Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sticks And Stones And Sore Jawbones

"The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:35-37 NIV).

Gossip is a great time-killer, for those who have it to kill. It is also a great people-killer. Oh, not outright. Sometimes it takes years for that titillating and scintillating bit of slander to take its toll. When the person finally dies of heartbreak, no one understands. Why should they? After all, who remembers the stone that was first thrown: the lie or innuendo that started the slow ripple and agonizing death of one's trust and love?

I have a friend whose marriage is a see-saw affair, and I was having rather uncharitable thoughts myself about a woman who acted my friend when with me, and then spoke with forked tongue when with other mutual friends of ours. One day Mary Fran and I delved into our subjects with our own forked tongues. Mary Fran is married to Chief Black Cloud, a nickname her sons gave their dad. Chief Black Cloud's fuse is quite short, and one of the older boys crowned his dad with that inglorious title after the boy left home and discovered that merrier hearts do exist in this vale of tears.

Mary Fran told me about her system to keep sanity and humor intact. Years before she had bought three silly-looking but marriage-saving statues, one with the word "Peace," another, "I Love You This Much" and the third one, "I'm Sorry." Depending on how much static is clogging the line of communication, that is how many statues that land on the bed that day. The "Goofies," as Mary Fran nicknamed them, have saved many an argumentable and lamentable day.

We discussed the red-flag words and phrases that cripple family relationships in particular. These are, among many, "You never..." and "You always..." These are sure-fire losing combinations! These flags are waved when the white flag of reconciliation is most needed: when mommy is sagging from a 28-hour day with hyper and ventilating kids; when daddy arrives home from the job breathing fire at his boss's or his spouse's incompetence, etc. For ten inexplicable reasons rolled into the one of human nature, this is when we slap each other with the always and the nevers, the you-shoulds and I-woulds: the negatives that have others feeling stupid. One man I know asks his wife and children how it feels to be uncoordinated whenever they have their few minor mishaps. Perhaps this is supposed to keep them all on their toes! They had a perfect chance to get even when the man almost lost his thumb in a tractor accident, but charity won out.

Mary Fran said there are days when she wants to retaliate in kind, but decided it is best to be kind." Years ago I read something that touched me deeply. The book was written by a Christian psychologist. He said it has been proven that the finest feeling follows the finest doing." It works for her. It should work for us all.

Gossip is verbal interest in the failings of others rather than their feelings. Our own faults should keep us busy enough praying to a forgiving and forgetting Father and offering prayers of thanksgiving that He so willingly overlooks our own many malpractices of tongue. "He who scatters the seeds of dissension and strife reaps in his own soul the deadly fruits. The very act of looking for evil in others develops evil in those who look" (Anonymous). Church members are especially astute at weeding out others' grubby little sins. There is nothing like one's own righteousness to highlight the other person's lack of it. "They who are free from the grosser sins, and even bear the outward show of sanctity, will often exalt themselves by detracting others under the pretence of zeal, whilst their real motive is love of evil-speaking" (Calvin).

A rattlesnake warns before he strikes. We don't bother to give warning; we strike in the very act of rattling and tattling. As Christians who look forward to the joys of eternal life, it is imperative that we resolve our differences while bound to earth. Paul was most concerned about this, for in his day Christians faced outside forces and they needed moral and physical stamina that could not be wasted on intra-family and intra-church squabbles. Besides, what positive effect could gossip, envy and all the debris that collects from an unconverted heart have on those "unconverted" who, in many instances back then as well as now, acted more Christian than those who claimed to be such?

Paul, ever concerned about his dear flock, admonished his Corinthian flock: "For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder" (2 Corinthians 12:20). One commentator lists eight specific evils of this church: strife, suspicion, spleen, selfishness, slander, scandal-mongering, super-egoism and sulkiness, and suggests that the serpent's hiss could still be heard at Corinth. Is it possible that the serpent's hiss is heard in our homes and churches? God forbid!

Today I can laugh at an incident that happened years ago when I went grocery shopping with the then only three of my eventual five sons. While going about the business of getting groceries for my family, with the help of my three little ones, a woman came up to me and announced that I was pregnant. “I have my knowledge on good authority," to quote Mrs. Busybody. I wasted valuable time trying to convince her that to my apparently limited knowledge I was not; that perhaps her informant had omniscient powers that I thought only God possessed. When I was finally able to return to the more important matter of grocery shopping, I still had not convinced her. If this lady had been stuck with my issues to raise and educate, then she would have had ample excuse for such concern, but I hardly knew her. But at that time our town was rather small!

There are three areas in which we can judge our tendency to gossip, and three tests by which we can judge the seriousness of our gossip. In the areas we have:

1) things;
2) people; and
3) ideas.

Which one of these is most appealing to us? I believe this is the right order, too. In our thing-oriented society, we often find ourselves discussing the externals of life and ways to obtain and maintain them. If we choose people, it should be to talk with them, not at them or about them. If we talk about ideas, then we discuss ideals, certainly something to be commended in this day of deteriorating ideas and ideals.

The three tests of gossip are:

1) is it true;
2) is it really necessary and constructive to the welfare of them and us to repeat this? and
3) is it done out of love.

If these three criteria--and it must be all three--can't be satisfied, then it is far better to bury the morsel six feet under our memories and leave the judging (which is what gossip is) to God, who long ago forgave and forgot.

