Friday, January 18, 2013

James and the Rumor Mill

By Rev. Mark Reece

Everyone has played a variation of the childhood exercise designed to teach us the damaging power of the “rumor mill.” Whether you have five people sitting in a circle or twenty-five people sitting in a circle, by the time a whispered secret makes it all of the way around the circle the original statement has been twisted, reconstructed and often changed altogether. We humans have a tendency to repeat everything that we hear. Not only that, we have a tendency to speak the words that come to our mind. When we were children, our parents often told us that “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” Such stern advice made us all stronger children as we made our debut in the real world of kindergarten. However, it didn’t take most of long to realize that words can hurt. Words do hurt. As a matter of fact, words usually hurt. All of us are trapped in this cycle of unhealthy communication that plagues our world, communities, churches and families. James offers us some very beautiful images that are intended to help us with controlling our tongue.

James 3:3-6 says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” I’m really grateful to live in a nation where freedom of speech is guaranteed. It’s nice to be able to sit around the coffee or barber shop and talk about everything under the sun. At times, I hear folks talking about ever person under the sun too and not always in the most positive ways. Indeed, we’re free to do so. Yet, I’m reminded of Saint Paul’s words in Galatians 5:13:14: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” In our most recent lesson from James, James reminded us that this command from Jesus is the “royal law.”

Reflecting upon whether or not our patterns of speech express love of God and neighbor is a good starting place for working at speech control. Looking in the mirror, something else James highly recommends, quickly reveals shortcomings in our conversation patterns. The good news from James is we can use our voices to curse or bless God and others. Whatever decision we make, James reminds us that it’s going to have a significant impact on every aspect of our life. Like an unbridled horse, the unbridled tongue will inevitably send us in directions we don’t want to go. If the tongue is our rudder, then we have to consider all of the variables that might influence our proper speech. The political and social currents are pulling and pushing us at all times. We have cargo on our ships that might need to be thrown overboard. And then some of us have a few negative mates on our ship that need to be redirected and some exchanged for positive examples of speech. When the fires of unhealthy speech are allowed to escape our lips, they’re destined to burn others and eventually we too will be consumed by their flames.

It’s a bold proclamation from the book of James this week and it challenges us beyond spoken words. You can post a comment on someone’s Facebook page and within a millisecond it’s being read by thousands of people you may not even know. You can be trending on twitter before you put your smartphone back in your pocket. And before anyone claiming they’re old school and anti-technology decides this doesn’t apply to them, allow me to remind you that the landline telephone hasn’t been around forever. The arrival of the landline phone was probably when “rumor mills” got their steam. We’re living in a world where a careless, senseless and ignorant video can be uploaded to the internet and within hours another part of the world will be in an uproar and an American diplomat killed. Then of course the media airs more conversations that breed conflict than those that build bridges of peace. Words not only have the power to hurt us but words have the power to destroy us and our world. It’s an old piece of wisdom that James offers, but as we witness the fires burning around the world we’re reminded that they all started as a small flame. While we can’t fix the problems of our world overnight, we can control the flame on the tip of our tongue and be the change we desire to see in our world. This week we reflect on one of those most challenging yet practical passages in all of the Biblical record. I know that James is writing to me. He’s writing to you. He’s writing to us all. Be challenged today and be blessed in the week to come.

Mark Reece is the pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, The Grove.

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