Moving to the "real" south from Louisville, Kentucky, I came to hear a phrase common down in these parts and rarely spoken in that fine border state I call home. The first time I heard it, it required no explanation. The words themselves, the tone explicitly implicit in duplicity, the slow drawl as the words tumble out: Well, bless her heart. I knew in an instant that I never wanted someone to say such words about me and that such blessing was not one of honor and reverence but of…a curse coated in sugar.
Perhaps you’ve blessed someone in this way. Your neighbor with his always disheveled hair and uneven tie as he hurries off to work – late, yet again. Your kinfolk, never able to get it together enough to make it to a holiday gathering. Your co-worker, with her uncouth habit of sending typo-laden emails to your boss. Bless their hearts, those sweet people. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Bless their hearts.
James, writing to us from centuries and continents away, must have heard his own fair share of bless their hearts if he were so inspired to pen these words: 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 made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
From the same spring, flowing fresh and brackish water, James says. Evil, deadly poison. Blessing and cursing. All resting on the tongue of each God-created person. Quite an easy passage to hear, don’t you think? A nice, pleasant passage on this Rally Day. Bless James’ heart – didn’t he know today was a day of celebration?
I’m not sure if it is of comfort or a gut-level sense of total depravity to know that what James wrote so long ago is still so applicable to those made in God’s likeness today. Still so for us. The cacophony of cursing in today’s world is nearly deafening. It seems impossible to avoid all the negativity, all the insults, all the verbal violence of our world.
Might we begin from the top? Or, some might say – the bottom. Politicians rattling off practiced and perfected racist remarks as crowds cheer in agreement. News anchors spinning stories in an attempt to bend the moral arc of the universe towards their definition of justice. Newspapers proclaiming truth in headlines born to sell, sell, sell not tell, tell, tell. Radio personalities speaking so loudly and so fast that you can almost hear the spit coming from their mouths as they spew yet another degradation of God’s good creation. It. Is. Incessant. The cursing. The cursing of one another. The cursing of the human family, made in the likeness of God from whom all blessings flow.
And oh, how I want to tell you a lie and say it ain’t so for us. That the vitriol and violence we hear and read is far, far away. But, sisters and brothers, such cursing eeks into our own lives sometimes.
Might we recall the words we’ve said to another – words that enflamed our lungs, lighting our tongues, words we saw fly out of our mouths in rapid fire and immediately ached for a bucket of water to squelch the damage. Words that left burn marks on your body and the body of your victim.
Words we’ve said about our own selves: words of hatred and self-depreciation. Words that speak ill of our bodies and minds, our worth and our abilities. Words said aloud in a crowd or words spoken in the silence of our inner monologues. Words like "I’m not good enough" or "I’ll never be able to move on" or "I’m too broken or too old or too young or too inexperienced or too _____" – you fill in the blank. Words that aim to maim not claim – not to claim the worth and wonder that God wrote in your very DNA before you were born. Such words, I fear, carry a daily cursing upon our hearts. Such words, I fear, attempt to trump and upend the goodness that comes from the blessings God daily bestows.
Friday night, Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest and activist from South Africa, spoke in our music room about his journey. Involved in the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa, Father Lapsley intimately knows the power of words. Words written in constitutions to divide and conquer, words spoken as truth yet words far from the capital "T" truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, words written on elevators and bathrooms and water fountains meant to separate God’s people into categories of race. After the governmental end of apartheid, Father Lapsley came home to a heap of unopened mail. In the stack were two religious magazines. He opened one and a mail bomb went off. He lost his hands, one eye, eardrums busted, and he was scarred all over. He speaks of this violence in the most Jamesian way I can imagine. He says: They took away my hands which I didn’t need for shooting and left the most powerful weapon I had – my tongue.
Father Lapsley speaks of this attempted curse in a way that blesses all who hear him. It was an incredible reversal to hear of his work after the trauma, of how he gathers people together to engage in remembering what has happened to them – what violence, what cursing – and finding the blessing in speaking it aloud, in remembering it, in holding it in shared spaces. He speaks of how the words we share are deeply powerful – the power to reveal the truth underneath the clutter, the power to name what is silenced, the power to honor and revere one another as fellow members of the human family.
Even in a world of cacophony – of chaos and caution and crisis and deeply held cursings heaped upon cursings – the ability to bless one another is ours and comes from God who blessed us first. Hearing Father Lapsley reminded me that such ability to speak blessing is ingrained in our hearts since the beginning, no matter what has happened or will happen – the blessing of our creation in God’s likeness remains.
The challenge, I’ll admit, comes from unbinding this cultural habit of ours -curse the system, curse the "other," curse all but who we think is "right"…and then if you eventually get around to it, maybe think about blessing. To live a life of blessing, to bless and celebrate the likeness of God in those around us, we have to expand our vocabulary. Instead of surrounding ourselves with words of violence and vitriol, of hatred and hopelessness, of badgering and belittling, we are called to surround ourselves with words of kindness and care, of tenderness and truth, of sensitivity and strength.
It isn’t as easy as some might have you think. I am not speaking about the "power of positive thinking" or the age-old not-so-sage advice of "If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all."
The Christian life is a life of speaking. God spoke the world into being, and upon seeing creation, called it "good." In the beginning was this word and the Word, known to us in the flesh and bone and heart of Jesus Christ, God’s holy and precious word incarnate and invitational. The Christian life is one that completes finishes the sentence in a wholly – w-h-o-l-l-y and holy as in sacred way – "If you can’t say something nice, take a minute. Gather yourself. Remember who’s you are and to whom you belong. Now you’re ready. Now, you can begin to bless."
This morning marks the re-gathering of our Church School classes, of the gift of education in our congregational life. It is also the morning when we might heed James’ words and let them be written onto our hearts: we who teach are called to a life of springing forth fresh water, of living water, of sharing the good news and the welcome that comes from Christ. And when I say "we who are called to teach," I speak of you. Of all of you. This community, this covenant people are a faithful faculty – we are called to actively attempt and reattempt again and again to bless one another with our words, our choices, our actions. This is a day of recommitting to this important labor of love. To promise to seek out those who’s lives are filled to the brim with cursings and bless them. Bless their hearts. To promise to find the lost and walk together. To bless by accompaniment. To listen to the words of grief spoken and silenced. To bless by holding the heavy burdens of our sisters and brothers.
When the psalmist wrote this song we heard – let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer – she wrote of a fully-embodied life. It isn’t so obvious in English – it never is – but in Hebrew, oh, it is something worthy of explaining. The word used for "heart" – may the mediation of my heart – is one that means "the speaking organ" or basically – tongue. This life of belonging, of being part of a community, of being a covenant people, is one that requires and calls us to let our words bless and our hearts – our choices, our priorities, our actions – let our hearts bless, too. Let all that is in me, O God, she seems to sing, let all that is in me be devotion to you.
It seems only decent and in order, or rather – scripturally-sound – to offer a blessing to you, to us.
Bless our hearts, O God.
Bless our hearts with words that will alight our tongues and align our decisions.
Bless our hearts with the teachings of your word written and Word embodied.
Bless our hearts when cursings come and render us silent.
Bless our hearts so that when they break, these are the words that fall inside: you are loved, you are claimed, you are not alone.
Bless our hearts, O God. Amen.