What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

I’m friends with a Nazarene pastor named Jay.  We worked on our doctoral degrees together.  On the whole, Nazarenes tend to be pretty conservative about lots of things – especially their behavior.  Historically, they don’t go to movies, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t wear jewelry, don’t gamble, etc., etc.

            While I try to be careful about what I say and how I say it, I can get in silly moods and say some foolish stuff – not hurtful, not mean, not inappropriate, not offensive – just goofy.  While my friend is a fun guy, and we laugh easily, he has a line he doesn’t cross.  More than once he has quoted Matthew 12:36 -37 to me, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

            Actually, he shortened it, just saying, “Every word.  Every word, my friend.”

Other versions say, “every idle word” or “every careless word” or “every useless word.”

The Bible actually says a lot about the kind of words that are not becoming for Christians to say…

  • Misusing the Lord’s Name
  • False Witness
  • Gossip
  • Meaningless Talk
  • Malicious Talk
  • Unwholesome Talk
  • Foolish Talk
  • Coarse Joking
  • Obscene Talk
  • Deception
  • Ignorant Talk
  • Corrupt Talk
  • Smooth Talk
  • Sinful Talk
  • Lies
  • Slander
  • Seductive Words
  • Perverse Words
  • Empty Words
  • Quarreling
  • Boastful Words
  • Defiant Words
  • Blasphemy
  • Grumbling
  • Cruel Words
  • Rash Words
  • Words of Hatred

There are also a number of good words, that we are supposed to say, which I will get to in a moment.  But, for now, back to Matthew 12:36, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” 

I can honestly say that when I imagine Judgement Day, and giving an accounting of my life, I tend to think about the deeds I have done and the deeds I haven’t done – the sins I have committed, and the good works I have omitted.  But, Jesus says that we will also be judged for every word which we have spoken.  EVERY WORD!

An image popped in my head the other day of a funeral service, and the public reading of everything the deceased has ever said – how many times they’ve gossiped; how many times they’ve cussed; how many times they’ve complained about the pastor; how many times they’ve been ugly or critical; how many times they’ve used the Lord’s name in vain.  For many of us, that would be a pretty lengthy report!

According to the Bible, what we say and how we say it matters a lot – enough for us to be held accountable to our words on Judgement Day!  If that doesn’t give you pause to consider your words, I don’t know what will!  That ought to be more effective than threatening to wash someone’s mouth out with soap!

John Calvin, the Church reformer said, “I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”

I grew up in a conservative home.  We didn’t go to church very much.  But, I was raised with a high standard of morality – including my language.  I was not allowed to cuss, or use bad language in any way.  In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to say things like gosh, golly, dang, or darn, as they were close to bad words – sort of.  My High School best friend made fun of me for frequently saying, “dadgummit” – I don’t even know how that one snuck into my vocabulary!

When I started a church in Port St. Lucie, one summer I offered my congregation the opportunity to put me to work.  One day each week of the summer, I was available to go to work with anyone who could work it out with their employer, and I would work for one day for free.  I rode with the Coast Guard.  I rode with Animal Control.  I worked in a kitchen in Jupiter – and others.  My desire was to experience the lives of my members.  It was great.  But, the biggest surprise from that experience was how much people cuss in the real world.  In the church, I don’t hear that a lot.  But, in the secular work place, I was amazed how much people cuss – all of the time.

While I’m not an advocate for using obscene language, I’ve also heard some supposed Christians say some pretty awful things without using four-letter words to do it.  So, we are not just talking about R-rated language.  We’re talking about anything said that is ugly, degrading, or just rude.

The point, of course, is the intent.  Are my words rooted and grounded in love?  Or, are they at best thoughtless, or, at worst, intentionally negative and harmful.

Why do words matter so much?  Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”  Words have power.

When we were kids we were taught, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  That’s a ridiculous lie!  Sticks and stones might hurt and leave bruises.  But, cuts and bruises heal.  Words wound.  Words wound deeply.  Some words wound permanently.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember the many nice things people say about us, but we can easily remember ugly things that were said?  Why? Because words have power, and ugly words seem to be particularly powerful.

