Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
Say anything. That is the age we live in. We use words to get attention. In a noisy world, we want to be heard. So we raise our voices and our claims. And, the louder and the more outrageous, the better. This is most notable in our current presidential politics. But, it is not confined to politics. Getting people to pay attention has become a value proposition for media and online businesses. Not surprisingly, attention getting has become an end in itself. Never mind the reality behind the words.
So what does this have to do with our text?
In my last reflection, I focused on the importance of gratitude as we begin our Lenten journey. Even though Lent is associated with self-denial, such ascetic disciplines need to be rooted in an understanding of all of life as gift. Even our ascetical practices must be done in a context of thankfulness to God rather than to win his approval. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
This week, I want to focus on the text, “Pay your vows to the Most High.” Vows are a particular kind of speech. Vows mean we are serious about our words. We make vows when we get married, because we intend our words — our commitment to those words — to last a lifetime. So, the Psalmist reminds us, there is a price to be paid when we make a vow. We must follow through — for better and for worse. We cannot just say one thing and do another, at least with respect to our vows.
Jesus, however, raises the stakes on how we use words in ordinary speech, public and private. Recounting the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, James says “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no.” (James 5:12; see also Matthew 5:37) Our words are meant to be congruent with our actions, whether they are said in the form of a vow or not. Ordinary promises are made to be kept. Why is that so important?
In the Creation narrative, God spoke the universe into being. For God, words are not just conveyors of information or ways to get attention. There are no mere words. Words create. God spoke and brought form out of formlessness. God spoke and filled his creation with teeming life. Perhaps that’s why I find myself attracted to the work of poets. Poets also use words to create.
And, much of leadership is like that. Our words set direction and shape the organization and people we lead. But, our words must match reality and be matched by a personal and organizational commitment to their fulfillment. As Max De Pree has said, “At the heart of fidelity is truth-telling and promise-keeping.” We need congruence between our speech, the world we live in, and the actions we live out.
So, here is the dark side in all of this. Whenever we say words we don’t mean or that don’t match reality that we know to be true, we participate in the opposite of creation. Trust is undermined. Organizational confidence erodes. To put it into the imagery from the biblical narrative, form dissolves into formlessness. Chaos replaces order. De-creation.
It may start small, but it invariably compounds. That is why Jesus warns, “anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37) That is also why Scripture has such strong prohibitions against lying. Lying, in word or deed, is forbidden precisely because it contributes to the de-creation and dis-ordering of the good world in which God has placed us. When we fail to take our ordinary speech seriously, we participate not in God’s work in the world but in its undoing.
So, “pay your vows to the Most High”. And, don’t just take your vows seriously, but your ordinary speech as well. Let there be congruence between your words and your life and work. Speak the truth about the world you live in and fulfill the promises you make as a leader. If you are at all like me, this doesn’t always come easily. But, Lent is a great time to acknowledge our struggles and our failures. And, for that we can be grateful.
Is using words to create rather than just to inform a new idea to you? How do you use words to create in your work?
How have you seen congruence between words and actions, or the lack thereof, affect your work environment? How have you seen that effect in others? How have you seen it in yourself?
This Lenten season, how could you take your ordinary speech more seriously? What promises are you making in your life and work that you have trouble keeping? Why do you think that is?
Gracious Father, we are grateful for your gift of life and for your gift of mercy. We acknowledge that our words are often disconnected from our actions. We say one thing and do another. We make promises and then are unwilling to pay the price to keep them.
Forgive us for the incongruity of our lives. By your Spirit, fashion in us your faithfulness. “Shape a Genesis week from the chaos of our lives.” (Psalm 51:10 The Message)
Use our words and actions to bring life and flourishing to the people and organizations we lead.
We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.