“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!”
Do you remember learning this rhyme on the playground, perhaps being taught it as a response to name-calling? It’s an old rhyme, with one of the earliest citations of it found in a March of 1862 issue of The Christian Recorder, a periodical published by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The article insisted that:
true courage consists in doing what is right despite the jeers and sneers of our companions[i].
It referenced the popular rhyme as an old adage, one that had been around for a while and had stood the test of time, likely due to its sage wisdom as well as recurring need to hear it. For as much as we nod along and repeat it, we know it to be a truth that pushes against our reality; namely, words can hurt – deeply. And this is true whether they are intended as weapons, spoken without much thought at all, or even voiced in honesty.
Our text for this morning from the letter to the Ephesians zeroes in on the importance of words and speech we use within the Christian community. The premise is relatively simple and straightforward; we are to speak truthfully to one another. Authenticity in speech is what binds the community together. Without it, we will certainly fail. But with it comes a risk, which quickly follows in verse 26. The truth is sometimes going to be messy. It gets intertwined with anger and bickering, gossip and bitterness, and all sorts of other things. Sound about right? The classic example of this, of course is that no-win question “does this dress make me look fat?” But more than just the need for carefully worded answers, words matter to us because alongside the belief that we are to be honest with each other, we are conditioned with being “nice” – almost to a fault. At times, the two seem at odds. In the South, we couch this by adding phrases like “bless her heart.”
In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving identifies this as one of the reasons having conversations about race is so difficult. She reflects on the ways in which her upbringing in New England taught her to sweep things under the rug and avoid many topics, particularly racial or controversial ones, because they were things “we just don’t talk about.” Avoidance becomes a marker of success. And somewhere in the midst of that, the ability to speak truth at times gets pushed to the back, because it would most certainly result in feelings of judgment or anger. Irving notes that:
The culture of niceness provides a tidy cover, creating a social norm that says conflict is bad, discomfort should be avoided, and those who create them mark themselves as people who lack the kind of emotional restraint necessary to hold positions of power. Another vicious cycle[ii].
This means that important conversations got ignored, and those without power are silenced. It’s one manifestation of injustice, and it moves us farther away from the instructions to the Ephesians.
So how do we get out of such a cycle, and into the framework where we instead “speak the truth”? In 1992, MTV debuted a show with the following tagline:
Seven strangers picked to live in a house . . . and have their lives taped . . . to find out what happens . . . when people stop being polite . . . and start getting real.
The Real World ran for 32 seasons (!), and essentially was a study in what it meant to be in community together. These strangers, as they got to know each other and built relationships, soon realized that they didn’t all agree on, well, practically anything sometimes. And yet, they were forced together in this microcosm environment where they had to figure it out. Drama and conflict made for compelling television and somewhat manipulated storylines. To be sure, it was often pretty ugly.
I think, though, there’s room for a bit of a parallel with the church and this passage from Ephesians. We have been picked to live in this “house,” the church – called by Christ (remember, the first three chapters of Ephesians captures this gift of grace in a nutshell), and now are called to make something of it. Eventually, the “nice” is going to wear out. No doubt the early church felt that, with mounting pressures and persecutions. And the writer of Ephesians, likely a contemporary or student of Paul’s, is writing about what happens when things start to get real.
Now, hear me out on this – I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to be respectful and polite. Watching our words absolutely means paying attention to how we phrase things to one another, including an awareness that not all words or terms are appropriate. This is critical if we want to advance conversation and truly get to the heart of what matters to us. But sometimes, we get lazy about our words and simply choose to stay quiet, which can get in the way of our truth telling, and serves simply to avoid conflict. And when we do that, I think we fall short of the kind of community that Ephesians references, because we miss the opportunity to address the truths that we are called as children of God, to speak to our neighbors. Debby Irving continues:
Ignoring feelings and trying to smooth them over with pleasant chitchat only promises to hold people back from allowing their hearts to join their minds in recognizing injustice when it’s right in front of them, or even inside them[iii].
