“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God; and the word was God.” – John 1:1
“The words you speak become the house you live in.” – Hafiz
“’I’m your #1 fan,’ said #360, #420” – six word memoir
“Carpe verbum – verbum liberate.” – Latin saying
“We praise God with the same tongue we curse human beings made in God’s image.” – James 3
I love words.
As many of you know, I love spelunking the cavernous possibilities behind word etymologies – examining commonly misunderstood word meanings and finding other ways of looking at their meaning! Admittedly, I don’t think I’m always very good with words – architecting a sentence, for instance, around complex ideas in an attempt to create an adventure in reading and thinking, the consequence of which is often more akin to a madman with a Rube Goldberg contraption than a child at play with tinker toys (the latter perhaps a simpler and more enjoyable exercise while the former is often a reminder that the whole enterprise could have been achieved with much more simplicity).
But there is also a danger with simplicity – “keep it simple stupid” may give too much credibility to the ability of the stupid to be reasonable (hence, the famous George Carlin quote, “Beware the dangers of stupid people in large groups.”) And we all know who THEY are, right?
So, I continue to play away and confuse.
The writer of the Epistle to James begins Chapter 3 of his letter to the 2ndcentury diverse community of Jewish and Gentile Jesus followers with a warning, “Be careful to presume to be a teacher, because teachers are often judged more harshly as if what they say and do ought to be blameless and perfect. And we all stumble in so many ways.” The same may be said of writers and preachers and speakers and all manner of wordsmiths today, including anyone armed with the latest gossip or mis-information or emotional opinion.
In other words, he adds, “words can spark a fire, can set a person on a path of self-destruction and burn down a forest.” We see it every day, maybe more so now than ever before, given our increased time alone with our phones, our screens, and our entertaining memes. And there are few people around many of us right now to temper our speech or challenge our thoughts or assuage our emotions (though I’ve heard from some of you who have taken to naming volley balls and talking to pookas who’ve wandered into your residence)!
The reality is that words are cheap, and powerful – they can bring down a whole community; inspiring hate, vindictiveness, confusion, and chaos. But they can also inspire us out of our isolation and self-absorption into a place of empathy and passionate self-reflection. Words can imprison us or free us. “Carpe verbum – Verbum liberate.”
The real challenge, according to the writer of James, is that taming our tongues (adjusting our speech and thinking carefully about the words we choose to share with others) requires honest intentionality. He writes, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. If you harbor bitterness, envy, or selfishness in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.”
Another way of saying this might be, “If you’re looking for wisdom in your leaders, and in your own life, look for those who acknowledge their shortcomings, who act with compassion, patience, humility, impartiality, and sincerity. Practice this yourself and discover that you can, in fact, tame the tiger and harness its power for justice and kindness in the world.”
Well, we all know this, right? As our mothers or fathers and adult role models often passed along to us over the generations, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Good speech comes from even better listening. Well, that’s my guess for now. As I said, I’m not always that good at it – speaking and writing…and listening.
Someone recently chose the word “interesting” to describe this time we are in right now. She said, “Well, 2020 has certainly turned out to be an interesting time so far.”
(“Interesting?” That’s a curious word choice, it seemed to me.)
There is a saying attributed to so many different sources I’ve been tempted to check in with NPR’s Sunday afternoon, “A Way With Words” to find it’s real source. But suffice it to say, the saying, “May you have ‘interesting times,’” was often used as an indictment or curse, wishing someone a rocky, unpredictable, and difficult life ahead.
Well, if you asked for a chance to find a clearer vision in 2020, I’d say “opportunity is knocking at the door.” On the other hand, if you’d hoped for more of the same, status quo, or maybe a life of ease and profit, the majority of us have by now recognized it’s just gonna get more…”interesting.”
But here’s the thing, there’s a lot to be said for “interesting.” The root words for “interest” (“inter” and “est”) mean “to connect, between” and “to be, to bring life.” You knew that, right? I can think of no better wish for someone but that they experience “interesting times” – to experience and participate in those in-between moments, those opportune moments seeking clarity and purpose, to play with our words and our lives in ways that offer a bridge to greater love, depth, and connection with life.
I think this is what the author of James was suggesting, too – how do we speak and live into the path of Shalom, into the Kingdom of God, in these interesting times?
So for the next few weeks, I’ll be joining others for these Sunday reflections, as well as inviting some guest storytellers and musicians as we explore:
“Interesting Times – 6 Virtues for Bringing Interest & Hope to Times that Seem Otherwise”
Be well. Stay in love with God and one another. Lean in to these interesting times with one another, because this is where I think God awaits us with next steps toward “bringing life to life” and furthering the kin-dom of shalom.
Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven