Before we say anything we must ask three things: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” – The “Three Sieves” of the Quakers, the “Three Gates” of Socrates, also attributed to Jallaludin Rumi and Guatama Buddha
(Proverbs 18:21, Psalm 15:1-5, Psalm 5:9-10, Psalm 19:14, James 3:2-18)
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. May our words spring from our inspiration in you, O Holy One, source of all love and grace and beauty.
This is a powerful intention, which is why this is a good prayer to keep with us, however much we may stray from using words in such a mindful way. The fact that we do stray is why this intention is a spiritual practice. And it is a spiritual practice that is tried and true. It’s been around for a very long time. You find it worldwide, in some form, in every religion, every wisdom tradition. At its heart it’s pretty simple, doesn’t take a genius – and, actually, clever people may be the worst at it.
The spiritual practice is this: use our words to speak the truth, and only the truth, as best as we know it. Be responsible with the power our words have to share what is true and helpful, and the power our words have to spread what is false and harmful … especially when it comes to talking about other people, which is mostly what we like doing.
The Buddhist’s call this practice “Right Speech.” I think that’s a good term for it: Right Speech. You can see from our Bible readings that the Jewish and Christian traditions have some very powerful charges to us to practice right speech.
This kind of spiritual practice takes discipline.
It takes discipline especially because Right Speech is counter-cultural. The culture around us loves gossip. It loves shocking claims and salacious speculation and drummed up hype… anything that’s dramatic and draws attention and gets people to repeat it. Who cares if it’s true, or only sort of true, or really who knows how true it is?
There’s an old saying, “A lie runs half-way around the world by the time the truth can even get its shoes tied.” This is often attributed to Mark Twain, but the ironic thing is the he didn’t say it. It was a guy named Fisher Ames, an American statesman. Jonathan Swift said something similar: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
At any rate, this is an unfortunate truth about truth and falsehood and human nature. The wise elder of every village throughout human history has warned against this tendency in human nature. But it seems like it’s even worse now in the age of social media where it’s like the entire world is churning in a small town rumor mill.
This isn’t just hand wringing. The problem is that falsehood is dangerous. The venom of the tongue can kill. What’s most dangerous is when the venom comes alongside honey. A forked tongue can be very crafty – flattery one moment and poison the next, lullabies and lashings in whatever measure is needed to exert one’s will to power.
Falsehood starts fights and drums up mobs and sparks off wars. Falsehood leaves lives in ruins. Falsehood can lead people to make stupid, misguided decisions. Falsehood leads to disaster
So the wise thing is to dedicate ourselves, as best we can, to right speech. Exercising right speech ourselves and holding other to right speech.
God has entrusted us with some incredible powers in giving us the power of speech. We have honey and venom here in our tongues.
We can use these powers we can use according to our true nature, as beloved children of the Holy One who created us for the sake of life and wellness. And we can use these powers according to our fallen nature, to selfish ends, negligent, destructive, voracious.
To try to live according to right speech, as I said, takes disciple, religious discipline. It causes us to retrain our brain.
I don’t know if I’ve told you all this, but I spent some time in a Buddhist monastery. I went through this phase where I was really drawn to Buddhism. It so happened that the deeper I went with Buddhism the more Christian I became. But that’s a story for another time.
I bring it up because in the monastery you accept some precepts, some rules or limits on your conduct. Things like not using intoxicants, not doing violence (so eating vegetarian), not engaging in sexual relations, pledging to attend meditation practice, accepting teaching … and practicing Right Speech. Use words only for the sake of what is true and good and supportive of others and up-building of the community. Be very careful when you want to talk about someone who is not right there with you.
It was Right Speech that I found the most challenging of all the precepts. The hard thing was even being aware of when I was not doing it. The other precepts took discipline, but at least it was really clear what it meant to break the rule. Don’t go out to a bar and get drunk and try to seduce someone. Okay, got it. Don’t eat meat. Don’t be lazy and stay in bed at five in the morning instead of showing up for meditation. Now that was a hard one, but at least I knew when I was being tempted to break the rule.
But Right Speech, I found, takes a reprogramming of your entire awareness. It would be only after the fact that I’d be like, “Oh, shoot, I was speaking out of anger.” Or “Ya know, if I’m honest, what I was saying about this person was just what someone else told me – I don’t actually know that it’s true.” Or “I was just saying that to try to look smart or to score points off someone.” And that’s fine. That’s the learning. Thank God for grace.
I really like what James says in our reading, “We often make mistakes, every one of us. Anyone who does not make mistakes when speaking is indeed a perfect person” – so congratulations to them. But for the rest of us … we need these precepts these inspired intention to keep us more aware of our actions, the power of our actions, and the responsibility we have to use that power for what is good and true. It helps us slow down. Be mindful. So that’s the point of these three sieves that the Quakers use: Before we say anything we should ask: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” Is it true – as best as we can know? If not, probably best to hold off saying it. Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it beneficial? Is it kind? This is also to ask, What are my intentions here? Am I actually wanting to say this out of love and concern?
Now that doesn’t mean that it has to be nice. Especially when there are lies and manipulation going on we have a responsibility to speak the truth as best we can. But we have a responsibility to speak the truth in the most helpful way we can, even if some people may get angry about it at first. There are times for tough love and hard truths. But we must be careful that if we’re offering that kind of truth we’re offering it for sake of love, not to tear down but to build up.
So, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.
(Delivered May 14, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Proverbs 18:21 The tongue has power of life and death. Make friends with it and you will enjoy its fruits.
Psalm 15:1-5 O Holy One, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? One who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in their heart. One who does not slander with their tongue, nor does evil to their neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend.
Psalm 5:9-10 There is no truth in their mouths. Their hearts are destruction. Their throats are open graves. They flatter with their tongues. Make them bear their guilt, O God. Let them fall by their own counsel.
Psalm 19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Holy One, my rock and my redeemer
Ephesians 4:29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear
The Letter of James 3: 2, 4-6, 8-10, 13-14,17-18 We often make mistakes, every one of us. Anyone who does not make mistakes when speaking is indeed a perfect person, able to brindle their whole body as well. Think of ships. Large as they are, and even when driven by fierce winds, they are controlled by a very small rudder and steered in whatever direction the person at the helm may determine. So it is with the tongue. Small as it is, it is a great boaster. Think how tiny a spark may set the largest forest ablaze. The tongue is like a spark. Among the members of our body it proves itself a world of mischief. It contaminates the whole body. It sets the wheels of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by the flames of the realm of death. No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless plague. It is charged with deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord our maker, and with it we curse other people who are made in God’s likeness. From the very same mouth come blessings and curses! My friends, it is not right that this should be so. Who among us claims to be wise and intelligent? Let them show that their actions are the outcome of a good life lived in the gentleness of Wisdom. But when we harbor envy and bitterness and a spirit of rivalry in our hearts, do not boast or lie to the detriment of the truth. But the Wisdom from above is, before every things else, pure, then peace-loving, gentle, open to conviction, rich in compassion and good deeds, and free from partiality and hypocrisy. And justice, its fruit, is sown in peace by those who work for peace.