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September 28, 2003
I now invite you to turn to the letter of James, chapter 3 and follow along as I read verses 1-12. Hear what the spirit says to us.
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.
4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,
8 but no one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?
12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Picabo Street, the well-known Olympic gold medalist in the Super G, is more than a famous skier. In fact, between training on the slopes and traveling around the world to compete, she managed to get an education and earn a degree in nursing. Early in her nursing career, she was assigned briefly to work as an ICU nurse in a large metropolitan hospital. She did outstanding work, but there was a problem. The head of nursing had to tell her not to answer the phone in ICU because of the confusion it caused when someone would call in and hear Picabo pick up and say in her best professional voice: “Picabo, ICU.”
Now that is a good story. Unfortunately, it is not true. Picabo is not now a nurse, has never been a nurse, and does not particularly want to be a nurse, but she gets the joke. She has been teased about her name since she was a child. Her parents got it from an Idaho town that takes its name from a Native American word meaning “shining waters.” [“Picabo’s problem.” The Washington Post, January 29, 2003, C13.]
Picabo, ICU is a rumor, an urban legend. It is just one of many such legends circulating today. There is the one that describes a horrible accident involving the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. A child is on a cruise ship with his parents. He finishes breakfast and announces he is going to see SpongeBob. His parents, thinking that he is going to the cabin to watch TV, have no problem with this, but in his attempt to visit SpongeBob, who “lives in a pineapple under the sea,” the child jumps over the rail, into the ocean, and drowns.
Good Lord, we say, that is awful—if it actually happened, but this SpongeBob story is again not true. Barbara Mikkelson is an expert in contemporary legends. She says such stories “reflect standard parental fears, that TV will have a bad effect on kids.” A generation ago, there were similar stories about kids jumping off roofs while trying to be like Mary Poppins or Superman.
Picabo has a problem with her name; we have a problem with gossip. Our problem is that we cannot resist the temptation to spread a good story, whether it is true or not. In our text from James 3, we learn that “the tongue is a fire,” that can set an entire forest ablaze. The tongue is dangerous and destructive, with power far greater than its size.
Unlike our modern notion that words have no actual power, James insists that the tongue can do more real damage than a playground full of bricks and ball bats. You may have heard the old saying: Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” James says that is not so. Words do hurt—more than sticks and stones. So James says when we hear the Word, that is when we hear Christ, we show that we have heard, by the way we behave. Truly “hearing” the Word means putting the Word into action. Thus a teacher, one who interprets the Word for others, is responsible for any actions that might ensue and any damage to the community that might result from the interpretation of the Word. A slip of the tongue might seem to be a small thing, but a rudder is a small thing, which still steers ships of enormous size. A bridle is a small thing, but it allows a rider to steer a horse. A slip with either of these “small” things can injure or even kill those who wield them. The sad fact of the matter, says James, is that while all manner of creatures can be tamed by humans who stand above the animal kingdom in their ability to use speech, the one animal that human beings can never seem to tame is their own impulsive nature.
This is why not many should try to master the art of using words to educate others. For James, the words of the gospel are meant to inspire action as well as faith; therefore, those who would teach must be able to control their lives so they can control the shape their words will take in the real world. If they cannot do this, then no matter how much they may preach and talk, they have no religion. James says in 1:26 “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
Of course, we know this. We know that Christians should not gossip. We have seen what happens to the standing of an elementary school boy when he is labeled a thief. Or, to the reputation of a middle school girl when she is said to be sexually active. Or, to the college prospects of a high schooler when he is rumored to be a cheater. Or, to the promotion chances of a worker when she is said to be lazy or stupid.
It does not matter whether these charges are true or not; if they are disseminated, if they are spread around, they do damage. There was a rumor going around recently about a popular hip-hop artist. The story was that she would rather suffer the death of her firstborn child than have a white person buy one of her albums. It is not true, and yet, the story spreads and costs her lots of money.
“No one can tame the tongue,” says James, it is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8). Did you hear about the kid who ate six bags of Pop Rocks at a party? His name was John Gilchrist, the actor who played “Little Mikey” in television commercials for Life cereal. He ate six bags of Pop Rocks, drank a six-pack of Pepsi, and the two substances combined in his stomach and exploded, killing him horribly. That is why Pop Rocks were taken off the market in the early 1980s.
The truth is that John Gilchrist never exploded. Pop Rocks plus soda produces only a burp. But the makers of Pop Rocks had to work hard to squelch the rumor, even writing to school principals. The same sort of corporate action had to be taken by the company Procter & Gamble, when it was accused of having links to Satanism.
According to the story, the president of Procter & Gamble appeared on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show on Monday, July 19, 1999. He announced that “due to the openness of our society,” he was coming out of the closet about his association with the church of Satan. He stated that a large portion of his profits from Procter & Gamble products goes to support this satanic church. When asked by Sally Jesse if stating this on TV would hurt his business, he replied: “There are not enough Christians in the United States to make a difference.” That is the story, and it has been spread around so much that Maurice Tunick, executive producer of the Sally Show felt compelled to issue the following statement:
To Whom It May Concern:
There is no truth to the rumor that the CEO of Procter & Gamble appeared on the Sally Show and embraced Satanism. Nothing about this rumor is true. Please do not send any money to the Sally Show or request a videotape, as this is a complete hoax. [Brent and Angie MacDonald, “Procter & Gamble: Stop the lies!” Lion Tracks Web Site, liontracks.org/roarlion/nlpg0999.htm.]
