Aesop wrote a fable about a donkey who discovered a lion's skin. He tried it on, strutted around, and scared many animals.
Soon a fox came along and the donkey tried to frighten him, too.
But when the fox heard the donkey's voice, the fox said, "If you want to terrify me, you'll have to disguise your bray."
Aesop's moral? Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words always give him away.
Our words always and ultimately betray our hearts. Jesus taught in Luke 6:45, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
And Proverbs 8:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”
Every word affects ourselves and the people around us.
In a sense, there is no small talk. Every word matters. Idle, empty words diminish. Measured, honest words build up.
So I want to call us today to words of praise.
We can accept a culture of criticism and harsh words, or we can commit to the opposite practice of the art of praise.
Praise changes things. This is true of the praise we give to God and the praise we give to one another.
When we praise God, we affirm God’s mystery, sovereignty and creative capacity for both stability and change. When we praise the ones we love, we draw out the best in them, affirming their worth. When we even find something to praise in our enemies, we open ourselves to reconciliation and peace.
In a religious sense, praise lifts us up. Praise lifts us heavenward to see things as God sees them. Praise transforms us, sustaining us through the hardest of days. Praise can flip a situation, bring light into darkness, and heal a broken heart.
How can we practice the art of praise?
We need first to learn to offer praise even in the worst of times. What if the worst of situations didn’t bring out our worst selves?
Not long ago I found myself angry and frustrated at an airport. It was clear that the person in front of me could not solve my problem as I would have liked. But it was also clear that angry words were not going to help. So I paused, dug deep and then expressed a compliment. The result? The person became my advocate rather than my enemy, working for a solution that was better than expected.
This leads to the second idea: our praise needs to be steeped in humility. When we go off on a rant, it’s all about us. We’re just venting out, how we alone are affected. No one is edified by a rant.
Paul counsels in Ephesians, “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)
Aesop was right. Our speech and the type of wisdom that governs our tongues always displays the state of our hearts.
What’s really needed in America is a change of heart. This is the time of soul-searching, of creating a new culture, of collectively deciding who we will be as a nation.
But perhaps if we started by paying attention to our words, offering measured, meaningful words of goodness and praise to others, listening more than speaking, we could be transformed from the outside in.