“I don’t love you.” My daughter says. I know she doesn’t mean it, but for a brief moment, it hurts. She’s only three and has no filter. She says it in anger, in jest, because she gets a response from me. She says hurtful things and she probably gets it from me. And I probably got it from my folks. This is what we in the business call “original sin” and, whether you believe that’s an accurate theology or not, it’s a good description of the world we live in. We are all of us sinners, wounding one another with our words. Surely I’m not the only one who wants to physically pull back my words sometimes—no, I didn’t mean that, I was speaking in anger, I didn’t know what I was saying, I didn’t know all the facts, I’m just hurt, I’m so sorry… In an argument with my husband the other day, in the heat of my anger, I said something about hoping he would die of whatever it was we were arguing about—pecans? Politics? I don’t know. I confess that to you now, here in the assembly of Christians, because I need to repent of it. I confess that to you in the hopes that you understand, in the hopes that you see the same idle talk in yourselves, that you, too, need to repent of something.
Maybe you’re not ready for that confession yet. I hear you. Let’s move on. But we’ll be back.
Let’s talk about current events instead. In the discipleship groups I lead at the campus ministry I serve, the students and I have just read a blog post called “Why are Christians so mean?” The author herself is a Christian and had noticed that many folks in our country look at us askance—“you follow the Prince of Peace yet yell at one another and us all the time—what gives?” they seem to ask. She wondered if she was alone in noticing this and she writes:
“Within one quarter of a second, a Google search of ‘Why are Christians so mean’ returned 5,190 results.
To put these numbers in context, I ran the same query for other faiths. As we would expect in the post 9-11 environment, “Why are Muslims so mean” yielded 8,320 results. More telling, however, are the following comparisons:
There were seven results for ‘Why are Jews so mean?’ and four results for ‘Why are Hindus so mean?’ ‘Why are Buddhists so mean’ yielded one result with no results at all when I asked, ‘Why are Sikhs so mean?’
It wasn’t always this way. Certainly not in the early Church, when Tertullian remarked, ‘Look, how they love one another’ or when Aristides wrote, ‘They walk in all humility and kindness.’ When is the last time you heard anyone say anything even close to that about Christians?”
How we act and what we say makes a difference, like James said in his letter. “[N]o one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” he writes, and “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” Well said, James.
Let’s make this very concrete. You’re aware of the kerfuffle recently over Chik-fil-A? Perhaps some of y’all showed up to buy a chicken sandwich that day or perhaps you were angry at those who did. I’m not here this Sunday to talk about the right or wrong of CEO Dan Cathy’s remarks nor even of the right or wrong of homosexuality. No, in keeping with brother James, consider how Christians responded. How were we perceived by the world when large masses of us went to Chik-fil-A on a particular day? Consider that 99% of the gay population of the world saw that and assumed that we all hate them. And then consider how those same Christians perceived the gay community when some loving, gay couples showed up for a Kiss-In—they assumed that the gay community are all exhibitionists and wanted to force something on them.
Neither of these is true. Both were hurtful. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
The blogger I mentioned closed her post with these questions: “What are the consequences of those things I have done and left undone? How are others likely to interpret my actions? How are they likely to respond?”
How we use our tongues, as James writes, what we say… is everything. And yet our words can be meaningless as well. In someone’s grief, we struggle for the right words, filling the sad silence with platitudes trying to heal the pain. I’ve talked to so many folks who said a well-meaning friend told them God needed another angel and how much they hated God in that moment.
James says that we’re wild horses needing to be broken with a bridle—not very complimentary. I don’t want to think of myself as a dumb beast needing physical restraint, or as a boat going only where the captain directs me with no creativity of my own. But there’s truth in what he says. Our tongues can run wild, speaking truth and lies indiscriminately. We can’t help it. We need something to hold us back from the hurt we inflict. We need a divine and maybe sometimes harsh “no” to pull us up short, to show us what we’ve done. God is, in this moment, a divine parent, speaking truth to us rebellious children, trying to aim our energy in a better direction.
Because sometimes we get it right. Sometimes our tongues speak love and comfort or encouragement in just the right moment. A couple of months ago, in the first week after I gave birth to my son, my mother-in-law stayed with us and helped us out. She cooked for us, cleaned the house, brought me things while I was still in pain. It was, in some ways, her job to be here—she was happy to do it—but I needed to say thank you for that gift. I sent her a thank you note which arrived on a day when everything was going wrong for her.
My words worked, but not because of their poetry. She was comforted in the middle of a cruddy day because I was present with her. Sure, it was only in the form of a note, but it’s like we say, “it’s the thought that counts.” In that thought, I was present and that, more than the words I wrote, made a difference.
And now we get to the heart of it. Showing up is what we are called to do. When someone is in mourning, we sit with them, maybe bring a casserole. When someone is imprisoned, we show up, speak to with them through the glass. When someone is celebrating, we show up and celebrate with them. When someone says something hurtful to us, like “I hope you die from pecans” we stay with them—my husband forgave me because he loves me and because we show up daily in each other’s lives. In the church business, we call this incarnation—I am physically present here with you fine people today, I’m incarnate here. This is what Jesus did—the word became flesh and dwelt among us—he showed up. He sat with us, he ate with us—sure, he talked a bunch, said some impressive and convicting things—but what he did was show up. He was present with us. Most of us don’t take that time—we don’t get to know our gay or conservative evangelical neighbors. We only react, speaking the emotional truth of the moment—I’m angry! I’m hurt!—and don’t think of how we’re perceived. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
Friday afternoon, this discipleship group I mentioned, we met for our weekly conversation. Partway through our conversation we became aware of a group of Muslim students demonstrating across the street. They held signs in support of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya who was killed. They handed out flowers and stood calmly supporting peace. And so we joined them. I and my students crossed the street, showed up, you might say, with our brothers and sisters.
If we can come to rest in the knowledge that God is here too, that God is incarnate in Jesus and a little in us and our neighbors, maybe the drive to be right or to say the right thing can slip away. If we can try to see our neighbors and our enemies as people, as distant family, maybe we can be content sitting with them at a dinner table or on the front stoop. Maybe we can show up and simply be with one another, letting our presence speak for itself. Maybe then there’s room for God to work the wonders that need working. My brothers and sisters, may it be so.