Monday, January 26, 2009


I would like to personally thank Barack Obama for bringing back to the forefront of public life the fine art of oratory. Not that the new President of the free world will ever read these words, but I believe it must be noted that Barack Obama has, at least for a new generation, awakened a love for the speech on a grand level.

Regardless of where we might fall on his politics, there is no denying that the guy can bring it when addressing a crowd and the crowds love it.

Recently a few of my colleagues had a vibrant discussion on the place of the preaching and oratory proclamation in the life of the Church. Is it really necessary? What form should it take? I have been wondering if a new generation, so saturated and bemused by image, was beyond the discipline of listening. Had my cohort and younger colleagues become immune to the power of oratory? This question has profound implications for what it means to be the followers of Jesus Christ.

After all, the Scriptures, though written, are primarily the result of oratory. In the Bible we hear the speech of God, even as it is read. Further, what the people of God bring to the world is a proclamation; we bring the oratory of Good News, even as it is brought to life in our active love and service. If in this age we no longer hear or want to hear the peculiar gift of oratory then is not God somehow, mysteriously, muted?

Among Christians there has been a renewed infatuation with the truthful words of St. Francis Assisi, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.” Our love for this word is bound up in the repulsion some have had to speech that was not evidently lived. None of us are keen on speech that is merely idea, theory or a dogma. This repulsion to banal speech is understandable, even laudable, but even Francis’ call to preach with our lives was spoken! Good St. Francis did not send it telepathically. His words had bite because they were true, because they were heard and because he lived what he spoke.

What our deadened souls await is to be stirred, inspired, and set on fire. Maybe that is why Obama stirs so many, for he awakens them with his oratory and not simply his policies (probably very few who voted for or against him would be able to articulate his policies at all, but they know “Yes we can”). Of course, speech without meat is no better than meat without speech, but a generation starved for fine oratory is willing to take the risk on that which awakens the depths (Look here for a powerful sign of appreciation for Obamatory).

So, perhaps it’s not so much that we are now immune to the speech. Obama’s oratory has proven to me, at least, that even a younger generation has ears itching to hear. Perhaps, like others before us, we are simply immune to bad speech? Perhaps it’s that we are immune to the speech without follow through? Perhaps we want to hear speeches that stir us, move us, and are lived before us. Thus far, that’s what so many hear of Obama and his oratory. Of course, like others before him, he will be judged and polled on his follow through; on his ability to put flesh on his word.

And, ultimately, this is what God alone has done with his speech in Jesus Christ for the sake of you, me, and Mr. President and his fine Obamatory (John 1:1-14).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lead with your tongue

Each of us is possessed with great influence and a great influencer—our tongues. The words we say matter very much. Even further, identifying those who should have influence over us is founded on whether their words are truly from heaven. Are they truly wise? How do we know? We know because those who have golden tongues are those whose speaking matches God’s speech and whose speaking matches their God-shaped living.

The bishop of Constantinople (present day Istanbul) in the early days of official Christendom was John Chrysostom. In the late 300s A.D., Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. With this rise to prominence, the church went from being a dynamic, organic movement to a religious institution, and power and money began to erode the truth of the gospel.

Constantinople—named after Emperor Constantine, who legalized the Christian faith—became one of the main centres of Christianity, and John was the preacher of this important city. Because of his masterful way with words, he became known as “Chrysostom” (the golden mouthed). But John did not play the part that the powerful wanted him to. Instead of patting the back and tickling the ears of the comfortably religious, he called for truth, justice and Christ-like living.

In one inspired moment he waxed eloquently, “Do you pay such honour to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?” When a church culture pays more attention to poop than people, you know something smells. John’s tongue was a sword of truth.

Needless to say, his golden mouth got him into trouble and eventual exile to the hinterlands of the Caucasus. If you teach what is right, be prepared! Golden tongues often get not-so-golden handshakes.

The true teacher knows truth is not negotiable. The true teacher knows whom he or she answers to. The true teacher is captured by the Teacher, lives the faith and yearns for faith to be lived. Words matter. We lead with our tongues.

This is why false teaching is a predominant concern in Scripture. A small bit can control a horse, a small rudder can steer a ship, and a tiny spark can destroy a whole forest. Our tongues—connected to what lives in our hearts and minds—can turn the course of lives and communities for good or ill (James 3:3-6).

What we teach and speak, has influence. Remember Eden: What led us under the bondage of sin? It was not the fruit, but the forked-tongue of the serpent: “Did God really say . . . ?” (Genesis.3:1). Since then, our tongues lead towards hell. Destruction rather than redemption can be our witty aim. We use words to tear down and gossip.

Without shame, we’ll even use our sophisticated and learned tongues to twist the speech of God.

Does your tongue guide those you influence into the truth of God? Do your words harness kingdom beauty and strength? Whose teaching is given influence over our communities? Where is the tongue leading these days?