Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You Could Easier Gather a Thousand Feathers

It was an outdoor worship service at a mountain amphitheater, and despite a strong wind, everyone was glad to be in the fresh air and sunshine. The pastor had just concluded his sermon.

"Now, one final lesson." He picked up a large canvas bag, stepped to the edge of the cliff, and untied the bag. "Watch carefully."

He turned his back to the wind and, with a quick flip of his wrists, upended the bag. Out flew hundreds of feathers, swirling every which way into the gale, sailing out over the valley and river toward the hills beyond.

The pastor turned to his congregation. "Who will volunteer to retrieve all the feathers?"

Shaking heads, incredulous laughs. Someone called out, "Who'd be crazy enough to think they could?"

"Careless words," the pastor explained, "are like those feathers. Once you let out a cruel remark or a thoughtless accusation, you lose all control over where the words go. They fly faster and farther than the wind; they pierce deep into hearts; and if they ruin someone's life or reputation, God will hold you responsible for unleashing them."

We all have times we want to tell someone exactly what we think of the whole industry he works for, to call someone a worthless idiot for spilling tea on six hours of our work, to get back for coming in second by implying that the first-place finisher did something unethical. Usually we don't really intend to harm anyone; we just want to relieve our hurt feelings and reassure ourselves that we are still the most important people alive. And we never think as we walk away, satisfied with our venting, that constant verbal abuse from others like ourselves may be tearing a service clerk apart inside, or that people have resorted to suicide to escape vicious slander that started with tiny rumors.

St. Paul knew all too well how it felt to be on the receiving end of ugly words. It's likely that when he wrote, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5), he considered the sinful talk those pretensions and thoughts would lead to if unchecked. At least one modern writer has illustrated the "take thoughts captive" concept, specifically as it applies to speech, by noting parallels to calf roping at a rodeo. Just as the object of the rodeo event is to lasso and tie down the animal before it gets from the chute to the exit gate, we need to head off all better-left-unsaid thoughts between the brain and the mouth. And just as the calf roper needs quick reaction time and fast reflexes to succeed in the contest, we need the power of the Holy Spirit, cultivated through prayer and deliberate right thoughts, to develop the internal reflexes for stopping careless talk before it starts.

If that sounds "too hard," compare it to the difficulty of picking up hundreds of feathers scattered far and wide. And ask yourself what price regret.

You could easier gather a thousand feathers,
Flung free to the wind and blown out north and south,
Than undo the effects of a word untethered,
Flung out to the world once you open your mouth.

You could easier scoop up the water's ripples,
Or hold the sea's waves in the crook of your arm,
Than call halt to the flurry of gossip's whispers
That start with snide words, though you meant no real harm.

You could easier snatch from the clouds the thunder,
Than undo the hurt that a few words can wreak.
It is better by far to avoid the blunder--
So keep thoughtless words locked inside of your cheek!

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