Taming the Tongue

Within the past week, I’ve been on the receiving end of several disconcerting remarks. One was an expletive hurled by a stranger, who’d been momentarily inconvenienced by the position of my car as I exited a friend’s neighborhood. I allowed the vitriol to roll off, knowing the problem belonged entirely to the other person, at least since he hadn’t used a gun to express his disdain. In the safe solitude of my car, I shook my head and said aloud, “Wow, so much anger in the world! I can’t wait for You to come back, Lord!”

So much antagonism. Incivility. Yelling. As if force somehow validates your point. I rarely watch the news anymore because it makes it more difficult to adhere to the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Very little in the nightly recounting of events falls into any of those categories.

But two of the recent hurtful comments were merely insensitive, tossed out carelessly, without thought as to their potential impact. Maybe they were meant in jest, but, malicious or not, they landed right on top of some already-felt insecurities. Consequently, those two statements stuck. I had a hard time dislodging them because they fit my internal monologue too well.

Undoubtedly, there are times when I’m the one guilty of life-taking language, sometimes unintentional, sometimes uttered in a moment of irritation with intent to quiet the source of my aggravation. I’m guessing those of you reading this have been both giver and receiver of verbal wounds as well.

IMG_1597My ruminations on the power of our words brought to mind the scene in “Bambi”[1] where Thumper comments on newborn Bambi’s wobbly attempts to walk. The bunny’s mother intervenes with a firm reminder:

“Thumper.”

“Yes, Mama?”

“What did your father tell you this morning?”

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Good, concise advice for everyone, young or old.

Scripture has much to say regarding our speech. Consider for example:

  • A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Proverbs 15:1-2)
  • The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (Proverbs 15:28)
  • The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)
  • Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Ephesians 4:29-31)
  • But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:8-10)
  • Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
  • And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:6-12)

That last passage is particularly sobering, isn’t it? Taming our tongue is impossible for us, but nothing is impossible for God (Mark 10:27). We’ll continue to struggle with fleshly tendencies, including careless words and, at times, unwholesome speech, until we’re called Home (Romans 7:18). Nonetheless, the Spirit is sanctifying us, conforming us more and more to the likeness of the Son (Romans 8:29).

We are offspring of the King, called to be life-givers[2] in word and deed, children of light in a dark world (Ephesians 5:8-10; Philippians 2:14-16). As we practice being slow to speak, may we pause and ask ourselves if what we’re about to say is kind, true and necessary. Better yet, would we want someone to say it to or about us? After all, the Golden Rule is a simple, yet profound summation of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12), the perfect bridle to tame our wayward tongues.

 

[1] Walt Disney Studios’ animated classic debuted in 1942.

[2] For more on life-giving/life-taking behaviors, please click on the “Give Life” tab on the top banner or check out “Bucket-fillers” in the November 2018 archives.

Thanks, Mom!

Her children rise up and call her blessed.
Proverbs 31:28a

Ok, you probably think I’ve gotten my holidays mixed up. No, I know it’s not Mother’s Day. But it is the season of Thanksgiving and today is my dear mom’s 87th birthday. Thus, I want to thank God for the blessing of a godly mother as well as celebrate this very special woman by documenting some of the nuggets of wisdom she’s shared with me for as long as I can remember.

People will let you down, but God never will. Mom and I have been through numerous trials together in the nearly-60 years since she gave birth to me. Lies, disappointments, job loss, broken relationships, deaths. Through it all, Mom has taught me to depend on the One who says He’ll never leave or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6); who faithfully keeps His promises (Hebrews 10:23) and speaks only truth. (Hebrews 6:18) We will have troubles in this world, but Jesus has overcome the world. We can find peace in Him. (John 16:33)

