Friday, February 06, 2009

Stories, the Tongues That Tell Them and James 3:1-12

Saturday Night Vegetarian Pizza
Saturday night pizzas and sparkling rosés. A cake in oven* after the pizzas.

Nothing Says Home Like Mis-shapen Chocolate Cookies, A Cafetière of Earl Grey and a Neil Gaiman
Then chocolate chip biscuits and earl greys. And we were telling stories of stories by telling the stories. Because the best way to describe a story is to tell it.

What a wonderful thing to be a real teller of stories, to entertain refugees from the Black Death or pilgrims on that butt-sore donkey ride to and from Canterbury, to give stories as payment for a tankard of ale, a hot bowl of stew and a kip in a soft bed in a wayside inn, to construct inviting worlds for weary labourers to step into for just a while and forget their sweaty bodies, to use cliffhangers for the postponement of one's own death.

The magic of a good yarn can't really be broken down into its component parts by scholars - oh, here we observe the progression of character, and there, a plot device used to create a point of divergence. Legends, folk tales and fairy tales, myths pay little heed to set literary technique. But everyone knows a good tale when they hear one: the storyteller starts to speak, the tourniquet is tight and the needle is in the vein, then the tourniquet is off and the plunger is in and soon they scarcely notice the world around them fade, replaced by a cosmos of fairies in forests and monsters guarding untold treasures and heros saving worlds and sailing off to adventures in foreign lands.

Some stories are this-world factoids woven with impossible hopes and aspirations. Other stories are dreams articulated. But perhaps, still other stories create the very things they tell of. And perhaps certain other stories are the only permanent things in the world.

Well, God's stories for sure.

Though puny fragile, his creatures know too the longevity of the vibration of their little vocal chords. The stories we tell our children existed in various forms long before ground on which our houses are built was populated and will exist long after any traces of us or our homes can be found. So with an eye to posterity, "historical" accounts have always been commissioned by the victors of bloody skirmishes to commemorate their bravery and divine birth, and by stark contrast, the scumminess of the losers. And so Qin Shi Huang, arriving on the scene to find the stories not quite in his favour, burnt books and buried scholars. But words are not so easily silenced.

It is an amazing thing to consider the power of words, those symbols of thoughts and, when strung together in a language known to at least 2 people, modes of communication. And truly, stories are communicable. Quite innocently, you catch them and are infected by them. They peek out in dreams and nightmares and are subtly stitched into the lining of real life. "I have a dream," says one man and changes the course of entire nations and cultures. Even after the original ones have grown old and died. After all, it was the serpent's five words "You shall not surely die" that changed the path of the entire human race.

Jesus affirmed the permanence of our words, even the throw-away careless ones. They will be remembered and kept in store until the end of this world. Then we will be either justified or condemned by them (Matthew 12:36-37).

This would not worry us if we were navel-gazers, more intent in getting our navels to a "higher rung" in the church hierarchy as teachers or pastors or elders or deacons, liking the sound of our own voices and that people to shush each other to listen to the half-considered notions that spring from our mouths (James 3:1a). But it should.

If even the careless word is judged, then what more the deliberate oratorical sermons or pastoral pronouncements that emerge from our lips that will be heard and will affect tens, or hundreds or thousands**? If we consider that we are all sinful (James 3:2) and that the tongue is the part of the body most induced to sin (James 3:3-8), then surely we ought to have the appropriate safeguards in place before bringing it out for a wriggle, especially in front of a microphone. How careful we must be if the main tool of our job is the part most prone to terrible failure! What a dangerous thing it is to be a teacher!

Sailing and Smoking
Useless live figurehead having a morning fag at the bow

The tongue seems a fairly small organ, roughened up with papillae and taste buds, bashfully tucked away in the oral cavity. But like the bit in the mouth of a horse (James 3:3) or the small rudder on a large ship (James 3:4), that saliva-coated muscle is able to direct great things.

So if we were mature ("perfect" cf James 1:4), we could do great things with our tongues. But alas, our tongues are usually uncontrolled and fulfil their potential for great destruction, much to the delight of the source of all this, the devil (James 3:6). The horrible twisted evil little thing stains and ruins our whole life and destroys those of others too (James 3:6). So whilst humankind can domesticate large predators, it is helpless to control that very thing that resides in our mouths (James 3:7). So the tongue remains wild, restless, full of deadly poison. And we all know how weeks and months and years are sometimes preoccupied with dealing with the fail-out from a sentence or two (James 3:8). The devil isn't in parseltongue, it's in those few rather normally false, biting, slanderous words.

But it's not as if the tongue itself is the evil that resides within us so that if we shear off our tongues, we will be free from the control of our sinful nature and the world. Our tongues are only barometers of our spiritual condition. James looks at outside for evidence of inside. It is our real attitudes and thoughts that are vocalised by the tongue and it is these that corrupt the whole person.

" is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person," said Jesus,"what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person" (Matthew 12:11, 18-20, 33-37)

We rail against skimpily dressed women and the rampant and cheap sex prostituted by the mass media, but the tongue is the most unvalued temptation and possibly the most socially destructive instrument of sin. Possibly, the more entrenched we are within a church community, the more people accept without question what we say because of our position or longevity within a social circle, the greater our temptation to sin in this way. In our jealousy or selfish ambition or self-seeking, we destroy reputations on a whim, we tear down rather than build up, we incite disharmony and rebellion, we manipulate, we encourage gossip and slander, all usually under the cover of sharing our concern for God or the church or others. Far too many a post-service snigger or flippant fellowship meal or rash email/sms/chat has spawned untold grief and destruction of lives.

If we claim to have taken hold of the truth and received the Spirit which is able to change us to be more like Christ, then this state of affairs is sick and as utterly unnatural as salty tepid water in our Evian spring water bottled at source or stinky durians growing in our delicate heirloom tomato patch.

And if we hear a brother or sister fall into one of the many traps that litter this area, we must be quick to yank them away. There is nothing like a cabal of shared gossip to build community and togetherness. But this is not the foundation on which Christ's body is to be built. The danger of losing friends, who might perceive one's lack of eagerness to partake of the information exchange as a betrayal of their friendship, is real. But the fire of hell is real too.

Dick Lucas, James 3:1-12
Christopher Chia, James 3:1-12
Desiring God 2008 National Conference had the tongue and words as its theme. Free downloads. As with everything else, use with discretion.


This is not the worst of it but surely we are all too savvy about this very common inconsistency. Courtesy of Desiring God Ministries.

Saturday Night Chocolate Cake for Sunday Lunch
*Neil Gaiman likens stories to cakes - "Sometimes the cake won't rise, no matter what you do, and every now and again the cake tastes better than you ever could have dreamed it would". This was true of a boca negra, which'd tasted far better when improperly baked, glooped out and a little burnt, than properly baked and characterless.

**"Ministers are noteworthy of their calling. All preachers are vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In fact, the more faithful preachers are to the Word of God in their preaching, the more liable they are to the charge of hypocrisy. Why? Because the more faithful people are to the Word of God, the higher the message is that they will preach. The higher the message, the further they will be from obeying it themselves." R.C. Sproul

***Neil Gaiman reading The Graveyard Book for which he won the Newbery.


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