There’s this tendency in entertainment to do it, at least I’ve seen it there more than I’ve experienced it in my own life. The phenomenon? Fear of something being said out loud, or named. Often expressed in terms of, “Don’t say it! If you say it, that makes it real!” I have some vague memory of a line in the musical Camelot, where the dream of Camelot is described as having been so fragile that to even whisper it was to whisk it away. The spoken word is powerful.
As people of faith, we are people who recognize the power of the spoken word. In Genesis, God speaks the universe into existence (Genesis 1:1-2:3); the tongue is described as a rudder that steers a large ship (James 3:4). Who can tame the tongue? (James 3:8) It can do incredible damage (Proverbs 25:15). In our tradition we are wedded to the observable reality that the things made real through speech are the shapers, in so many ways, of our hearts’ attitudes. The things we pray, in the course of Sunday liturgy, are made real in our hearts and our lives – and given how much time we spend in the prayers of the Church vs. how much time we spend being influenced by the values and ways of the world, it is that much more important that a regular liturgy (with recognisable features) be engaged. Through repetition our hearts are brought in line with the words of Scripture, upon which our prayers are fashioned.
There really is something about letting the things in our minds, whatever our thoughts or fantasies or imaginings be (and let’s face it, most people are constantly running scenarios in their minds – what they would say or do in a given situation), there’s something about putting such things into words that makes them real; that gives them a life of their own. And they can’t be taken back once they’re out there. There’s something about voicing thoughts that is indulgent – we used to be taught that if we couldn’t say anything nice, then we shouldn’t say anything at all. These days, this former rule-become-norm is all but lost. People say whatever they think, as long as it’s true. And never mind objective truth, few (if any!) see beyond subjective truths, or examine them; few weigh their own state against their perceptions; objective truth is assumed to be beyond reach, and so not bothered with.
This is, to some degree, a reaction against the old maxim. There were too many people who weren’t speaking the truth, and erring on the side of kindness. They could only say things if they were nice, according to the rule. But as with most extreme reactions, the better road lies somewhere in between. Truth should not be the only gate on our mouths. Kindness should be a gate on our mouths. Helpfulness, for the sake of building up to maturity in Christ, should be a gate. If something in our minds cannot pass all of these gates – truth, helpfulness, kindness – then it is indulgent to speak it. This is a rule I need to be more mindful of, and pray that God would aid me in being so.
Consider what passes your lips. More and more I have noticed that God’s name is not kept holy, though we pray that His Name would be hallowed in the Lord’s Prayer weekly (daily?). If we, Christians, cannot keep God’s Name holy, if His Name becomes a byword to us, an expression of surprise or disdain or of nothing – simply a passing word, then is it any wonder that the rest of the world fails to keep His Name holy? The Israelites only spoke His Name in fear and trembling. Granted, to them His Name was the tetragrammaton: YHVH. To us it is not. Yet, the Name that we use for that same One – should we not keep it holy? I tend to think so.
There is much more to say about the tongue. There is a much larger conversation that could, and should, be had on this. But for now, consider these two cautions. Keep the Lord’s Name holy; consider your words to others, and put these three gates on them: true, kind, helpful.