Friday, March 4, 2011

Sticks and stones and sermons

Words. Words have meanings. Words have power. Words get inside our heads and make pictures because words mean things. There are no such things as powerless words. All words convey meaning. But all words don’t convey the same meaning to everyone. Because our own interpretation of words are colored by our own experience.

For instance, when you speak of love with some people, they understand it to mean sacrifice, risk taking, being willing to lie down your life for another who is “loved.” It conjures up images of hugs, of laughter, of warmth and genuineness.

For another, they came to understand it’s meaning differently. Perhaps in a manipulative phrase that meant, “I want to use you for my own purposes. I want you to trust me right now so I can do to you what I want to you.” It conjures up images of guilt, shame, humiliation.

How hard it is to communicate! When you go to another country and intend to stay, you have to learn to speak their language. You have to learn what their words mean. But you also have to learn the non-verbal clues, too, that go along with the words and may change their meaning. For instance, in some cultures, it is impolite to refuse someone by telling them “no.” So when you want to say no, you respond in a vague way that to our ears might come out something like “maybe.” So the hearer has to be savvy enough to understand beyond the mere meaning of the words to the true meaning that the words, word-less-ly, if you will, convey.

So we try to transcend words. We tell people, when other people say words intended to hurt them, that they “didn’t mean that.” That they simply misunderstood. Or, worse, we tell people that they have to toughen up, that the world is full of rough talking, mean people, and you have to grow a protective covering so that words will bounce off you without impact. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

But it’s fascinating to me how all this advice to others usually goes out the window when someone says unkind words to us, either intentionally or unintentionally. Then, well, it’s a federal case. Then forget about that tougher skin. Then it’s time to either collapse in a heap and weep over the words that were said to us or get mad and get even. There is a third way, I suppose. We simply passive aggressively tell others what was said to us and try to confront the one saying the words to us by saying unkind things about that person to others. Regardless, all three are time wasters and relationship breakers. And we’re called to bring all things “together” under Christ. We can’t just allow things to go on being broken.

As a pastor, nearly every week I speak from the stage to a crowd of people. You realize that much of what you have to say as a preacher is offensive. There is an awful lot that is offensive in the Bible, after all. It tells us that we are all sinners. That none of us is good enough on our own. It tells us to change our behaviors and attitudes. It challenges our complacency. It’s offensive. Top that with the undeniable fact that I am a human being and sometimes don’t say things “right.” They come out jumbled.

Couple the “in your face” nature of the word of God and the humanness of the preacher with the increasing tendency of people in our society to look for reasons to be offended and you have a really horrible situation.

I can well imagine why so many pastors spend so much time writing a sermon that is over in minutes. If the delivery isn’t right, someone will be offended. If the delivery is faithful and right on, it will probably still be offensive. I think this is why so many preachers have stopped really preaching. They are tired of being offensive all the time. It’s in the nature of many preachers to want to be ‘liked.’

Couple this with the uptick in public talk about “civility” in our society. Yes, there are obviously way, way, too many ad hominem attacks these days. If people don’t like your ideas, they seem to take it out on your reputation. That’s wrong. But it’s also increasingly true that any idea that someone doesn’t like is labeled as “offensive.” In short, we are losing our ability as a society to speak truth to one another and even to simply exchange ideas.

Is there any way to overcome the hurt that words cause? Is there any way to ensure that our use of words won’t even accidentally hurt others?

Doubtful. But it seems that Jesus would use words to overcome the hurt of words. He directs us, when we’re hurt by the words of others, but go to them and explain and seek to be reconciled, to seek an explanation, a way of changing the words. You can’t ever take them back, but you can use other words to help mend the damage of words. Words like “I’m sorry.” “I apologize.” “I know I hurt you and I feel terrible about it.” And you can explain what made you use those words by saying things like, “What I meant to say was....” Read all about it in the words of Jesus in Matthew 18.

Jesus urges us to use our words well. Read Matthew 5. “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no,’ mean ‘no.’ Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t be mean. Don’t use your words to hurt people. But at the same time, use your words to speak truth to them because you love them. I guess that means that in order for us to be able to speak, our hearts first ought to be in the right place.

Don’t say bad things about your neighbor, especially things that aren’t true. James 3. The tongue is a fire, a world of evil in the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, the whole person, sets the whole course of our lives on fire. It is a fire set from the fire of hell.

So, if we are truly to be agents of God’s redemption in this world. We will need to tame our tongues. And we will need to be much, much better at asking others either for their forgiveness or for clarification about why they used the words they did. So we can avoiding hurting others, intentionally or unintentionally. And so we can also avoid the senseless hours wasted over the hurt caused by the careless words of others in our lives. Live more and more each day as if the kingdom is coming. Thanks for reading. PJ

1 comment: