"What Our Verbal Portraits Tell"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/14/1997

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

    When couples come to discuss their marriage plans, one of my four areas of focus is communication. Communication may be the most important skill that we can learn. If we cannot share our desires and thoughts in ways that communicate, we are shut off from many meaningful areas of life. What is amazing is that something this vital is given such a low priority by our society. Can any of us remember taking a "how to" course in communication?

     During our early days in school we were taught how to print our letters. Later we moved forward into developing skills in cursive writing, grammar, and finally to writing compositions. Yet, how much time was given to our training and development in the skill of how to share our thoughts, feelings, and desires? How much time was spent teaching us how to give our pleasures and displeasures such clarity that others would understand us?

     Most of us learn how to use words in a very haphazard manner. Someone kept repeating "Da-Da" and "Ma-Ma" and we were rewarded with hugs and kisses when we finally got it right. But, how did we evolve those greater patterns of speech? We learned by duplicating how others spoke who were basically trained in the same way. Yet, some parents take the teaching of verbal skills to their children very seriously.

     We had a couple in our Capitol Hill congregation whose child at the age of two carried herself as a 30-year old. Once when the family was seated in a restaurant a waitress approached to take their order of drinks. Mary Ellen looked up and said, "May I have a small Sprite, please." The waitress froze at hearing such articulation coming from the two year old who was seated in a high chair. She asked, "How did she learn to speak like that?"

     Sometimes we appear mystified that children can articulate or that they carry themselves with manners and politeness. We often find ourselves saying, "My, your children are well behaved," as if such behavior came as a miracle that just happened to descend on some very fortunate parents. Children will learn to communicate according to the verbal patterns that surround them. When we see children who cannot communicate effectively, often it is not their fault. None of us can use a skill we were never taught.

     There is another problem area in communication. In addition to our haphazard training, there is also the issue of the spirit we portray with our words This year we can remember an Admiral who lost the Pacific Command when he used words that were condescending toward women. We can remember the problems within Texaco several months ago when executives were taped using degrading words in referring to ethnic colleagues in their company. The way we communicate creates a portrait of who we are.

     The reason society has not been teaching the art of communication any better than it has is because no one has decided what should be included when we teach it. The writer of the book of James recognized the problem. His words are classic. He wrote:

     We humans are able to tame and have tamed all other creatures -- wild animals and birds, reptiles and fish. But no one has ever been able to tame the tongue. It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison. We use it to give thanks to God and also to curse other people who are created in the likeness of God. Words of thanksgiving and cursing pour out from the same mouth.

     In order for people to learn the art of communication, we would have to teach people about the spirit that our words express. Now, isn't that a fascinating possibility? Imagine teaching people about spirit? To teach communication in grade school, society would have to give instruction on the values to which our words give expression. Our tongue is not the enemy nor does a tongue have a life of their own as James suggested. The tongue merely creates a verbal image of what we have in our minds. What are we communicating? What spirit do our words portray?

     As Jesus was reflecting on this very subject he said, "It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean; rather, what comes out of it makes you unclean. The thoughts that come out of your mouth come from the heart." (Matt. 15:11f) Until we learn what it means to love, forgive and show respect, we will not develop self-control. People tend to use verbal patterns that reflect whatever mood they happen to be in at the moment. Some of us allow even little incidents to exhaust our patience.

     It should not be any mystery why relationships often develop communication problems. Again, how can people use verbal skills when they have never learned them? Some of us know how to put words together, but do we know what to say or how to say them?

     I remember some time ago talking to a 17-year old boy. He had strong feelings for a girl in our youth group. He couldn't get up the courage to ask her for a date. He wanted to be with her but he didn't know what to do once that happened. We are talking about the basics here. He didn't know what to talk about. He was fearful that he might be clumsy. He was terrified that he might not meet with her approval. In other words, he had a zero skill level. We cannot learn skills by avoiding experiences that demand them. God gave us the abilities. We have to refine them with practice.

     When Jesus said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will come to you," do we think that Jesus was giving us some hopeful platitude of wishful thinking? Whether we consider ourselves religious or not, Jesus was giving us a piece of timeless information for every man and woman on this planet. He was saying that until we use loving energy as the spring board for all our thoughts and actions, our words will always create a portrait that will not always serve us.

     Think of how powerful words are. There are situations where brothers and sisters are not speaking to each other because of words spoken years ago. Some parents cannot remember the last time they spoke to their children because of an earlier confrontation. People have stayed away from church because years before a minister used words that reflected a lack of good judgment. Words are powerful! They give us cues for how to respond in our relationships.

     When someone is gossiping, would we ever want to share something personal with them? When someone is communicating neediness and dependency, do they appear attractive to us? When someone is always finding fault with everyone and everything, is that the kind of person we admire? Not all of us recognize these responses as calls for love so we frequently retreat from relationships with such personalities.

     Lady Astor was well known for her acid tongue and she never missed an opportunity to publicly ridicule Winston Churchill. One time the two of them were seated near each other at a banquet. Lady Astor had become so disgusted with Churchill's drinking, she said, "Winston if you were my husband, I would put poison in your drink." Churchill who never missed an entrance for a good come-back said, "If I were your husband, Lady Astor, I would gladly drink it."

     Who wants to be around toxic people? Who becomes eager to give their business to smooth talking manipulators? Who is attracted to people who worry, or who blame or who remain bitter? Who desires close friendships with people whose words distort the truth?

     Several weeks ago I went fishing with a member of our church. As we were putting his boat on the trailer at the end of the day another fisherman asked if we had any luck. I told him that we had caught about 20 fish. He told us that he had caught 50 and that many of them were 15 to 17 inches long. I said to the man, "I have never seen a 17 inch Croaker, may I look at your catch?" I should never have asked that. Not only were there far less than 50 fish but half of them in his ice chest were the size that Lefford and I had been throwing back. What picture was that man painting for us?

     Last week's bulletin cover featured the words, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." A change in attitude is always something we can accomplish. The tongue always paints a portrait of the spirit of who we are. We cannot hide that portrait. What comes out of us is exactly what is within us. Do not be mistaken about that. By changing our mind, our words will change. "Repentance" means to change our mind.

     When each of us accepted Christ, that was our commitment to learning as many skills of the spirit as we could possibly master. We may see a skill we need but if we take no action, there will be no result. Showing up for class does not mean that students learn. We cannot pilot a 747 simply because we love to fly. Christ will not give us the skill of patience simply because we love him. Faith is like life, it doesn't work simply because we are hoping something wonderful will one day happen to us.

     When I graduated from seminary, I knew that there would eventually come the time when I would have to pray spontaneously in public. Some of you know the discomfort at being asked to open a meeting with prayer. People often think, "We are all Christians here. Anyone can talk to God." Wrong!

     At first, my words didn't fit together. The sentence structure was terrible. There were embarrassing pauses. Nothing flowed correctly. The more I struggled, the worse my prayers were. I was like that 17-year old boy who had never spoken to a girl on a relationship level. It seemed less nerve racking to write my prayers. But that seemed like telling that 17-year-old to write out and read all of the things he wanted to say. Can you imagine the result of that? I can. One date.

     Until we begin practicing everyday what it is Christ called us to be, James is right, we will never train our tongue. A decision to follow Christ means nothing unless we are willing to examine what our words are saying. Do they communicate from a loving spirit? Do they communicate our acceptance of all people? Do our words mirror honesty, integrity and authenticity? If not, why not?

     This is not a good and evil or right and wrong condition. Just because some of us have delayed our learning a skill does not mean we are not capable of mastering it. This is why it is ridiculous to judge other people. The age of our bodies does not automatically translate into mature skill levels. As we watch some of the fans at the Redskins' game this afternoon, the truth of this should be abundantly clear.

     In closing, we need to remember one fundamental truth: Our words will either enhance us or they will diminish us. The only reason anyone would choose to play small is because they believe that no one ever taught them how to play big. The truth is Jesus did teach us how to play big. If we continue to play small, it is because we have been trying to live by our rules instead of his. Believe it or not, the truth is that simple. Our words reflect to everyone what is in our mind. Does that reflection communicate God's presence?

     Many people find the spirit at St. Matthews contagious because our words to each other make us smile and laugh. Our words are encouraging and enthusiastic. Or they may communicate concern when someone's heart is breaking. Our words communicate acceptance. It doesn't matter who you are or where you came from. Our words say, "It's okay. You are here now and we want you to stay." This morning, don't be in such a hurry to leave. Look around as people engage each other. Words are powerful. Words paint the portrait of who we are as a church family.


     Eternal God, during these reflective moments, each of us desires to live more loving and peaceful lives. We want to be that healing presence for those with whom we live. Yet, we confess how easily our inner voice confuses our desire and vision. We find ourselves wanting greener pastures. We find ourselves experiencing frustration when the unexpected spoils the flow of our plans. We allow resentments to build, thus denying ourselves the freedom forgiveness would give us. We find ourselves being less careful with the use of our words, forgetting that our words tell the world who we are. Lead us, O God, to understand the nature of love with such clarity, that no other response will be possible. Amen.


     Loving and ever present God, in the quiet of these moments, still our spirits with feelings of reverence and peace. How grateful we are that regardless of who we have been, or what rules we may have broken, or who we are at this very moment -- You accept us and love us just as we are.

     Teach us, O God, always to hold one another with the same spirit that you hold us. Make known to our minds the profound meaning of "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have broken their trust with us, who have hurt us, or who hold values foreign to our own."

     Help us to remember that we were considered worthy enough to die for by Your Son. May we remember who we are when the passion of the moment wants to rob us of our capacity for patience, for understanding, and for forgiveness. Help us to remember who we are when circumstances push us to compromise our values or to select expedience, or to walk away from an issue that takes courage and faith to confront.

     Thank you for your love, your guidance and your confidence in us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .