Friday, July 20, 2007

Words of Peace and Praise

We live in a world in which the quality of language is deteriorating. Many conversations are sprinkled, or even saturated with curses and other words that divide and dehumanize people. Profane language can be heard at school, work, and at entertainment events. "Trash talking" has become an accepted practice at professional sports events. Rude or disrespectful comments, under the disguise of honesty, are heard on television and radio, especially "talk" radio. They're also seen on bumper stickers, billboards, and even on some greeting cards. Some uncomplimentary language may be legitimate, especially if it's accurately documenting past event or conversation, but much is not. Language that passes for humorous today would have been labeled as unacceptably obscene a few decades ago. Many conversations, intentionally or unintentionally, carry an antagonistic tone. Young people today are frequently exposed to profanity.

Not as openly hostile, perhaps, but ultimately just as harmful, is the exclusive language, used in many churches, which recognizes only males. Like cursing and racist labels, it also divides and degrades people.

In contrast, the words associated with the birth of Jesus are words that comfort and uplift. "Do not be afraid," and "fear not," were spoken by angels to Joseph (Matt. 1:20) and to Mary (Luke 1:30). The intense fear of the shepherds, some of whom were probably teenagers, or even younger, was dismissed by the calming words of the angel: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Note the inclusiveness of the angel's message. The good news is "for all the people." No exceptions.

There was much to fear in those days. The lack of housing was a concern for the young couple. Soon Herod would be trying to kill their firstborn, similar to the way selfish and sinful governments today jeopardize the lives of young people by sending them off to war. But the divine messengers made a deliberate effort with wholesome and compassionate language, to comfort people and remove their fear.

Concern about language is found throughout the Bible. Matthew 5:37 tells us to keep it simple: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'..." The wisdom book of Proverbs has numerous references to speech. Perhaps the most sobering passage of all is Matthew 12: 36-37. "But I tell you that you will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word you have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

Words are powerful instruments of communication. Often our keenest memories are of words which brought either healing or hurt to our hearts. Harsh words are frequently a prelude to war. Soldiers use derogatory labels to dehumanize the enemy and make it easier to kill them. Of course the vast majority of war victims are not soldiers, but innocent civilians. In my work in a hospital emergency department, I frequently see patients injured in conflicts initiated or aggravated by harsh words or language. Such confrontations are sometimes fatal.

What can we do about this problem? It's important to remember that the words we use not only reflect our thinking, but also shape it. It's possible to change our thoughts and our behavior by changing the way we talk. Perhaps the main reason it's so difficult for women to gain equal status with men in many churches is because the language used still excludes them.

The temptation to use profane and divisive language or labels can be very persistent for youth and adults alike. How do we avoid the infectious nature of such talk? One solution is to simply quit listening to it.

Let's take our verbal cues from the angels on that first Christmas. They spoke words that dispelled fear and brought peace and comfort to the listeners. They also invited everyone to participate in the joyous celebration of the birth of the Savior.

We can improve our language with practice. It's easier to talk our way into a change of thinking than to think our way into a change of talking. Can you imagine a war continuing for long if the enemy troops started saying nice things about each other? Seeing every person as created in God's image, as a living picture of God, reminds us that from our mouths should come only words that bless. The language of those who celebrate the birth of Jesus should bring peace and hope to the world. Young people today are growing up in a lost world that echoes with divisive sounds of hate and hostility. The peaceful compassionate language of Christian youth can make their presence an oasis of comfort and hospitality for others this Advent and Christmas season.

Published in slightly different form in the October, 1999 issue of Builder

Christian Hope on Election Day

"Voting is a precondition for good government and therefore a major responsibility of good citizenship," according to a leaflet from the Secretary of State of Idaho, my state, encouraging people to vote on Election Day. As November approaches in the United States, the media bombards us with election propaganda. We've heard it all our lives. Long before they're old enough to cast a vote, children are told that when they reach 18 they have to vote on Election Day in order to be responsible citizens.

It's important to keep the act of voting in its proper perspective. Voting is neither a Christian nor a biblical way of making choices. It fails to take into consideration the needs and wishes of the minority, thereby disenfranchising large numbers of people on Election Day. Rarely does voting give power to the powerless or food and shelter to the hungry and homeless. Neither does it make the structure of our society more just.

It's difficult to find anything specifically about voting in the Bible, but the Bible does tell us something about responsible citizenship. In the Old Testament the chief defender of the nation was not the king with his armies, nor the participation of individual citizens in government, but the prophet who kept calling the people, including the king, to repentance. When they responded to that call the nation was saved. When they ignored it the country was doomed. Sodom was not destroyed because people failed to vote, but because God could not find at least ten righteous people living there.

In fact if the people in the Bible had voted, at least some of the time, it would have led them away from God. Can your imagine what the election results would have been if Moses had called for a vote to find out what the Israelites wanted to do when they were caught between the Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptians? How many would have voted to walk into the Red Sea?

In addition to living a righteous life, the best thing Christians can do for their country is consistently, fervently, and knowledgeably remember the nation and its leaders in prayer. James 5;16 says, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous person availeth much." How often has anyone been able to say that a vote they cast "availeth much?"

However many of us do vote and will continue to do so. Voting can be a small acceptable act that occasionally leads to minor, usually temporary, improvements. Selecting the best candidate is often difficult.

Perhaps the ideal candidate would be someone who could handle the job description mentioned in Ezekiel 22:30 - "I have been looking for someone among them to build a wall and man the breach in front of me, to defend the country and prevent me from destroying it. " The people had sinned and their sins were threatening to destroy them. A righteous person was needed to help defend the nation, not with military violence or power, but as Moses did when the Israelites sinned by worshipping a golden calf for which God said he was gong to destroy them. Moses pleaded for their lives and, according to Psalms 106:23, "stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them."

That is perhaps the greatest accomplishment any leader can strive for - to be a God-fearing, compassionate, righteous person who leads a nation toward God. To be one who can honestly respond to the mandate in Matthew 25, one who has helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison. A good leader is one who has the ability to plead to God for another chance if a nation's sins threaten to self-destruct and destroy them.

Moses handled that assignment. In the New Testament, Paul offered his life and soul for the sins of the people. More than anyone Jesus stood in the breach and protected us from our own sins. By living righteous lives all of us help protect our nation from the destructive effects of its sins.

It might seem mildly optimistic to think that we can find candidates who are able to handle such an assignment. Perhaps our biggest responsibility is to pray that God will change our leaders, regardless of who they are, into God-fearing, biblically obedient individuals who will be able to bring about positive changes in our nations. Even though this may seem unlikely, if we pray and share our faith we have a right, perhaps even an obligation, to be hopeful. God can bring about dramatic changes in people. Remember that both Moses and Paul were murderers before they became great leaders.

Previously published in slightly different form in the October 16, 1990 issue
of Gospel Herald.