January 2021 number 3
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Words are very powerful things. What we say and how we use them can have great impact on people for good and at time for bad. Words can stir people to Kingdom action, can win hearts and minds to a righteous cause and encourage people to reach their potential in life. Yet when people slander or gossip about others or about situations, then untold damage can be done.
The Bible reflects this in many places but as just look at these examples in the Book of Proverbs. Here the Bible clearly indicates the sinful nature of ‘gossip’ and gives us some interesting advice: “A gossip tells secrets, so don’t hang around with someone who talks too much” (Proverbs, 20:19); “It is foolish to belittle a neighbour; a person with good sense remains silent. A gossip goes around revealing secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence” (Proverbs, 11:12-13); “A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends. ”My own favourite being: (Proverbs 16:28); “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Proverbs 26:20)
I remember being told this cautionary tale. The 16th Century St. Philip Neri assigned a penance, a task to a woman for her sin of spreading gossip. Let us be clear that men are equally as guilty of gossiping as well, as we shall see.
He instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the church belltower, rip it open, and scatter the feathers to the four winds. This probably was not the kind of penance this woman, or any of us, would have been used to. But the penance didn’t end there. Philip Neri gave her a second, and more, difficult task. He told her to come down from the belltower and collect all the feathers. The poor woman, of course, couldn’t do it – and that was the point Philip Neri was trying to make in order to underscore the destructive nature of gossip. When we detract from others in our speech, our malicious words are scattered abroad, and cannot be gathered back. They continue to spread dishonour and division in people’s minds days, months, and even years after we have spoken them, as they pass from one talebearer to the next.
We have seen in our present times what this can lead to. Ex-President Trump’s continual, baseless claims about the election being ‘stolen’ has fed into the conspiracy theorists such as Qanon, as well as into the right-wing white-supremacist militias. His fragile narcissistic ego could not face reality, so seeks to warp reality. His constant repeating of such lies, despite 60 lawsuits being thrown out over allegations of voter fraud, encouraged those people who stormed the Capitol in Washington, leading to the loss of life. Yet even after he appeared slightly contrite, he yet again repeated those baseless slanders and continued to gossip those lies. Now he has left the White House there can be little hope that he will not continue to speak and even if he did, those words resonate still.
We too must hold our politicians to account for mistruths, propaganda and downright lies. The church is to be the Nathan to the David of government and power. That is how we protect the weak, the vulnerable and the powerless against unabated power.
Equally we have a responsibility as Christians to hold our own tongues in check. We know the power of words as we are moved not just by words of scripture but also by the words we sing (when again allowed to) in our worship, stirred by hymns and songs past and present.
Let us use our words to build one another up, to encourage each other and to proclaim the truths of our faith and the love of God in Jesus Christ, the Word that God spoke to us.
Rev. Mark Barrett
Superintendent Presbyteral Minister of the North Wiltshire Methodist Circuit.
Presbyteral Minister for Bath Road, St. Andrew’s and Rodbourne Methodist churches.