Devotional Day 18
Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers, since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to rein in the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct the whole body as well. Look at the ships too: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are nevertheless directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot determines. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.James 3: 1-5a
Last Stop Before Santiago
We thought we had enough breakfast supplies after seeing the Italians showing their community spirit by leaving olive oil left over from their cooking, but in the morning discovered someone else had taken the whole bottle. Despite limited ingredients, we made scrambled eggs and headed out, long after just about everyone else. Many were hoping to get to Santiago the same day, or at least arriving to a stay at a nearby albergue. We were only going to the last remaining municipal albergue, only about 10 km away.
Having had no coffee, I felt lacking in energy. After an hour or so, and a short exploration of a church building, we stopped at a café for access to a restroom and caffeine consumption.
With that boost, the rest of the walk went very quickly, and we were once again the first to arrive at the albergue. With hours left before the doors opened and no town nearby, Dean went exploring, finding only one restaurant in the nearby vicinity. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the quiet, the greenery, and the time for writing about James’ words.
“what he says…”
What we say matters, both in how we present ourselves and the impact we have on others. James makes it clear that how well we manage our speech reflects how well we can control choices and actions overall. Many of our thoughts and emotions are immediate reactions to a situation, perhaps including the words of others. Thoughts can also be taken captive, but unlearning warped thoughts is often a very long process and may not be as visible on the outside.
What we let out through the tongue is what immediately influences others and their perception of us. The reality is that we all slip up at times, saying the wrong words or saying them the wrong way. The problem is that there is no delete button. While we can verbally correct ourselves or apologize for saying words in a way that sounds hurtful, judgmental, sarcastic, or even threatening, those words have already triggered the emotions or impacted the beliefs of the listener.
Warning the Teachers
James notes that teachers, or really anyone of influence, must be especially careful with their words. Many put trust in those words, assuming their expertise comes from solid training, making it accurate and well-grounded. In today’s Western world there is far more room for questioning and testing statements made, with an abundance of information and opinions easily accessible on the internet.
But in many cultures (possibly including James’ context), a teacher’s word is taken as truth, and the teacher feels an obligation to always have an answer to questions posed. This is particularly problematic when the teacher is not sure of the answer, but gives it anyway to meet the expectations. False information spreads like a virus, whether or not intentionally. As a teacher, particularly in places like Nigeria, one thing I modeled to my students was that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know; let’s learn about it together,” instead of giving my best guess as a fact.
Yet, you don’t have to be a teacher to influence others. Anyone who knows and respects you can be influenced by what you say, especially children, whose belief systems are in the formational stages. Controlling what comes out of our mouths shapes our relationships and our impact on others. Yet, too often we don’t make an intentional effort to “rein in” our words and deeds. How many times have we heard or said, “I was just joking,” or “I didn’t mean it” after a derisive comment slipped into the conversation. We must learn to differentiate between words that come to mind as a reaction and words that are authentic, truthful, and loving.
Assessing Our Words
What we say, how we say it, and why we say it need to be assessed at times. Am I speaking to make a good impression about myself or to encourage someone else? Are my critiques made to promote growth and truth, and thus said with grace, or are they made with disdain toward the individuals, or their “group,” their affiliations? Am I presenting knowledge about an issue with recognition of different perspectives and the support for both sides of the argument, or “cherry-picking” the details that align themselves with what I’d like to be true?
All of us will stumble at times with our words, but we can still make an effort to re-align the rudder to go the right direction. We often need to work on being more intentional about what we let come out and how it does so. Our words can build people up or tear them down, whether or not on purpose. The more we are aware of our own internal reactions, our thoughts before they reach the tongue, the more harm we can prevent. And by becoming more aware of the needs of others, we can be more intentional about choosing words that will be encouraging and beneficial.
On El Camino we have many “single” conversations, potentially going deep quickly, even if it is the only conversation we might ever have with that person. Every word counts. The typical introductory questions are, “Where are you from?” (often when hearing another language or accent) and something related to El Camino, what we all share in common. Is this your first time? Where did you start? How has it gone so far? Where are you spending the night?
Then conversation shifts to understanding each other’s context: what current place in life they are in and how that fits with their reason for walking the Way. Some are at significant junctions; some need a break from a long-lasting job. Some are finding ways to be with people, while others are trying to get away from people.
Thoughtful questions can help people feel safe and open up quickly, sharing their stories, their lives. Questions are powerful words. At the same time, we must also be ready to respond to whatever question is turned back to us, the classic, “What about you?”
So many times we’ve had meaningful discussions stemming from religious beliefs related to El Camino. First we listen, affirming what is significant, then share some of our own beliefs, never to prove theirs “wrong,” but often making room for including the Good News of the impact the relationship with God has had on our lives.
I’ve seen many times people are ready to listen openly once they have felt heard. One of the first volunteers we met at the albergue in Porto told of her departure from Ukraine because of the war and now not being able to return. Then she said, “Everyone else likes to talk. You actually listen.” Authentic, open conversations must be reciprocally listening and sharing, giving and receiving.
One More Night
Upon entry, the receptionist went through the paperwork of all those who had been waiting. Being the first to arrive, after giving my signature I went upstairs to scout the dorm rooms. Unfortunately, I was reprimanded because I’d failed to wait for her to give instructions to the whole group, not wanting to strain her voice. Of course I apologized profusely.
After looking around we discovered the kitchen had a stove, microwave, and fridge, but NO utensils or dishes (no pans, silverware, plates, cups… NOTHING!). So after the usual routine we went for dinner at the only restaurant, inviting a pilgrim from the Netherlands to join us. She had arrived shortly after us, and came along for some good conversation. Along the way she told us how she had started on the Northern Route, but after encountering horrible weather, took a bus to Porto and proceeded from there. For her, it’s unclear what lies ahead after completing El Camino.
We also met up with the fellow pilgrim from Germany that we’d seen a couple times, and had more opportunity to chat before attempting to go to sleep. Unfortunately, there were several people who didn’t seem to have any consideration for those around them, speaking loudly in the dorm room after most had already gone to bed. I was surprised that being so close to our destination, they had not yet become familiar with the norms of community living. Several people snoring that night also made sleep difficult. Perhaps the anticipation of what lay ahead the next day also contributed to wakefulness.
Thank You, Lord, for the gift of language, a valuable means of communication and expression. Help us to practice using this gift wisely, using words to bless others with encouragement and wisdom that comes from You. Make us more aware of where our words come from and the impact they have on others. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to You (Psalm 19:14).
- Think of a time when words came out that you later regretted. What kind of emotional reaction preceded those words?
- How often do unplanned words come from expressions of love and joy? How often do they come from anger or pain? When is it most difficult to control the tongue?
- Spend some time listening to Jesus, asking what He wants you to see about your own heart, the origin of your words.
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