Friday, February 15, 2013

The Fahrenheit of Language

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths . . . (Ephesians 4:29)

In his fine memoir, Reflections on My Call to Preach, Fred Craddock uses a phrase that I had not heard before. He places quotation marks around the words, as if quoting a proverb, a piece of folk wisdom which he has long known and frequently used.

At two unrelated points in the book Craddock writes, “He tempered the wind to the shorn lamb.”

The only common thread connecting his use of this phrase is the context of dialog or conversation. At one point Craddock applies the words to his mother and the way she spoke with her children. “She knew children could ask questions beyond their ability to deal with a full answer.” In another place Craddock applies the same phrase to God’s call and the mystery with which God deals with us in varied ways as he reveals his will.

The saying is picturesque. Our gracious God “tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” God will not unleash bitter winds when the lamb is exposed and unprotected. Neither should we.

We would do well to temper our words, to gage carefully the Fahrenheit of our language. Our words have the power to scald and burn. Our words can also chill to the bone. Either way, words that are not tempered tend to leave a trail of wreckage.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians there is a singular verse that gives practical biblical definition to this folk wisdom. Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

This verse merits careful and leisurely meditation. The negative command – let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths – is followed by three positive phrases that tell us how to “temper the wind to the shorn lamb.” Read it one more time, slowly, and notice what Paul is saying about the Fahrenheit of our language.

First, we should say only those things that are “good for building up.” Seldom are our words neutral in their impact. What we say will either build up or tear down, strengthen or undermine, bless or curse. As you speak to people today consider the overall impact of your words and speak what is “good for building up.”

Second, speak words that “fit the occasion.” Sometimes a hard truth needs to be spoken. But whether it has the impact of building up or not might be determined by timing. Consider more than the accuracy or truth of your words. Consider the timing as well and speak as “fits the occasion.”

Finally, God intends that our words “give grace to all who hear.” This one phrase reminds us that language is a means of grace. God uses your words to pour his goodness into the lives of others. Consider everyone who will hear your words and be a channel of grace in their midst.

Don’t take lightly the power of your words. “Temper the wind to the shorn lamb.”

Grant us grace, O God, that the words we speak today might be edifying, timely, and grace filled. You have dealt tenderly with us. Empower us to do the same with others, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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