Brian Underwood: Think before you pick up this call

Remember the parlor game Telephone played at children’s parties and get-togethers?

It’s the one where the players sit close to one another in a circle and the first person in the circle whispers a word or phrase into the ear of the person sitting next to him.

The game continues with each person whispering the phrase to the next person in the circle until it reaches the last person. At that point, the last player says aloud the word or phrase out loud so everyone can hear how much it has changed from the first whisper.

The results from a game of Telephone bring laughter and wonderment about how a simple whisper can change so dramatically as it moves through the chain. However, the result of a rumor or vitriolic whisper in every-day life is no laughing matter.

Reputations can, and have been, incinerated within a matter of minutes, even seconds, for unkind and unfounded tidbits shared about others. The motive is all-too-often the need for the teller to elevate himself, to somehow feel superior by making someone else appear inferior.

Perhaps you’ve been a victim of this, but if not, you’ve more than likely been a participant. We can all chalk it up to the sinful part of our nature that Martin Luther would say fills us as both “sinner and saint.”

God’s law clearly tells us through the Ten Commandments to not bear false witness against our neighbor, and yet we readily do so, too often with impunity.

The Book of James, first allegorically and then directly, in Chapter 3, verses 3-5, clearly speaks to how something so small, like our tongue, can spark such big fires.

“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.

Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

And so since we know the next big blaze to be set is but one lapse (being charitable) away, how can we curb the practice and temptation of saying unkind things?

Working from a contemporary reference that has been penned in different ways and ascribed to several individuals is the mantra, “Is it kind, is it necessary, and is it helpful?” To be sure, this is a good filter, but actually applying that filter really goes to the condition of our heart. It’s not a simple matter of applying an algorithm and, viola, we’re on the road to kindness. This comes with the day-to-day work of seeking a clean heart through a relationship with The Lord, which goes hand-in-glove with recognizing our sinful ways, seeking forgiveness, granting mercy, and walking humbly with the Lord. (Micah 6:8)

Jesus, when challenged by the Pharisees to proclaim the greatest commandment, gently put it this way, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

By God’s amazing grace, He loves us unconditionally - in spite of the forest fires we start in the lives of others with our tongues. He knows our inherent weaknesses and gives us His Word and his sacraments as means of grace to have a personal relationship with him.

The Apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans 5:8, “ But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

So, the next time you’re on the telephone, with a colleague by the water cooler, in line at the grocery store, and particularly when tempted at church, remember the raging inferno we can create with the smallest of whispers. Instead, simply put that telephone on silent, and if temptation rings, block the call.

Brian Underwood is director of School Development at Sierra Lutheran High School.


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