Minding Our Words

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September 13, 2015

Freedom of speech is an American birthright. In proposing the Bill of Rights, James Madison carved our right to speak feely in stone and placed it on a pedestal.

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. [1]

The power of speech for good and ill is sometimes underestimated. As children we learned:

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.

The Bible says otherwise. Of the power of speech, the Epistle of James gives us this easy to remember metaphor:

Look at ships. Though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  

Speech gives us tragedy: “Et tu, Brutus?” Exhortation: “Let justice roll like waters!” Poetry: “Tyger, tyger burning bright in the forests of the night.” And comedy: “More cowbell!”

It also gave us the Sermon on the Mount; but James, the brother of the man who voiced the Beatitudes, gives us a jaundiced take on speech because it causes so much trouble. James calls the tongue a “fire,” “deadly poison,” and “a restless evil.” The beasts of the air and the birds can be tamed, he says, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a harsh judgment, but as I think back on my years of experience with my own tongue I can see the point. How many times a week do I say some stupid thing I’d sworn I would never say again?

Despite the problems speech can cause us, I will stand with James Madison. I have been following with interest some news stories about colleges trying to tame their students’ tongues with language guides and speech codes. For example, the University of New Hampshire reportedly had published a “Bias Free Language Guide” that warned students away from words deemed patronizing, demeaning or exclusive. Provocatively, the list of bad words included the term “American.” That caused a dust-up. Then it turned out that the University president hadn’t even known about the guidelines, nor had they been officially approved. The school disavowed the document and the president announced “the only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campus.” I was glad to hear that. I love the First Amendment.

Our founders were philosophical about speech and its problems. In an exchange of letters between Madison and Jefferson about the Bill of Rights, Jefferson was optimistic: “The few cases wherein these things may do evil cannot be weighed against the multitude wherein the want of them will do evil.” [2]

In that statement, Jefferson echoes an ancient Christian insight: for good to flourish, some scope for evil also has to be protected. To enjoy the wheat, we must tolerate the tares. We trust that in the end the benefits of freedom will outweigh the damaged goods.

Freedom includes the option to be careful with our words.

As Episcopalians, we are famously careful with our words for prayer. Our Sunday prayers are not spontaneous; they are scripted by tradition. The script is biblical and beautiful. We have prayers for morning:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.

And prayers for night:

O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over.

What we miss in spur of the moment creativity, we gain in poetry. Personally, I am content with our side of the bargain. Like the First Amendment, I love the Book of Common Prayer.

Our methods play to mixed reviews. From the English Reformation forward, doubts have been raised about the spiritual effectiveness of our liturgical routines.  We’ve been called “the frozen chosen”—and worse.  One of my favorite southerners, Shelby Foote, was respectfully skeptical (for the most part) of Christian faith; but about our version of it he was downright scornful. After a Sunday morning at his hometown church in Greenville, Mississippi, Foote complained about it to his best friend Walker Percy:

I went to church Sunday; they were dedicating a window to my uncle—the Bishop preached. The whole affair . . . made me want to stand up and call them fools. There was Johnny Kirk, chief vestry man and a lot of ex Methodists wanting to capture the carriage trade, and Ben Wassen enjoying the beauty of the language and the proximity of Alice Haycraft. There wasn’t the slightest touch of sanctity; they weren’t even lukewarm. The blasphemer is ten times closer to God than they will ever be. [3]

A young woman I know, who was dear to me as my best friend’s daughter, was diagnosed with an advanced, aggressive cancer. She was also pregnant. Trying to prepare her for what might lie ahead, I shared a prayer I use. I say it three times daily—once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Ghost. I suggested that she do the same. The prayer is attributed to Julian of Norwich, who died in 1416, six centuries ago next year. It has been in use that long. It goes like this:

O God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me and I can ask for nothing which is less which can pay you full worship. And if I ask for anything which is less, always I am in want, but only in you do I have everything.

My sick young friend was appreciative but doubtful. “It is beautiful prayer,” she allowed, “but aren’t they just words?”

I am sure that many would share this suspicion.

“They are more than that,” I replied. The words were born in Julian’s intimate experience of God. Nearly dead, she saw Jesus face to face in sixteen visions. “Revelations of divine love,” she called them. That experience, she believed, was not for her alone. She was given it to share it—to lighten our darkness with encouragement and hope by opening our eyes and hearts to the reality of God.

This is what tradition gives us. Our prayers are crafted from scripture and experience, giving us to pray through a faith more expansive (higher, broader, deeper) than our own might be at any given moment. As a former pilot, I liken it to flying on instruments through clouds. I may get vertigo, feel right side up when in fact I’m upside down. “Trust your instruments,” the instructor would say. “They will keep you wings level, and pointed in the right direction.”

The marriage service is a good example. As Episcopalians we don’t compose our own vows. Rather, our words are guided by tradition, which leads us through an interweave of promises and prayers. On April 15, 1978, I stood by Julie right below the chancel steps as Dean Pugh, reading from the book, named the terms of our commitment.  He asked me:

Will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

“I will,” I promised. Julie said the same, and for thirty-seven years we’ve built a life within channels carved out by that script.

I would bet that Shelby Foote’s Greenville, Mississippi Church that Sunday morning was full of people quietly keeping the same promises, and that there was a lot more sanctity going on in that church than he could see—only because it was so common that he took it all for granted. Departures from that sanctity—which apparently he did notice—were exceptions that proved the rule. He couldn’t see the forest for the underbrush and broken limbs.
The tradition leads us to water but it doesn’t make us drink. In every Episcopalian’s life there come moments when we face the choice: Are these words I hear and use in church the words I am going to trust and live by?

Or . . .  might I instead, for example, try these:

“Life is short. Have an affair.”

That was the pitch from Ashley Madison. From that small fire: How great a forest has been set ablaze. Had such a thing as Ashley Madison existed back when Shelby Foote was writing, there would have been some in that Mississippi church who would have been tempted by the offer, and maybe some who took the bait. I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that has been the case with some of you. Adultery is as common as cancer. It is a sin because it is just as hurtful. This scandal is a misery for everyone it couches.

Even the pitch was a lie. Life isn’t that short. For its purposes (that is, for God’s purposes in making it) there is time enough and often more. If you got caught up in this, with grace and time you can put the broken pieces back together. This too is in the Prayer Book.

Call me. Come and see me. We will go to the chapel, open the Prayer Book to Confession and, wings level, get you pointed in the right direction.


[1] James Madison, “A Bill of Rights Proposed,”Annals of America,Volume III, p. 357.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Madison July 31, 1788,Annals, Volume III, p. 304.

[3] Shelby Foote,Letters, p. 60.