One of my favorite verses is 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Surely saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way is unrighteousness. And for some of us, when we have been so unrighteous as to do in a friend or even an enemy, it is so difficult for us to grasp the concept of total forgiveness. If we are fortunate enough to have finely attuned consciences, we feel that we have done the ultimate; perhaps committed the unpardonable sin because of the consequences to that person. In dealing with the temptation and even the unfortunate fact of hanging another rumor on the grapevine, this verse can help. God does forgive! I doubt there is a person reading this who has not regretted something said in anger, frustration, resentment, haste or whatever. There are varying degrees of results of our lack of discretion and sins of the tongue, too. We drop the pebble of hate, hostility, innuendo, jealousy or wounded pride, and the ripple effect reaches to the very gates of heaven itself. Exactly where is the beginning of war, divorce, teenage rebellion, murder, suicide? Where do we find that feather of a word that has become a very sword? How grateful I am that God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of the sins of our tongues. But unfortunately, He cannot go around the world gathering up what our winds of words have scattered over the airwaves.

Unless we see the circumstances in another's life, we can cause that person immeasurable and irreparable injustice. For years I heard relatives criticize the wife of one of their own. The lady lived in another state, so I believed what was said about her. When she and her husband retired and we eventually got to know each other, I saw the side that apparently the rest of the family didn't take the time to investigate: a warm, gentle and kind lady with talents unrecognized and unappreciated except by her children. She was at our house one evening and made a cutting remark about herself. I told her that she had been listening too long to those who didn't even know her. It's wonderful how differently we feel when we get to know others, and to understand the sums of their sorrows and the divisions of their emotions. We give second thought before we express our objections to their abjections. And we are most fortunate if they grant us the same courtesy.

The wise men of the world tell us we should ventilate, but our wise God asks us to cooperate. We are admonished to "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14b). Job knew the vexation of thoughtless words that overwhelmed rather than healed: "How long will you torment me and crush me with words?" (Job 19:2). And these were his friends! Instead of the contrition they so diligently sought from Job who they were so sure deserved all he got, they ended up having to swallow a large dose of bad-tasting submission for their troubles. Instead of soothing the poor man's soul with words of peace, they vexed him to pieces with needless and harmful platitudes, well-meaning such as they were. Certainly Job would have agreed with the provident counsel of 1 Corinthians 4:5: "Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God." And poor Job would have deeply appreciated the following suggestion: "Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow" (2 Corinthians 2:7). Job devoutly wished that his friends would have judged his innocence rather than his presumed guilt, of which they readily informed him. “The only thing that can be said of them justly is that they were poorly equipped for their ministry of consolation. They were 'too white'; and the 'flower of life is red. ‘They lacked most where the need was greatest. The world perishes not of dark but of cold. The soul in its deep distress seeks not light but warmth, not counsel but understanding. If they had ever suffered any themselves, it might have been different" (Paul Scherer).

Martin Luther had much to say about our interpersonal relationships in his exegesis on the Sermon on the Mount. Luther was not a calm man so he no doubt had to deal with this in a vigorous way. Concerning Matthew 5:9 he states: "...The Lord here honors those who do their best to try to make peace, who try to settle ugly and involved issues, who endure squabbling and try to avoid and prevent war and bloodshed...he also gives help and counsel on the side of peace wherever he can..."

Luther's comment on those who gossip is less delicate: "These are really poisonous spiders that can suck out nothing but poison from a beautiful, lovely rose, ruining both the flower and the nectar, while a little bee sucks out nothing but honey, leaving the roses unharmed. That is the way people act. All they can notice about other people are the faults or impurities which they can denounce, but what is good about them they do not see. People have many virtues which the devil cannot destroy, yet he hides or disfigures them to make them invisible." In Luther's exegesis on Matthew 5:43-48, he gives this good advice: "My reply to someone else's hate or envy, slander or persecution should not be more hatred and persecution, slander and curses, but rather my love and help, my blessings and my prayers. For a Christian is the kind of man who knows no hatred or hostility against anyone at all, whose heart is neither angry nor vindictive, but only loving, mild, and helpful."

We must be acceptable in walk, work and word. Cuts from a knife heal, but we have no guarantee that cuts from our tongue will heal. I know a lady who shared a sad secret with me one day. She said she still remembers her mother saying to her when she was a child that she wasn't worth the powder to blow her up. That lady is 54 years old and still struggles with that terrible putdown, even though she is an accomplished and intelligent person. How tragic! We should beg God's forgiveness every night for every cruel word we say, especially within the family circle. With prayer love covers, but the wounded person is on guard from then on. We don't purposely stay around those who wittingly or unwittingly do harm to us, and this is precisely what happens, for none of us is immunized against the devilish venom in and of the tongue.

We should eagerly pursue the Love that forgives and forgets and goes forward in spite of great and small injuries. I read of a lady who managed to bury a grievous injustice by mentally digging a grave and quickly lowering into it the thing which wounded her unto a certain death if she didn't do something with it. She then covered it with white roses and forget-me-nots and quickly walked away. Finally she was able to sleep that sweet sleep of peace, and came to the point in her life where she couldn't even remember what had caused her such anguish. Oh! that we, too, could accept that grace of God which enables us to bury the hurts in our lives.

Just as important as what we say is how we say it. If a parent, particularly, has a naturally stentorian voice, he or she will do the child a tremendous favor if the effort is made to cultivate a gentle and persuasive tone. There is a great difference between a command in a shattering yell, and a "Please, will you," said quietly and lovingly. In fact, "The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded" (Ecclesiastes 9:17). This may seem a minor matter, but it is "the foxes--the little foxes--that spoil the vines" of love. Words especially can be sneaky foxes that come back to haunt us years later.

Dear Father, I beg forgiveness for all the uncharitable thoughts, words, and deeds of my life. Loose my tongue only in Your praise, never to hurt another heart. Give me insight to understand and to love. Let Your love make the difference so there will be no indifference to those in my life. Please, Lord, light my candle and enlighten my darkness. I thank You! Amen.

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