When faced with a list of tasks, do whatever’s bothering you the most first and get it behind you. When I feel overwhelmed, which is more often than I like to admit, Mom encourages me with this time-tested advice bestowed upon her by one of her grade-school teachers. Though it may not have been inspired by scripture originally, there’s certainly a Biblical tie-in. Usually when my to-do list becomes over-loaded, it’s filled with chores associated with temporal concerns. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, mulching, paying bills and the like are necessary. But Jesus makes it clear we’re to seek eternal things first, trusting Him to provide all we need (Matthew 6:25-33) and spending time at His feet to learn of Him. (Luke 10:38-42)

We can’t change anyone else, much as we’d like to sometimes. We can only give an account of ourselves. My reply when Mom tells me this? “You’re right. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in line!” Once again, there’s Biblical truth in Mom’s statement. As part of His magnificent Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against judging others, especially since we have sin in our own lives to deal with. (Matthew 7:1-5) Praise God for giving us His Spirit, which is at work in us to bring about the transformation we’re incapable of accomplishing on our own. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) Furthermore, we’re called to pray for others, but only He can soften hardened hearts. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

We can’t give up. We’ve got to hold on to our faith and keep going. Throughout her life, Mom’s faced challenges that may have led some to quit or become bitter. In the last decade alone, she:

  • shattered the bones in her right shoulder, an injury that required surgery to install a plate and multiple screws and left her with limited range of motion in that arm.
  • suffered a heart attack that led to the discovery of three severely-blocked arteries resulting in emergency open-heart surgery.
  • fractured a vertebra in her back and had a procedure known as kyphoplasty to repair it.

Mom endures daily pain due to the ravages of arthritis that have led to enlarged joints in her fingers and cartilage deterioration in her now-bone-on-bone right knee. Yet she rarely mentions her constant aches. Instead, she clings to God’s mercies which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24) and encourages those in her inner circle to do the same. Though she’s never declared a favorite verse, I expect Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, would be a front-runner.

That’s a Gulf song. Granted, this statement isn’t advice, but I include it because it alludes to my heritage of faith. Mom grew up in the tiny town of Gulf, NC, where she attended a small Presbyterian church established in the 1800’s. When the strains of a familiar hymn from her childhood begin to play at our current church, Mom’s face brightens and one of us will usually lean toward the other and whisper, “That’s a Gulf song.” I don’t know how many generations my heritage of faith encompasses, but I know there are at least two behind me and two in front. I pray that legacy of faith will be passed continually from generation to generation until Christ returns. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

IMG_4723Though petite in stature, Mom’s my biggest cheerleader and most dependable defender. We all need someone who’s unconditionally, unreservedly in our corner. I’m so thankful Mom’s in mine. She’s my rock because she consistently points me to the Rock and reminds me His everlasting arms are securely holding all who belong to Him in an eternal embrace. (Deuteronomy 33:26-27a) O LORD, please help me to do the same for my precious children and grandchildren. Thank You for the priceless blessing of a godly mother!

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)

Bucket-fillers

Most Mondays and Wednesdays find me at daughter Mary’s house. As 1pm draws nigh, I start herding 7-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Emma toward the car so we can pick almost-5-year-old Lyla up from pre-school. Depending on the number of distraction-produced detours they take, the process can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Likewise, the drive to school and back may be filled with enthusiastic commentary on the scenes passing by or with shrieks of “Grammie, tell (insert sibling’s name) not to look at/touch/talk to me!!!” Yes, the trek to retrieve Lyla from school and return home safely is often the most stressful part of my day.

But a couple of Mondays ago, the events surrounding our mid-day trip were decidedly pleasant. As soon as Lyla and her teacher exited the building, Joshua, exclaimed, “Lyla’s got the bucket! She’s kid of the day!!” And so she was.

As Lyla climbed aboard and buckled up for the ride home, we all started talking excitedly. Congratulatory remarks blended with curious queries regarding the contents of her bucket. Several pieces of candy, a stencil, a super-cool, light-up pen, a certificate declaring her kid-of-the-day and two books resided inside.

