Leaving Salem

Years ago, when I served as a pastor in North Georgia, I had an afternoon off. I decided to squeeze in a quick round of golf. There is a suspicion that pastors only work one day a week, so they can golf any time they like. Not so. The “one-day-a-week” work week is a vicious rumor propagated by the internet. This was a splendid summer afternoon begging for long drives and birdie putts. So I headed off to the links. Upon arrival I was greeted by three guys needing one more to complete their foursome. I jumped in with them and headed for the first tee.

The fellow sharing the cart with me was a big, burly gentleman, though gentleman is too complimentary a term. I quickly learned that he had a terrible slice. He put his tee shot into the woods. This ball was chased by two quick mulligans. Upon leaving the fairway vacant, he tore loose with a flurry of colorful language. The adjectives and verbs rolled for what seemed like five minutes. A knot began forming in my stomach. Cursing doesn’t bother me too much. Growing up in the country I learned that farming animals and diesel engines only work when properly tongue lashed with a heavy dose of profanity. The nausea in my stomach was not the result of his vivid use of the King’s English.

No, it was because I knew at some point in this round, out of innocent socializing, someone in my foursome would turn to me and ask, “So, what do you do for a living?” Things might get a little uncomfortable at that juncture. I didn’t have long to wait. My cart-partner, upon catching his breath, turned, looked straight at me and said, “I hope to God you ain’t a damn preacher.” For a moment the sun slipped behind a cloud; the birds stopped singing; the world failed to turn on its axis. I grimaced and said, “You know, I’m afraid I am.”  My golf partners just stared at me, eyes bulging from their sockets.

The silence was broken with a stuttering, “You’re kidding, right?” To which I said, “I wish I was.” I went on to have one of the best rounds of my life. The other three didn’t play very well, not knowing whether to smoke their beer or drink their pot. It was absolutely priceless, worthy of an appearance on Candid Camera.

The Psalmist David once prayed, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19). David rightly understood that the heart and mouth are connected. What is inside a person – in their heart – will eventually be made evident by the words on his or her lips. I like to think of the heart as a sponge. No, not that muscle in the center of our chest that pumps blood to our extremities. By heart I mean something more Eastern, more Hebrew. The ancient Jews often spoke of the heart as the location of human emotions, passions, and personality. The heart holds, like a sponge, what we really are.

When pressure is applied, what is on the inside will come out. There’s no stopping it. A driver cuts us off on the highway; our boss questions the quality of our work; our spouse throws barbed words in our direction; an errant tee shot misses the fairway – these act like the wringing and squeezing of our hearts. Such moments can be more than embarrassing. They can be downright hurtful for those around us. For once words are spoken they can never be retrieved or cancelled. These words go on to burn in the ears of those who hear them for a lifetime. Is it no wonder David prayed that his words, at first born in the quietness of his heart, would be pleasing to God?

The only remedy for a mouth run amok is a sanitized heart. If what we say under pressure is going to change, it will be because what is inside us – who we really are – has changed. When the meditations of our hearts are healthy and clean, so will be the words of our mouths. This isn’t a bad idea. You just never know who might be listening.

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