Revealing Our Inner Landscape

By Hugh Farquhar

Sixteenth after Pentecost: James 3:1-12.

The Time with Children can be a time when we ministers really earn our keep. You never know what they’re going to say, and parents hold their breath, praying that some family secret doesn’t get revealed.

One Sunday I produced a tube of toothpaste, squeezed out a generous amount and asked the children to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Their faces were priceless as they studied the problem, immediately sure that it wasn’t possible, but assuming it must be if I was asking them to do so. Then one of the boys said loudly and confidently, “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” “Are you sure,” I asked? “Yes,” he replied, “WHEN IT’S OUT, IT’S OUT!”

The same thing is true of the words we speak. Once they have left our lips, we can’t put them back. When they’re out, they’re out!

James was concerned with practical matters. In this Letter, he was instructing the early Christians how to live a loving life in a community and felt it necessary to include some reference to their use of words.

In a day, the average person speaks about one-fifth of the time. Some of us more! And Scripture makes it clear that beinga follower of the Way involves our considerate use of words.

James derived his perspective from Jesus’ teaching that a person’s words reflect what is inside them . . . the condition of their heart. He said, “It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” In other words, the tongue reveals our inner landscape at any given time, for better or for worse.

When we speak out of inappropriate anger, jealousy, hatefulness, or prejudice, it’s not the tongue that’s to blame. Hate speech isn’t about the tongue. The tongue simply reveals what would otherwise be hidden down deep inside us.

And vice versa, when we speak with kindness and compassion, we reveal an inner landscape that contains what Jesus called “the good treasure.”

James compared the human tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth, a rudder on a ship, and a spark of fire. These are all small things that wield tremendous power. A bit controls a large horse; a rudder determines the direction of a large ship; a spark can start a large fire.

What we say can have profound consequences. Cruel and vindictive words can wound another so profoundly that years later they still hurt. Cher, in her song, “If I Could Turn Back Time” sings, “Words are weapons . . . they wound sometimes.”

On the other hand, encouraging words can lift another so profoundly that years later they are remembered. I credit Janice MacLean for finding these words by St. John of the Cross, “They can be like sun, words. They can do for the heart what light does for a field.”

There are occasions when circumstances require us to speak words that will be received as hurtful by others. These instructions by James are not about preventing anyone from speaking their truth when necessary.

But I’m sure all of us regret things we have said – I certainly do. We have spoken words we would like to take back, but we know we cannot, any more than we can put the toothpaste back in the tube. There is something, however, we can do. Since, as Jesus taught, it’s a matter of the heart, we can open our hearts to Spirit and ask for help to grow spiritually so that our tongues reveal an inner landscape that is wise, gentle and good.

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