Christian Faith · Emotional and Spiritual Wellbeing · The Church

Provocative and Evocative Words

James 1:26; 3:1-12

In the early 1970s, comedian George Carlin made headlines across the world with his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

He began the routine by saying, “There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is: 399,993 to seven! They must really be bad.”

And then he – famously – proceeded to say them.

On July 21, 1972, he was arrested after performing the routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. The charge: violating obscenity laws. The case, which prompted Carlin to refer to the words for a time as “The Milwaukee Seven,” was dismissed in December of that year. The judge declared that the words were indecent but Carlin had the freedom to say them as long as he caused no disturbance. He was arrested several more times after that for performing the routine, but he refused to drop the bit from his act.

In 1978, the “seven dirty words” riff eventually ended up as the focal point of a Supreme Court ruling: New York radio station WBAI had played a recording of Carlin’s routine – without bleeps – and caught the ire of the Federal Communications Commission. A 5-4 decision reaffirmed the government’s right to regulate speech that the FCC deems offensive.

Carlin, now deceased, once said, “I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. Words are my work, they’re my play. They’re my passion. Words are all we have really. We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. And, then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. The same words that hurt can heal.”

Some years ago, in the midst of a sermon series on words, I used a word from the pulpit that probably came as a great surprise to some. It was a four-letter word starting with the letter f but it wasn’t the great big f-word. It was the one about passing gas.

One person emailed me after the service – absolutely furious – telling me that she had been hurt because I had used that word. She said she had been so enjoying the service – everything was so lovely, all was well — and then I shared a story that had that word in it.

The story was about a couple of employees in a pizza shop in North Carolina who did some nasty things to pies before delivering them to customers. They dropped pizza toppings on the floor, mashed them around, scraped them up, and daintily arranged them on the pie. They stuck cheese strands up their noses, extracted them, and giddily sprinkled them over the sauce. They spit the condiments over the top of the pizza and did to the pie the word I used. Then, they uploaded a video of their creative efforts onto the Internet for all to see.

The woman who was offended by the offensive f-word didn’t care to hear my reasons for sharing this story. She couldn’t get past the word. Words can hurt.

On the other end of the spectrum, another person gave me a great big hug after worship and said, with great delight, how much she had absolutely loved the sermon! She insisted it was exactly what she had needed to hear that morning. It seems Carlin was right: words that hurt can also heal.

Words. Words can provoke: incite to anger or resentment OR stir to action or feeling. Words can evoke: summon or call forth emotions, bring back memories or create something new by means of the imagination.

Was the word I used unsuitable for a formal occasion, especially a worship service, because of its vulgar nature? Perhaps. But it was precisely because of its power to offend that I used it. I wanted my listeners to hear a graphic description of a provocative action and I wanted them to feel disgust and anger over it. What these employees did was a clear example of the betrayal of trust. The execs of the national pizza chain who employed these two fools had to do major damage control. It took the company a good bit of time to recoup.

I used the incident in setting the stage for a message on how we trust, who we trust, what we trust…trust as a journey. From this tale of betrayal and the stories of clay-footed others, I moved on to explore how the first disciples came to trust Jesus; why we can trust Jesus; and why, since we can trust Jesus; we also have the freedom to obey Jesus.

I was stunned to be asked by the angry woman if I was amused by the pizza story. I was not at all amused; I was appalled and I wanted the congregation to be appalled. I wanted them to feel what I felt when I read that story: repulsion, betrayal, dismay. I wanted them to feel those emotions so we could explore together the power of shattered trust and the contrasting power of secured trust. As I reflect, I wonder if the angry woman wasn’t so offended because I’d shattered her trust in me by using a word from the pulpit that she never, in a million years, would have believed I would ever have used.

Now, for certain, certain words offend some people and not others.

The same pizza story reached a man at a breakfast the church offered each Saturday for the homeless and at risk in our community. Because of the startling pizza images, one man especially paid attention to the message and was moved closer in relationship with the Lord. He made a point of coming to me to let me know the impact for healing that my words had made on him.

Now there are stories and images and ideas and words in scripture that anger, incite, excoriate, amuse, edify and transform. The Bible is filled with stories about lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The Bible is also filled with stories about chastity, abstinence, generosity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. There are passages that deal with rape, adultery, promiscuity, prostitution, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. There are passages that speak to friendship, courtship, love, marriage, sexual relations within marriage, and fidelity. There are stories of war, abandonment, thievery, idolatry, accidents, injuries, tragedies, murder, treachery, mayhem, torture, and assassinations. There are also stories of peacemaking, faithfulness, healing, joys, and miraculous rescues. There are images that horrify, frighten and offend, images that edify, calm, and restore.

There are passages that focus on a woman’s monthly cycle, a man’s bodily discharge, childbirth, sores, burns, infections, leprosy, insect infestations and mold. The Word speaks to us about fashion, cooking, construction, the arts, agriculture, parties, mountain climbing, the materially rich, the materially poor, the spiritually rich, and the spiritually poor.

