Sunday, August 3, 2014
The 30th President of the United States was Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was President for a large portion of the 1920s taking office when Warren Harding died while Coolidge was his Vice President. One of the characteristics of Coolidge was the fact that he was a man of few words. In fact, His nickname was Silent Cal.
If you remember, The Andy Griffith show played on this nickname. You might recall that a running joke about Coolidge continued throughout the series. Often times as an obscure quote was given, Floyd the Barber, who fancied himself as a person of wisdom, would often remark, “didn’t Calvin Coolidge say that?” A joke at the fact that Coolidge was remembered for having said very little.
There are at least two incidents attributed to Calvin Coolidge in this regard. One is about a receiving line at the White House where an unknown women approached The President and admitted that she had made a bet with a friend in the same receiving line. She told The President that the bet was that she could get him to say at least three words when they spoke to each other. Without batting an eye, Coolidge looked at her and simply said in response, “You lose!”
On another occasion Coolidge returned to the White House after Sunday worship. His wife had stayed home for some reason. She asked him, “What was the Sunday sermon about?” to which he replied, “Sin.” “Well,” she continued, “what did the minister say about sin?” “He was against it,” Coolidge famously responded.
When asked, Coolidge said that he was slow to speak because he recognized the gravity of what a President says and thus he felt his words needed to be carefully weighed and thought through. His sentiment and these two stories also drive at the heart of our Proverb for today as it suggests to us that wisdom is most often found in those of few words more so than in those of many words.
Simply stated, few things have the power to get us into trouble as does talking too much. And, at the same time, few things can be more of a friend and an aid in our ability to live a good life both for ourselves and for others than the ability to develop a discipline of speaking carefully and saying less.
If you look at these four verses what you find are really a few basic, practical statements about speech — talk less, measure your words which is to say don’t use too few but also don’t use too many either, pause or think before you speak and recognize that when our words are used well and in the right amount they can be a profound good in the world.
I think this is a good, invaluable word for us to hear. And, quite frankly, this is one of those subjects that we would do well to return to on a regular basis as people of faith. After all, we live in a world that is inundated with words. From countless books and magazines to twenty four hour a day television and radio on hundreds of channels, as well as thousands and thousands of virtual words through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, texting and old fashion phone calls, all the way to real in the flesh conversation, words are all around us. In turn, there is perhaps a higher premium than ever on the words that we use and a greater need for us to choose our words carefully by saying fewer of them, by thinking before we speak and by measuring carefully the amount of words that we do offer when it is time to speak.
Our need to talk less and to measure our words is particularly true in a couple of key areas of life. Let me highlight them.
First, it is incredible true when we are angry regardless of how justifiable the anger might be. In those moments of intense feelings, hostility, disappointment and rage, often times the worst thing we can do is to open our mouths and let the words flow. Biting our tongues, holding our thoughts until we can say them in a more even keeled manner and waiting until we can speak more out of grace and compassion is one of the most important disciplines in life. Speaking purely out of anger so often leads to saying what we didn’t mean, overstating our true feelings and hurting people in ways that is hard to overcome.
Having said this, let me also push this point a moment by saying that in 2014, we need to be counseled not only to bite our tongues when we are angry but also to muzzle our fingers. What I mean is that I am continually amazed at the hateful emails and internet posts that I read from good people of faith. Somehow we have become convinced that if we are saying it in writing or on Facebook we don’t need to follow the same rule that we would follow if it were happening face to face. This, however, simply isn’t true. In fact, when we write out of anger or post out of anger those words often are seen by more people and saved longer thus having more impact and potentially doing more damage than words offered in person.
A second area for talking less is when we don’t know the whole story. So often, we are prone to comment on situations, to give our opinion or dare I say spread gossip when we only know in part and not in full the real story of what we are commenting on or talking about. As a result, we can easily offer a lot of words, share much opinion and in turn do much damage because we didn’t know what we were talking about in the beginning. Such moments are critical occasions for saying less not more and for measuring the words we do offer.
In recent weeks I have been supporting a colleague in another state who has been angry with his dad. My friend’s father has decided to remarry only a short time after his mother’s death and my friend has been incredible bothered by the decision. It wasn’t that he opposed his father remarrying but he thought it was simply too soon. He also felt that his father had been less than honest with him and his siblings in the months that the new relationship has been evolving. His natural response was to call his dad, express his anger and to be confrontational. Luckily before doing anything, he went to see a mentor with whom he works. In the midst of all that they talked about the mentor challenged him to do two critical things. First, he challenged him to write things out before he said any of them thus causing him to think carefully through his words to minimize the anger and to be forced to hear his own words as he read them back to himself before he said them. Second, the mentor challenged him to put himself in his father’s shoes. In other words, he cautioned him not to simply speak out of his side of what was happening but to speak having thought about his father’s side of the story and thus respond having a wholistic idea of all that was happening. The mentor didn’t challenge how my friend felt, he challenged his verbal tactics that he planned to use in responding to his father and that was critical.
If we would all do this same sort of thing – measure our words and pause before speaking with anger and also measure our words and pause so that we are speaking out of knowing the whole story not just the partial story, just think how much better would our lives and the lives of others be?
A final area for measuring and pausing has to do with the words we speak related to the life of faith. Certainly, when it comes to speaking in the midst of faith matters, time for pausing saying less rather than more and measuring what we are going to say can be good advice. After all, our emotions sometimes run high when we talk about faith and others disagree. Likewise, we are also prone to feel that in difficult or tragic situations where there really is nothing to say or no way to explain what has happened that we must open our mouths and say something as if this is our Christian duty. In turn we often say things or suggest ideas about God that are not helpful and that do more harm than good. In such times, it is always important to remember that our presence is far more important than our words and the urge to say something in these moments needs to be avoided.
Having said this, at times matters of faith may be the one area where we are prone to be more silent than needed or to say fewer words than we should. Here is what I mean. So often, when it comes to our faith, we so don’t want to offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable that we choose to remain silent rather than speaking. In turn, our silence leads to countless missed opportunities for sharing our faith or being authentic with others about who we are as believers.
This past week our family was on vacation. We went to the same beach on the Gulf Coast that our family has been traveling to for going on fifteen years. After that long, we felt that we knew the area pretty well. But, this year we experienced three new eating establishments that we had never been to before. In fact two of them were places we had never even heard of and this in a relatively small beach community. What led us to discover them or to go try them out? You know the answer before I give it. Other people told us about them — two personal and direct conversations with people we met and one set of online postings about restaurants in the area charted our course. We went because others in the natural course of everyday life suggested we should.
Talking about faith can happen the same natural way as others share with us their struggles, worries and basic life issues. As we listen, daily we have golden opportunities to speak about or church and our savior where a better life can be found and where their needs and worries can be addressed. In these daily life experiences let us not be silent.
Here is the irony of the verses from Proverbs to end with — in some areas of life we need to say less than we normally do and in one key area we need to say more than we normally do. In turn less us embrace the wisdom of doing both. Amen.