Not many of you should become teachers, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work, and teachers are held to the strictest standards. And we all make many mistakes - we get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfect, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life, like a bridle can perfectly control a horse.
A small bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder in the hands of a skilled pilot sets a course of a huge ship even in the face of the strongest winds. In the same way, the tongue is a small part of your body, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
Think about it: it only takes a tiny spark to set off a whole forest on fire. A careless or wrong word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the fire of hell.
People can tame animals – birds and beasts, reptiles and fish - but no one can tame a tongue. The tongue runs wild; it can be poisonous! With it we bless God our Father; and then with the same tongues we curse the very men and women who are made in God’s image. Blessings and curses out of the same mouth!
My friends, surely this isn’t right!
* * * * *
At a staff meeting a few weeks ago, Janice filled us in on something that had come up, that the staff needed to be aware of. The topic is kind of beside the point – it’s her method that was remarkable. First she laid the topic on the table – here’s what you need to know, and why it’s important… So calmly and matter-of-fact. Then she described the feelings of the people involved, and points of disagreement… So respectfully and diplomatically. Then she gave her analysis of the situation, and where it should go from here… So clear and non-judgmental at the same time.
I swear, she missed her calling as a professional diplomat! We kind of teased her about it - how we could all take lessons from her. As opposed to me, who tends to blurt things out pretty directly. Janice has got it down to an art form. Clearly she’s heard the message of James and takes it to heart.
We all know that James is right: words carry so much power. A single tweet from a CEO can send a stock soaring or crashing; a politician’s off-hand remark can lead to havoc or peace; one teacher’s lessons can shape a student’s views for a lifetime. In the age of the Internet, words have more power than ever. A single post going viral can spread information – or disinformation - like wildfire. Words shape public opinion, shape our beliefs, shape character, shape fear or hope. Some might argue that words shape reality itself.
Words have incredible power. James is right: we’d better give them their due. And if we want to claim the title “Christian,” we’d better learn to control our own tongues. And our fingers and thumbs. Because what we say can build up or destroy, hurt or heal, give life or decimate souls.
Words have so much power, and we use them so blithely. I know I’ve said things I wish I could take back, especially things I’ve said in the heat of anger or frustration or harsh judgment. When you’re in that hot emotional place, sometimes it’s best to just walk away before you say or send something harsh. Just put the knife down before you damage your relationship, maybe permanently. Put it down, before you wound someone’s soul. Even if you think you’re right. Maybe especially when you’re so sure you’re right and they’re wrong.
I keep bringing up Fred Rogers – and my sister did last week, too. But I swear, the man knew his stuff. As I’ve said before, the creator of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was also a Presbyterian pastor, and he lived out his faith in the flesh. That was never more true than the messages he sent out through television. As he used to pray before every show, “God, may some word that is heard be yours.” He knew that words mattered, and he wanted nothing more than for God’s word to be heard through his words.
He took his care with words to an art-form, quite literally. Fred was exacting and exasperating in how particular he was about language. His staff even teased him about it. As one story tells it, a couple of his writers cracked open a bottle of scotch on a break, and as they were talking about how demanding Fred was about words, they came up with the term “Freddish.” Like it was its own language, with its own rules of grammar. Later these writers – Arthur Greenwald and Barry Head – they even wrote an illustrated manual called, “Let’s Talk about Freddish” – a parody of how hard it was to get all the words just right for Fred.
In their mock-rule book, they used the example of trying to tell kids not to run around in the street.
Rule 1 was, “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” As in,
It is dangerous to play in the street.
Rule 2 was, “Rephrase in a positive manner.” As in,
It is good to play where it is safe.
Rule 3 was, “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers… need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in,
“Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
You get the idea. After all 9 rules were applied, you’d get to this sentence:
“Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.” [i]
It all sounds kind of silly, right? But actually, it wasn’t. He was so exacting for a reason. As Arthur Greenwald remembers, “What Fred understood and was very direct and articulate about was that the inner life of children was deadly serious to them.”
The inner life of children was deadly serious to them.
Just like our own inner lives are deadly serious to us. And when we recognize that in ourselves – and each other – we begin understand the power our words can have to give life; to build up; to bless, and not curse.
There’s a musical I stumbled on recently –Trip told me about it. “Dear Evan Hansen.” It’s the story of a teen who hates his life and how lonely he is. He’s socially isolated, anxious and depressed, and he’s trying to find some reason for hope. His therapist has Evan write letters to himself every day, about what will be good that day. So every day he starts out, Dear Evan Hansen. Dear Evan Hansen, he writes to himself, as he tries to talk himself into seeing something good about life, as if his words can change his reality. But one day is so bad, he just can’t pretend anymore. That day, he writes about how he’s given up hope, and that he wonders if anyone will ever even notice.
But when he goes to print his letter at school, another kid grabs it from the printer, and reads it, and won’t give it back - this mean kid named Connor. Evan is terrified what Connor will do. If Connor will public-shame Evan by posting his letter. If he does, his life will be over.
But that’s not how it turns out, at all. It’s actually even more heartbreaking. It turns out Connor has been struggling, too. It turns out that Connor’s in even more pain than Evan. And, as Evan finds out, Connor takes his own life. When the authorities find him, Evan’s letter is still in Connor’s pocket. And naturally the authorities think Connor has written this letter to Evan. “Dear Evan Hansen…” A suicide note, Connor pouring his heart out to Evan… When it was Evan’s own letter, all along.
It changes everything. Evan lets them believe it. Lets people believe they were close. Tries to help them have compassion for Connor. Tries to honor his life. Because it feels like they were best friends now. Because they had so much in common – so much pain.
Evan wants so badly to help people understand Connor that he posts his own letter on-line as if it were Connor’s. As if it had not been his own cry of pain. The one he was so afraid would be public. He posts it…
And it goes viral. It touches so many people! The outpouring of love and concern, it’s incredible… The outreach, the compassion, the way people pour out their own pain, their vulnerability… It opens up a floodgate of feelings. Evan’s words – that he was so afraid people would see - lead to healing he never imagined.
Eventually he has to come to terms with his deception; but he’s in a different place now. Life is different. Even when when it feels like words fail, he comes closer to the people he loves. And he knows his own words of pain, put out there because of Connor, had power - to heal and bring hope and bring people together. He knows there’s a world where the hurting finally, finally felt heard, and seen, and understood.
It was worth it. He could offer up a promise to the world:
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
You will be found
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
You will be found
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
You will be found.
So what do Fred Rogers and Dear Evan Hansen and the Book of James possibly have in common?
They know the power of words – and they challenge us, if we’re willing to take up that work: of using our voices to heal, not hurt. To build up, and not to break down. To bring together, and not tear apart.
Because we know Fred Rogers was right: the inner life of others is deadly serious, and people are desperate to have someone else see it.
And we know what Evan Hansen says is true: we need each other, and we need to know we will be there for each other when things get dark. We need to know we are not alone in this world.
And we know with all our hearts that the Book of James is right, because all of us have felt the power of words that have made us feel loved and alive, and words that have cut us to shreds. And we have a choice of what we will do with our own words.
We won’t all be diplomats – but we don’t need to be. But we all have a choice. And that is to let the words that we use give glory to God – and bring goodness to the world that God loves.