So when my ten-or-so-year-old neighbor and best friend from childhood invited me to go with him and his father to their hunting camp, I was ecstatic. It did not matter to me that it was April and that there would be no hunting. Any chance to be near the place where regular hunting took place was a treat. It was a chance to be manly. We cut grass. We checked on deer feeders and salt and mineral licks. We cut down brambles and hauled heavy things. I worked hard, but loved every minute of it.
Late in the afternoon, while my friend and I were walking back to the main campsite, we practiced our curse words. It was very clear to us in those days that grown-up men liked to cuss and that it wasn’t right for us to be heard cussing. We threw out words we barely understood as if we wanted to impress the pine trees. After making that last turn toward the site where his father would be, my friend advised me, “Let’s stop cussing now. My dad’s just over there. We need to practice using clean language so we don’t get into trouble.” I happily agreed.
Unfortunately, plans don’t always work out as one anticipates. Just as we came up to where his father was sitting, as I was walking in full stride, a grasshopper jumped up from the ground and landed in my hand as my arm swung past my body. In that fragment of a moment, I had two instincts: 1) to close my hand around whatever had jumped into it and 2) upon realizing that I then held a living thing in my hand to drop it and scream out, “Oh shit!” At first I didn’t know what was worse—the bug or the word that had jumped from my mouth out into the very public open where my friend’s father heard it. As he started laughing, I knew everything would be ok.
In today’s epistle lesson (James 3:1-12), James writes that the tongue is a fire—“an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body.” He compares the tongue to a bit by which a horse is turned by its rider. He compares the tongue to a rudder by which a great ship is steered by its captain. As goes the tongue so goes the whole person. And my encounter with a grasshopper in the woods still reminds me that the bad news is that the tongue is a hard thing to control.
Pedagogically, it’s true. There is something about the language we use and the nature of our speech that sets our whole selves on a particular course. Using polite language, manners, and pleasant words shapes a person into the sort of person his or her mother would want him or her to be. Allow cussing, critical speech, and rudeness to pervade one’s conversation and the whole thing begins to collapse. We are right, it seems, to strive to control the uncontrollable tongue.
And that’s where the real lesson is. We can’t control it. It’s a fire that burns without limit. Our tongues utter gossip in the beauty parlor, racism in the country club, and hatred in the parking lot. We aren’t proud of that, but we often don’t even notice it. Once it starts it just goes and goes. Taming the untamable is about recognizing that spiritual discipline isn’t designed to achieve a goal. Unlike Buddhists, we don’t meditate and pray and keep silence in order to achieve enlightenment. We do all of those things just to center ourselves a little closer to God.
We are called to practice godly speech. More importantly, we are called to try to practice godly speech. It’s an opportunity for growth. If we put effort into shaping our speech into edifying, encouraging words, then the rest of our lives will follow suit. Well, sort of. Grasshoppers (and other things) happen. It’s the practice that matters.