how free is speech?

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

One of the foundational principles of life is ‘freedom of speech’ (or freedom of expression to use the more inclusive term). In many countries it is enshrined in the Constitution and a basic ‘right’, and where it is denied by those in power it is one of the things that the people crave. It is one of the ‘self-evident’ principles of life that everyone should be free to say what they think without fear of persecution. People still die for this principle. The associated principle of ‘freedom of conscience’ (the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe) is one of the principles that drove the early Anabaptist dissenters to separate from the Established Church – Baptist Christians (should) have it in our DNA.

But even in a country that champions freedom of speech we put legal limits around it in public – those limits are defined by criminal and civil laws. You do not have the right to say things that are threatening, abusive or insulting to others. You do not have the right to say things that will incite others to hatred or violence. You do not have the right to say things that are factually incorrect about another person. If you do any of these things there are consequences: you may find that you are prosecuted or sued.

But aside from the legal sanctions that exist I think that there should be other limits on freedom of speech. Those limits are grace, love and humility.

I might disagree completely with someone else.

That is freedom of conscience.

I don’t have to agree with someone.

They don’t have to agree with me.

But if my disagreement leads me to vitriolic condemnation of that person or their position I have already lost the argument. If I resort to name-calling and insults the integrity of my position is undermined. If I insist on winning at all costs I have missed the opportunity to learn. If I misquote or am selective about what the other person has said in order to make them look silly I have only succeeded in making myself look silly. If I am motivated by prejudice it says nothing about the other person and everything about me

I can disagree. I do disagree. I seek to explain and educate. I proclaim (although that precludes conversation). I ask to be heard. I listen. I discuss. I defend. I even attack. I promote my position. But as a follower of Jesus these things need to be done with grace, love and humility. If not, see the previous paragraph.

I fervently believe in Jesus Christ, his message, his mission and his ministry. His life, death and resurrection are central to who I am, what I am and how I am. I believe that they are the most important events in human history. I would love everyone I know to share that because of what I believe. But I have no right to impose my views on others. If I resort to vitriol, condemnation, name-calling, insults, victory, misquoting or am motivated by prejudice then I have missed so much of what Jesus said and did.

You see the only time he really got angry, the only really harsh words that he had, the only stinging criticism he had was reserved for the religious leaders of his day (his own people). With everyone else he had a different approach: he invited, he explained, he illustrated, he was a living example, he laughed with, he told engaging stories, he challenged (provocatively), he was winsome, he wept with… he was loving, gracious and humble.

Speech is not free. It costs. If it is misused or abused the price we pay is the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously and the opportunity to grow and learn from others.

Please, God, may I be more like Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing


(For your amusement)

From ‘Pass the Port’ – my recently acquired book of after-dinner stories:

booksOn the occasion I when I made my last speech a young lady came up to me and said: “I enjoyed your speech sumptuously.”

“Thank you very much.”

She went on: “You ought to have your speeches published.”

In as self-deprecating a manner as possible I said, “Well, perhaps I will have them published posthumously.”

“Oh yes, I should,” she answered, “and the sooner the better.”

Be blessed, be a blessing (not just posthumously)

speech training

I am not sure what provoked this memory, but over the last couple of days I have been reminded of the ‘speech training’ sessions we had when I was training to be a Minister. A lovely, patient, humour-laden, expert lady called Liz used to take us for sessions once a week to help us to be better public speakers.

The view from the floor when you are lying on your back in a lecture room.

The view from the floor when you are lying on your back in a lecture room.

I am not sure if they still do this but if you came into Spurgeon’s College when I was there you might well come across a group of students lying on the lecture room floor, breathing in and out at the ceiling. You might hear strange sounds emanating from the lecture room as we tried to enunciate our words. The sessions were always good fun, and were always practical, and helped me immensely. Simple things like standing on your feet rather than on your toes (yes, some do that) helps with being more relaxed. Projecting your voice from your diaphragm rather than amplifying in your throat means that your voice is less tired and also makes your voice louder without you shouting. It means that you don’t have to rely on a microphone to

I think that the point of the speech training sessions was two-fold:  to equip us so that we could speak in public without straining our voices (which are, after all, rather important for Ministers); and to make the listening experience better for those who were listening to us (by getting us to consider tone, volume, inflexion and so on in the way that we spoke). There’s no point in having the most important message in the world if nobody can understand it, or if people are bored by the delivery.

One of the things that I remembered recently was the value of dropping your voice. That is not speaking inaudibly, or so quietly that people can’t catch what you are saying, but dropping the tone and intensity so that it is much softer. That change of tone and intensity can be more effective in emphasising than shouting is. And that has reminded me why I have been thinking about this all.

