There is the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It was considered an “old adage” in one of its first known appearances in an African Methodist Episcopal Church newsletter of 1862. It appears to have the intention of helping children not to take the bait when they are being bullied or taunted. And perhaps, in that setting, it may be helpful. But it would never have been an adage on the tongue of Jesus’ brother, James! To James, our words are like wildfire, causing so much destruction from a little spark.
I have spent a lot of time with this third chapter of James. During summer camp around fifth grade, the assignment for all campers was to memorize this entire chapter and to be able to recite it to our cabin counselor by the end of the week. We were given a half hour period every morning to be by ourselves with this chapter, to reflect on it and to put it to memory. Other activities for the week centered around this chapter, from campfire talks to devotions to theme games for the afternoon competitions. Clearly, the camp planners took to heart James’ warning that the tongue is a fire, capable of a world of evil.
Those taunts and bullying words, which occasioned the creation of this little nursery rhyme, had their effect, even though children may have steeled themselves against them. Taunting words exploded in race riots in the 20th century. Bullying has torn apart whole communities, when the bullied ones finally explode and shoot their classmates. Our rhetoric about being right and others wrong, has led to persecution and torture of the LGBTQ community, the abuse of women and children in the home, and wide-spread racial oppression. One only needs to read the newspapers to know that the tongue is an instrument of destruction, beyond calculation. Wars, race riots, school shootings, broken hearts, damaged lives.
But when we look at the destructive power of words at a world level, it seems beyond our ability to make a difference. James did not believe it was impossible. I am sure he got this from Jesus, who taught that we could make a difference. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount outlines some basic practices, which if followed, would change the world into the Kingdom of God. Healthy communication, or use of words, is central to the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (vss 1-2).
Strong words from Jesus, but then James’ words sound harsh to our ears. Martin Luther thought that the letter of James did not belong in the Bible. He said he would like to start his stove with the letter of James! James just says: Do it! Luther did not see any grace in this. But James vehemently makes his case that those who have experienced the grace of God will live their lives differently. So, control your tongue. Your words reveal the evil which is in your hearts. You can’t fake it. So give all those desires back to God, submit yourselves to God, and you will be full of the wisdom which comes from heaven.
This is all really wonderful instruction. All true. But how do we do it? How? Simply agreeing that something is good or true does not empower us to live it. The actual experience of the Holy Spirit within us, changing us from the inside out, is the only way. McLaren says, “If you want to be a mature agent in the movement of the Spirit in our world, conspire with the Spirit in your choice of every single word.” This is why McLaren focuses so much of his book on life in the Spirit; why Jesus said, “It is better for you if I go away, so that the Spirit will come (John 16:7);” and “when the Spirit comes, you will do greater things than I have (John 14:12).”
So how do we tame our tongues? First, by being filled with the love and power of the Holy Spirit. One of the most important ways the Spirit moves us to care for people is to want to control our tongues. The truth is, you will never regret leaving an unkind word unspoken. You will never regret speaking an encouraging word to someone who is weak and vulnerable. But do we notice the people we could serve in this way? The overworked person at the customer service counter with a line of dissatisfied people, the young parent with a fussy baby on an airplane, the server juggling a mad rush at the restaurant, the gardener or housekeeper with the routine tasks of keeping our public spaces beautiful and orderly? How much might a word from you, who noticed their pain, mean to them? How many opportunities do we miss every day to bless another with our words?
This is the first way to learn to tame the tongue – to keep it busy blessing others, so that there is no room for cursing or judging.
Perhaps the toughest skill to learn in taming the tongue is to learn to stop it. Literally – Pause and say nothing. Let your heart notice what is around you. Pay attention, sense the Spirit’s nudge. Then remember your intention to bless everyone in this world. Only then are you ready to speak the words the Spirit gives.
There are practices we can put into our lives which will guide us. A few years ago I came across the work of Marshall Rosenberg who developed a communication practice he calls, “nonviolent communication,” or NVC for short. I recommend it to all of you. This practice is a way of bringing peace and reconciliation to all of our human interactions.