When we start to bottle these things up, they can lead to resentments between us and tension in our relationships. This happens between friends and spouses, within groups and communities, and even on a bigger scale in our society. In fact, I would offer that it’s been happening for quite some time now in our country. It is an understatement to say we live in divisive times, where tensions are high. Words are cutting like swords. Name-calling is rampant. In fact, sometimes that’s as far as it gets before things escalate. Instead of speaking truth to one another, many are simply content to throw out labels and slogans that separate us from our neighbors, even when we know those stereotypes are a lie. Because they are, right? That’s the entire nature of stereotypes – they’re oversimplified images or ideas about a person or thing; the do not tell the whole story, the whole truth about any individual. Consider that for a moment. Words like “conservative” or “Republican” or “liberal” or “Democrat” do not define any one person or even one group. Why, then, are we letting those take such a hold on us? What would it look like for us, as the church, to speak the truth to our neighbors about these divisions? Or even to speak the truth to ourselves about them and the ways in which they are coloring how we see one another? We might just stumble back into Ephesians, with the reminder that “we are members of one another” (verse 25). As such, we are called to do more than throw out labels in anger. That makes room for evil to work. Instead, we are called to a different way of being.
Ephesians acknowledges that speaking the truth will lead to anger and conflict, but it does not leave us there. Instead, it gives us some practical advice for how to make it through it. Verse 29 tells us “let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” At first, this might remind us of the advice from the classic Disney movie, Bambi, where the rabbit Thumper recounts advice from his mother, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” But considering this in the context of a passage about speaking the truth, we can’t be satisfied with mere silence and avoidance; that’s how we end up in the “culture of niceness,” that gets us nowhere. Instead, we might take a step back, and consider that our words matter, and find a way to offer constructive criticism to one another in love.
One of my seminary courses was on group dynamics, and my professor, much to our chagrin, harped on a concept known as “The Awareness Wheel,” forcing us to use its cycle with almost every comment we made in class. It is especially helpful in conflict, because it focuses on sensory data and “I” statements that remain focused on the core issue. It goes something like this:
- State your observation “I sense” -or “When I see/hear”
- Reflect on your thoughts, “I think . . .”
- Name your feelings, “and I feel. . .”, identifying the core emotion at play.
- Identify what you want to happen, “I want,” and finally
- Make a commitment to what you might do to achieve that purpose, “I will. . .”
Truthfully, most of us absolutely hated the Awareness Wheel. It even became a running joke to work into lunchroom conversations. Equally as truthful? It’s totally helpful in conversation particularly when things are tense. It’s a tool I use with couples preparing for marriage and groups in conflict. And when I’m at my best communicating, I employ it in my own life. It’s also helpful in navigating toddler tantrums when you need to keep your sanity. But most of all, I think it points to the kind of grace-filled speech that Ephesians is getting at. This passage reminds us that it’s not about avoiding the tough conversations; it’s about engaging in them faithfully and well, so that we are working towards reconciliation and building each other up.
In school, we might have been told to “watch your words.” This is more than just a reminder not to curse or say hate-filled theme. It’s a call to speak with intention. To put aside the things that are laced with anger and bitterness and spitefulness and instead seek kindness, which I would argue is distinct from the niceness we talked about earlier. As one friend put it, “kindness is telling a friend, or even stranger, who is leaving the restroom that her dress is tucked into her underwear; niceness is not saying anything because you don’t want to embarrass her.”
Kindness is not ignoring the difficulty of conflict and disagreement; kindness is being willing to work through it together. That leads us to an openness to forgiveness, made possible not because we possess superhero type powers of forgetfulness, but because we live in an awareness of the gift of grace that comes in remembering that God has forgiven us through Jesus Christ. This is what gives us the confidence and competence to attempt to forgive each other, and is what can become the work of reconciliation. God who has made us members of one another in Christ, seeks that we follow in his footsteps, that we might become imitators of our Savior himself, and live in the love he first showed to us. It always starts and ends with God. In between are the words we say to one another. May we be attentive to them, take on the bold task of truth-telling and hard conversations with each other, and find ourselves living in love as Christ’s community is built up even now. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
August 12, 2018
[ii] Debby Irving, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, (Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press, 2014).
[iii] Debby Irving