The Importance of Words

Words.  The importance of words saturates our spiritual traditions.

From Hebrew scriptures we find, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” and, “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”

How about this, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies.”

Here’s a good one for all of us to practice: “Lord, keep my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from telling lies today.”

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.”

Even the earliest ideas set forth in Hebrew scriptures begin with, “God said…”

And from Christian scriptures, “Whoever says (there’s that speaking idea again, at the genesis of another creative process) whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt, but believes, he will have whatever he says.”

And how might the world look if more people practiced this one, “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up.”

I don’t always do that one as well as I could, but I’m willing.  Sometimes, I speak about what’s helpful to me, you understand.

Or, how about this one, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.”

How important is this idea in a world in which so many are willing to berate and belittle others with venomous words in the name of religion?  The idea that a love of God might somehow require a hatred of Creation is laughable.  You cannot love God and hate Creation.  You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.  If your religion requires hate, judgement, coercion, arrogance, tolerance, even disregard; if your religion requires separation, reflect upon the merits of your religion.

Or more likely, reflect upon the interpreter of your religion.

It might be time for a change.

Understood truly, religion is never about getting people to agree, it’s always about getting people to wake up.  This isn’t a competition.

I think it was the Gospel account we know as Matthew (not all gospels were written by their namesakes, you understand) in which we find, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.”

Words.  The importance of words saturates our spiritual traditions.  And I have to believe that we are pommeled with words greater in number than any generation preceding ours.

From our texting and tweeting to our emails and IM’s to our televisions and computers; from talk radio shocking us awake in the morning to Jimmy Kimmel joking us to sleep at night, we hear words, words and more words.

I don’t know about you, but do you ever find yourself totally romanticized by the images of Little House on the Prairie, by the notions of Henry David Thoreau living alone in those woods, by the tale of Frodo and Sam enjoying a journey through nature – two friends with lembas bread, a water bottle and that wildly-problematic ring? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something in most of us that longs for a reprieve from words.  There’s something in most of us that longs to commune with the God of our being by withdrawing from the noise.

The idea that I could sit on a front porch with some fresh lemonade, a piece of hay dangling from my mouth (okay, that might be going a little too far), but still, looking over a seemingly-endless prairie to some mountains in the distance – surrounded only by the sounds of nature.  Maybe a little banjo in the background.

Does that sound good to anyone else?

The word Bible refers to something of a library – a collection of books which humanity came to consider as one book when the advent of the printing press made them look like one book.  It was really from the appearance of that one book, with its leather cover and its gilded edge, that the notion of the Bible as the inerrant word of God took root a little over 500 years ago.  Prior to that, what we call the Bible would have been perceived (and I suggest more correctly so) as a collection of wisdom writings by different writers, spanning different eras and cultures and even written for different audiences and for different purposes.

You see, the inconsistencies among the books of the Bible don’t exist because God is tricky or sloppy.  They exist because humans have their unique perspectives.

Our Judeo-Christian library seems to indicate that words matter; that words can help or hurt, build up or tear down, bring together or press apart; that words can limit or expand, sting or comfort, affirm or deny.

If you’re like me, you grew up familiar with an adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words…” an adage which we’ve come to recognize as well-meaning, perhaps, but flawed, all-in-all.

And I have to wonder if today’s social media allows more hurt than ever before.  It’s been my experience that people say things about each other on Facebook that they would never say face-to-face.  People say things about others that they would never say face-to-face; and the further removed the target is, the harsher the words become.  It’s as if the less human the target, the greater the permission to attack.

So, our celebrities, our leaders, our politicians – groups of real people who have mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, groups of real people who have feelings and fears and hopes and dreams, groups of real people – often reduced to some label – the homeless, the blacks, the whites, the rich, the poor, the gays, (you’ve gotta watch those gays) often get the worst of all.

If you don’t believe me, look at even a few from the comment streams specific to any political leader and consider whether certain comments would be delivered if the two people were sharing a cup of coffee over a kitchen table.

“Kill yourself,” was tweeted on one thread and while it doesn’t stop there, this is the only one I felt I could repeat in this context.  Any further, and I would have to wash my own mouth out with bar soap (that’s another throwback to the era of sticks and stones).  From religion to orientation to ethnicity to color – there seems to be no subject beyond the reach of cruelty.

Perhaps my favorite biblical reference, “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.  And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire.”

So, for today, imagining your tongue to be something of a great fire-starter, extending its power well beyond your place, scattering its effects well beyond your time, imparting its fragrance well beyond any intention or outcome you might hold, let us have the courage to ask, will the power, the effects, the fragrance of my fire serve to bring people together or to press people apart?  Fundamental to the spiritual conversation, I think these are two ultimate questions.