IMG_6750Joshua read the books to us after lunch. They were all about how we fill or empty each other’s imaginary buckets by being kind or being mean. Furthermore, the books pointed out we’re doing one or the other all the time. The narrative went on to say that by filling up others’ buckets, we’re filling up our own as well since being helpful, obedient and thoughtful makes situations better for everyone involved. Bucket-fillers, buoyed by the results of their good deeds, are much happier than bucket-dumpers, whose actions contribute to continued strife.

As I listened to Joshua’s expressive reading, I smiled knowing I was hearing a child-friendly version of one of my most cherished spiritual principles: our calling to glorify God by being life-giving helpers. This concept was introduced to me over two decades ago by Susan Hunt, my dear friend and spiritual mother.

In the beginning, when God spoke everything into existence, He declared it all good, with one exception. In Genesis 2:18, God states, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The helper was so perfect, Adam stated, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)

Her name (Woman) acknowledged her equal status before God, having been created in God’s image just as Adam was, though her function was different. Lest we think women’s helper position is somehow inferior, we need only look at other uses of the Hebrew word ezer (translated “helper”) in the Old Testament. It is frequently used to describe attributes of God Himself: Defender (Exodus 18:4), Protector (Psalm 33:20), Comforter (Psalm 86:17), Deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Champion of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 72:12-14).[1] These are strong, necessary, life-giving roles.

But sin intervened. As Susan explains:

“When the man and woman sinned, Woman lost her ability to be a true helper. At this point of hopelessness, God gave hope. He promised that the woman’s offspring would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Adam affirmed and celebrated his belief in this promise by renaming her. ‘The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:30). Eve means ‘life-giver’. Because of her rebellion the woman became a life-taker, but because of the promise of life she became a ‘life-giver’. This is more than biological. Woman’s redemptive calling is to be a life-giver in every relationship and circumstance.”[2] (Emphasis mine.)

Left to ourselves, we would be utterly incapable of carrying out our calling. But, praise God, He didn’t leave it up to us. Because of Jesus’ promise-fulfilling sacrifice on our behalf, we’ve been given hearts of flesh that want to please our Lord and Savior and the power of His indwelling Spirit to help us accomplish His purposes. (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 1:19-20)

Though being life-givers is part of women’s distinctive design, all believers are called to love and serve others well, as evidenced by:

  • God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves, which Jesus confirmed as being second only to the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:28-31)
  • Jesus’ instruction to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, a concept so basic and essential that we refer to it as “The Golden Rule”. (Matthew 7:12)
  • Jesus’ reminder that when we care for the needy among us, we’re caring for Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Paul’s teaching that we should consider other’s needs before our own, following Jesus’ example of humility. (Philippians 2:3-8)
  • James’ warning that faith without works is dead. In fact, true faith will result in action – good fruit produced from being intimately and securely attached to the Life-giving Vine. (James 2:14-17; John 15:4-5)

As sojourners longing for Home, we may be tempted to despair when we look at current events. Most of us don’t have the influence or following to bring about change on a grand scale. But we belong to the One who is Sovereign over all things. (Psalm 2) He’s assigned us a place (Acts 17:24-26) and calls us to be life-givers in the midst of our unique situations – in our families, our communities, our churches. From brief exchanges with fellow shoppers in a check-out line all the way to decades-long relationships with cherished friends and family members, we are called to be life-givers in every relationship and circumstance.

Lyla is a sweet-natured child, a blessing to all in her small sphere of influence. She earned her kid-of-the-day title by collecting five “warm fuzzies”, each representing an act of kindness toward her teacher or classmates. May we be equally faithful to fill others’ buckets with hope and truth as we point them to the ultimate Giver of Life. (John 1:1-5; John 10:10-11)

 

[1] J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton, IL; Crossway Books, 2006), pp. 34-35

[2] Ibid, p. 34

The letter

As I’ve admitted in previous posts, I’m a keeper, especially when it comes to things with sentimental value, mementos associated with the numerous trips I’ve taken throughout my life and items that might be useful at some point in the future. After nearly six decades, I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff that fits into one or more of those categories. Hence I’ve decided to start cleaning out bit by bit, box by box so my dear daughters won’t have quite so much to wade through later.

