Ephesians, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Proper 14B, Sermons

Before You Speak

(A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 12, 2012–Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

It’s a Sufi saying: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself ‘Is is true.’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary.’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind.’

Evangelist Alan Redpath formulated a similar rubric, using the word “think.”
T—Is it true?
H—Is it helpful?
I—Is it inspiring?
N—Is it necessary?
K—Is it kind?

Redpath added, “If what I am about to say does not pass those tests, I will keep my mouth shut!”

“…don’t say nothing at all.”

Here’s another rendering of this principle, one you may remember from the movies.
Mrs. Rabbit cautions her son: “Thumper!”
Thumper: Yes, mama?
Mrs. Rabbit: What did your father tell you this morning?
Thumper: [clears throat] If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.

Any principle so broadly accepted that it is espoused by Islamic mystics, evangelical Christian ministers and Walt Disney must have something to it.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear…Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:25-27, 29, 31-32, NRSV)

This is part of a letter addressed to the members of a very young church, intended to help them live together in their new relationship as a community of God’s people. Changed by their devotion to Jesus Christ, they struggled, as did all the early churches, to live out their new commitment in the ways they interacted with each other and with the community around them. If we’re looking for guidance, we find the same advice across time and faiths and even in popular culture, don’t we?

“If you can’t say something nice…don’t say nothing at all.”

Lucy is up at Pilgrim Lodge this week, having a second turn this summer serving as a CIT, a sort of Junior Counselor. As we turned down the dirt road at the entrance, she breathed a happy sigh and said, “This is the best.camp.ever.” She says that now knowing what goes into making it such a special place. And she would tell you that it came as a slightly disappointing surprise to take the CIT training last year and learn that so much of what she thought just HAPPENS at Pilgrim Lodge is in fact intentional.

The rules, the boundaries, sure, she knew those must be thought through and planned for good reason. The schedule, the option times and special activities—yes, those require planning. But what surprised Lucy is that the counselors, junior and otherwise, learn how to create the atmosphere of trust and acceptance and gentle discipline that IS Pilgrim Lodge.

The labyrinth at PL–read more here.

It’s true that the spirit of the trees and the lake make it easier. Campers—and counselors, too—are unplugged from the world and have a chance to be more present. They swim and sing and walk the labyrinth and pray in the chapel and wake up the echo and listen for the loons. But the intentional work of the staff and the volunteers maintains what they call being “Pilgrim Lodge-ical.” And that means treating each other the way the epistle teaches, with kindness and an understanding that we are all part of the body of Christ.

It sounds so beautiful.

But I have a confession to make. When Lucy told me she needed to bring a watch and couldn’t find the one I got for her before camp last summer, my response was *not* Pilgrim Lodge-ical. I did not take the time to think before I spoke. I walked through my thoughts through no three gates. I most assuredly didn’t say “nothing at all.”

Not my daughter’s dresser.

And while it might be true that the top of someone’s dresser is a mess, the way I named it was not helpful, or inspirational, or necessary, and it wasn’t even close to kind.

Before you speak – maybe you do better at this kind of thing than I do. Maybe in a moment of frustration you can walk through those three gates and hold yourself back. Oh, there are times I get it right, but I absolutely get it wrong, too.

We didn’t stay mad long enough – yes, we were both mad, but mostly me—to have to worry about the sun going down on our anger. But I’ve been known to hold onto things. You? If you haven’t, God bless you. Speaking the truth while being kind, being angry but not sinning—these are not easy things to do. They never have been, and I’m afraid living in the modern world in which we have so many more ways to fly off the handle at each other makes it even more difficult. There are too many ways to respond instantly. Just read the comments on almost any newspaper website.

Actually, don’t. They might make you despair about humanity.

Christians are just as apt to live by the 21st century rules as anybody else. We carry out our arguments about God and what we think the Bible means and who we think Jesus was and who he would have approved and disapproved in every kind of public forum we can find. We leave nasty comments and accuse each other of not being Christian at all. In America, we mix up our national identity with our faith identity and that just makes us meaner to each other.

We let the sun go down on our anger as regularly as the sun goes down.

That’s the big “we,” the overarching “we,” and you and I can’t do much to change the way the big “we” does things. We might wish the world were more like how we do things at our house (well, except for yesterday morning at mine). But we can only change the way we, little “we,” this us right here and the you and me who form it. We can only change ourselves.

Now, we know the things we read this morning are good ideas. Agreed? Speak kindly, treat each other well. Think it through. Evaluate. T.H.I.N.K.

Walk through the gates, before you speak: is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?

And if you can’t say something nice…Well, maybe not that one, not all the time. It’s not bad advice for a young cartoon bunny. But the reality of grown-up life, in families and in churches, is that sometimes we need to tell somebody something that isn’t all that nice, but needs to be said anyway, because it’s true and because it’s necessary.

Then the key is to be kind.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32, NRSV)

There are people who come to this naturally. I have the greatest respect for them. They are wired for respectful kindness and tenderhearted patience. They are saints, really. But most of us need to work at it. Kind communication is a tough spiritual discipline. It takes intention and practice.

~before you speak~

• We remind ourselves what is “Pilgrim Lodge-ical”…or not.
• We put a list on the Sunday bulletin, or the classroom wall.
• We write ourselves a note, or draw a picture of the three gates.
• Or maybe we start with Thumper, picturing a bunny and quietly, kindly biting our tongues until we find the right words.

It’s hard. I’m afraid I say that a lot. Being a Christian is not easy. But listen to this:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2, NRSV)

Christians, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. We aren’t out here doing it alone. We are loved by God, loved so much that God became one of us in Christ Jesus. I believe God is working for us and in us and through us, calling us to be beloved children and to live in love.

