GOD IS DOING A NEW THING: Language Matters

“Our first objective will be the development of self-restraint. This carries a top priority rating. When we speak or act hastily or rashly, the ability to be fair-minded and tolerant evaporates on the spot. One unkind tirade or one willful snap judgment can ruin a relationship with another person for a whole day, or maybe a whole year. Nothing pays off like restraint of pen and tongue.”
– Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 91

My children make me proud to be their Papa. As they live into their young adult lives, each of them seems to be listening to their hearts, and they have each found good companions for their journey into adulthood. They inspire me. But there are moments.

One of those moments during my son’s high school years was the day I had to go to the principal’s office about something he was doing in class: winning every argument. Even his teachers said they lost their debates with him. There was a part of me – I’ll call it my “inner father” – that whispered, “YES! All RIGHT! You GO, son!” Debate is an art, and while I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be, he was perfecting some kind of gift he had been given, at a time in his life when, everywhere he turned, the multi-media of messages told my teenage son how imperfect and inadequate he was. So there he was, trying not to mislead others with his silence, speaking his truth in the best way he knew how. It’s just that…he didn’t know when and how to restrain himself. Not just yet.

A memorable moment in his stewardship of debate took place in a more public performance. The annual Gay Pride parade had come to town, and a group now known for picketing military funerals – who are, I would argue, still stuck, all these years later, in their own version of adolescence – was standing on the sidewalk. A dozen or so protesting adults were joined by teenagers and a few small children. One boy held a sign that said, “God’s Hate is Great.” My son approached that boy and said something like, “You know, you don’t have to believe or say what your parents believe or say. You can be different.” The angry adults standing near that boy and my son began to catch on to what was perhaps my son’s finest, most purely unrestrained behavior. They came toward him, wielding their signs, and he walked away.

More than a decade has passed since that day. My son has begun to learn when and how to back off. He has been learning that proper restraint, practiced over time, can also be a powerful way to change lives. He and I are alike, because we are both lifelong students. We both still have some things to learn about restraint before we grow up.

As grown-up citizens of a democracy and especially as mature people of faith, we need to keep learning when to speak and when to fall silent, especially in times of stress and transition in our lives. A longtime spiritual teacher of mine puts it this way:

“If I were asked for two words to summarize the habits of the heart American citizens need in response to twenty-first century conditions, chutzpah and humility are the words I would choose. By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to” the other,” as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction. Humility plus chutzpah equals the kind of citizens a democracy needs. There is no reason, at least no good reason, why our number cannot be legion.”
(an excerpt from Healing the Heart of Democracy:
A Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. © 2011 Parker J. Palmer)

One way recovering alcoholics practice humility is through the “restraint of pen and tongue.” This is, of course, a spiritual practice from which we can all benefit. Exercising restraint – trying to be humble, truly listening with respect – is a way to create more life and health, as citizens and believers. Isn’t that what we truly want?

I have come to believe that the true measure of health in a family or a church, not to mention a country, is the degree to which that community or family will tolerate outrageous behaviors. For example, in healthy families, parents are not afraid to set appropriate boundaries for their children. No parent in her or his right mind would allow a toddler to play in the street, eat candy for breakfast, or look at pornography. Likewise, the healthier a church gets, the less tolerant people become of someone who “acts out” their unreflective, unrestrained, adolescent anger. “Work it out, or you’ll act it out” is a simple way to remember this truth.

As a parish priest, I participate in countless conversations. I read a lot of what people write. More and more I hear and see what I believe must be named as outrageous, sometimes death-dealing “language behaviors.” These categories of UN-restrained pen and tongue are things like: letters or blogs, sometimes anonymous, that demand the removal of a leader; angry e-mails, forwarded to innocent parties without anyone’s permission; damaging rumors or innuendoes, injudiciously, insensitively or unconsciously spread. More and more of us have become the object of some or all of these behaviors. More and more, in our 21st century wireless, connected world, it is hard for us not to fall into an occasional, unrestrained rant. (Or at least some whining. I love this light-hearted response to whining: “Would you like some cheese with that whine?”)

Today and every day, we need to ask God to help us “grow into the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We need to learn “the wisdom to know the difference” between chutzpah and humility. Will you help me with this work? Won’t you join me?

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