Guest speaker: The Rev. Dr. C. Wayne Hilliker
(Minister Emeritus, Chalmers United Church, Kingston)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Resonating scripture: James 3: 1-12

I begin with a text from the writer James which was part of the passage that I
just shared:

The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of many exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire. (James 3:5-6)

It is a truism to say that words, are essential to human speech. Did you realize that during the course of an average day’s activity you and I use the amazing total of 30,000 words? Now that’s the equivalent of one pocketbook each day of conversation! (Admittedly, for some that pocketbook is much thicker than it is for others!) The point is that there are a lot of words that we and others utter.

Think of the sheer proliferation of words with which most of us are faced today. Not counting taxonomic lists of species, it is estimated that the English language contains some 600,000 words. By comparison, Elizabethan English had about 150,000 and the King James Version of the Bible contains only 6,000 different words. Perhaps our care for words has declined as their numbers have increased.

But for speaking to have meaning, there has to be listening. Other recent studies indicate that most people, even with good memories, recall only about 25% of what they have heard in the past few days. We do not listen well, and at least part of it is because we can listen much faster than most people can talk. While most human beings speak at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, as listeners, we can process more than 500 words a minute! Which makes it hard for us to stay tuned to prolonged communication, (when will this preacher ever learn, some of you may be muttering at the end of this address!)

It is even harder to stay listening if the speaker is halting or dull. When we are in a conversation with others we tend to use the lag time to compose our own responses, which makes us even poorer listeners.

An article in the Wall Street Journal, suggests we are becoming a society of interrupters. Writes Cynthia Crossen:

At our house, we warn new friends to be careful because we treat conversation like a competitive sport. The first one to take a breath is considered the listener.

But it is not just listening that can be a problem. Rather, it is the fact that words have great power—the power to do good and the power to do harm. And it is this reality that the writer James is referring to and it is the focus of this reflection this morning.

The writer James addresses this so well when he speaks of the tongue as being like a ship’s rudder or a horses’ bridle– suggesting size is not the main measure of power. After all, just moving the rudder slightly at the beginning of a voyage is the difference between docking in England or in Spain. Or, a small metal rod properly pulled can control a raging stallion. Similarly is the tongue… it too has power.

But James also recognizes something else. And that is that big fires often begin with a small match. And they can rage for days, destroy hectares and hectares, defying legions of firefighters. So it is with the tongue James says. Its words are like sparks of flint, setting fire to woods that have been carefully nurtured for years.

Relationships slowly built can be savagely destroyed by the wrong words said in the wrong way. Jealousies are created with little more than a word or two, wrongly uttered, even if rightly meant. And so it goes.

The whole range of emotions—hatreds, jealousies, ill will, raging like a forest fire set by the tongue. Especially vile are words maliciously spoken. A ministerial collegue that I know tells of an incident that happened years ago when he was in elementary school. There was a new girl in his class whose name was Red. And it was the first day of school. The teacher was reading off the names in her new class to make sure everyone was there. When she came to this young girl’s name she paused and said:

Is so and so your father?

The girl said “yes”.

Is so and so your brother?


Now the two mentioned, the father and the brother were both serving prison terms on drug charges. Then the teacher muttered: “Well, I sure hope you are not like them.“, and moved on to the next person.

Deprived of a brother and father who were in prison, the young girl was now deprived of her self-respect. It was to be an undeserving damaging scar that would cause a limp for a life-time. In some ways that teacher should have been arrested. Words are deeds. These kinds of words are perhaps what James had in mind when he spoke of the tongue as “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

How does that rhyme go? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me“?? How wrong it that? Kind of a twist isn’t it? ie. it’s not what we do but what we say that counts! Nevertheless, it’s tempting and quite common to downplay the significance of speech, and to act as if words don’t really matter. But words do matter.

Someone has written: “In a world where talk is cheap, and where we are pummeled all day long by words, words, words, the honest, loving, living word is like a monarch butterfly in a field full of grey moths. It sings and stands out by its very contrast.

Yes, words matter. They can be a blessing and they can also be a curse. Stop and re-member for a moment, some significant or shaping moment in your life. Chances are that some part of it is connected with speech, with what someone has said to you, or to someone else. Or some incident where you said something, or wished you’d said it, or wished you hadn’t said it, or are grateful you said it.

Whenever I engage in this exercise for myself, I always find myself going back to my childhood and recalling some words I overheard that were spoken about me, when I was about 7 or 8 years old.

I should explain that the glasses I wore then as a child, and had worn since age 5, were not very attractive. To some, I guess I looked kind of funny. I was unusually tall for my age. I was on the skinny side. I was very shy. I got teased a lot for my physical appearance. I dreaded the time when class pictures were taken or when we had to take our shirts off to play basketball in gym class and thus, my less than muscular arms could be seen by all.

Not surprisingly, I developed a very poor self-image. One Sunday, while walking home by myself from Sunday School at Montreal West United Church, my mother and a neighbour were walking about 25 feet behind me on the sidewalk. They were talking about a variety of things and were unaware that I could hear their conversation.

At some point in their speaking, this neighbour, noticing me walking ahead, and seeing just my back, said quite casually to my mother, “My, your son has a finely shaped head“.

It seems amusing, now as an adult, that I would find so much affirmation in a sentence which only described the back of my head! But I did. Amazingly, as I think back, I was to return again and again as a child, to those words that she had spoken. They lifted me up. They helped to block out the other messages I was to continue to receive from some of my peers.