Live in love.

Maybe that’s the intention we need, before we speak. Amen.

Ephesians, Faith, Games

Armor Class, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the DM

I played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time at age 40. Pure Luck, then my boyfriend, had a long D&D history, and he offered to run a game for my boys, as a way they could all get to know each other better. The only trouble was, he wanted me to play, too.

For several years, I had been aware the boys were playing pencil-and-paper D&D with a good friend and his siblings, but this would be a major production. Pure Luck had created his own world (with a little help from some favorite books) with a particular pantheon of gods and goddesses. He had cases and cases full of little figures, carefully hand-painted by a savant of the art, a fellow unusual enough to be a character in a game himself. Pure Luck held back the biggest, most terrifying monsters and brought them onto the game table shielded behind a screen, that they might be revealed to the greatest effect.

Until #1 Son left for college, we played as often as Pure Luck's work schedule would allow: #1 Son and Snowman and Snowman's friend, J-Bass, and even yours truly. We changed characters to please someone, then no one was all that happy, and finally college and jobs brought us to a halt.

Then #1 Son asked if we could play when he came home this summer, and we decided to bring back the old crowd, and Pure Luck allowed Light Princess to roll up a character of her own, and thus we all gathered around the dining room table with our little figures last Wednesday night, to play "The Game."

My character is a druid priestess, Trillium, and she is pretty powerful in many respects, but because she is a druid and therefore a follower of the Earth goddess, she can't wear metal armor. Leather armor is at best a 13 armor class, as compared to the 18 J-Bass's Paladin sports or the 20 LP's new Fighter wears. So I'm much more vulnerable to damage, since all that stuff is subject to twenty-sided dice rolls for damage, and it's harder for the bad guys to injure someone with a 20 armor class than a 13.

I must admit I worry about these things while we are playing. I worry about the hit points and the risk of character death, and you would think after eight years I would stop catastrophizing and just play the darn game, but I am so invested in everyone's enjoyment that I sometimes ruin mine.

Here's why. At the near-climax of last week's gaming event, while fighting some sort of robot (which I didn't even know we HAD in this universe, but apparently there was always a lesser god named Teknos in the pantheon and maybe I should have been paying attention to him) in the tight hallway of an evil, modernist tower, J-Bass our Paladin rolled to hit and got a 1.

If you've ever played D&D, you know that's bad. A 1 is the worst roll you can get. You roll some percentile dice to determine whether it's just a losing effort at that part of the battle or something worse: a critical fumble. And if it is, you roll percentile dice again, and the DM looks at his list to see what terrible thing is going to happen next. Some of the terrible things are fairly lightweight. You knock yourself unconscious and are no help until the battle is all over, or you accidentally hit your companion with your staff and he takes several points of damage.

But Sabin the Paladin was standing right next to Snowman's character, Timballisto the Elf/Fighter, and on Pure Luck's chart, the number indicated, "You sever your companion's arm at the shoulder joint."


Armor class made no difference.

An odd mixture of shock and hilarity ensued, nervous laughter that went on until tears welled in some of our eyes. Snowman went around the DM's shield to see the words on his computer screen, then left the room. I, the Mother, began to worry that the character would die, would simply bleed out, then quickly realized it was my job to keep him alive until the DM figured out something more permanent.

He was surprised, too, you see. It took a few minutes for all of us to gather ourselves and continue.

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but
against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers
of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the
heavenly places.Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able
to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand
(Ephesians 6:11-13, NRSV)

I really didn't need to worry, but I did. I forgot something important.

In a world threatened by elementals and dragons and giants and trolls and owl bears who drop wizards with few hit points from terrible heights, the ultimate goal of our particular DM is not to harm us, but rather to stretch our imaginations and employ our complementary strengths as people and characters to make the game a good one. Whether our armor is leather or plate or happily enchanted by elves, the maker of our game will be sure we are equipped for what is coming next, whether or not we realize it.

We can count on this in our spiritual lives, too, that whatever befalls, we will be equipped if we draw on our natural gifts and turn to those around us for support and call upon the God who made us, whose spiritual armor, worn faithfully, will not fail us. 

(Yes, I'm thinking about Proper 16B…)

From left to right: Trillium the Druid, Sabin the Paladin, Timballisto the Elf, Marlowe the Wizard and his bodyguard, Gwyn the Fighter. Oh, and an Owl Bear, just because.

Our Party Dark


All Things Under His Feet

I'm thinking about how we understand God, where we see God in the things that happen around us, what we expect God to do and where we expect God to be. We read words like these:

And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things
for the church,
which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
(Ephesians 1:22-23, NRSV)

Words written long ago in a much smaller world, a more tightly-held reality, a world that must have seemed calculable, while ours feels less so. Cable news brings me closer to people far away, people who can't breathe easily because of the fires I see on a small screen in my kitchen, but instead of making the world feel more manageable it puts before me the reality that things are beyond my control.

And are they beyond God's? Does God let things go on that God could stop? Are we a giant anthill under observation? Or are we puppets on invisible strings?

I'd like to think it's something different than either of those extremes, but how do we explain it when God appears to act on some occasions and not on others? Do we give equal blame for the inactions, the non-saves? Or do we focus only on the moments of escape or redemption?

On the one hand I believe a little church can have a calling to be the people of God in a particular time and place, and on the other hand, I wish God would knock a few (metaphorical) heads together, that people might see how to be that. I wish Christ would use those feet to kick over a few traces, to help us see what really matters, to help us BE what really matters.