Choose Your Words Wisely

In a recent retreat session, I learned some valuable lessons from the one and only Rev. Tom Laney. Some of you Belle Meade folks might know who I am talking about. I wonder if you know that I first met Tom at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I’ve heard he is the “conflict guy,” a trusted, go-to, calming presence in the midst of turmoil. Thus, it didn’t surprise me that he was called into this retreat to talk about conflict management.

There are several snippets from his teaching that have stuck with me. One was: “Do not fill lack of information in with negative information or negative intention.” In other words, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you don’t know everything. Perhaps there is a backstory. Perhaps people aren’t out to get you!

Another was to be cognizant of your verbal weapons. When you’re tired, stressed, hungry, or frustrated, what are your verbal darts? Are you condescending? passive aggressive? sarcastic? Once you have identified your weapon, how do you keep it from firing away?

As I listened to Rev. Jim Hughes preach the 8:30 service this past Sunday, I saw the connection between Tom’s advice and Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 5:38-41, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” 

As Jim suggested, we are in the business of nonviolent resistance. Jesus did not return violence for violence. Rather in his bodily resurrection and teaching, Jesus displayed how the power for life overcomes the death-dealing forces of violence. And though we often think about nonviolent resistance in physical terms, our hateful speech and anger-infused social media posts may need to be evaluated.

Are you using your verbal weapons to yell your truth or are you thoughtfully and lovingly crafting challenging sentences in a way that leads to critical thinking and action?

Jesus goes on to say: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

When Jim read these words on Sunday, I wondered who I would call an enemy. Someone who doesn’t believe what I believe? Someone who I believe is misguided in their interpretation of who Jesus really was and thus uses that Jesus to condemn? Who do I have hateful feelings towards? Can I really learn to love them?

I hope the answer is yes. As Jim pointed out, a better way to understand “perfect” in this text is maturity. As we grow closer to Jesus, we become more mature, soundly responding in the way he would have responded. So I hope that as I grow with God, I will acquire an emotional maturity that helps me: hear someone out even when I disagree with them, keep my verbal weapons in check, and resist the desire for retaliation— in word or deed. For this is the way of Jesus, and it is the way I want to follow.

Rev. Sam McGlothlin