Since making this decision several weeks ago, I’ve managed to sort through approximately half a carton of keepsakes from the years I spent in Argentina. Pitifully slow-going to be sure as day-to-day demands are more pressing than dealing with boxes in the attic and basement.

img_2777Upon opening the aforementioned carton, I spied the beautiful scrapbook given to me by my 6th grade Spanish teachers, Señor Alvarez and Señora de López. It’s full of postcards and photos accompanied by my notations of dates and places. But, placed inside the front cover, I found a long-hidden treasure. It was the letter Señor Alvarez wrote to go along with the gift. Reading his kind words of affirmation and good wishes for future success affected me far more than flipping through the pages of the scrapbook itself. His words were the real gift, one that touched a 13-year old girl as well as the woman she became.

I have other similar gems tucked in boxes and drawers and files. Meaningful, heart-felt notes from family and friends, received on various special occasions or for no reason other than to reach out. Birthday cards, expressions of sympathy, thank you notes. From childish scribble to elegant cursive. Each in its own way says, “You matter to me.”

Written or spoken, our words can have lasting significance for good or for harm. Scripture instructs us to encourage one another and to refrain from unwholesome speech.[1] Proverbs 12:18 states, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing”, while Proverbs 16:24 declares, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”[2] James tells us man’s anger is contrary to the righteousness God desires[3] then goes on to explain in great detail how difficult it is to tame the tongue and how much damage it can cause.[4]

Furthermore, we don’t know when we’ll no longer have the opportunity to tell someone what they mean to us or to apologize for an angry word spoken in haste. After I read the letter eloquently penned in Spanish so many years ago, I longed to tell Señor Alvarez how much his words meant to me and how my life has turned out since he wrote them. But time and distance make that impossible.

Sometimes death is the cause of separation. On occasion it comes quickly and without warning. I need no reminder of this, having unexpectedly lost my husband to a heart attack shortly after his 39th birthday. Nonetheless, every so often the reminders come. Such was the case last week as I attended the funeral for a dear woman I worked with years ago. Her brother, a pastor, conducted the service. He eulogized his sister and shared fond memories, including how she ended their last conversation in her customary way, “I love you Brother.” Marcie was my age and her sudden passing has given me reason to reflect, once again, on the brevity of life; to remember we don’t always know when last goodbyes are being said.

Believers look to the Bible as our only rule for faith and practice, recognizing the sufficiency of Scripture[5] as well as its supremacy.[6] Yet the all-powerful Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.[7] Jesus’ coming was promised immediately after the fall[8] and foretold throughout the Old Testament.[9] The Gospels proclaim his birth and detail his earthly ministry. Revelation gives us a glimpse of eternity in the presence of God.[10] And so for me the Bible is a love letter from beginning to end. A divinely-inspired account, full of promises kept and assurances of promises yet to be fulfilled by an Almighty Father who will never forsake his children in this life or the life to come.

As we await Jesus’ return or our own summons Home, may our words be helpful and healing rather than reckless and angry, beneficial to those who listen[11] and expressed in a timely manner[12] for we do not know the final day or hour.[13]

 

[1] See Hebrews 3:13 and Ephesians 4:29 respectively.

[2] Both Proverbs verses are quoted from the NIV translation.

[3] James 1:19-20

[4] James 3:1-12

[5] 2 Timothy 3:16-17

[6] Hebrews 4:12

[7] John 1:14

[8] Genesis 3:15

[9] See for example Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 9:9

[10] Revelation 21:1-4, 22:1-5

[11] Ephesians 4:29

[12] Hebrews 10:24-25

[13] Matthew 25:13, Mark 13:32