Stewardship of Words

I spent my weekend with words. My writing teacher is a beautiful, eighty-something Greek woman who lives with a fire in her belly and a passion for words. Twice a year, a small group of dedicated women gather at Valle Cruces Conference Center to spend the weekend under her tutelage. She give us prompts then sends us out for thirty or forty-five minutes to see what we might be inspired to write. We return and share with one another our vignettes, poetry, short stories, and essays that have tumbled out and onto the page unexpectedly.
She left us with one last prompt: What are your words worth?
My initial thought was, “nothing.” I had some sentimental thought about how my words are freely given and released into the world without a price or value, save that which will be placed upon them by any heart who receives them. I write and preach because I have to and I love to, not with any concept of value or merit.
But, then, the apostle James shows up in this Sunday’s readings for the church and, with a booming voice and priceless words, castigates me for my feigned naivete, 
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (James 3:5-9)
“Unbridled words.” This idea storms in my mind and I sigh. We live in a society that values unbridled words wielded like guns and fired like canons. Words have become blades, not for vanquishing some evil foe, but for slicing through the humanity of others. Compulsively we draw and fire our weapons of words, long before we have any clear target in sight. The speed of fingers on a keyboard hammer out the steel of our best and worst thoughts made manifest on the screen. With no effort, we press a button, click a mouse, and in silence our daggers fly across the world in mere seconds.
There’s no small irony in the nostalgia and admiration we hold for the letter writers of the Civil War. Notes sent home by the most ordinary of men jerk our modern sensibilities because of their beauty and craftsmanship. The language of their era, set with intention and deliberacy to paper, confounds us in our era of compulsion and impulse. When paper was scarce and ink was hard to come by, the writer took more time than just that of putting hand to pen to paper. They understood the value and power of their words and did not want to cheapen or waste them in haste.
The apostle James commands us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” James 1:22 Alongside breathing and blood pulsing through our veins, words flow over and through every moment of our lives. When we wake, words fill our minds to answer the questions that come with every awakening: ideas of where we are, what the day holds, and reverberations from the dreams that may have passed in the night. Long before a single syllable journeys through our throats and across our lips, our minds have been a thunderhead of words firing off and lighting the cavern of our skulls. All day we grasp for our tools of words to make order out of chaos so that we can think, speak, plan, and execute. Then, as night falls and the energy of the day drains away from us, the words are there to sweep and mop the floors of our minds and tidy the shelves of ideas that have been in heavy usage over the course of the day. Even as we drift off, the words are there to convert conscious to subconscious, lining up the letters and syllables that will give meaning to the images our brains will paint in the dreams of our sleep.
How can we live with ourselves for cheapening the very thing that holds our sanity together? How can we forgive ourselves our carelessness and gluttony? Words may be in infinite supply but they are precious and powerful. We should weep over the fields littered with bloodied and dying words, thrown out with no regard for the value of their lives.
Perhaps our most powerful testimony as people of faith is to be found in our reclamation of the sanctity and sacrament of language. If we are to witness, let us first witness to the power of words, not just of those that speak of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, but of the power of every word we produce. Let us pound the swords of cheapened words into the plowshares of speech that once again cultivates compassion, beauty, and grace. Let us bridle our tongues with the depth of appreciation and respect our words deserve.

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