(Carl Balsam, Guest Blogger. Please be in touch if you’d like to contribute a blog entry!)
Reflecting on these past twelve months, and examine my own heart, I have concluded that two areas that need constructive work for me, and maybe for you as well, are my words and my thoughts.
“Words matter” was the response by Amanda Gorman when questioned about her stunning poetry, recited at the January presidential inauguration. Words can be used to inspire, to encourage, and to build up (as in the case of the young poet laureate) or they can be used to hurt, to enflame and to tear down (and we can all give examples of that). The dual impact of words is highlighted in the book of James, “With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3:9-10)
Just as important as our words, however, are our thoughts. Thoughts are born out of the preoccupations of our hearts. Luke records Jesus’ teaching that “…out of the overflow of the heart, a person speaks.”(Luke 6:45)
Our heart reflects who we are. Our words betray who we are to others. There have been many times in the past year when I was tempted to comment on news broadcasts or social media posts or thoughts expressed by others with my own harsh words of “put-down” or “one-upmanship.” The fact that I did not publicly share most of those thoughts may seem honorable but, unfortunately, I don’t get a pass — my heart was wrong. And, my words could have been hurtful words — arrogant words.
There is a pattern that I have noticed when someone is confronted about their verbal indiscretions or outrageous declarations. It goes something like this: “If I have offended anyone, then I am sorry and I apologize. What I said does not reflect who I am. I’m not really like that.” But, frightfully, that is who we are! Our words betray us; they reveal our thoughts, consciously or unconsciously. The apostle Paul, in his marvelous passage in Philippians (4:8) challenges us:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
Paul has the antidote to wrong thinking. When our thoughts are focused on the right things, destructive thoughts cannot take root. I have a hunch (based on personal observation) that when we are under stress and faced with uncertainty, our minds can play tricks on us if left to ruminate on the wrong things. We create realities, though untrue, to reinforce our personal preferences. Our thoughts need to be redirected to the framework described by the apostle Paul.
Earlier in my life, I had an experience with flawed thinking, leading to conspiracy ideas. As a senior administrator involved in the merger of two small Christian colleges in New England, I saw firsthand faculty, staff, and alumni under severe stress. To create one strong institution to face significant and foreseen challenges in the years ahead, the campus of Barrington College (Barrington, RI) was to be sold and its programs merged with Gordon College (Wenham, MA). Loss of that campus and its associated heritage was met with anger, frustration, severe criticism and accusations of foul play. Regrettably, a necessary but painful decision led to a community under much angst. “Certainly, this must be nefarious administrative overreach!” Rumor and conspiracy theory, offered with certainty, suggested that, months before the merger announcement, the president of Barrington College had purchased a condo near the Gordon College campus to prepare for a key position at the merged institution. (Not an ounce of truth to that conspiracy). Stress, uncertainty, anger, loss of control– these losses and emotions can drive careless thinking and can make people gravitate towards, and believe, the worst scenario. I have never forgotten that experience.
During the stress and charged circumstances of the past year, perhaps, you, just like me, have had moments of careless thinking and harsh words. Have we created or entertained unhealthy ideas of reality– assumed the worst scenario — maybe because outcomes did not fit our preference? Have we made hurtful comments to or about those whose ideas may not be congruent with our own? And when we believe we are speaking the truth, do we do it with love for the other? I must confess to having entertained some less than charitable thinking and made some less than kind remarks.
There is a helpful passage from the book of Proverbs that has focused my attention in recent days. Prov 4:23-24:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or to the left; keep your foot from evil.”
“Above all else, guard your heart”, we are told. That sounds pretty important to me.
May you, with me, be challenged to “Guard your heart.” May this lead to constructive thinking (Phil 4:8), kind and seasoned words, and the right outlook for the life that lies ahead.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)