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Speaking in Polite Company

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). In Richard Mouw’s insightful book, Uncommon Decency – Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he discusses the ugly rhetoric that often marks our public and private conversations. The fiery presidential race we are all living through is simply a reflection of what’s already happening around the water cooler, on social media and, dare I say, even in the church.

Mouw cites the angry 17th century debates between Puritans and Quakers as evidence that this is nothing new. Richard Baxter, the great Puritan preacher, lumped Quakers with “drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches” and “other miserable creatures.” John Naylor, the Quaker leader felt compelled by “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” to respond by calling his Puritan opponent a “Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog.”[1] So much for Christian brotherly love.

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and then wondered later if “anyone else was listening”? I’m afraid that I have. The truth is that “Someone is listening” and that as Mouw says, we are always speaking in “polite company.” No word that we speak ever escapes the Divine presence; and some words should never be spoken at all. How might a deeper awareness that we are “Speaking in God’s Presence” change the tone and content of our daily verbal broadcasts?

We live and work and worship alongside people with very different convictions on a variety of topics. If we can converse with one another without speaking in a threatening or angry manner, and without the “win at all cost” attitude, we will come a long way. This is not to say that we can or should minimize our serious disagreements, but we can humanize them. Here is a four-point course of action:

1. First, treat others as you would want to be treated. Imagine someone with whom you have deep differences. Mouw suggests that we look at that person and, instead of assuming they have the worst motives for what they believe, assume they have the best. At the same time, consider some of the worst motives we might have for our own beliefs, and not just the best. This can help us listen to someone who we may normally be incapable of hearing.

2. Don’t bear false witness. It’s terrible to tell someone else what they believe instead of asking them what they believe. We need to ask them, talk with them, and “seek first to understand, then to be understood” (Stephen Covey).

3. Eat with tax gatherers and sinners (like you). The increasingly rare “family meal” is where patience and the ability to listen to others begins. As we learn to do this at home, we can learn to do this with strangers and those who are different from us. When we break bread together we also honor Christ…who brings together at his table an amazing variety of peoples and backgrounds… and all of us sinners in need of his grace.

Hope to see (and hear you) soon…

Pastor Steven Craig

[1] Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency (Downers Grove Il: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p. 49.


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