Y OU DON’T NEED A PERMIT to have one, but maybe you should. What am I talking about? I’m talking about your tongue. If you don’t watch it, control it, and keep it under wraps, it will take on a power of its own where it can reap havoc, cause trouble, hurt and cripple the lives of other people.
If you’ve taught in any capacity at all, even as a parent, you know the power of the tongue to be the source of great good or great harm.
Do you remember that old saw, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? False — in the extreme, prompting someone else to say, “Be sure your brain is in gear before putting your mouth in drive.”
The Book of Hebrews claims that the tongue is “sharper than any two-edged sword that pierces the division of bone and marrow.” A great Jewish teacher once wrote, “Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not so many as have fallen by the tongue.”
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WHAT’S BEEN SAID and how it’s been said have bankrupted many a marriage and deep-sixed many a friendship. Undisciplined, the tongue can be a wrecking ball that takes few prisoners.
Consider someone falsely accused of child molestation. Even when cleared of the charges, this person’s life is sorely tainted bacon, and it can never go back like it was.
Words, especially malicious and hurtful ones, once spoken, are gone. Like spilled milk, you can’t get them back, even if you want to.
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WORDS THAT HURT AND DAMAGE, that debilitate and alienate, are spread out all over everywhere in homes, in schools, at work. In some homes and in some school settings, children and young people are verbally mauled, told that they are failures, and will never amount to anything. There are those who go to work who face mountains of criticism, wave after wave of it, for all that they do wrong, while receiving very little in the way of praise and affirmation.
Words can hurt. Oh, the tongue — you don’t need a permit to have and carry yours, but maybe you should.
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SOCIAL OBSERVERS and researchers are not surprised at all at the rampant explosion of hate speech — the cruel, harsh and hurtful things that are spewed out across all segments of this society.
What surprises them is how few people, in positions of authority and influence, are decrying it and condemning it as misguided and immoral, and how few people are teaching those coming behind them that this kind of talk is wrong.
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JESUS WAS VERY SOBERING AND STERN in his day when talk turned to the tongue. On one occasion, he said, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed:
“If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
To call someone a fool was to destroy someone’s character, to use the most vulgar of terms to deem someone totally worthless, used up and good for nothing.
And then, there is this that Jesus told His disciples that haunts every thinking preacher I know and should haunt everyone else too, for that matter:
“You will have to give an account for every careless word that comes out of your mouth; for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”
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BE CAREFUL. Be on your guard. Watch your tongue. You may not need a permit to have and carry yours, but maybe you should.
The tongue can wound and maim and be the source of great harm, even with those you like and love. Remember what’s in the Letter of James:
“It only takes a spark to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By your speech, you can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and you go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.”
Your tongue was meant for better than this. Take a page from the Book of Ecclesiastes, where you read, “Let your words be few, and let more of the fewer glorify God.”
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THE TONGUE CAN SCULPT and shape in profound and enduring ways. A wonderful story across two continents throws light on this eternal truth.
■ At the beginning of the 20th century, in a small church in a small town in the country of Croatia, an altar boy by the name of Joseph Brauz was helping the village priest celebrate mass. In the middle of worship, the boy accidentally dropped the glass cruet of communion wine. It hit the marble floor and smashed into a gazillion pieces.
The priest was upset. He slapped the boy and said, as harshly as he could, “Leave the altar and don’t come back!”
The boy left and he never came back. He grew up to be Marshall Tito, the communist ruler of the then country of Yugoslavia after World War II. He never returned to the church.
■ At about the same time, early in the 20th century, in Peoria, Illinois, another altar boy named Peter John was assisting the bishop in mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral. This boy also dropped the glass cruet of communion wine. It, too, hit the marble floor and smashed into a gazillion pieces. Years later, in writing about this experience, he said this:
“There is no atomic explosion that can equal the intensity of decibels in the noise and explosive force of a wine cruet falling on a marble floor of a cathedral at mass in the presence of a bishop. I was frightened to death. The celebrant at mass that morning was Bishop John Spaulding and as that glass broke, the bishop looked at me and with a warm twinkle in his eye he said, ‘Someday you will be just as I am.’ ”
That boy grew up to be one of the church’s most eloquent witnesses for Jesus Christ. He wrote more than fifty books. During the 1950s and ’60s, he was the first religious man of his stripe to be on television, with the enormously popular program, “Life Is for Living” — and by some accounts one of the best religious programs to ever be on television.