On Sunday morning I spoke about the Transfiguration in Luke 9, where Jesus was transformed on the top of a mountain and God spoke to Peter, James and John who witnessed it all. I have often thought of God’s voice as big and booming, but it struck me as I looked at the passage that I have read that into the text. All we know is that a voice spoke from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Perhaps this came in a gentle tone. Perhaps the inflexion emphasised the Father’s affection for Jesus and the importance of listening to him. Re-read those words imagining them being shouted, and then re-read them imagining them being spoken softly. Which is more effective in communicating to you?

Sometimes when we are seeking to hear from Jesus we want a loud booming voice. But if that was the case, why would we need to focus on listening to him? We’d hear it easily. Listening involves our concentration, attention, calmness, and, if the voice is speaking softly, for us to be quiet. For when God speaks softly we can not only hear the words by we can hear his inflexion and gain so much more from him.

How do we listen like that? It is explained in Psalm 46v10: “Be still and know that I am God. : stop your frantic activity and give God your attention. It is modelled in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah experienced God’s presence in the sound of sheer silence. Come out from where you are hiding and meet God.

Where is that space in your day, your week, your life?

Be blessed, be a blessing

One of my best friends at Spurgeon’s, Steve, wrote a very funny song about the speech training classes – a blues number – which the two of us sang at the College Christmas Concert. We both had guitars but I can’t play any chords so Steve played during the verses and chorus. But we got to the ‘instrumental break’ and Steve introduced my guitar solo. This involved me playing on one open string as fast as I could while pretending to move my fingers on the fret board and in the background Steve was playing all sorts of clever stuff. It was intended as a joke but I was delighted to hear afterwards that one person in the audience genuinely thought I was amazingly gifted! There’s a parable there I think…

ding dong (quietly)

Janitor DoorbellOur doorbell doesn’t work very well. Actually, it does function exactly as it was set up to work, but that was not well-thought-out.

The chime is in the kitchen, which is at the back of the house. It’s a gentle ‘ding dong’ sound. If you are in the kitchen and the doorbell goes, that’s great, you can hear it. But there are a couple of problems.

Problem number one is that you can’t really hear it from outside, so people often assume it hasn’t rung. It happened just now when the postman rang the bell and shortly afterwards knocked loudly on the door so he could hand over a parcel.

Problem number two is that because the chime is situated at the back of the house and because it is a gentle ‘ding dong’ you can’t always hear it if you are in a different part of the house, especially if there is some extra sound (TV, radio, music, computer game) in the part of the house you happen to be in.

I’m not so sure that they are problems. They are more like fundamental flaws. The idea of a doorbell is to let you know that there is somebody outside the front door who would like your attention. If the people outside don’t know whether they have got your attention they may assume you are not at home and go away again. If you don’t know that there are people outside the door who want your attention you may miss them and they will have to try again (or you’ll have to trek across town to the delivery office).

In some ways I think Christians can be like our doorbell. We make a gentle noise that cannot always be heard over the ambient noise of daily life. We’re polite and would rather not disturb anyone thank you very much. And if we are not heard, well at least we tried.

On Sunday evening the preacher looked at the prophecy about John the Baptist in Isaiah 40. He was described as ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”‘* If you read the gospel accounts, John was not timidly whispering or gently encouraging, he was definitely calling.

So, I ask myself, this Christmas will I be more like our doorbell, or a voice calling…?

Be blessed, be a blessing.


*In Hebrew and Greek they didn’t have speech marks so it could also be ‘a voice of one calling, “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.”‘

>oh my word(s)!

>I have just finished reviewing a couple of books for a Christian magazine. It was great to be able to read two books on the same subject while keeping my brain alert so I could give a fair review. However, the problem came when writing the review that I thought one book was better than the other

I have been honest and, I hope, fair in my evaluation of the books  However I was very conscious of my responsibility to both the readers who may be influenced by my review  in their decision about whether or not to buy the books, and the authors who clearly put a lot of effort into the books regardless of what I think of them.

PharaohWords are incredibly powerful things and can influence, injure, inspire and incapacitate people. They should all come with a public health warning! My parents used to say to me, “Engage brain before opening mouth.” I used to think they were being silly. Now I realise the wisdom of those well-chosen words. Once the words have left our lips they are out there and can not be recovered.

James has a lot to say about the words we choose to use in chapter 3 of his letter in the New Testament:

 3When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
 7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
 9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Hmmmmm. **brain being engaged**

A boy was watching his father, a pastor, write a sermon.” How do you know what to say?” he asked.

“God tells me.”
“Oh,” said the boy, impressed. Then he added, “So why do you keep crossing things out?”