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Do Your Words Grow Healthy or Toxic Landscapes?

I have been trying to evolve an ecology of speech throughout Lent, a way with words that is hospitable to life.

This includes learning to talk and to be silent at the right times and places, being careful to remember the capacity of words to have an afterlife once they have fallen into the soil of our own or other people’s lives.

I’ve been asking myself: “Do my words create a fertile, balanced humus in which new life can germinate and flourish?”

Once you start looking in the Bible for clues and commandments about how to speak and listen, how to use words and not abuse people, once you are attuned to the words of a God who speaks in the word and wisdom of Jesus Christ, and in the words of Scripture, then you begin to notice just how much of Christian obedience depends on a spirituality of words and an ethic of speaking.

What is said, thought and heard in all the speaking, conversing and silences of a community creates an ethos, forms an environment, which either promotes a healthy ecosystem or seeps toxins into the landscape of our lives.

The connection between speech and human flourishing is woven throughout Psalm 19, a Torah psalm that celebrates the word and words of God.

The hymn to creation in verses 1-6 compels the move from introspection to wonder, pushes the horizons of our chronic self-preoccupation outward into the infinite geometry of the heavens that declare the glory of God, contradicting those default assumptions that place us at the center of things.

The four parallel couplets in verses 1-4 link speech to creation, and creation to doxology.

Our speaking is a faint and far away echo of creation’s praise, our words but the incidental shuffling of a foot or two, in an audience overwhelmed by a symphony orchestra blazing out the thunderous climax of Gounod’s Sanctus from the Messe Solenelle de Sainte Cecilia.

According the psalmist, the truth and reality of God the creator is heard in the hum and harmony of the heavens.

So all our words and sentences, our serious speaking and most casual or intimate conversations, our truth telling and lies, complaints and prayers, the whole orchestrated cacophony of our lifetimes of speaking, take place against the timeless rhythms and cadences of the hymn of the universe, orchestrated by the creator.

As that wise skeptical commentator on human foolishness said, “God is in heaven, you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5.2).

Psalm 19 encourages us to shut up long enough to hear what’s going on all around us, and without our say so, usually without our even noticing. And if we shut up long enough we will hear creation’s praise.

What I find impressive in verses 3 and 4 is the eloquence of creation through the absence of speech, words and sound, a paradox so powerful it calls in question our own addiction to the sound of our own voices.

The body language of creation demonstrates the glory and generosity, the imagination and purpose, the creativity and wisdom of the God who has made all that is, and sustains it by his word.

An ethic of language may have to include a willingness to examine not only our words but also our body language, our nonverbal communication.

What would Christian witness look like if the gospel was demonstrated by our body language, if Jesus was spoken in our ways of relating and communicating to others by generous giving, sacrificial being alongside, loving interest, if we were compassion, kindness and justice personified.

In other words, words are essential to human life and relatedness and community; but just as necessary are those actions and dispositions that tell without saying, that show without defining, those redemptive gestures of which it could be said, “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.