“Lord, may my words be tender and sweet for tomorrow I might have to eat them.”
This pithy prayer was etched on a plastic sign, which had been given to me by a hunting buddy from Cleveland. I kept it on a shelf in my office for several years and I often wondered what motivated him to give it to me. Had he observed that my words had been hurtful to someone? Had my words been hurtful to him? Did I need to be more mindful of what came out of my mouth? After years of reflection, I concluded that the correct response to all three questions was “Yes”. I also surmised that filtering what I said was an area in which I needed continued growth. I still do.
When I served churches near Cook, NE, I was privileged to share ministry with a Lutheran pastor whose name was Orville. He was kind, thoughtful, and faithful. When I was visiting with Orville in a local cafe, he remarked that before he said anything, he would ask himself four questions regarding what he was about to say.
1-Is it true?
2- Is it kind?
3- Is it necessary?
4- Is it helpful?
Orville then remarked if a statement did not meet all four of those criteria, then he would choose not to let those words proceed from his mouth. I had never heard that wisdom before Orville offered it to me, although I have seen variations of that pearl of insight since that morning in the cafe.
I was impressed by those four questions, yet I was even more impressed that Orville heeded his own advice. He practiced what he was gently preaching to me. As long as I knew this exemplary man, (a time which was all too brief because he passed away while serving Grace Lutheran Church in Cook) I never knew him to utter anything that could be construed as unkind. I respected what he had said to me and I admired him because he lived it.
When my paternal grandmother left this life, my mother observed, “She never said anything bad about anybody.” That was high praise coming from a daughter-in-law, since people are often stingy in giving compliments to in-laws. My mom’s comment about my grandmother deepened my respect for both women.
“The tongue is a fire.” (James 3:6 ESV)
It seems that there are two places where individuals are especially susceptible to being burned by an inflammatory remark–family and church. People are often wounded deeply in those contexts because of expectations. They expect families and churches to be venues of safety–places where they are loved and their personhood is respected. I believe that persons are justified in expecting safety and caring in families and churches. If not there, then where? If members of families and churches are not acquainted with Orville’s four criteria, other members at the very least expect words addressed to them to be tender and sweet. In a place of safety, persons let down their defenses and become vulnerable. A remark could be issued on a job site or on an athletic field and it would not hurt as much as if the same statement had been made at home or in church, because we have rightfully expected love and safety in the latter locations. Hurtful comments cut deeper in families and in churches.
“From the same mouth come blessings and cursing…theses things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10 ESV)
Three words could be an immeasurable blessing to someone whom you have offended– “I am sorry.” Or, if those words are too difficult these three would also work– “Please forgive me.” Either set could be a blessing to yourself, to the other person, to your family, and/or to your church.
Lord, may my words be tender and sweet.