It Starts Small

When I was a little girl we sang a song at church that went like this, “Be careful, little mouth, what you say, be careful little mouth what you say, for the Father up above is looking down in love, be careful little mouth what you say.” That little song was often the melody of my conscience.

Everyday, you and I speak thousands of words. Some are carefully planned and selected; others are spoken impulsively. Some are spoken quietly; others are spoken with more volume. Some of our words are spoken with the desire to help and encourage; some with the motivation to hurt, belittle and retaliate. However, most of our words are spoken with little, if any, thought about how they will affect others. James speaks to us about the importance of every word we speak. For each word will make an impact – on our relationship with each other and our relationship with God. In Matthew 12 Jesus warns, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

James asks, “Can fresh water and salt water come from the same pool?” No – the salt will disperse through all that water so that there is no fresh water. In the same way, our salty words will disperse through our whole being so that all of our words are salty.

James asks, “Can a fig tree grow olives or a grapevine produce figs?” No, olive trees grow olives, grapevines produce grapes, and fig trees yield figs. In the same way the words that come out of our mouths reveal what we are growing.

A friend of mine who used to be in youth ministry talked about how important it was that youth volunteers be careful in what they teach about God because what may seem like it’s just two degrees off right here, when you continue to build what you believe around that 2 degree error, when you look back, you realize you have wandered far astray. James is warning that what we teach is a rudder to our ship…it sets our course.

As an adult, I replaced the melody of “Be careful little mouth what you say” with these words from Socrates, “Is it true; is it kind; is it necessary?” While Socrates was a Greek philosopher in 400 years before Jesus, his test of three are congruent with the teachings of Scripture. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Is it true? If it is not, then it is a lie. Scripture is clear that lies cause death – death of trust and death of relationship. And lies abound in our world. In fact, it is hard sometimes to know what is true. So much information that comes to us is intentionally not true that it can wear us down. Memes are created with lies and forwarded as truth. Pictures are doctored. Political campaigns run commercials and send fliers that tout lies about their opponents as truth. Companies pay for research that supports their financial gain. Excuses are made that truth is relative, but by definition, truth cannot be relative. Opinions are relative. Truth is based on fact. It doesn’t work for me to say I don’t believe in gravity and for you to say that you do believe in gravity. And if you let me disbelieve gravity as I stand on top of a building about to jump, you know what the result will be… So before we speak, we make sure that what we say is true…and we speak the truth too.

The second test is, is it kind? Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that we are to speak the truth in love, growing in every way into being like Jesus. James says the tongue is a fire, and it only takes a spark to create a devastating forest fire. General Robert E. Lee was once asked what he thought of a fellow officer in the Confederate Army, an officer who had made some mean-spirited remarks about him. Lee thought for a moment, then rated him as being very satisfactory. The person who asked the questions seemed troubled. “But General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you.” Oh yes, answered Lee. I know. But I was asked my opinion of him, not his of me” controlling our tongue is one of life’s greatest challenges.

And the third test is, is it necessary? Proverbs tells us that restraining our lips is wise. James tells us to use our lips to bless rather than to curse. I had a colleague who came into church one day to find that one of the staff had brought a dog to work. Her sick dog. And the dog stank because he was sick. He immediately went to his office and drafted a memo forbidding dogs to be brought to work. He had his administrative assistant print it on red paper and place it in the boxes of every staff member. It was a blazer. And he felt good about it. Who brings their stinky dog to work, anyway? And then he learned. The staff member was single and had had the dog 11 years. The afternoon before a visit to the vet because the dog was just not quite right when he walked revealed a brain tumor. The vet had shared that it could be slow-growing, or it could be rapid. In the night, the dog had declined quickly. His bowels became problematic. The staff member was up all night. The next day would be the time to say goodbye. But the vet wasn’t available until afternoon, and the staff person had a really important event the coming weekend and needed to get a few things done that morning. So committed to the ministry, the staff person came in even though he knew he could not leave his dog. Only to have all of staff get a red, blazing memo about not bringing dogs to work. Is it necessary? Rather than a blanket memo or email or Facebook post, go to the person. Rather than point out where the other person is wrong, listen to the other person’s story. Of course, the red memo led to the staff person stoking the fires of office gossip about the lack of concern the senior pastor had for staff, “Can you even believe he is so uncaring?” The gossip led to sides. The sides led to office tension…and no good came of it. Was it necessary? No.

James says, “With our tongues we bless the Lord and curse other people, who are all made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this out not to be so.” Be careful little mouths, what you say. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? For the Father up above is looking down in love. Amen.