“The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.”
I begin again through the Compline liturgy, trying to integrate this ancient practice into my bedtime routine. Praying through these lines each night is new to me, a nod toward the start of a new year and a hope to ward off anxiety and insomnia.
But this ritual doesn’t fit me yet. It still feels awkward and uncomfortable like a twisted nightshirt that binds me up in the night. Each time I pull out the folded paper from my nightstand and pass a finger over the creeds, intercessions, and confessions, my thoughts fix on a different word or phrase as if reading it for the first time. Recently, it was this: “we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone.” And I wondered, how have I sinned in word today?
Of course it happened to be the day a friend told me how encouraging my words had been to her. A quickly recorded voice message on Voxer had bolstered her spirit, she said. I had used my words for good, I thought, quite the opposite of sinning through a word spoken or left unspoken. I exhaled, felt my shoulders relax. I began to think about how easy it is to use my words to compliment people or offer them a boost. I write letters, I send emails, I leave messages, I say “Hi” and “How are you?” at the CVS and in the bank drive-through.
I am kind and gentle with my words … most of the time. And when I’m not, when I’m harsh or biting or rude, it’s usually obvious to me. And through the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, and through the daily confession both in Compline and in morning prayer, I keep current with both the ministry and offense of my words.
And so, having worked through those words in prayer, I set aside the niggling that had first given me pause.
Until the next morning.
What if there are other ways to sin “in word” that are far less obvious than simply saying something harsh? And what if using words kindly involves far more than simply saying something nice?
In her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre makes a case for truth-telling as one of the primary ways we honor God and others with our words, going so far as to call precision a spiritual discipline. “Stewardship of words is a high calling, though not one that can be relegated to professionals. We are all called to be responsible hearers, speakers, and doers of the word,” she writes.
But telling the truth isn’t for the faint of heart. McEntyre calls it “an extreme sport for the very committed.” Not because the bald-faced lie is so hard to resist, but “because the varieties of untruth are so many and so well disguised. Lies are hard to identify when they come in the form of apparently innocuous imprecision, socially acceptable slippage, hyperbole masquerading as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda.”
It’s not just the political speech or the advertising campaign that has fallen victim to this deception either. As I interrogate my own life, I find a penchant toward exaggeration to make a point or flattery to persuade, and I’m equally vulnerable when such imprecision is used toward me. I’m also prone to overpromising, particularly in parenting, and sentimentality, especially in face of suffering. And then there’s the slippage that comes when I expect one poorly chosen word to mean more than it possibly could, not only assailing the word itself but inadequately communicating my meaning. And for every overstatement and poorly used metaphor I utter, I hear a dozen more all around me, from the pulpit, my social media feed, the daily newspaper, even our family dinner table.
With so much deception around us, can truth telling really make a difference? Does the precision of naming and restraint, of choosing the right word, of applying logic and reason really matter outside the classroom or the courtroom? What if “precision is, after all, not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion”?
The next night, as I prayed through the Compline and came once again to the confession of sin “in word,” I thought about McEntyre’s words that “to be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.” It’s not enough to judge our words based on how pretty or nice they are. It’s not kindness, for instance, to flatter someone with the goal of manipulating them. Or to deceive them with a glowing review of a product when we didn’t actually like it all that much. It’s not kindness, either, when we exaggerate our own circumstances in a way that engenders pity or envy, even.
Over the years, I’ve often wondered if the imprecise way we talk about our own lives isn’t also a kind of sin against others when we set up our stories as either normative on the one hand or exceptional on the other. As a single adult all the way into my early 40s, I was subjected again and again to the narratives from married people about how God brought them a mate. Sometimes, the story went something like “when I truly committed my life to God, he brought me a spouse,” with the implication that I hadn’t fully committed my own life to God or I, too, would be married. Other times, the story sounded more like “God told me when I was seven that I would marry a pastor, and I did,” as if my lack of divine utterance relegated me to a life of singleness.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t share our stories with each other. I’m simply advocating that we tell them with precision, embracing accuracy, nuance, subtlety, even humility. It means “we calibrate the differences between what we want words to mean and how they may be heard.” It may even mean we pick up words “from dusty corners where most of the good ones have been consigned to disuse and re-introduce them, hoping to ambush the listener who is contented with cliche,” as McEntyre suggests.
Sharing our stories with kindness for others also means that we use these interactions as an opportunity to work toward greater precision in our language … together. First, by defining our terms and asking others to define theirs when we don’t know how they are being used. By “humbly inquiring what the user means, and then listening,” McEntyre says we aren’t simply challenging their lack of precision; we’re helping them achieve it. At the same time, we might also leave “some play in the matter of definition and negotiating precise meaning” to all allow discussion, McEntyre says, such as allowing something “for the sake of argument.” As long as we are all working toward understanding with love, sometimes the precise meaning of words isn’t clear until we arrive at it together.
I’m grateful that liturgy invites us back again and again to the same words, a process in itself that creates a level of precision. But also because each day as I pray the Compline, I consider again and again the ways my words have blessed or cursed those around me.
Have I used my words in kindness or animosity?
Have I been precise or ambiguous?
Have I told the truth in love?