Once a small town was visited by a saint. And as she passed by a small hut, a man came to her and begged her to pray and care for his critically injured boy. Since the woman was new to the town, a crowd quickly gathered to see if the saint could do anything for the boy and the father. The father brought the sick child to the saint and she said a prayer over the boy. A man called out from the crowd, “Do you really think that your prayer will do anything for him, when medicine has failed?”
“You idiot! You don’t even know what I am doing! You should be quiet!” retorted the saint.
Well, the man became furious. He looked as if he might say something more or even strike the saint when she walked over to the man and gently questioned him: “If one word has such power to make you both angry and violent, then may not another word have the power to heal?”
The American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote about words: “Words – as innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” It is precisely the potency of words for good or evil that compels our writer of today’s scripture. But first, an analogy.
The other day, I went down a rabbit hole on the internet, having stumbled upon an exquisitely meditative video of a shoemaker making a pair of Italian shoes. The video was about a female shoemaker—this was unusual, as the industry of cobblers and shoe repair is primarily dominated by males. This female shoemaker showed the process of making shoes traditionally by hand: the careful measuring, the cutting of cow leather, the waxed stitching of soles, the use of cork as a padding in the under sole, and the skill and many techniques used to make a single pair of shoes which can take approximately 3 weeks to make from scratch and can also cost upwards of $4100.
We may be surprised at such cost, yet the care and attention to craft was awe-inspiring. Likewise, the craft of wordsmithing is important and can be costly—albeit in a different way– the way we use our speech, the manner in which we convey information, and what content we choose to share.
In James’ letter, our writer urges Christians to use the same kind of care, selection, and concern for the words one uses—just like those hand-crafted shoes. But just as an pair of expensive shoes can still be used to walk all over someone else or to kick someone when she or he is down—all the fine wordsmithing in the world can ultimately add up to a pretty pack of lies. Beautiful words can be false; true and blunt words can be a painful pair of shoes in which to walk. Our wordsmithing must be about understanding the motivation behind the words we use, the things we choose to say, and what we finally leave unsaid.
James writes that the tongue is a kind of fire. Those of us who have been the recipient of careless words or hurtful speech know the first degree burns that someone’s words can leave. We are not simply talking of name-calling—but of malicious gossip, relentless verbal abuse, constant criticism, misrepresentation, or boasting that comes at someone else’s expense. And I am also speaking of erasure—when there are no words or affirming speech offered to validate another’s experience of life, or when one’s humanity is erased because the majority just doesn’t want to “see” or acknowledge another truth. Barbara Taylor Brown has written, “Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according to the world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.
And what of the hurtful words that we direct at ourselves? A friend of mine complains of the voices in her head. No—not those kinds of voices. She means the tapes that she runs repeatedly in her head. Voices that demean. Voices that call her worthless. Voices that say she will never measure up or make something of herself. Voices that are poison to her soul. We know these voices. They arise at the worst possible moments when we are already low on ourselves. Or they come when we achieve a bit of success and they tell us that we were only lucky and what a sham we actually are. They say things that we would never say to our good friends, so why do we listen to their negative diatribe?
In this country, we champion our “free speech.” People want to be able to say all kinds of things—whether they be untimely, hurtful, ungracious, or full of hate. Of course we know that the brain governs our tongues and if we are unable or unlikely to still our tongues, it is our brains that are restless, clamoring, and out-of-sorts. In James, we are urged to self-control in our speech that we might have self-control over our actions. We might begin with discerning our thoughts.
For James, the Christian is to be governed by a different authority—not by our ability to exercise free speech but by our respect for God’s holiness. For James, holiness stems from ethical conduct and not ritual practice (Perkins, 89). That ethical conduct must include the way in which we use our words and our speech. Unrestrained speech can cause evil to arise by infecting not simply those around you, but also the body of Christ, and the community at large. Or as Jesus explained to the crowd, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles…What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:11, 18-20)
So we must consider our motivations for speaking. Is it primarily to prove a point? Is it to enlarge ourselves at someone else’s expense? Is it to win friends or companions through gossip or being “in-the-know”? Many of us have unspoken and unexamined motivations behind what we say. In my family, we joke that we often race to speak first because we are always trying to be heard. Loud voices run in my family for that reason. We don’t want to struggle to be heard and so we want to be first and loudest. It isn’t a proud family tradition; it is more of a liability.
But sometimes our motivations remain hidden, even to us. If so, a well-known adage about three gates can be helpful. Some say this is a piece of Sufi wisdom; others attribute it to a Buddhist saying. But it probably entered the public realm though through a poem called “Three Gates” written in 1835 by Beth Day and said to be “after the Arabian”:
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass
Before you speak, three gates of gold.
These narrow gates: First, “is it true?”
Then, “is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear,
What result of speech may be.
Is it true? Is it necessary? And is it kind?
These three gates might help you to curb your speech in a way that is healthier for you, for your relationships, and for the community. In this day and age, it can also help with the tendency to push “send” on an email or a Facebook posting before thinking. At the very least, these questions can help you slow down your speech and think more reflectively about what you are about to say.
The writer of James is deeply concerned that Christians not be “double-tongued.” He looks around and sees that “from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.” We can both bless God with our words and, in the next moment, curse those who are made in the likeness of God. And yet, this should not be so. If we truly respect God’s holiness, then we would not slander the incarnation of that holiness in others.
Sisters and brothers, we have one of the most powerful tools of change close at hand. We can begin with our words, beginning with ourselves. Consider this the next time you speak. Question your motivations and ask yourself if the word you intend to speak is true, necessary, and kind. If your word can pass thru all three gates, then ask yourself if you want the word you speak to be the last word someone remembers you by.
For according to Maya Angelou, “Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words.” “I think they are things,” she says. “I think that they get on the walls; they get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you.”
Our biblical writer, James, would agree.
So far as you are able, brothers and sisters, speak a good word today.
 http://funnyfunnyjokes.org/2011/10/13/the-power-of-words/ Adapted to our context.
 Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 67.
 Multiple sources; for example, see https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/5/23/1092850/-Is-it-true-Is-it-kind-Is-it-necessary