It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said it this way, “All that ascends converges.”  I like to think he was saying that as we mature spiritually, we come closer together, not farther apart.

What would you say about so-and-so if you were to say it to their face over a cup of coffee across a kitchen table?  Would you say it?  Would you say it differently?

This is one of the problems with modern life.  We enjoy tremendous psychological distance from the effects of our choices.  We save ourselves from seeing the pains of those we touch with our choices.  And not only do we enjoy this psychological distance, but we have also cloaked it in a garb we call modern convenience so we can actually celebrate it.

I work with a really tough idea.  It’s the idea that if I couldn’t do “it” myself, whatever “it” is, because it’s simply unconscionable to me, what business have I in essentially paying someone else to do it for me?  If I couldn’t cause the suffering, what business have I in paying someone else to cause it?

What would you say about so-and-so if you knew they would hear every word?  Because, at a level of reality beyond this thick layer we experience as incarnate humans, they do hear every word.

Again, imagining your tongue to be something of a great fire-starter, extending its power well beyond your place, scattering its effects well beyond your time, imparting its fragrance well beyond any intention or outcome you might hold, let us have the courage to ask, will the power, the effects, the fragrance of my fire serve to lift people up or to press people down?  Again, fundamental to the spiritual conversation, I think these are the ultimate questions.

And my encouragement is that you avoid getting into the mess of just how people will be lifted up. The great scholar, philosopher and metaphysician Neville Goddard said something to the effect that the expanded you (the soul of you) has ways and means of which you are completely unaware; that ours isn’t to dictate the how, but merely to declare the what.

And I say this because when we allow ourselves to get into the mess of just how people will be lifted up, we allow ourselves to get into a realm of positionality.  And at that level, the divide can be brutal.  One might argue that we’re experiencing something of that orientation right now.  Instead of declaring words of equality and peace and beauty, we use words of platforms and politics and processes.  We use words of personalities, and let’s face it, personalities come and personalities go.

Imagine if political leaders could come together, find those noble and transcendent words which are surely shared by all at some level, and speak those words together.  Imagine political leaders returning in their hearts to the idea of equality and speaking that forth.  Imagine political leaders returning in their hearts to the idea of peace and speaking that forth.  Imagine political leaders returning in their hearts to the idea of beauty and speaking that forth; allowing those ideas to reveal a collective way forward, allowing processes to arise from transcendent principle instead of wallowing in the quagmire of who’s got the most compelling flow chart.

I think it would be better.

That’s why I always say never demand that your good come through your checkbook.  Instead, stand in a knowingness of God creativity, of God possibility, of God sufficiency, and allow an apparent need to unfold toward its resolution however it will.

God has an infinite number of ways to deliver your good, you see.  Sometimes, your meddling isn’t helpful.

It’s a bit stark, I know.  But here’s how I like to think of the spiritual power of words.  Our words are like knives which go before us to carve out niches and crannies of possibility that we can find on our journey forward.

Speaking a word of peace goes before us to carve out a possibility of peace that we can find on our journey forward.

Speaking a word of plenty goes before us to carve out a possibility of plenty that we can find on our journey forward.

Speaking a word of health goes before us to carve out a possibility of health that we can find on our journey forward.

The old saying goes, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  But spiritual speaking, it’s really quite the opposite.  “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

At the level of consciousness, we have to carve out niches and crannies of possibility that we might find them on our journey forward.

Imagining your tongue to be something of a great fire-starter, extending its power well beyond your place, scattering its effects well beyond your time, imparting its fragrance well beyond any intention or outcome you might hold, let us have the courage to ask, will the power, the effects, the fragrance of my fire serve to carve something of the new or something of the old?  Fundamental to the spiritual conversation, I think these are two more ultimate questions.

Are your words carving places of higher possibility or boring sameness?  Are your words carving places reflective of your potentials and dreams and talents or failures and fears and faults?

When someone pays you a compliment, do you respond by saying, “Oh, you give me too much credit.” Or “Oh, it’s nothing.” Or do you deflect it with an equal compliment as if you’re involved in some sort of scorekeeping game? Or do you step into it?

Collectively, we’re navigating some of the greatest stresses in my 55 years.  The opportunity to practice these ideas will become more difficult in upcoming days, not easier.  But so it is with all things spiritual, that they prove to be difficult doesn’t render them any less true.  That’s why we call it spiritual work.

The opportunities to be defensive, to be caustic, to be cynical, to be toxic will be many.  And yet, the charge will remain, “Will the power, the effects, the fragrance of your fire serve to bring people together or to press people apart?  To lift people up or to press people down?  To carve something of the new or something of the old?”

If you were to send your words forth as knives to carve niches and crannies of possibility that tomorrow’s children might one day take shelter in them on their journeys forward, what would you carve?