Along the way he changed his name from Peter to his mother’s maiden name, which was Fulton. He became Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
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WHAT A DIFFERENCE words can make to sculpt and define entire lives. With them, you can hurt or you can heal. You can do grave ill or great good. As James wrote:
“With our tongues, we bless God our Father, and with the same tongues we curse the men and women He made in His image. Curses and blessing out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on.”
My friends, this can’t go on! Careless, unthinking words, even well-meant careless, unthinking words are to cease and desist and the hurtful blows they inflict must stop.
Is it left up to you, on your own, to pick up James’ gauntlet and run with it? To determine the good the tongue can do and the bad it can do and resolve to do more of the former and less of the latter? Most all of you are intimate enough with intentions to know that even the most noble of them can easily or eventually fall by the wayside.
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FORTUNATELY, BY BELIEVING in Jesus Christ, you live by the Spirit of God, the Spirit that transforms you to live more in accord with God’s intent and God’s purpose. It is interesting in the Book of Acts that the coming of the Spirit on Christ’s disciples on the Day of Pentecost is described as “tongues of fire” as the disciples then start telling of God’s mighty deeds. It is life yielded to the Spirit that brings about tongues that glorify the grace and work of God. It is yielded lives that then yield tongues that bless, inspire and strengthen.
It was the Psalmist who wrote:
“He has put a new song within me, a song of praise to our God. His praise shall continually be in my mouth … my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.” The prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher that I may know how to sustain, with a word, him who is weary and in need of strength.”
The tongue, at its best, issues bold words for the cause of justice, inspiring words to lift the weak of heart, comforting words to those who are sad and despairing. This is the tongue, yielded to the Spirit of God, that praises, blesses and strengthens.
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LAWRENCE CLIFTON JONES, a black man from Kansas, early on in the 1900s, felt led by God to come to Mississippi to teach the poor how to read and write and develop a skill that they could learn, to be able to support themselves and their families. People listened to his dream and some were interested and wanted to hear more. This led to the beginning of a small school.
There were others, though, who believed that a black man with an audience had no place in the state of Mississippi. A few of these men formed a lynch mob and dragged Jones from the church where he was speaking one Sunday night. They took him to a remote area, put a noose around his neck and were ready to hang him when they granted him the customary “few last words.”
Jones didn’t curse his would-be executioners and he didn’t plead for his life. Instead, he lifted up the vision that God had put into his heart and soul years before. He told of feeling led to come to Mississippi to provide education and practical training to members of his own race.
With $1.65 to his name, he told of sitting down on a pine stump and starting to teach three illiterate boys to read. This led to the beginning of a school, and working as a farm laborer and with small, private donations, he made a go of it and the school became a community asset.
He told them:
“This is God’s vision for my life. I can’t do anything else.”
After a few minutes of dead quiet, two members of that lynching party removed the noose. Then another took his hat, turned it up and took a collection from those who moments before were ready to string him up. They put the money in Jones’ hand and disappeared into the night.
That school became the Piney Woods School, south of Jackson, Mississippi, which today is one of the leading schools in holistic education and ranked as one of the top 10 boarding schools in the United States of America.
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IT WAS THE TONGUE of Lawrence Clifton Jones that lifted up the vision of God, that gave glory and honor to God, that turned a lynch mob into fundraisers that then helped pave the way for the glowing success of this great school.
This is what the tongue was made for: for praise, to bless and inspire, to give honor to God and tell of God’s mighty and wonderful works. In Christ, careless, unthinking, hurtful words can cease and desist and the pain they inflict can come to an end as the tongue no longer cuts and skewers, slices and dices, but blesses, praises, inspires and strengthens.
If you are in Christ — if you are in Christ — well, maybe, just maybe, you don’t need a permit to carry your tongue, after all.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And all God’s people said: AMEN!