In an effort to curb the destructive effects of gossip, it has been banned in Brazil. John Derbyshire wrote an article for the National Review entitled, “Do tell: The enduring importance of gossip” [September 3, 2001]. Derbyshire writes: Scrutinizing the news from Brazil last week, I spotted the following.
Rumor, the great ill born from small beginnings, has been banned among municipal employees in the Brazilian city of Cascavel, the city councilman who drafted the law said on Wednesday. Public servants who gossip may now face official reprimands, obligatory professional sensitivity training and even suspension or dismissal in certain cases.
Derbyshire goes on to say, “Lots of luck to that dour councilman and his “sensitivity trainers.” A ban on gossip? I fear he is spitting into the wind. The love of gossip appears on anthropologist Donald E. Brown’s list of “human universals” — traits found in all human societies (though not necessarily in all human beings) — along with fear of snakes, envy, kinship categories, religious belief and taboos about sex and the elimination of bodily wastes.
It is true that gossip has never had a good press, even though the actual press spends vast amounts of money to gather and disseminate it. It seems to have been condemned by Jesus (Matthew 12:36-37), and has suffered by association with its less appetizing cousins, rumor and slander. The word “gossip” brings to mind the malicious nattering of old women, the idle talk of idle tongues and the obnoxious Don Basilio’s aria promoting the efficacy of “La calunnia” in The Barber of Seville. There are snobs who will tell you that gossip is a low and mean activity, beneath the consideration of serious folk. A priggish schoolmaster of mine used to say (or possibly quote — but I have not found any other reference): “First-class people talk about ideas; second-class people talk about people; third-class people talk about things.”
Derbyshire does not say it, but that classification would make most of us second class people, for most of us love to spread gossip. But James notes that the tongue itself is not just evil, it can also be good. “With it we bless the Lord and Father,” says James, “and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (vv. 9-10). With our speech we can certainly bless people and encourage them and strengthen them and build them up. But we can also curse them and discourage them and weaken them and break them down.
The tricky thing about gossip is that it is often spread with what appears to be good intentions. A story about a neighbor is told to protect others from making the neighbor’s mistake. A tale about a troublesome child is spread to keep other children in line. A personal concern is disseminated throughout the community because people want to show that they care.
“I have been the subject of a nasty little gossip ring,” reports a Christian woman named Alison Hawke. [“Gossip in church.” Christian Depression Pages. gospelcom.net.] “Four people I thought were my friends were trading rumors about me. When I confronted one of them, she said it was because they were ‘concerned’ about me. They were so concerned that they couldn’t pick up the phone or write a letter, drop round to see me or send an e-mail. They were more concerned with spreading what they thought were my guilty secrets. Never mind that their ‘news’ was bad guesses showing the situation in the worst possible light, or that their guesses were completely wrong. Never mind that none of these people had even seen me in several weeks. They were ‘concerned.’” With concerned friends like these, who needs enemies?
The worst kind of gossip is the half truth. Gossip can come with a kernal of truth wrapped in guesses. For example, someone will say, “She hasn’t been in church for a month”—which is true—but then comes the guess, “because she’s given up on God,” but a guess added to a truth is just more sinful harmful gossip.
When gossip spreads, the victim is hurt, betrayed and ridiculed. Few gossips have the courage or decency to tell the victim what is going on. Most of us find out by accident. Gossips do not care about who they hurt. If they did care, they would try to help or point out our errors and mistakes to us personally, not just talk to other people about their “concerns” for us.
The challenge for us, as Christians, is to show our concern by speaking directly to that person, not by talking about them. If an action by a pastor troubles you, then tell him. If a neighbor blunders badly, extend a hand and help to pick her up. If a child begins a downward spiral, step in and see if you can be a stabilizing influence. If you hear about a personal tragedy, pick up the phone and make a personal connection.
Any of these actions will do more good than spreading a story. And if you can’t muster the courage to take one of these steps, then say nothing at all. Holding your tongue is a great Christian virtue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian martyr of the Second World War, believed that holding one’s tongue was a special ministry. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.” [Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York: Harper & Row, 1954, 91-94]
Bonhoeffer knew that if we hold our tongues and control our gossip about other people, then we discover that everyone has a place in the community — strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted and ungifted. Slowly, we begin to see that these differences are not incentives for talking and judging and condemning each other, but are instead causes for rejoicing in one another and serving one another. In the end, we realize that each member of the community has been made in the image of Christ, and that each person has a place to offer a particular form of service. Thus, great spiritual awakening begins with a simple step: keeping our mouths shut.
The challenge for us is to bless people through truth-telling, not curse them through storytelling. The challenge for us is to speak directly to them, not speak to others about them.
When we use our tongues to speak honestly to our neighbors, then we are honoring the fact that they have been created by God, and are deserving of respect. We never know just exactly how God is going to use a person to teach us a much-needed lesson or two, so we should go into every encounter expecting to learn something new and perhaps grow in our faith.
“You must understand this, my beloved,” writes James to the early church: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19). That is the opposite of what our noisy, speech-saturated society says. James says, Do not rush to spread juicy morsels of gossip, but be quick to listen, slow to speak and willing to hold our tongues. We can only imagine what would happen to the worlds of entertainment and advertising and politics if this advice were suddenly taken to heart.
For those of us in the Christian community, the words of James ring true. We know that sometimes our loose tongues discredit and disparage others, and hurt those we love the most.
Our prayer is: Lord, forgive our habits of speech. Lord, put your words on our tongues, that we might speak your truth and share your love. Our prayer is from Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.” Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04