Nightingales and Crows
No human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. (James 3:8-10, RSV)
Mary Beth recently read to me a quote from Thomas Merton: “Thanksgiving very quiet and peaceful, with a little bird I had not noticed before singing, clearly, definitely, seven or eight times (at wide intervals). Re-re-re-mi-mi-do. And with what beautiful finality, as if those three notes contained and summed up all the melodies in the world.”[i]
I wondered whether the beauty of bird songs is intrinsic or is a product of human aesthetics. I asked, “Do a crow’s raucous caws sound as beautiful to other crows as the trills of a nightingale do to us?” “No,” said Mary Beth; “crows don’t use their voice to make music; they use it to harass, berate, and bully.” Indeed, I have seen crows, singly or in groups, harassing songbirds and squirrels and even occasionally a hawk—or a person impinging on their territory. They can make life so miserable for the target of their affliction that the hapless victim flees the area.
So, birds can use their voices to make beautiful music or they can use them to torment other creatures. People are not so different. They can use their voices to sing a love song, to read inspiring poetry, to preach a powerful sermon, to share thoughts or feelings, to pray. They can enlighten, encourage, educate, expound, edify. But they can also use their voices to hurl hateful insults, to criticize someone’s beliefs, to belittle and demean someone who is different, to destroy confidence, to hurt, harass, harm, humiliate.
James knew the dangers of an unbridled tongue and the difficulty of controlling our speech when we have not disciplined our spirit. Our tongues should be used for blessing and not for cursing.
One misspoken word can destroy a lifetime friendship. And once spoken, a word can never be recalled. An explanation, an apology, a clarification can reduce the damage, but cannot truly make it right. Words have consequences.
If we would be like our Lord, we will speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:13), thinking first of the effect our speech will have on the one we are to love, as Christ loved us. When truth requires a word of rebuke or admonition, it must be delivered with humility and tenderness and sensitivity to the one hearing. As much as possible, our words must build up and encourage the hearer, and never be delivered with arrogance and pride, much less with spitefulness.
May we learn to control our tongues and not speak in a way that hurts another child of God.
God of truth and love, show us how to speak truth in love. Teach us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. May our words always express the love of Christ, in Whose blessed name we pray. Amen.
Ministry and Mission Coach
[i] Thomas Merton. When the Trees Say Nothing, ed. Kathleen Deignan (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2003), 109.