I was recently cleaning up our small back yard. When we moved into our rental, there was very little grass or plants of any type in the small dirt patches on either side of our house. We were busy, and it was too cold to enjoy the pool much, so the back was largely left ignored. More recently, I found myself dealing with tough-to-kill dandelions and other annoying unwanted vegetation, discovering that those mostly barren patches were now nothing but weeds. Amongst my cleaning and spraying, pet and kid-safe, of course, I noticed the first little cloud of bugs for the year.
Now, by the time I had reached High school I desperately needed glasses but refused to get them. I was already a nerd, already in a new school thanks to a move, and I didn’t want anything else to deal with as a social stigma. Eventually, because I had good parents, the issue was noticed, and I was forced to get glasses. I’m very thankful that I eventually got laser eye surgery, but I can remember the profound difference in my perception of the world around me.
I thought that clouds of little flying bugs were thing that only occurred in cartoons. I had never actually seen such a cluster of insects. I can remember seeing my first one, and that fairly recent sighting took me back to the memory of my original encounter. It wasn’t all that I saw that was new. I had heard girls talk about their pores, but we couldn’t actually see skin pores, could we? Turns out we can, or at least I could, with some corrective lenses. Even friends looked like new people I was seeing for the first time. Trees were no longer just blobs of green. I could see much more definition; I could see the leaves, the stems, sticks and branches.
Some of the things I saw with my increased vision were enjoyable, especially nature. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 are so clearly evident. God is our creator and the universe reflects that; it speaks to a being made beautiful by a divine artist. Other things I saw were not as attractive. Since glasses, and later laser eye surgery, cleaning is more important to me. With laser eye surgery I could see the tiniest dirt spots in places I didn’t usually wear my glasses. As I saw more, I cleaned more, and that’s what came to mind when I saw those tiny bugs; I was seeing the less attractive, the gross, the ugly, in better detail.
2 Corinthians 13:5 commands us to examine ourselves. Romans 12:2 instructs us, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” As our minds look and work less like the broken and spiritually fallen world around us, we will have an increased ability to recognize our own sin - how far, and how often, we miss the mark of perfection. In a healthy spiritual journey, a young Christian will begin to recognize some of their continuing sins or occasional and accidental sins.
Most people start their Christian journey very aware of some of the basics - that they have done wrong, and perhaps it was lying, or they had done some drugs, or broken the law, held burning anger in their heart. As we mature, we notice more times we hold on to a grudge and don’t forgive. We should be convicted to read our Bibles, attend church, to pray. We should change our interactions with others and our attitude, but we never “arrive.” We know we are commanded to “be Holy” (1 Peter 1:16), but we still keep finding ourselves sinning from time to time. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Why is that? Because our vision is increasing all time, too.
We go from seeing - from our perspective - bigger issues. Perhaps like how I saw tree leaves all in a big undetailed lump, to seeing the individual leaves. All sin is equally damnable, but not equal in consequence. As our spiritual reflection occurs with increasing vision, we find ourselves seeing those tiny spots that we couldn’t even perceive before. The closer we get to Christ, the better we can see just how different we are from him, and the more important it is to try to be more like our Lord.
Sometimes the amount of detail that we can see as we mature becomes overwhelming. As we mature, we can feel pulled in many directions and unsure what to address or how to prioritize. One common piece of discipleship advice is to give primary focus to one area at a time, so that you can be intentional, better monitor improvement, and even ask others to help hold you accountable. This doesn’t mean you ignore every area of spiritual growth except for a single goal. The idea is to take one issue, and put extra energy towards growth and eventually turn it into a new positive habit, so you can move onto the next. You may find yourself returning to it again later. To continue the metaphor, with better vision, and recognizing more dirt, it may be overwhelming to find a place to start cleaning. The best solution is to pick one, tackle one thing at a time and keep at it.
After leaving my job for the state of Alaska, I had to really work on my language. I had absorbed words which were not edifying and were distracting. It took some time, and intentionality, to purge some of those phrases. When working with criminals, and a high-pressure situation, the language was different. It’s not always about swearing, I similarly had to watch jargon after completing my seminary degree. Now I find myself returning to the same area, everyday phrases from the south, are confusing here. I’m also back to communicating with an older generation, where in my recent ministry, I primarily talked to folks younger than me, or when I was in church teaching on Apologetics, and often reusing some of the same teaching.
You may recall when I filled in for Charles doing a children’s moment not too long ago. I had the kids, squirt out toothpastes from tubes into a small plastic container. They had fun doing it, and I enjoyed seeing the smiles on their faces. Then I told them, “alright, put it back.” One of them quickly said, “we can’t!” and they were right on!
James 3 warns us of the dangers of the tongue. Our words matter, and I still struggle with this area. Be it some of the more colorful language I heard frequently when I worked with criminal offenders, the more casual attitude towards certain words in my generation, phrases I heard and used growing up in an isolated rural setting that have different impact here, and that I shouldn’t have used in the first place anyways, and just plain old slips of the tongue when I’m angry, tired, or both.
I can recall a recent time, while I was in the pulpit, that an old phrase, I heard all my life, just came out of my mouth. I instantly regretted it. It wasn’t a swear word, but I knew I shouldn’t have said it. I was off script, in a sense. I don’t fully script my sermons, but I do have notes, both written in my Bible margins, and in my iPad, beneath slides. I do go over what I try to say in advance, and at times, as the Spirit leads, I do go in another direction. Often as I read the text, yet again, something of importance will come to mind, but this time, I used an old hillbilly phrase that was insensitive. For the record it was “red-headed step child.” I instantly thought, are there any red headed step kids here today? While they know that this is usually said as a joke, will they think I’m serious or have something against red heads? It’s happened before, and it will happen again. Forgive me if something not so wise slips out from time to time.
Knowing the reality of the dangers of what we say and the impact on other people those words could have, I want to suggest that we follow the Bible’s lead: that when necessary, we call each other out, but also that we have grace, that we take people’s words in the best light possible; and when in doubt, we clarify with questions. But also, that we always think about what we are saying, will say, and have said. Not just the content, but the delivery. We finished the U-turn study recently, and now we are in Tactics in Sunday school. With that recent emphasis, it’s a good idea to think about what someone else might hear, if our voice will carry too loud in the lobby, or if our tone is just right. We must be real people I’m not suggesting we put on some sort of fake mask but I am suggesting we think about what we say carefully, me included, so that we can glorify God with our words.
Originally printed in the June 2019 FCC Newsletter