A Matter of Life or Death

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit."
Proverbs 18:21

Fred Swank, longtime pastor of Sagamore Hill Baptist Church of Fort Worth, was asked one day by a colleague, "Does your church speak in tongues?" I was standing next to him when he said brusquely, "My people aren't Spirit-filled enough." He dismissed the questioner with a stern look, turned his back and walked swiftly through the noisy, convention corridor to the exit. I was a first year seminary student, and newly hired by him to be his driver/youth director. His response intrigued me. I was trying to get the courage to ask him why he was so abrupt. I didn't have to ask. He launched into one of his many impromptu lessons of life that still serve me well. No direct quotes here, but the gist of his defense was this. He said there was a movement in Baptist churches at that time to try and solve all their problems with an experience that he called "tongues-talkin.'' He personally did not begrudge them the privilege. He was of the opinion, after 42 years of pastoring the same church, that local church was headquarters. He believed what the people of a local, autonomous congregation felt led of God to do they should be able to do. However, he was convinced that gossip was the real "tongues-talkin' " that caused most problems. He was convinced it was this kind of tongues that should be kicked out of the church. Bro. Fred's earthy wisdom rings true with Proverbs 18:21.

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Two conversations come to mind. Both were with highly skilled, accomplished women I met while pastoring in the Panhandle of Texas. One was very faithful to attend church. I saw her Sunday after Sunday standing very uncomfortably during the praise portion of the worship service. She looked miserable. She had a frown on her face, her head down, and all of the peace of an animal with a paw caught in a trap. Whether it was oppression or conviction, I could not tell. It was painful to watch, and I just had to know. When I had a chance to meet with this lady, I discovered a great heart with a huge hole in it. She asked me if I had noticed she never sang in church. I admitted her reluctance to participate had hit my radar screen. She apologized and related her story. There is always a private story behind a public behavior. When she was a child, she had auditioned to sing in a choral group at her school. The director stopped her in the middle of her song, and shouted for the accompanist to stop playing. Loud enough for all the other children to hear she was rebuked this little girl for wasting their time. She was told, "You have a terrible voice. You should never try to sing." That verbal blast from the furnace of hell left a mark. Fifty years later I could see it. It was not a fresh wound, but a nagging scar on the soul of a grown woman. It was a privilege to walk this lady through God's plastic surgery to remove the damage done by a "tongues-talkin" terrorist. Week by week God restored her, as she focused on Him as the audience of one who loved to hear her praise Him. Never underestimate the power of the tongue to deal out death.

The other conversation took place while I was preparing for the funeral of a local doctor. We had become a personal friends. He had been an encouraged and blessed me with books from his library. His daughter came from Dallas to attend her father's funeral. She was a very successful business woman, and in her professional power suit she exuded the confidence of woman who had made something out of her life. I asked her to share any special memory she had of her father that might help me know him better. In an instant she was transformed from a woman in her late thirties to a six year old girl. She told me without hesitation, "My father loved to sing." I was not surprised by that. He was a member of the real church choir, the congregation. He would stand to my right a few rows back, and sing joyfully and heartily. He sang all the choruses or hymns that were offered up to God as worship in our church. It touched me to see a man of his advanced years and professional stature enter in with such enthusiasm and radiance on his face. She went on to say, "I remember standing next to Dad in church as a little girl. I always enjoyed hearing him sing. I couldn't read, but he would always hold the hymnal so I could see it. One day I was singing along with him, and he stopped, leaned down and whispered in my ear, 'You sing sooo pretty.' I was so touched by his encouragement that music has remained a major part of my life. Since that time, whenever I sing, I have always sensed Dad standing next to me." WOW. What a great way to describe why we need to praise God every day, not just on Sunday.

These two stories give us a picture of the death-dealing or life-giving power of the tongue. I do not know who came up with the insipid ditty, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I am pretty sure they were from another planet. In the world where I live, I have seen murderous damage done by the tongue. James saw it in the early church and said,
"From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren these things ought not to be this way." James 3:10

Notice, James is not talking about "cussin' " but cursing. There are people who would never say a vulgar, four letter curse word, but they are expert surgeons at cutting a person to pieces with their tongues. I have been blessed out by men on a construction site or at the close of a funeral service with the same phrase. "You did a helluva job." To the ears of the self-righteous, it may have sounded like cussin', but these were not curse words at all. They were giving me a blessin' not a cursing. I have had people avoid using the vocabulary words identified with cursing, and still find a way to speak a curse over me. You probably have too.

So what is the message for us in Proverbs 18:21? Use the breath in your lungs to build a person up rather than tear a person down. Putting a person in their place usually means you had to take the low road to get them there. Words leave a mark. They linger long after the initial sting or the pleasant touch. You might want to take a page from David's play book today. "I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue, I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle." Psalm 39:1

"And those who love it will eat its fruit." There is not a great market for rotten fruit.
People who will be taking the taste test of your fruit harvest can tell the difference between what is real, and what is fake, what is fresh and what is phony. There is not much nutrition in imitation fruit even for a starving man. Your tongue has the power to deliver life or death in the form of a verbal fruit basket to someone in need of encouragement today. How will you know who they are? Don't worry. They are everywhere, and everyone. Get with God before you pick up that rotten tomato and throw it at someone who has had their share of curses planted in their lives. Remember, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23) Trust me on this. They are going to love receiving this fruit basket almost as much as you are going to love giving it.