Sadly, that neighbour died suddenly, shortly after, and I was never able to tell her in later years, the incredible influence those simple words had on me. Hardly a speech, just a sentence, but for a young child they became a word of transformation, or as James would put it…a word of blessing or grace.

I remember a ministerial colleague telling of an incident that he witnessed at Toronto International Airport while sitting at a lunch counter waiting to board his plane.

A woman came and sat down beside him, and ordered something to eat. He looked at her. Her face was very stern, there was not even a trace of a smile. And he decided that he wasn’t going to strike up any conversation with this grumpy looking individual. Just then a mother with her little child came up and sat on the other side of the woman. My friend couldn’t help but notice that the little girl who was holding on tightly to her mother’s hand, had wrinkles all over her face like she was very, very old. Because of some kind of disfigurement or disease this little girl’s skin had prematurely aged.

For my friend, this little child was ugly in appearance. But then the woman beside him, turned to the mother of the child and asked quietly: “How old is your little girl?”

The mother, somewhat uneasy and embarrassed said: “Judy is only 8 years old.”

And the woman turned to the little girl and said with a soft smile: “Judy, you have such beautiful eyes” And she did!

The young girl’s face radiated with joy. Indeed, it was transfigured with a kind of glory that enclosed them all.

Words are deeds and as James reminds us as so well, they can also be a curse. The tongue is indeed a fire.

Have you not heard yourself saying or heard someone else saying: “I will never forgive her for what she said.” Or “I will never forgive him for what he wrote“. Words can devastate.

The reason why verbal abuse is so much more destructive and lasting in its effect than physical assault is that words affect us at a much deeper level than physical injury. Words can continue to weave their destructive path even years later. They can come back to haunt us, especially if we write them down.

Charles Francis Adams, was one time the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Somewhat of a workaholic, the ambassador rarely took the time to do anything with his son as a child. However he did take the time to write in his diary every day.

It so happened that his son kept a diary too. After his father died, the son found the diary. The son recalled a day when as a young boy he had gone fishing with his father. So important and special was that day for the son that the son had put in his diary: “Went fishing with my father, the most glorious day of my life“.

The son was to refer to it again and again in his diary.

But when he turned to the same date in his father’s diary he found only one notation: It read: “Went fishing with my son. A day wasted.

From the same mouth can come blessing and cursing. In my own context as a minister, I find it somewhat frightening to realize the degree to which preaching is responsible for the church being on track and off track.

The bitter truth is that a lot of speech in the church, a lot of preaching, has done people harm as well as good. We have to undo a lot of preaching from the past.

Rarely a week goes by when I don’t have a conversation with someone who has been burnt and even haunted by some kind of negative experience in the church.

It really is an awesome thing to realize the significance of our speaking. Words do have power. Sometimes we know what we want to say but just can’t seem to say them.

My own father was never one to put into words his affection toward his family. When he was close to death in hospital in Parry Sound, I wanted to say to him “I love you Dad“, but I just couldn’t get the words out. I’ve always regretted that.

Maybe that is why I find a healing word in a true story told by a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia.

When he was a student there, the President of the Seminary, was an austere Puritan saint by the name of Dr. James McDowell Richards.

Have you ever noticed how you can tell a lot sometimes by a persons’ name? Listen to this one. Dr. James McDowell Richards.

Well it seems that the students respected Dr. Richards but kept their distance from him. You admired him but no one was that intimate with Dr. James McDowell Richards.

Well, this student graduated from Seminary and became the pastor in a number of congregations until eventually, he became the chaplain in a church-sponsored Retirement Home. Imagine how he felt when he learned one day that the newest resident of the home was to be the now retired, Dr. James McDowell Richards.

He was in awe of the man still and now he was going to have to be his chaplain. He did the best he could.

One evening he went into the dining room and Dr. Richards was at his table having his supper. He was seated in his wheelchair. His nurse was standing guard over him. The former student, now chaplain, went up to him. They had conversation together. And the chaplain started to leave but
suddenly, on impulse, he turned to Dr. Richards and said,

Dr. Richards, I’ve always wanted to ask you something.”

What is it?

You and your wife were the parents of sons, weren’t you?

Three of them. Yes.

Did you ever tell your sons that you loved them?

No. I didn’t need to. Well, once I did. I was in intensive care and I told one of them but it wasn’t a regular thing mind you.

I just wondered. You know my father never told me that either. I wondered if fathers ever said that kind of thing.

The meal was over. The nurse pulled the wheelchair away from the table and the Chaplain watched Dr. Richards go. And he saw that when he got to the door, Dr. Richards signaled the nurse. He said something to her. She turned the wheelchair around and brought him back.

And when he got close he reached up and touched his former student’s cheek …and said “Bill, I love you“. I had known it all along, the chaplain commented later, but to hear it, sealed it in my heart.

We are not perfect. And we are not perfect in our speaking. We know that and I believe, God knows that. I recall reading about a seminary college professor saying this to students about to go out to their first congregation: “Always remember” he said “that most of the people you see at church on Sunday morning, almost decided not to come.

Could it be that at the deepest level, what brings many of us to a Sunday gathering such as this, is the hope that we might hear in this place, and thus have sealed in our hearts, an unbelievable awesome living word. What many of us yearn for is a word that declares that we are loved by name, with a costly, unconditional and empowering love, that is rooted in the very being of the God of holy mystery, the One who never lets us go, not even when we die, however, great that mystery may be. For me, that is news that is good and that is a word that is true.

Amen and may it be so.