Thirteen years ago my younger sister moved to England. Her husband is British. They met while he was working for a church over here. However, after they married they went back across the Atlantic so he could attend seminary and they have been there ever since. She has now spent over a decade immersed in the Queen’s English, so talking with her now can be interesting. She grew up in southern Indiana, and most of her pronunciations of words still come straight from the Hoosier state. However, our accents are more than just the way we pronounce words. It is also the words we use to describe things as well as our syntax, the way we structure sentences, which create an accent. So my sister still pronounces words with an Indiana twang, but the flow of her speech is much more in line with an English accent. She also tends to use the British words for things such as calling the trunk of a care the boot. So I suppose she ended up with a Hoosier English accent.
I find accents fascinating. It is incredible how with the same language just making minor changes in how we form and say words can completely change how it sounds. In areas like the middle of the Midwest (like Indiana), we like to think that we do not have accent. However, that is because we tend to consider our way of speaking to be “normal”. Everyone has an accent, because an accent is the pronunciation, the cadence, the phrasing, and the idiosyncrasies of how we learn to speak. While accents can modify and change over time, we tend to form these when we are very young and without a lot of intentional work we never really outgrow the accent we learn growing up. Our accent can speak to where we are from, even within the same country. For instance if you met a group of people that included someone from North Dakota, Texas, and Brooklyn you would probably be able to tell who was from where just by talking to them for a few minutes. An accent is a way that our words communicate something about us, about where we are from, and about who we are. When I read this morning’s scripture I have to wonder just what would a Christian accent sound like? If you hear someone with a Scottish accent talk for instance, there is no doubt where they are from. Howe can our words communicate that we are part of the body of Christ?
Sometimes to get a better understanding of scripture, it require some careful cultural and historical context to unpack but not this one. What it is saying is perfectly clear, and the point still rings true today. Our words can get us in trouble. The old saying goes sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me is a bold faced lie. Words can cut deeper. Words may not break our bones but they can piece our hearts and crush our souls. This morning’s scripture also points out that just like a bit directs an animal or a rudder steers a ship, our words guide us. The tone we take, and the way we talk with other can be a guiding force in our lives. Just like our accent, the way we pronounce our words, communicates something about us, the way that we use words also communicates something about our character and heart. Practically speaking, to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ we need to sound like faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Just like the way a person speaks might reveal where they are from, the words we use and the way we speak should naturally point others to Jesus. We should be known by our Christian accent. I think there are three ways to develop the proper accent.
First, we have to be mindful of our words. In this morning’s scripture James is quick to point out there is an odd juxtaposition in how we use words. As James writes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father and with it we curse human beings who have been made in God’s image. Out of the same mother comes praising and cursing. My brothers and sisters this should not be.” I really appreciate how James makes this clear at the end of this morning’s scripture by comparing our words to a spring of water. I do not know if you ever had the experience of being in the ocean, being hit by a wave, and getting a mouthful of salt water but it is not the most pleasant of experiences. The contrast between drinkable, clean water and salt water is strong. One gives life and the other can be caustic and destructive. The words we use, the way we speak with other people can either be refreshing and life giving or they can be bitter and salty.
It is a common idiom to refer to what we call curse words as salty language. However, this scripture is about more than avoiding George Carlin’s seven dirty words. It is very possible to curse without cussing. This scripture is about the intentions of our words, do they build up or do they tear down. Salty language can never use a four letter word but still be dripping with anger, cynicism, and sarcasm. I know that it is in part because negativity seems to always be louder than the positive, but in Christian circles and from Christian commentators it feels like we hear a lot more salty language than refreshing language. It is not hard to find a lot of negativity. It seems often people more readily know what Christians are against because of all that we complain about instead of words lifting up and celebrating what we are for, which is lives set free from sin and transformed by love.
