Pastoral Series

Church Matters: Learning to Talk

   Church could be, and should be, but often isn’t, a school for learning how to talk. I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought – that just as a child learns to talk by observing and mimicking the parent’s talk, we learn to pray by soaking up God’s word in Scripture so we’ll know what to say to God.

How do Christians talk? I’m not sure we are 17% nicer, or that the Christian is the one who avoids cussing. Maybe we know words matter, so speaking truthfully matters, and speaking words that build up instead of tearing down matter. Bonhoeffer said Never talk about someone not in the room. I’d say you can, but only if you’re praising that person.

Jesus said we will be called to account for every word we waste (Matthew 12:36). Yikes! Fun, happy, humorous words aren’t wasteful. Humor at someone’s expense, and judgmental words are wasted words. Rowan Williams suggested that “we can be absolutely sure we’re wasting words when we are reinforcing our reputation or defending our position – looking for a standard of comparison.”

Refraining from words is a Christian thing – although silence can be cruel, and being silenced is painful. But listening is our default mode in conversation – and when pondering the troubles of the world. Instead of spouting what I know would fix others, maybe I listen to them, or just sigh with them in pain.

In the 4th century, Christian ascetics became hermits, living in the desert. Much wisdom in their prayerful way of living together, and conversing. Abba Poemen was asking, “If I see my brother sinning, should I hide the fact?” The old man said “At the moment when we hide a brother’s fault, God hides our own. At the moment when we reveal a brother’s fault, God reveals our own.” Is this what Jesus was thinking when he spoke of the guy with a log in his eye trying to get a speck out of the other guy’s eye? We have plenty of sin to deal with in our own souls – so no need (or time) to go foraging for trouble in other people. As Moses the Black, another desert hermit, said “If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you won’t have leisure to go to a neighbor’s funeral.”

Christians are called to be encouragers, and we are all capable of offering way more of it. And then just whether our words uplift or tear down, are holy or wasted: Paul said “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely or gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). And speak of them as well.

Church matters, because our words matter – now more than ever, in our world where talk is cheap, harsh, harmful and foolish.

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