Constructive Thoughts

“What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26- NRSV).

Constructive thoughts are thoughts that build up rather than tear down. There are enough blogs that bemoan the existence and thoughts of others, or wish to deconstruct the cherished beliefs, heritage, and shared history of our parents. There is certainly a place for pointing out what is rotten about faith and life. No one disagrees, for example, that lies, prejudices, and illiteracy need to be removed and replaced with good things. I will always have an axe to grind with isolated, arrogant, and repressed Christianity—warped expressions of faith that have been part of my own journey. Passion against these ideas will surely show up in my constructive thoughts.

In carpentry, if the integrity of the studs in a wall are in question, then they must be removed but what is the end goal? Is is not to replace and restore? You can beat things with a hammer or you can use it skillfully. In fact, one side of a straight-clawed hammer can hit a nail on the head and effectively fasten something together or be turned around to pry loose and rip apart. I have no interest in just beating things with my writing. I place my fingers on these keys, ultimately, to fasten thoughts together and strengthen, not rip apart and weaken. I write to steady and bring clarity, not destabilized and confuse.

I’m aware that often our focus on loving God with our minds means that, in our preaching or writing, we don’t put the cookies on the lower shelf. We use big words and often enjoy speaking over people’s heads. We talk without communicating. My favorite passage on this theme is 1 Cor. 14:

“Let love be your highest goal! But you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives—especially the ability to prophesy.For if you have the ability to speak in tongues,* you will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit,* but it will all be mysterious.But one who prophesies strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them. A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally, but one who speaks a word of prophecy strengthens the entire church” (1 Cor. 14:1-4- NLT).

1 Cor.14:1-26 addresses the problem of un-interpreted tongues. It’s within a context that teaches that spiritual gifts are for the common good (1 Cor 12:7) and that love is the greatest and most important gift to pursue (1 Cor. 13). Although viewed by many as being about charismatic issues only (i.e., speaking in tongues), I see this passage as having great application to Presbyterians like me. Our intellectual bent often results in “un-interpreted tongues” for many of our listeners. This passage teaches, rather, that we should speak clearly in a way that helps people. The goal of our speech should be constructive. Un-interpreted tongues lack clarity, order, and intelligibility. We may be talking but, again, are we communicating?

Prophecy, the remedy or opposite of un-interpreted tongues, is a combination of supernatural revelation and ordinary teaching. (See varied terms in v. 6.) Further, like good preaching, it is the proclamation of a message given by God that “strengthens, encourages, and comforts” (v.3). As Pope Francis told 10 new priests he ordained recently, “Don’t give homilies that are too intellectual and elaborate,” he said. “Speak simply, speak to people’s hearts, and this preaching will be true nourishment.”

One farmer friend described much of the preaching he had been exposed to as “shooting darts at the clouds,” another way of saying that there was a lot of lofty talking going on but no effective communication. My goal is plain speaking that helps people. Constructive thoughts that drive truth home rather than just, well, leave you feeling hammered.