And there is a reference in the Bible that many commentators assert is speaking about the f-word I employed. It’s in the book of Isaiah and is used in comparing the suffering of judgment and war with the pain and physical eruptions that frequently accompany childbirth. I’ll help you out here in finding it: the euphemism that’s used is “giving birth to the wind.”

The Bible is filled with words that speak to our everyday lives in our totality as human beings. It is filled with real-time, relevant to all-time stories that teach us how to live. In these stories, we see ourselves and our world; the Bible is an absolutely timeless and always contemporary book. Often employed therein are provocative words written to evoke a response.

All these stories, images and words find touch points and echoes in our world today. I listen to the threats emanating from North Korea and recall the same kinds of taunts and saber-rattling from the Philistines or the Ammonites or the Edomites in the Old Testament.

I read a story about a woman in Oregon who killed another woman and cut out her baby and I am reminded of the passage in 1st Kings, chapter 3, of the two women who came to Solomon both claiming they were the mother of one child. Both had delivered children but one had smothered her son by lying on top of him. When she saw he was dead, she stole the other woman’s child while she slept.

The two stood before King Solomon asking him to make a judgment. He ordered a sword be brought and then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

The woman whose son was alive was filled with love and compassion for her child and begged Solomon to give the baby to the other woman. But the other said, “Neither you nor I shall have him. Cut him in two.”

Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

What a horrifying, sickening, outrageous story but also — what a lesson about wisdom and discernment! Throughout scripture, we find similarly provocative stories that are written to evoke an understanding of truth and to work in us an appropriate response for application to our daily lives.

I read articles today about corruption in government and think of the parade of rulers we find in books like 2nd Chronicles where we see a just ruler like Jehoshaphat contrasted with his son, the corrupt Jehoram, and how one, for the most part, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and received honor and how the other did not do what was right and, as a result, suffered great agony.

I drive by a police station and see a sign lifted in memory of a fallen officer, killed in the line of duty, and I am reminded of the scriptures that call upon us to respect those who are in authority over us. In a newspaper article about the death, I come across a photograph of the officer’s grieving wife and read how a comrade , in recalling the state trooper’s actions said that, on that day, “there would be no compromise of duty. Evil was met with bold courage and an unrelenting will to do what must be done.”

I’m led to wonder if the man who shot the police officer believed he was doing the right thing when he kidnapped his own son, led police on a 40-mile chase and opened fire on troopers as they rushed his car. Then I’m led to Proverbs 14, verse 12: “There is a way that seems right to a man but, in the end, it leads to death.”

All of the foregoing are matters about which we need to be concerned, matters we need to address as the church, matters against which we must not insulate ourselves, matters about which we should have an opinion, matters that call us to action.

I’ve been struck in scripture by the chastisements of preachers and congregations who moved, as if by rote, through the motions of worship. What is worship, the scriptures ask?

Worship is not just ritual activity but the involvement of the heart, mind and will. The test of true worship is not just what we do during an hour of worship each Sunday; it’s about what we do 24-7.

Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Did I use a polluted word that Sunday? Perhaps. A pastor’s responsibility is to preach the Word, to reprove, rebuke and exhort, with great patience and instruction. A pastor must seek to discern each week how to make the connections between the written Word and the contemporary world.

Now it may not be acceptable  in some social circles to talk about a bodily function such as the one I mentioned that day but that bodily function is natural to us all, a common connector, and of enough interest to be the subject of at least two dozen books for children and of enough interest to warrant 49,800,000 references on Google.

Some years ago, I had a very heated conversation – in the presence of my doctoral students — with a pastor in New York City who is known most especially for his powerful, life-changing ministry with men on the street. He uses the most foul language imaginable from the pulpit – the seven words you can’t use on TV and more. He communicates in the language of the streets.

In our very animated debate that day, I chastised him for his language via Ephesians 4, verse 29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I followed up with Ephesians 5:3-4 (which I paraphrase here): Among us there is to be not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any other kind of impurity or greed nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking. But my man in NYC still insisted he needed to use the seven words you can’t use on TV in order to reach those who are often otherwise unreachable.

Not easy this word stuff. The same word that can hurt one may heal another.

The bottom line is this: may it be impressed upon us again the power that is found in words. We speak casually; we speak seriously. We joke with others and we bring challenges. Yet, in all that we say, there is a need to think seriously about what we say before we say it.

We must follow the lead of Jesus and use words in ways that instruct, praise, forgive, and when necessary, challenge and admonish. Let us do our best to really listen to what others are saying and try to hear the intent behind what they are saying. Let us seek to live in biblical ways, looking to the Word to inform our daily lives and our speech. Let us tame our tongues. Let us be patient with one another but also encourage one another to use our words wisely. May we each rededicate ourselves to being used of God to build up others in the walk of faith. Let us invite the Holy Spirit to guide us and to inform and form our words.

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