Benediction Online

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Power of language

“In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, echoing the very beginning of Genesis. “In the beginning…” when God created the world, not with his hands, not by using a tribe of elves but through his word – God said Let there be light, and there was light (Gen.1:3). God’s word is powerfully creative.

And we are made in God’s image with powers of language which are also deeply creative. Almost everything we do starts with thought.  We use language to express thought.

In today’s New Testament reading, in fiery language, James warns us about the power of words. This is perhaps even more relevant today than it was then. Just this week we have seen the effects of someone using his creative abilities of language and image through film to insult Muslims across the world. This was not just idle gossip, this was carefully planned using actors and filmed last year, released just at the anniversary of 9/11. Intentional hate speech.

We see speech being used in more subtle ways to condemn and deride every day in the election campaign. Words are twisted, actions interpreted. Our world depends on language and its skillful use brings power. But does it bring human flourishing? Are our souls uplifted and sustained by this use of language? I don’t think so.

That is our challenge. As followers of Jesus we want our language to sustain and uplift, to be full of the Spirit of God. This is not something someone else can do for you, because language starts in the mind, or as the Bible would say, in the heart.

We are influenced by what we hear and see – because we are inherently creative, what we focus on increases. When we listen all day to diatribes against this person or that idea, when we read magazines which constantly lampoon or criticize, we are feeding our minds a diet of disdain and scorn. It’s not surprising when that scorn starts to come out of our own mouths.  For most of us, there’s enough bitterness and fear and criticism already on our hearts without adding to it.

In Philippians, the apostle Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil 4:8) Cleaning up our language starts with cleaning up our thoughts. If we are compassionate in our minds, forgiving ourselves and forgiving each other, then we will be compassionate in our speech as well.

Language is creative. What we speak, so we create.

I’m not saying that we can say “let there be chocolate cake” and lo there is chocolate cake – language operates at a different level of creativity.  We may think or say, “let there be chocolate cake” and a few minutes or a few hours later – depending on whether we go to the store or whether we bake it from scratch, lo there is chocolate cake. The cake started with the thought about the cake. Language preceded the cake.

So our thoughts and our words create the climate within which actions happen. If you want to change the course of a river you have to change the riverbed. Our thoughts are like the river bed. If we want to become more Christ-like and know the peace of God in our lives, we have to change the riverbed of our thoughts.

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil 4:8)

In the Gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Not who am I? but who do you say that I am? Jesus is not having an identity crisis. He knows who he is – but he wants to hear what the disciples are saying about him. Because it’s important in their own spiritual growth that they are beginning to understand more about who he is and what is entailed in following him.

And then he goes on to teach them. He, Jesus, must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed and rise again. Then he turns to the crowd and says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

On the face of it, being one of his disciples doesn’t sound like a plan for peace and prosperity, does it?

This is a particularly important reading for us, especially as we celebrate our 25th anniversary as the people of God gathered as St Benedicts, Los Osos, because Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching about carrying our crosses is the reading set for St. Benedict’s day. How can we understand taking up and carrying our crosses?

If the reason that Jesus suffered and died was because he stood against the power of the sin matrix which everyone else was caught up in, and allowing himself to be crucified, apparently giving up his power, was a nonviolent response to the anger and the hatred of the world, then for us to take up our cross must also be a nonviolent response to the anger and hatred of the world, and the anger and hatred that we carry within us.

In that light, we can see “Take up thy cross” as not heading out to darkest Africa or putting up with an unpleasant relative, or living cheerfully with physical pain and suffering… though it may mean those things. But primarily, it is standing up against anger and hatred. Which are expressed in language.

Taking up our cross means changing our own thought patterns. That may lead us to outer actions – just as “let there be chocolate cake” will lead to a series of actions before chocolate cake appears, so “let there be compassion” will also lead to action. But the primary change comes inside.

It is a lifelong process of inner healing – of replacing anxiety, anger and hurt with gentleness and love.  It is a process that may lead us into therapy, or to meditation, or to spiritual reading, or to delving into our dreams or our artwork. Sometimes it means saying “no” to our own negativity – noticing the thoughts and saying “I’m not going there”. Sometimes it means choosing not to listen to other’s negativity. It is a process that will be challenging and often painful. It is a process that the Holy Spirit will lead you into once your clear intention is to change the riverbed of your thoughts in order to follow Christ.

Even as we are praying and pondering and changing our own thoughts it is essential to engage in compassionate action. “Fake it till you make it” is an important teaching. Our actions affect our thoughts. The two go hand in hand. Service to others is a vital part of countering the sin matrix which wants us to think that when someone else is helped, there is less for us.

Each one of us is equally loved. God’s outrageous and exuberant love embraces each one of us equally. When we give, we are taking part in the act of unconditional giving which is at the heart of God.

And really that’s what all this is about. We are not taking up our crosses and working to change the thoughts and worries of our hearts and minds just because we should, just because James tells us to, just because it’s our Christian duty. No, we are doing these things because deep down we long to be one with God.  As St Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.”

We were made to be Christ-like. We were made to have our hearts set on fire by the love of God. We were made to participate in the life of the Godhead. That is when we will be completely fulfilled – when we are participating with the Trinity in the way we were created to – humanity and God together in praise, joy and creativity.

Let us take up our cross and remember who are.


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