A Reflection on James 3:1-12 for the In-Between Time
by Rev. Laura Stern
We are living in the in-between time. We know there has been death and destruction in our state, on our coast, on the very beaches we have sun-tanned and body-surfed and built sand castles with our kids. We know there has been loss of life. We know that homes, schools, businesses, and parks have been forever changed.
But what we don’t know is what to do about it. We don’t know the extent of the destruction, the places worst hit; we don’t even know if and when the water will stop. There are still rivers that could rise or mudslides that could come or power outages that could continue.
Winston Churchill famously said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
In this end of the beginning stage, we need words – well-chosen, well-crafted, faithful words. We need words that are true and kind and grounded in the Word, our God.
We need our politicians, our leaders, and our media outlets to realize the power in their words.
James 3:3 reminds us that words motivate and direct. Just like a bit in the mouth of a horse or a rudder on a ship, words are those small, powerful pieces that move the greater whole.
If the messages we are receiving are all about a specific place, we are going to direct our recovery efforts toward that place. But what if it turns out, another town was more devastated than the one covered – a town that is less populated, less well-known, and less familiar to the rest of the state? What if that town doesn’t fit in the soundbite or has a funny sounding name or is populated by people with no clout or record of strong voter turnout? Will we hear about them?
I am not trying to make us paranoid. We have to trust our public officials and our media sources. But I do think James is issuing a universal warning to all those whose voices carry influence, to think through their words, admit their biases, do their homework, and move the people of North Carolina and beyond with words that are accurate, helpful, and true.
And the same goes for the religious pundits. After every natural disaster, there seems to be some religious figure, somewhere, who tries to say that the tragedy happened as a result of God’s anger at that particular community. Unfortunately, the churches that open their doors to evacuees, the early response teams, and the flood buckets all done in Jesus’ name, get overlooked, but that one so-called Christian voice, dripping with righteous anger and bad theology gets picked up everywhere.
James 3:1 says, “Not many should be teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Bible commentators are quick to note that James here is not talking about school teachers, but mentors, leaders, and all those who purport to know something. For those, James says, the bar is higher. The expectations are greater. The judgement … harsher.
So, I think that’s part of it. Those with influence need to watch what they say – especially in times like these.
But it is more than that. James’ words are also about the rest of us. As we wait in this in-between space, we might not be able to do much, but we can say things – say important things, faithful things, Christ-like things. We can share words of comfort, concern, and sympathy.
On Saturday night, I went to Mass at our neighborhood parish. I noticed an elderly man who often sits near us wearing a t-shirt. Now this struck me as odd as he tends to be one of the few people who really dresses up for evening Mass. He usually wears a button down shirt and slacks and one of those golfer caps, but tonight, he was wearing a t-shirt?! And then he turned around to pass the peace and I noticed…. the t-shirt said, “Wrightsville Beach.” It wasn’t even a spoken word, but a written word – a quiet, thoughtful, poignant sentiment – his body was at Mass in Raleigh, but his heart, his thoughts, and his prayers were at Wrightsville Beach.
That is the season we are in. I am sure, in a few days, maybe even a week, we will be sending out lists for flood buckets or hygiene kits and recovery teams, but right now, our response is in our words. Both collectively and individually, we can offer words of prayer, encouragement and support.
And again here, we too, need to choose our words carefully. There is a reason our Scriptures include Psalms of Lament – lengthy, detailed poems of anguish. Our words need to create space for people to grieve, doubt, and be angry at their situation. “Don’t worry, it will all be okay,” and “it was just stuff anyway,” might roll off our tongues easily, but are received as empty and meaningless. It’s okay, instead, to say, “It is unfair.” “It is hard.” “I am so, so sorry.”
And at this point, you might think this is a whole lot of Words on Words, not – as the title suggests A Word on Words, and you are right. But as a preacher, I am in the same camp as poets and songwriters, those who believe with all their hearts that words don’t just communicate, they change the world.