Friday, 14 September 2018

The Teacher’s Achilles Heel

As I prepare to go on Retreat for a few days this morning I have been looking at what our Christian may have to say about teaching especially in the letter of James. The teaching profession has always received mixed reactions and the following comments I make are at times with tongue in cheek. However, Teachers are universally revered while at the same time young people are advised not to become teachers because the salaries are low, and some even denigrate teachers. There is the “truism”: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This same ambivalence is found in the religious world. Theological professors and teachers are often paid ridiculously low salaries and are sometimes ridiculed by their students as being “unable to minister and pastor in a parish.”

This week when James in our scripture from the Letter of James chapter 3, talks about teaching, he is not just talking to any particular group. He is reminding us that all Christians who are baptised have a responsibility for sharing the faith, teaching the faith and living the faith. When a child becomes the newest member of the body of Christ they will, as they grow learn from observing the actions of the community that is present. The newly baptised will learn from observing daily living out of the community’s faith. From those learning’s, they will mature and take their place as each one has done before them and be a light of Christ in this world.

James tells us that most people in the church should avoid teaching because religious teachers will be held to a higher standard by God. Christians are meant to be careful about everything we say and do. James warns those teachers who cannot control their tongues. He goes on to imply that it is the Achilles heel for teachers who speak erroneously. James is quick to admit that all Christians commit sins of the tongue, not only teachers. It’s an assertion that hardly ever receives any argument. James could say with Isaiah the prophet, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Nevertheless, He gives several warnings against allowing one’s tongue to go unregulated.

James likens an unbridled tongue to a ship without a rudder, or a fire that is out of control. James also suggests that there are some areas where one can control one’s tongue. Blessing and cursing should not come from the same mouth. If speaking error is a sin into which we all fall, I wonder why James singles out teachers. He seems to believe that teachers are especially vulnerable to the problem of controlling what comes from their mouth. Teachers use words more frequently than do most people and their vocation has them bear a great burden.

Students hang on to their every word as those growing up in the Church and even outside the church will hang on to the words and take in the actions you show forth in your lives. Remember how important our role is, in sharing the faith and encouraging and supporting others in their faith journey. God will hold teachers and each one of us accountable for what we have taught about our faith and how we have demonstrated that faith in our lives. For ministers and for laypeople that teach and belong in the church, this can be discouraging.

To add to this warning, James says that our words are spiritual indicators. The words that we use indicate what is in our hearts. If our words are not spiritual, then we aren’t spiritual either. This does not mean that James is advocating for a spiritualist vocabulary. On the contrary, he wants our words to be judged by their sincerity. This idea is often ignored in conversations among Christians let alone to those outside the faith. In an attempt to “be spiritual” Christians are tempted to use religious language as a means to impress others. This is the very thing James warns against.

This kind of warning resounds throughout the book of James. He is worried that Christians will say all the right things but fail to do the right things. He argues with those who talk about faith but fail to emphasise deeds that come in reaction to God’s love and grace. The proof of one’s spirituality is not only what you say, but what you do. So, this warning about what you say is important. It is a reminder that words are deeds in the sense that they can help or hurt the person who speaks them and the person who hears them.

One might be tempted to become mute in light of James’s warning concerning the dangers of sinful speech. However, that is not what he recommends.  We are encouraged not to be silent, but we are to use our words wisely. Words can be hurtful, and they can injure at a distance. But words also can be used for good or for evil. The key is in learning how to control our tongues. This means learning to think before we speak. It also means choosing words that do not offend or label. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it important? It obviously is. Look at the current action in our Parliament if you need an example of how not to do it.

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