damage. Like water, words that flow into places where there aren’t good boundaries will just keep flowing, affecting everything and everyone they touch. And hurtful words do damage. Thoughtless slander or careless conjecture or cruel teasing or hateful speech hurt feelings, wound relationships, and erode a person’s confidence, trust, peace, and joy. I imagine all of us can think of words spoken to us or about us that have left deep scars on our hearts and spirits. The hurtful words are so difficult to shake.
I’ve found over the years that, along with small towns like the one I grew up in, workplaces and churches are super skilled at being “set ablaze by a small fire.” The “small fire” of gossip might be what someone thinks is a benign snippet of hearsay or might be a story shared for the purpose of venting or expressing disdain or judgment. But fire, like water, will spread and flow unless it is properly managed and contained. And a juicy little tidbit is fun to receive and to share and so, often, is not contained. Better to put that tidbit in a sealed doggy bag and let it sit in the fridge until you’ve forgotten it’s there and then, eventually, throw it out because you realize it isn’t something that’s nourishing or necessary. In other words, contain it. Zip it. These days, most of us know something about triangulation—that dynamic where two persons are in conflict and one or both of them try to draw a third person in to try to gain personal validation or support for their cause. That creates fertile ground for talking smack about the “other” person. If you’ve gathered around a fire and choose to chime in or pile on, you are—to work with the metaphor—throwing fuel on the fire and making it bigger and more damaging—not just to the person but to the whole community. Fires destroy things and hurt people. I find that anyone involved in leadership for human community needs skills in this kind of firefighting.
There are appropriate ways and places to share concerns and to work through conflict. In any human community, there will be conflicts and disagreements. We will hurt one another sometimes. It’s not that we are supposed to pretend tensions don’t exist or to ignore hurtful behavior. But where do we take our concern and what kind of words do we use in processing and sharing it? The call and challenge is to be more like Jesus in the midst of conflict. That means at its most base level that you’re not out to get people, that you don’t seek to hurt someone, or to turn people against others, or to trample on the dignity or heart of someone. It means the goal is not to “win” but to seek mending and reconciliation. Sometimes reconciliation is not possible or safe and setting boundaries becomes particularly important. But regardless of the larger context or outcome, we can always choose whether, how, and to whom we speak about it. //
I don’t think the message from James is just about being “nice.” It is about what we create or destroy with our words. Those who study linguistics help us understand that words are both descriptive and formative. In our own scriptures, we have the ancient story of God speaking creation into being. Words created realities. Words create realities. Certain words evoke certain kinds of responses—both of thought and feeling. The sound vibration or energy of words affect things for good or ill. If a child is surrounded by bruising, belittling speech, it’s not just the meaning of the words, but the energy in the words, that will affect the formation of that child’s thinking and language and life. And the opposite is true as well.
James doesn’t mess around in describing how dangerous human speech can be. The human tongue is, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:8-9)
In our society—and in churches that gather on Sunday to bless the Lord!—all sorts of derogatory, dehumanizing words get applied to people—sometimes certain persons, often whole groups. And when it becomes normalized over time to use and allow such language to land upon the bodies and lives of human beings, it becomes much easier to allow injustice or violence to land upon those same bodies. If a person is repeatedly spoken of not as a person but as an enemy, an animal, a criminal, a disease, a sin, eventually, for those who don’t know better, that person becomes what they are called. So why not act toward them with contempt, rejection, or violence?
We bless or curse, we honor or exclude, we build up or tear down, we create or destroy, with the words we speak.
This is why we labor at Foundry to take care with our language. It’s not about being “politically correct” or proving that we’re “woke” or virtue signaling. It’s about trying to be humble before God and loving toward neighbor. We try to use a mix of images and genders for God so as not to put God in a box or presume any one thing can describe the beauty and transcendent being of our Creator. We seek to dismantle certain patriarchal words like “Kingdom” so that the word—“Kin-dom”—might invoke a love-infused, dynamic, communal vision for creation instead of any negative baggage from historical experience of earthly kings and kingdoms. Our staff clearly identify our pronouns as a way both to share ourselves in relationship and to practice radical hospitality by acknowledging and honoring the diversities of gender identities among us. In worship we invite “rising” instead of “standing” and we “receive” instead of “hear” what Spirit is saying—to honor the physical abilities of all persons. There is much I could say about all these pieces, but for today, I simply want to emphasize that we try to use language that blesses, builds up, and honors all the members of the family.
As we seek to practice radical hospitality and create beloved community, our care with language is so important. Our Foundry family is comprised of persons from a beautiful diversity of cultures, ethnicities, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. This creates opportunities to expand our awareness and understanding of human experience. It also creates opportunities to step in it and do harm. There have been times when I have stumbled over a colleague’s preferred pronouns. There have been times when I have said something and, even as it was coming out of my mouth, I realized how the words literally dripped with race or class privilege in a really unhelpful and uncomfortable way. This stuff happens as we are learning and growing in community.
The point is not that we are expected to understand and master new ways of speaking and engaging immediately or without practice. The point is that we are invited to practice, to be thoughtful, respectful, curious, and humble in the presence of those whose lives reflect back to us new ways of perceiving and experiencing life. You may have thoughts, feelings, and opinions about things. But what if you brought those things into conversations with true, open-hearted curiosity, instead of with pronouncements that—whether you mean to or not—belittle or disrespect a sibling’s lived reality?
Our world is full of harmful words, careless words, bullying words, disrespectful and dehumanizing words—splashed across every kind of media and infiltrating all the places we are. I pray that Foundry will be a community in which we seek a different way—that when we engage in relationship with one another, we will practice with one another a different economy of speech.
What if we intentionally tried to let our words be measured, fair, and shared in appropriate ways and places; to take a breath and take thought before speaking—especially before speaking about someone; what if we intentionally tried to engage in direct conversation with a person with whom we may have an issue, seeing that person as worthy of such respect. What if we listen more and speak less in spaces where others challenge what is familiar or comfortable for us—and enter into the conversation with humility and curiosity? And when we speak words that hurt, as we inevitably will, what if we were willing to ask for forgiveness; and when words have hurt us, to be willing to extend grace?
Today, our Psalm calls us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” And my guess is that it is not just our praise, gratitude, and love for God that is received as a “joyful noise” in the heavenly places. I imagine that God is aware of a whole lot of noise in the world—noise rising out of destruction and denial and the babble of hubris and thoughtlessness. We are invited today to make a noise that gives God joy, perhaps some loving, gracious, thoughtful words…
And knowing that we won’t always get it right, let’s joyfully “give thanks to God and bless God’s name” because we know God’s steadfast love and mercy endure forever!