When I entered college in the early 90s, I didn’t have my own computer. In high school, my papers were written on a type-writer, and I didn’t know anything about computers. During my time in college, we were given email addresses...I had no idea what that even was. If I wanted to send a note to a friend at another college or back home, I had to hand write it, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and walk it to the mailbox. Getting mail from home or far off friends was exciting because I knew they’d gone through the same process.
And while the 90s weren’t that long ago, technology has moved us forward in the way we communicate with one another faster than I think most of us could have ever imagined. Now most of us carry small hand-held computers--our cell phones--in our pockets and purses. Now most of us can respond quickly with a “yes” or “no” to our spouse if we’re running late. Now we can pull up an email from weeks ago and resend it to the person sitting across the room in less time than it would take to get up and walk across the room and just tell the person the information they were inquiring about. Thanks to this miraculous invention, we can learn about emergencies faster, so as to move out of the way or be prepared to step up and help. These tiny connection devices are pretty amazing.
But with all this good stuff came some not so good stuff. We lost a lot in how we communicate with each other. Now we don’t take a moment to find pretty paper to write our thoughtful letters. Long emails are quickly scanned and details are missed. There’s a designation for these “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read). Simple responses--ok, fine, yes, whatever--can be read with an imagined tone that might imply that the responder is annoyed, insincere, or frustrated; even if they really are fine with whatever you’ve chosen for dinner, and it’s ok that you’re going to be late.
Facebook is both a blessing and a curse...we can stay connected with friends and family, pass along jokes and silly cat videos, and we can share photos of the first day of school, the sunset, and a family vacation.
And then within minutes find that we are antagonized and triggered by someone’s insensitive comments, we can be bombarded by political commentary that we may or may not agree with, and take the bait to engage in an argument that under normal circumstances we’d never have gotten involved with.
So what has any of this got to do with church? Have you already texted someone else “she needs to get to the point already?”
It isn’t often that I preach on something other than the gospel, but this week’s lesson on discipleship from James caught my attention in light of how I’ve been feeling about communication lately.
For the last several weeks, James has been calling us back to what it means to be good disciples of Jesus. To profess our faith, to put our faith into action, and now to be mindful of how we speak. He says:
For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check...the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits...With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
Ah...a lesson in mindful speech. I wonder what James would do with email and Facebook? What advice would he give us about being disciples in a technological age? I imagine he would probably suggest that unless we had something nice to say about one another, or were offering a prayer or some other uplifting thought, we’d do best not to even have one of these small computers in our pockets.
And while James is writing to a primarily oral culture, his words are still powerful and important. Let’s try a more contemporary version (the Message):
A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed 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... This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild…. With our tongues we bless God...with the same tongues we curse the very men and women...made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
While I’d like to imagine that I’m preaching to the choir on this one, that we all only say nice uplifting things and never complain or gossip...well the fact is that I’m spending a lot of time working with folks because their feelings have been hurt by what another person has said or texted to them, or they’ve felt that their response to an inquiry was misinterpreted or misunderstood. And I’m spending a lot of time reflecting on my own word and responses...am I being mindful in my speech?
I read a blog recently that reminded me, “words make reality”. Think about that for a minute. We trust people based on their words and actions. And if we’re going to be disciples of Jesus, the words we use matter...they can either tell the love of God that is unconditional, forgiving, healing, and grace-filled, or our words can be judgmental, condemning and hurtful. Being on the receiving end of the words we use can be a blessing or a curse.
And so as we consider how we continue growing and developing as disciples of Jesus, I encourage all of us--myself included--to be mindful of what we say. As my spiritual director suggests, take a deep breath before speaking (or typing or texting) and ask:
--Is what I’m going to say true?
--Is what I’m going to say kind?
--Is what I’m going to say necessary?
Our words make reality. Let’s strive to make that reality one of healing and blessing.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.