A few days ago, I recalled an instance from my childhood.  I had made my father angry about something, which led to him following me outside, and accidentally locking us out of the house.  In his anger at the situation, and me, he said, “Get out of my sight.  I’m sick of looking at you.”  When I remembered it the other day, over 4 decades later, I wept.

Sticks and stones.

Gary Chapman writes that words can be either seeds or bullets.  When we speak words of encouragement, love, affirmation, gratitude, and kindness, we plant seeds in a person that can grow to become something beautiful.  But, when we speak words that are hurtful, condescending, destructive, belittling, and ugly, they can be like bullets that wound, injure and possibly even kill and destroy.

So, let’s do some honest self-assessment.  What kind of seeds are you planting – and in whom?  And, what kind of bullets are you shooting – and at whom?  In whom are you sowing seeds of blessing?  At whom are you firing bullets that injure and curse?

Maybe that’s another image.  On Judgement Day, will there be more evidence of the seeds you have planted through your words?  Or, will there be more evidence of the destruction you have caused by your word bullets?

Here’s another image.  Joyce Landorf Heartherly wrote a book called Balcony People.  She writes that we all need balcony people in our lives.  They are the ones who believe in us, encourage us, and cheer us upward.  But, many of us also have basement people in our lives.  They are the ones who insult and discourage us, and drag us down.  Her challenge is to be a balcony person for someone else – and to avoid being a basement person!

Biblically speaking, we are talking about blessing and cursing.  In the Bible, when a blessing or a curse was spoken over a person, it was believed that those words had power, and could not be taken back.  Blessings build people up.  Curses tear people down.

James 3:3-12 says, 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. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Well, frankly, that’s pretty discouraging.  James does not provide any hope of controlling our tongues at all!  He just names the problem as hopeless, and then tells us that we shouldn’t do it!  That’s a major problem!  If we will be judged for our words, and we can’t control them, we are all in big trouble!

While James doesn’t give us much help, thankfully other verses of scripture do.  For instance,

  • “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29
  • “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.”  Proverbs 4:24
  • “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
  • “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Romans 12:14

The point is, we have to be very intentional about what we say and what we don’t say.  We have to develop self-control when it comes to things like gossip, grumbling, complaining, criticizing and cussing.  And, we have to be intentional about speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and blessing – words rooted in love.

We may have to learn new habits and break old ones.  If you’re not in the habit of blessing, it may mean you need to learn a new language.  Or, you may have to relearn what we learned as children –  “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

            James is very clear that getting control of the tongue is hard.  But, this is the 40-day Summer Stretch!  And, I can’t think of anything that deserves more effort than controlling what we say, and what we don’t say.

Let me be very clear.  This does not mean that difficult, truthful, sometimes painful conversations can’t happen.  Sometimes, those conversations are necessary – even if they are hard.  Sometimes, avoiding difficult conversations is the worst thing we can do, and only makes the problem worse.  But, difficult conversations must be for the purpose of working through a problem, and offering forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation, and rebuilding what is broken.  They can never be for the purpose of hurting, or belittling, or tearing down.

In the village where I work in Guatemala, they speak a Mayan language called Quiche’.  The first word I learned in Quiche’ was “utz.”  It also seems to be the most frequently used word, in a variety of ways.

“Utz” simply means good.  If you like something, it is “utz.”  If you feel good, you are “utz.”  If you are healthy, you are “utz.”  When you greet someone, you say, “utz, uwuch?,” which basically means, “are you good?”  To which you respond, “utz.”  Or, if you are really good, you might say, “pudu utz,” or, more often, “utz, utz, utz.”  Or, if it’s really good, you might say, “pudu utz pin pin,” which means it is the best of the best!

When you are welcomed, you hear, “utz a patik,” which basically means, “good for you to come.”  If something is beautiful, it is “utz kakyak.”  If you like something, you say, “utz kinwilo,” which literally means it is good for you to look at.

If you want to know if you have done something correctly, you might ask, “utz?’  To which you will most likely be told, “utz.”  In essence, you spend the day asking and saying over and over, variations on a theme of “good.”

