It must have been the fall of 1967. I was ten years old, and my music teacher asked who would be interested in playing a musical instrument. In my family, it was not really an invitation. It was a demand. My father had a great passion for music, which he passed on to my sisters, who played the flute and the French horn into college. I decided my instrument was going to be the trumpet. I chose that brass instrument for one reason. My father played the trumpet. I always felt a distance from my father and longed for his approval.
At first, I really worked at it. Without threats, I practiced. I thought I was making some progress and I felt good about the whole thing. I knew my father would be proud of me. One day, my father came down the basement stairs as I was practicing. He looked at me and said, “Do you need some help?” I was thrilled because I thought we would have a breakthrough in our relationship. For an awkward couple of minutes, he listened to me play. Without saying a word, he got up and walked upstairs. He closed the door behind him, looked at my mother and said loud enough for me to hear, “Well, he is loud, but he is no damn good!” Those words cut my heart. I placed the trumpet back in the case and never practiced again. It was on that day I discovered, I was like my mother, who had no music appreciation or talent. At best she tolerated music because she loved my father. For years to come, I seized every opportunity to communicate to him how much I hated music. It was my opportunity to hurt him, like his words had hurt me. At ten years old, I learned that words are important.
We begin today in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, verses one through nine. That chapter ends the pre-historical period in the Bible. The next chapter begins the story of Abraham. The first eleven chapters of Genesis give us the origin of many things in the world today. The first chapter explains how the world was created. The story of Adam and Eve explains the origin of sin. The story of the Tower of Babel, in the eleventh chapter, explains why there are so many languages in the world today. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are important.
According to the story, at one time everyone spoke the same language. Using this common language, mankind decided to build a city with a massive tower. It would be permanent structures made of brick and mortar. The goal was to make a bridge between earth and heaven. It was a project that was rooted in human arrogance. When God came down from heaven and saw the tower, he knew something had to be done. It is at that moment God decided to scatter mankind around the world and give each group a different language. When God does something, he does it well.
Did you know:
- there are approximately 6,500 languages in the world today?
- approximately 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers.
- approximately 3,000 languages spoken in the world today will be extinct by the end of this century.
- the most common language spoken in the world today is Mandarin Chinese, 1,213,000,000 speakers. The second most common language in the world is
Spanish, 406,000,000 speakers. The third most common language in the world is English, 375,000,000 speakers.
- the English language has 1,013,913 words. That number has doubled over the past 100 years.
- the average American woman speaks about 20,000 words a day.
- the average American man speaks 7,000 words a day.
Let me state the obvious. Words are important! That takes us to the Epistle of James.
We find ourselves in the third chapter of James, verses one through twelve. James also recognizes that words are important too, but James also admits words can be destructive. There is a world of difference between constructive words and destructive words. Verse nine is haunting. It reminds us, the tongue is fickle. It says, “With our tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” Verse ten underscores that thought, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brother and sisters, this should not be.” Can I be honest with you? I hate that piece of scripture because it is so true. In the life of the church, we are much more comfortable talking about people, then we are talking to people.
When I was in the Cleveland area, I served the Hathaway United Methodist Church. It pains me to say it, but it is now closed. I had a wonderful experience with that parish. I had a good relationship with the choir because I was not my predecessor. The choir hated my predecessor for one reason. She couldn’t talk to them. Every Thursday evening, they would gather for practice. They would walk in with a cup of coffee, or bottle of pop or a bag of chips. They should have known better, but they left their waste behind.
Every Friday morning, the custodian would come in and clean up the mess. He complained to the Trustees, who could not talk to the choir. They assigned the job to my predecessor. She could not talk to the choir either, so she sent them a letter. Every choir member received a letter in the mail about a week before Christmas. The letter was read, copied, and passed around the church. Soon, it was passed around the community. It was not pretty. That letter was a spark that torched that whole ministry. The whole situation could have been eliminated if someone could have talked to the choir. I would have said, “the custodian would appreciate it if you would clean up after yourselves. I am confident they would have done it. They were good people. This is the point. We are better at talking about each other than we are talking to each other.
Several years ago, I went to a chili cook-off in one of the community churches. Their youth were raising money to go on their mission trip. I went because I wanted to support them, and I like chili. I sat there alone eating my chili. It was nice not being responsible. A woman came up to me and asked how I liked it? I said, “It is great”, because it was. She asked, “Are you a preacher?” I said “Yes,” and identified myself. She said, “Can I ask you for a favor? Can you tell the cooks the chili is too spicy? My gastroenterologist says I should not eat spicy food. You are a minister, and they will listen to you.” I thought, why would you go to a chili dinner if you can’t eat spicy food? I said, “I am just a visitor. Why don’t you tell them?” She walked away frustrated. We are better at talking about each other than we are to each other. Do I have to go on? Do I really have to go on? You know it is true; we are better at talking about each other than we are to each other. However, this is equally true.
The words we utter about one another are often destructive. You do not need illustrations because you know it is true. Sometimes we mask our critical words as a concern. I am concerned people will get upset. (That person is you and we know it.) Sometimes, we mask our critical words as a suggestion. People will come if the music would be more upbeat. Why don’t we sing something more upbeat? (Because it is Good Friday and not a party.) Sometimes, our words come out unmasked and they come out as a complaint. I am upset and I do not care who gets upset. Sometimes you must take a stand. It does not matter how foolish or selfish it makes me look. Regardless, our critical words spoken to one another are always destructive. Those words fracture the unity of the church. I am not talking to anyone else. I am talking to you. Take an inventory of the words you have uttered about your fellow church members. Are they more constructive to the ministry of the church? Are they more destructive to the ministry of the church? Mother Teresa (1910-1997) once said, “Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.” In the end, those negative words, damage the ministry of the church and expose your spiritual immaturity.
Do you remember Galatians 5:22-26? It says:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking, and envying each other.
It is painfully obvious. We have some work to do. We have a difficult time talking to one another and we have a difficult time speaking constructive words about one another.There isno doubt about it. Words are important! May our words be constructive, benefitting the ministry.
When I was in the eighth grade, my home church received a new minister. He moved to Warren from Huntington, West Virginia. He was a tall man with a large Adam’s apple that stuck out over the knot of his tie. His name was Dr. Jim Cox. On his first Sunday, the church was full of life. Everyone wanted to get a good look at him. At the close of the service, he stood at the back of the sanctuary and met his new flock. One by one, the people walked by and introduced themselves to Dr. Cox. When my parents walked by, they welcomed him and said, “We are Ron and Ruth Adams. This is our son Russell.” He smiled and went on to the next family. One week later, I was in that same line. Dr. Cox looked at my parents and said, “Ron and Ruth, good to see you.” Then Dr. Cox did something that changed my life. He looked at me and said, “Russ, how are you?” For years, I had walked through that line and the various preachers never bothered to learn my name. I cannot blame them. I was nothing special. I was just another kid. Dr. Cox did something in one week that none of his predecessors had ever done. He spoke, me into existence and made me feel included with one word, Russ. To this day, I consider him the finest pastor I have ever known because he simply spoke my name. He made me feel included. This is the truth.
I do my best to speak to everyone in this church everyone Sunday morning for one reason – Dr. Cox spoke to me. He made me feel important. He included me. This is also true. I do very little work in my office. I work at home, but I come out to the church nearly every day to talk to people. I want everyone to feel included and important. Don’t tell me words aren’t important.
Words are important. Are your words constructive words? Are you words destructive words? Are your words bringing glory to God? What are your words saying about your spiritual maturity? The wise one Solomon said it best in Proverbs 21:23 says, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from trouble.” How tame is your tongue?