Monday, May 23, 2011

Salty Speech

At St. John’s, we have a midweek bible study that meets on Wednesdays at noon. For the most part, the people who come are a very faithful group of people—7 or 8 that we see just about every week. Although we always enjoy newcomers (the group has grown slowly but steadily over the last few years), we usually see the same people each week. They are some of the deepest thinkers that I regularly spend time with, and I absolutely love and respect them. In fact, they push me in a helpful way to stretch and offer classes that challenge me as well as them. Unlike most of my other teaching opportunities, this group is particularly collaborative. And right now, in an attempt to satiate our collective hunger for new theological exploration, we’re studying prison literature.

As I’ve mentioned in our bible study, I don’t really know where this class will go. I’m hoping that we’ll discover together some ways in which Paul’s “prison epistles” (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon) illuminate some of the same themes as other famous and not so famous letter from prison (King, Bonhoeffer, More, etc.). I’m not sure all of today’s New Testament reading (Colossians 3:18-4:18) is in the syllabus, but one verse from it is just the kind of observation I’m hoping our series will identify: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”

Honestly, I don’t initially know what that means—to season one’s speech with salt. The image it brings to mind is the kind of salty talk one might get from a sailor, but I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind (though I wish I had known this verse back when I was a teenager—might have gotten me out of some trouble). My best guess is that Paul is encouraging us not to let a single word be wasted—that every single utterance should be carefully chosen and designed to have greatest evangelistic effect.

And I imagine that that’s the kind of thing someone in prison appreciates more than the rest of us. Paul is in fetters. He probably senses that the end of his life is quickly approaching. Certainly, the active, travelling portion of his ministry is behind him. Although we can’t be sure, I think it’s worth wondering, imagining, how Paul felt in that circumstance. How many speeches he had given, how many letters he had written, how many conversations he had had—and to look back and reflect on whether any word was out of place. That’s the sort of thing that I cannot appreciate on my own. I need someone like Paul—someone who endures the challenge of confinement unto the end of his life—to help me understand.

There are lots of times when someone tells me something I can’t appreciate because I haven’t experienced it: “Your children will grow up so fast. Make the most of it.” or “Grandchildren are the greatest gift in the world.” or “There are some pains that nothing can heal.” And I think the hyper-experience of prison produces insights that are true for all of us even if we don’t also share that experience. And this seems to be one of them: words shouldn’t be wasted. They are precious because time is precious. So what do you want to say? What should I say? Whom have I lost touch with? What can I do to nourish every opportunity for godly speech?

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