What if, at the core of everything we ever said was simply, “good?”

Eating Death

Eating Death

On my way to work, this morning, I noticed a “committee” of buzzards (yes – a group of buzzards is a “committee”) sitting on street lights, brooding above a dead road-kill possum they obviously wanted for breakfast, but couldn’t reach because of the morning traffic.

I hate buzzards.  Actually, that’s an understatement.  I loathe buzzards.  They repulse me.

Buzzards – also known as vultures (We call ’em buzzards in the South!) – live on death.  They can be frequently spotted along country roads and highways, dining on recent road kill.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ridden a motorcycle in the country, and encountered a “committee” of buzzards feasting on a carcass in the middle of the road.  No matter how loud my bike is, or how many times I honk my horn, buzzards always wait until the last minute to get out of my way – not willing to risk stepping away from their meal and losing it to another buzzard.  And, every single time, one of the buzzards seems to fly straight at me, swerving away at the last possibly moment.

I’m disgusted by buzzards.

There’s one more terrible thing about buzzards.  A buzzard’s primary self-defense is to projectile vomit when it feels threaten.  Since the only thing a buzzard eats is dead, rotting road kill, then the only thing they can vomit is regurgitated, partially-digested death.

Disgusting.  Really.  So gross!

As much as I hate – I mean loathe – buzzards, if I am completely honest, I’m a bit of a buzzard, myself.  I feast on death every day.  I bet you do too.











Everyday, life presents an endless, all-you-can eat buffet of rotting, stinking death and despair.

And, I’ll confess, sometimes, if Imm not very careful, it spews out on others.

What a disgusting image!  And, unfortunately, accurate.

Maybe I should be more careful about what I eat.



I believe in the power of words.

Words can build up.  Words can tear down.

Words can encourage.  Words can wound.

Words can bless.  Words can curse.

Very few words are powerless and without consequence.

I believe, deeply, in the power of words.

“Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.”  Proverbs 13:3

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”  James 3:9-10

Years ago, I was influenced by a book by the Christian psychologist and author, M. Scott Peck, A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered.

Civility.  Ive been thinking a lot about civility lately.  When I think of civility I think of respect and common decency – an absence of ugliness.  Civility is more than superficial politeness.  Civility is respect.  I especially think of how we communicate with and about one another.

Peck writes, “Genuine civility is a form of healing behavior that demands often painful honesty and the scalpel of candor.”

Civil behavior is painfully honest and full of unvarnished truth.  And, the purpose of civil behavior and speech is healing.

Words spoken civilly are truthful and heartfelt.  Civil words can be painful to hear and still be civil.  But, civil words are never intended to inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain.  Civil words are intended to build up, not tear down.

It is quite possible to 100% disagree with what someone believes, does or says, and still treat them, and speak to them or about them, civilly.

I believe, passionately, in the need for civil words.

I attended Duke Divinity School in the early 1990’s, and was officially introduced to “political correctness” for the first time, just as the term was coming into vogue, at least in academic circles.  Thankfully, already believing in the power of words and civility, “political correctness” simply gave shape, form, and intentionality to my communication.  My understanding of “political correctness,” and attempts to practice it, has simply been to be as respectful in my speech and action as I can be.  If a word or phrase is offensive, then I avoid it.  If another word or phrase is more accurate or edifying, I strive to adapt it.

I cannot remember a single occasion that I have been offended by someone’s correction or request to use different language.  Nor can I think of a single time that I’ve felt overburdened by being intentional about my words.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe that the burden is mine to avoid being hurtful, harmful, or offensive.  Not only that.  The burden is also mine to speak “the truth in love.”  I can adjust what I say and how I say it for the sake of others.  To be Christ-like is to be civil.

All of a sudden, in the last couple of years, “political correctness,” in some circles, has become a bad word, while crass, careless, disrespectful speech is being celebrated.  We’ve abandoned civility, and I think we are worse for it.

I’m so sick of the venom, of the small-ness, the falsity, the vitriol.

So, call it whatever you want – political correctness, civility, respect, common-decency.  I call it civility.  I call it Christ-like.  I call it right.  And, I think we need a lot more of it.