There is a dramatic scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, during the council that will send Frodo on his errand to destroy the Great Ring, in which Gandalf tries to impress upon the gathered company the peril they face on account of the little “golden thing” lying before them. In the middle of the bright and peaceful safety of Rivendell, Gandalf utters in its original language — the language of Mordor — the script printed on this little ring, thus proving its identity as the “One Ring to rule them all”:
The change in the wizard’s voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears. “Never before has any voice dared to utter words of that tongue in Imladris [Rivendell], Gandalf the Grey,” said Elrond, as the shadow passed and the company breathed once more. (LOTR, 254)
The language of the Enemy, in the world of Middle-earth, has the power to cast a dark and bitter shadow over even the most peaceful habitation, to suck out in an instant the light and the hope that is native and natural to this Elf haven, where the weary sojourners from the Shire had found an ark of safety in the midst of an already tempestuous journey.
Words are powerful, and the task of speaking, therefore, is a perilous one. The spirit and the atmosphere of a habitation, the air its inhabitants breathe, depend in large measure on the kind of language that regularly abides there. Words of truth and honesty can bring clarity and understanding. Words of encouragement and compassion can strengthen and soothe. Words of thanks and praise can cultivate a spirit of celebration and adoration for the innumerable gifts God gives us. On the other hand, words of arrogance and envy, of spite and resentment, of contempt and scorn, all have the power to poison the air of a place that is supposed to be a calm harbor of safety, and to throw a dark gloom over its inhabitants.
No one know this better than St. James, whose New Testament epistle hits its readers with some of the most convicting passages in all of Scripture: “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (1:26). Or,
The tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. (3:5-6)
If “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” then anytime we find ourselves speaking in the language of the Enemy — the language that is envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude — then we are demonstrating all too clearly that our hearts still have at least one foot in Egypt (or Mordor, if you prefer), and we are introducing into our abode (whether our home, workplace, or church) the habits and patterns of thinking about the world that are native to that dark land.
God’s way of healing the world has been to speak forth his Word among a people of strange and deranged speech in order to call forth a new people fluent in the language of heaven. But the way to learn a language, the way for it to begin to make sense to you and to enable you to see the world through its lens, is to be “immersed” in it. The Church, then, is God’s “immersion program” in the language of heaven. It is right and good, therefore, that in the Church we learn to say prayers like: “Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips; let not my heart incline to any evil thing” (Ps. 141:3); or, “I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue” (Ps. 39:1).
These prayers remind us, moreover, that the language of heaven is about far more than the content of what we say. We ask God to bridle our hearts even as we ask him to watch our tongues, and we vow to keep watch over our ways as the sure means of predisposing our tongue to faithful speech. To “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), certainly does not mean that we will never speak a sharp and direct, even forceful word. What is at issue, rather, is the spirit with which we speak: “love, and say what you want,” to riff on Augustine. In the event, though, that we find ourselves uttering such sharp words, the way to be clear to ourselves and to others about the language we’re actually speaking is to be sure that those sharp words are set in the context of regular, deliberate, tangible, and sacrificial acts of love, care, and concern for those to whom the sharp words are directed. If, for example, you have to rebuke someone for being too controlling in the parish kitchen, then you better be there to say a prayer with them in the hospital before their surgery. (This, incidentally, is why it’s almost impossible to rebuke sin or engage in rational disagreement over the Internet: there’s rarely a wider context of concrete common life and therefore tangible acts of love to hold, frame, and relativize the disagreement — but that’s a soapbox for another post).
Making the Church a bright and peaceful habitation, an ark in the midst of the storms of this tempestuous world, is not (to state the obvious for Anglicans) about never having disagreement. It is rather about making the language we speak in this habitation the language of charity and mercy, and, if that language takes a turn towards the malicious, spiteful, sarcastic, contemptuous language of the Enemy, having the courage and the resolve to rebuke it.
Mac Stewart’s other posts may be found here. The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by Waiting for the Word. It is licensed under Creative Commons.