Can the flapping of a butterfly’s wings cause a tornado?
According to chaos theory, it can. That’s the hypothesis behind the “Butterfly Effect,” that small changes in one place can bring about large changes somewhere else. Edward Lorenz coined the term. He was a pioneer in chaos theory and he used this term when describing this phenomenon that even something as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could, in the long run, have devastating effects. Not that the flapping of the wings would actually create the tornado, but that this one effect can create a series of effects like falling dominos that could determine whether or not a tornado was formed. It’s the idea that small things can bring about large changes.
Like the tongue.
If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on you, please go to the letter of James, chapter 3, beginning with verse 1. James 3:1. James talks a lot about the power of the tongue and in our passage today he emphasizes that a LOT. James is real big on “action theology.” By that I mean he believes it’s our actions more than our words that speak volumes about our faith. It’s easy enough for a person to talk the talk, but do they walk the walk. That’s something James would likely have said. Not that he believed that anything we did could earn our way into Heaven. James firmly believed that we were saved by the grace of God alone. But he did feel that our actions told the truth about our faith and that it was in our actions that our faith could really be measured. On the flip side, he thought that our words often did more harm than good. Listen to this section from James 3:1-12.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
James doesn’t mince words.
He compares the tongue to the rudder of a boat saying that the rudder is small but it controls the destination of the boat. Turn the wrong way and it could crash the entire vessel. You’ve heard the term “Loose lips sink ships?” During World War II, it was a saying created by the Ad Council to warn people to watch what they say in case the enemy was listening because telling the wrong person the wrong thing could cause a lot of harm. Well the same is true of our tongues. Our tongues are small, but say the wrong thing and it can take us down a path in life we don’t want to take. James compares the tongue to a forest fire from hell. One wrong move and your whole life can go up in flames. Or worse yet, someone else’s. All from an indiscreet word. Which doesn’t mean we should instead talk behind each other’s backs. When we say that people should be discreet, we get the image of people whispering quietly instead of talking loudly, but that’s not what it means. It means to talk with discretion, with forethought, to think ahead before you say something. Not to make snap judgments or think the worst of someone. But how often are we the opposite? How often do we jump to conclusions or assume the worst of someone without getting all the facts? How often do we react when we don’t even know the circumstances?
It happens far too often.
It even happened to my own mother-in-law. When Cassie and her brother Kelly were young, Cassie’s mother, Carol, decided to take the kids to church one Sunday morning. From what I remember it was the first time she had decided to take the kids to worship. She had gotten them dressed and ready, drove over to the church and was getting ready to go inside. I guess someone saw her smoking in the car or putting out her cigarette in the parking lot and made a comment to her about not wanting “that kind of behavior” in the church. She turned around, got back in the car, and didn’t go back. And hasn’t since. She believes in Christ and in God, but it stung her that much to be put down in front of her children no less by a complete stranger who knows nothing about her. Who would want to be a part of a group of such judgmental, insensitive people? I already told you about my friend Jon who doesn’t want to go to church because a pastor wouldn’t marry two friends of his because they were a mixed race couple. And this is just two examples of people I know! These aren’t even random stories told to me by someone else because I have plenty of those, too. These are people I know who have been hurt by careless, insensitive comments by other people who claim to be Christian. Odds are you know people like this too. People who have been hurt by the church in one way or another and now won’t ever darken a church doorway.
What’s worse is that sometimes we do it to one another.
My friend, Sam, was a pastor for a church in Alabama. One day, he is sitting in the pew with a woman whose son just committed suicide. He is sitting there with her after the funeral and she is crying profusely. Sam is trying his best to console her like any good pastor would do, and Sam is definitely a good pastor. He’s sitting there next to her, trying to offer what little words of comfort can, trying to express the love of God and the grace of God to her in this incredibly dark time in her life, when suddenly, this woman seated across the aisle from them gets up to leave, comes over, and says to the grieving widow, “You know you’re son is going to hell.” And leaves. My friend Sam was plain dumbstruck. He was so absolutely shocked by what this woman had to say to this grief-stricken mother that he was stunned into silence.
That’s why James is so critical of the tongue.
Because we can’t seem to control it. We can’t seem to hold back from being judgmental and critical of others when instead we should look into the mirror and see the faults in ourselves and be thankful people don’t point those out to us on a daily basis. Or maybe they do and so we take out our hurt and pain on other helpless people. Whatever the reason, it’s against everything we are taught as Christians. Love your neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). Judge not lest ye be judged (Matthew 7:1-5). Do not let 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 (Ephesians 4:29). Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “When thou is too afraid to voice thy opinions directly, thou shalt gossip instead.” It just doesn’t say that. Yet we act like it’s the 11th commandment. We need to be careful of how we speak. We often made fun of being “politically correct” back in the 90’s because it seemed you couldn’t say anything without offending someone, but when I look back, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. It forced us to become aware of how hurtful our words could be.
But I also believe that a word, carefully placed can have amazing results.
If we believe that the “Butterfly Effect” is true, that small things can have large consequences, can’t we also believe that those consequences don’t always have to be bad? James was pretty harsh about the tongue, but it stems from his experience that human beings can be vicious with it, and he’s right. But don’t we also have the capacity for the reverse? Steve Sjogren had a saying he founded the Vineyard Church on in Cincinatti. He said, “Small things done with great love will change the world.” “Small things done with great love will change the world.” And he’s right. Big things are great. Grand gestures of generosity make for great TV specials or viral videos, but it’s the little things, done in small doses on a regular basis that will make the biggest impact in the world today. And this applies to our words as well. A kind word every day, a compliment, praise, thankfulness expressed on a regular basis has the power to make such a difference. One of my favorite Disneyland moments was the time I took Emma to the park for a special Daddy / Daughter day. It was our first one together and when we walked into the park I bought her a special Princess hat and an autograph book and in the book I wrote on the first page, “Daddy / Daughter Day.” I let her choose wherever she wanted to go. This was about three years ago when she was at the height of her love of Disney Princesses and so of course we had to wait in line for every character meet and greet. We saw all the Disney fairies and then the Disney princesses and when we got to Ariel, she opened up Emma’s book, say the inscription, looked up at me and said, “I used to have Daddy / Daughter Days with my daddy, too!” Now, I don’t know if she was in character and meant King Triton or her own father, but just the way she said it as she looked up at me made my entire day and quite a few days after that, too. She insisted we all take a picture together and I still have it on my desk to remind me of that moment where I felt like I was a pretty good dad.
The tongue has the power to hurt and the power to heal.
It can build people up or take people down. And a careless word once said cannot be taken back. So we must fight our urge to say words out of anger, hurt, or fear and instead use our tongues as God intended – to share His word, to share his love, and to be supportive of one another. That doesn’t mean we should never be critical. It means that when we do have criticisms or concerns we need to stop and think, “How will my words build others up?” And if they don’t be willing to swallow them. This is especially important as we come together to worship as one body. There will undoubtedly be someone who will rub you the wrong way. There will undoubtedly be something said that will make you want to respond. There will undoubtedly be something done that makes you feel you need to correct something. But I urge you to carefully measure what you do and say as we get to know one another. We are at an important moment in the lives of our two churches and the success or failure of this grand experiment could come down to this small pink muscle situated between your teeth. In the coming days, let us practice using our words in ways that build each other up. Once a day, say something positive to those around you. Find something in that person’s character or about that person’s behavior or even what that person is wearing and say something positive. You never know when one small kind word can change the world. At least one person at a time. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.