The Tongue is a Fire

Barely anyone remembers Zacharias Warner but he was a famous man in his day. In the early 19th century he packed Vienna’s churches. You might assume he must have been a musician or a singer – but no, he was a priest and a poet. Zacharias Warner was famous for his fiery sermons against the sins of the flesh.

One Sunday, once again before a packed house, he looked across the congregation saying, “That tiny piece of flesh. That most dangerous member of a man’s body.” The gentlemen panicked, the ladies blushed and he went on to speak rapidly about the horrendous consequences of the misuse of that most dangerous member. Then he leaned over the pulpit, his eyes shooting sparks, and said, “Shall I name for you that tiny piece of flesh?”

The sanctuary was perfectly silent. Nobody was moving, let alone coughing. All eyes were on him as he leaned further over the pulpit and exclaimed, “Shall I show you that tiny piece of flesh?” Some of the ladies were reaching for the smelling salts in their purses when the priest said with a sly smile, “Behold the source of our sins!”

He stuck out his tongue. We can laugh about it, the story is clearly from another century. So much has changed since then, yet so much more hasn’t.

The tongue is a powerful little muscle. It’s still sticks and stones that break the bones, but words - it always begins with words. Words do hurt, be it unintentionally or by design. The tongue can affirm or alienate, build or belittle, delight or destroy, offend or befriend.

The tongue is a fire. When James wrote those words, he couldn’t begin to imagine the kind of wildfires the tongue can ignite in the age of youtube. Some fool in California makes a bad movie about the prophet Mohammed, a movie steeped in the muck of ignorance, a movie that on opening night draws an audience of ten at a Hollywood theater, and that would have been the end of it just a few years ago. But the fool wants an audience, he wants to be heard, he wants at least a few good laughs from fellow fools and a pat on the back for saying what they think needs to be said. And so he makes a trailer of the most offensive frames and puts it on youtube for the whole world to see and hear.

The tongue is a fire. Fools play with matches without a care in the world, and far away in Libya a house goes up in flames and people die. Is the fool responsible?

I want to tell you another story that’s wonderfully quaint. A young man comes to the priest for confession.

“Father, forgive me for I have sinned. I have told lies and gossiped about my neighbor.”

“Do you understand what you have done?” asks the priest and adds, “Go home and bring me a feather pillow.” The young man leaves and when he returns with a pillow he meets the priest on the steps of the church.

“What now?” he asks.

“Open the stitching on the side and shake the pillow,” the priest tells him. He does as he’s been told. He opens the seam and shakes the pillow vigorously and smiles as he watches the feathers flying across the church yard, to the lane and beyond.

“What now?” he asks.

“Now pick up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible, Father! The wind has blown them all over town!”

“Just like the thoughtless words you spoke.”

The tongue is a fire. Thoughtless words, careless, heedless, reckless, loveless words are not just blown all over town like feathers in the wind; they are sparks and hot embers that can start a blaze.

Freedom of speech is being honored in this country like a sacred law, and rightly so. Speech must be free for a democratic society to flourish. The freedom of speech must be protected, even foolish, hateful, and hurtful speech. But our responsibility for what we say and how we say it cannot be limited to legal liability. We have moral and spiritual obligations that go far beyond what the law of the land requires.

The world we live in is just as vast as it has been for all of human history, but we are one neighborhood like we have never been before. The young man with his pillow only needed to consider the little town he lived in. The feathers only flew so far. We live in a neighborhood where the thoughtless word, the careless, heedless, reckless, loveless word travels faster and further than ever. Yes, we are responsible for our tongues.

James sounds rather pessimistic.

Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

The tongue is a fire, and whether flames of praise emerge or flames of hatred only one human being can determine. My tongue, my choice, my responsibility.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing, but our first language has always been blessing and praise. Blessing and praise are as old as creation. Long before there were liturgies and hymns, prayers and creeds and theologies, there was praise. Long before there were music directors and organists, choirs and anthems, there was praise. Our babies remind us of this truth. I remember a little boy, still an infant, singing his morning psalm almost every day. Lying there in his crib, usually some time before the rest of the house was up, he awakened with the first morning light. He could not walk, couldn’t even stand up yet, and he could not talk. But with the light of dawn in his eyes he chanted a morning prayer of giggles and gurgling, a song of thanksgiving for life, a hymn of praise to the maker of heaven and earth. That praise lies deep beneath every word and language and song. That is our mother tongue.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Days and nights proclaim the glory of God, and so do we. The world is vast and glorious, and our native tongue, our mother tongue, our first language is praise, not hate speech.

Steve and Cokie Roberts have been married for decades, and they measure the health of their marriage by the number of teeth marks in their tongues. That kind of wisdom isn’t always true and everywhere, but you know very well that sometimes biting your tongue is less painful than the words about to pour out of your mouth would be. James only considers this option, the taming of the tongue, the bridling of the tongue, learning to live with the teeth marks. But there is another option: the training of the tongue to sing and speak its native language in every dialect spoken in the neighborhood.

So let me tell you another story. On Wednesday I met Michael, a songwriter who has been incredibly successful in contemporary popular music. Josh Groban sang In Her Eyes on a CD that went multi platinum. Jaci Velazquez sang On My Knees, a song that won both Song of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association and the Dove Award by the Gospel Music Association. Michael’s songs have appeared on over 15 million albums sold worldwide. He also wrote songs for tv and film, including Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Terminal, True Blood, and The Simpsons.

But he mentioned none of that when we met. He wanted to tell me about a group of people who want to change life in the Middle East. A group of people who “believe it is possible to create a Middle East that is peaceful, open, and prosperous. A place where human life is highly valued and the quality of life is steadily improving; where justice and human rights are respected; where religious, cultural and political diversity is both appreciated and secured through mutual trust and freedom of expression.”[1]

Michael wanted to tell me about a group of musicians who share this vision. They are top selling Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, Norwegian and American songwriters and recording artists.[2] They got together and called their unlikely collaboration My Favorite Enemy. They began as a vehicle to build professional and personal relationships across cultural, historical and political divides. But it didn’t take them long to do together what they each do best. They co-wrote and recorded ten songs and began to perform together in settings as small as a family home and as large as the European Parliament.

“A three minute song,” says Michael, “in some small way, has the potential to bridge the divide between two people who actually consider (…) themselves enemies. A song doesn’t have to be rational or logical - it can bypass that entire side of the brain and begin the process of healing and transformation by finding its way to the heart.”

Michael told me all that while we were just beginning to try and understand what had triggered the violent protests in many cities in the Middle East and the attacks in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

The tongue is a fire. We decide whether flames of praise and peace emerge from our lips or flames of hatred. We decide whether to practice singing and speaking in our native tongue of thanksgiving or to throw words like rocks.

Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. At Congregation Micah, Zaid, a musician from Jordan who has never been in a synagogue, let alone a synagogue service, and Michael, a Jewish-American songwriter, will sing in the New Year together.

The tongue is a fire. Flames of peace or flames of hatred? You decide.



[2] Basel Khoury, Zaid Modhi Mansour, Jordan; Rami, Alaa Shaham, Palestine; Christian Ingebrigtsen, Hans Petter Aaserud, Venke Knutson, Norway; Aya Korem, Ohadi Hitman, Mika Sade, Kobi Oz, Israel; Michael Hunter Ochs, USA