To live in order to bless, as we talked about last week, is a guiding principle of this work. Rosenberg puts it this way: “Speaking peace… is giving and receiving messages that center on two very important questions: What’s alive in me? and What can I do to make life more wonderful?”  This is exactly what we have been talking about. What is alive in me? The Holy Spirit. Pay attention to that life moving within you. What can I do to make life more wonderful? Well, that is the intention to move through life to bless all things. If we lived our life always asking these two questions, our lives and the world would experience more peace.
There are four components to the NVC process. I want to introduce them to you today as a way to practice taming the tongue.
1. Observe: The first thing to do is to learn to observe life without judging. When an encounter gets our attention, pause. Do not judge. Simply observe. This grows from the root of Jesus’ teaching – judge not that you be not judged (Mt. 7:1). The first thing we must learn to do is to observe what happens around us without attaching our assumptions or judgments to what is occurring.
A high school senior had the humiliating experience of her boyfriend’s friends telling her that he was dumping her for someone else. She walks home a circuitous path, in a daze of hurt, anger, a broken heart. When she walks in the door, her father barks, “Why are you home from school so late young lady?” Unable to adjust to his demanding question, she walks by him without saying a word. “Don’t you walk away from me! You are nothing but trouble, you know that? Go to your room right now.”
This kind of communication is more common that we know! Did either one pause, take a breath, become aware of the Spirit’s presence? What might have changed if they had developed this practice?
2. Identify Feelings: After we have observed something, the next task is to identify emotions or sensations we are having, still without assuming we know the story behind the occurrence. Our own feelings, not those of the other.
It can take a lot of practice to be able to identify our feelings. One skill I have tried to practice is to pay attention to what my body is doing – did my heart rate quicken? Did my stomach do a somersault? Did my skin flush? These are all clues that I am having a feeling. I need to pay attention. Go into that feeling. Work it around. Try different words for it, until I can identify one or more feelings I am having.
I have on my refrigerator a magnet which shows 30 faces drawn to show different feelings, named below each face. I have stood there many times and looked at all those feelings. Often the one I am experiencing isn’t there, but having those 30 choices helps me to sort it out. It may be just as much from the pause to stand there and reflect. The point is that I need to identify the feeling in me. It is my feeling, not something someone did to me. This process helps me to reflect on whether I am experiencing my needs as met or unmet.
So the same high school senior walks in the door, slowly, quietly, closes the door with a heavy sigh. The father pauses. This is not the norm for his happy, bouncy daughter. He notices that his stomach tightens. There is a feeling. Fear. Worry. Something is wrong. How would he step into this situation differently when he has noticed his feeling?
3. Identify Needs: Everything we do is in service of our needs. Most of us don’t think in terms of our needs in a tense situation. Rather, we are accustomed to thinking about what is wrong with the other when our needs are not being met. Keep our attention on what we can know – our own feelings, not the other’s.
The father had been sitting there with his own bad news from the doctor that day. He needed comfort, reassurance that things would be all right. In that context, he needed things to be predictable. His daughter’s lateness did not meet his legitimate need for security. As he identifies what need was not being met in his daughter’s lateness, he can express himself more honestly. He might get up, look at her, reach out and put his hand on her shoulder: I am glad you are home. I was feeling worried. Same situation, a very different encounter. An encounter with the possibility of making a powerful, loving connection.
4. Request: Only now are we ready to make a request. Once we have identified what we need in the situation, we can move to a request. It is a request, not a demand. A request is open to hearing a response of “no” without this triggering an attempt to force the matter; a demand is not open to “no.”
The father’s request was made as a demand: go to your room (what he didn’t say is, where I can feel secure knowing where you are). A true request might invite a conversation. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it? And then, he might add a request around his own need. When you are ready, I have some news I would like to talk with you about, too. There is no demand in this, but an invitation to connect.
Whole books are written on this process, and I am no expert. But I hope that there has been something in this that can help us build a practice for taming the tongue. James is so strong because there is nothing easy about this! It is a life-long practice. If we can just take the first step – stop our tongues and sense the Spirit – we will be off to a good beginning.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer (Psalm 19:14).
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, p. 238.
 Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003) and Speak Peace in a World of Conflict (2005).
 Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, p. 9