Sometimes people try to spin being so salty as a positive. Someone might be quick to say, “They just tell it like it is” or “it’s not my fault if someone else can’t handle the truth.” But that’s not being honest is it? When someone says they are just telling it like it is, they are not trying to engage in honest conversation, they are trying to destroy someone else’s position. We are not telling it like it is, we are using our words to tear someone else down. We are purposely using salty words that are intentionally meant to be bitter to the people we are speaking to. Our words can be absolutely destructive which is why James wrote “The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”
A Christian accent should not be on that is salty. The opposite of salty and bitter is uplifting and edifying. Jesus himself talks about this and in Matthew 13:35-37 Jesus states: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
We can tell the sound of a Christian accent because the words are not empty, they are sincere, they build up, and they are good. As Christians we should have good stored up in us because of the abundant overflowing of grace from God the Father made known by Jesus the son, and that good should flow out in our words. A Christian accent is not known for the gossip it spreads, it is known by being a non-anxious presence that brings peace and assurance. A Christian accent is not characterized by a cynical attitude or harsh sarcasm. It is known by encouragement that inspires. A Christian accent is not known by empty words and hollow boasts, it is known by sincere empathy and genuine love. A Christian accent is not known by its cursing, it is known by the praises of the Great God it sings. One of the ways that we develop a Christian accent is that we have to be mindful of our words. Our words should be true but they should also be kind. Before we speak we should ask ourselves if our words are going to be like salt water or spring water to the person we are speaking to because the way we use our words speak to the goodness in our heart and show just how much Jesus is truly Lord of our life.
The second way to develop a Christian accent is to realize that we cannot fake it. Because our words flow from our hearts. The funny thing about a Christian accent, is that even people who are not Christians can tell when someone is faking it, because it is possible to try and fake a Christian accent. Someone can attend church, they can use the right words, the can “amen” and “alleluia”, and they can sound very churchy. However, if Monday morning through Saturday night, it is a different story, then that is the very thing that this morning’s scripture is all about. Out of the same mouth should not come praise and cursing. We cannot fake a Christian accent, the way we speak on Sunday morning is the same way we should speak the rest of the week. Christian author Brennan Manning once rightly said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” We cannot fake it because again, a Christian accent flows from our heart, it is an outpouring of goodness because we have responded and are filled with God’s goodness.
While we should not fake a Christian accent, the reality is that we also have to learn it. We all fall short of being Christ like. We are all works in progress. Speaking and acting like Christ is something we grow and transform into. This is why the in the psalms we find the prayer “Create in me a clean heart.” We may not have it down yet, but we develop a Christian accent by earnestly seeking to be more Christ like. If a Christian accent is the way that our words and way of conducting ourselves so that others know that we follow Jesus, then that takes time to develop and learn. This then, is the third way we can develop a Christian accent: We practice it. We should regularly practice that the words we speak are uplifting, encouraging, full of grace, and love. We can practice doing this daily with great ease, because we all have an internal monologue going constantly, and there is a good chance the way we speak to ourselves is salty not refreshing. Studies have found that for the average person 60-70% of their self-talk is negative. Instead of being judgmental other others in our self-talk we should focus on the fact that the person is loved, valued, and cherished by God. Instead of constantly putting ourselves down in our own self talk we can acknowledge our need for grace but hopefully focus on how we can do better and that we also are fearfully and wonderfully made by God. Our self-talk should still have a Christian accent. It should still be uplifting and edifying. It should bring life, peace, and joy.
This morning’s scripture points out that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison.” Getting control of the words we say and the way we use them may be a tall task. James may be true, it something that no human can do. . . on their own, but with God all things are possible. So may your words not be empty or salty, but may the way you speak to others be refreshing and life giving. The words we use speak volumes about our character and our hearts, so may your words give you a Christian accent. May you not just speak like a Christian on Sunday mornings but may your words always be full of grace, truth, and light. May the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ reside deep in your heart, may that love like a fresh water spring pour out of you, so that when you speak everyone wants to hear what you have to say.