Why “Bless Your Little Heart” is a Work of the Flesh and other Observations on an Ecology of the Word

In the last post, I suggested that congregational leadership could be thought of around two movements: discerning and joining. Specifically, leadership is responsible for maintaining the conditions whereby the congregation can discern the mission of God and join it. Leadership then is not just a list of jobs or tasks, but a way of maintaining a congregational culture or ecosystem in which its members can thrive in the missional purposes of God.

The discerning movement aims to keep a spiritually healthy environment so that the Word of God can be continually heard and spoken. The order here is important.  Speaking is not the first movement in discernment. Hearing, or listening, is. This reinforces the notion that we pursue a living God who continually calls us deeper into his life and mission. Hearing must proceed speaking.

Listening is no simple task, however. It’s difficult enough in interpersonal communication when the person speaking is right in front of you. Listening for the voice of God is even tougher. There’s a lot of life-static that gets in the way of listening to God. As PT Forsyth memorably put it: “Even when we desire it there are few of us so familiar with their inner selves as to be able to distinguish with any certainty the shepherd’s voice, amid the gusts and sighings of their own fitful selves.” This inability to distinguish the voice of the shepherd is even tougher to do as a community where conflict and other relational barriers create interference.  

Jesus’ parable of the soils suggests itself at this point. There are spiritual challenges that keep us, and our congregations, from being good soil, including sin and the distractions of the world. Pastoral work is not simply care of the soul for the sake of the individual, but also care of the soil for the sake of the Word of God.

A big part of keeping soil fertile, in my estimation, relates to “speech ethics.” The ways we talk to each other go a long way toward determining whether or not the word of God can continue to be heard and spoken. I’ve written about this before on more than one occasion, but I’m struck by the numerous places where Paul follows a description of his experience with the death and resurrection of Christ with a description of how this influences the way he speaks. Paul’s speech is frank and sincere, not manipulative or full of cunning or deceit. He is no peddler of God’s word. And so many of the biblical exhortations to Christian conduct talk about speech. Gossip and unwholesome talk are to give way to truth-telling and blessing.

I’m pretty sure that if Paul were schooled in our current vernacular he would name passive aggressiveness or “bless their little hearts” as works of the flesh. Learning to speak directly and kindly with one another is surely a big part of becoming Christian which allows the Spirit of God to move freely between lives in community. Leaders have to care about this and teach the church how to live within healthy patterns of speech.

Related to this, is the need to make room for the voices of dissenters or strangers. Often times in Scripture it’s the outsider or the dissenter who best knows the will of God. This is certainly not always true, but leaving room for these voices keeps the congregation honest and wards against idolatry.

One last point about an ecology of the Word. While teaching and preaching surely are a part of a healthy ecology, so are other uses of Scripture. Practices with Scripture like lectio divina and dwelling on the word have to be a part of a congregation’s repertoire. There have to be deep listening practices where we claim that the word masters us, not the other way around.

Like creation, the church is spoken into existence by the Word that became flesh. Leading as discerning allows this Word to continually be heard and spoken.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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3 Responses to Why “Bless Your Little Heart” is a Work of the Flesh and other Observations on an Ecology of the Word

  1. Josha says:

    I really like this article. I have read it 4 times now and it has led me to many thoughts but I’d rather just ask one question. What does it look like to “claim that the word masters us?” I like the statement. I have my own thoughts on this but would like to hear what you mean by this and what you think it looks like for the word to master us.

    • Mark Love says:

      Josha, I guess I mean that we’re not so busy trying to figure out a point to take from the text, but we’re willing to live in it, to be still in front of it, to let it work on us at the level of our imaginations. There are several practices related to this, and they all emphasize slowing down, not using the Scriptures like an instruction manual, but as a living word, to listening deeply. When I teach a class, I’m always trying to figure it out. When I dwell in the word, I’m letting Scripture figure me out. I know that that can sound just like a slogan or platitude, but its more of an attitude or a posture. It suggests patience, listening, prayer. Reading this way does something different to us than reading to prepare a lesson. Both are ways we should read, but if we don’t have the slow, listening, dwelling kind, I think we’re much poorer for it.

      • Josha says:

        That is what I thought you meant and I love it. There is so much more room to grow in that attitude and approach to the word.
        Recently a church member shared with me that she was agonizing over trying to teach “The Gospel” to her friend who does not speak much English. She was so concerned that the language barrier would keep her from understanding the message. I told the member, “Christ’s love overcomes any language barrier. She will understand the love of Christ by you showing the love of Christ. Loving like Christ IS teaching the Gospel.” The member lit up at the point she understood what I was saying and loved it. She said to me, “That is really good. I will keep that in mind. Wow, you should write a book.” As I left the conversation, I thought, “Write a book? Why? A book has already been written. The Bible, The Word, the love story between God and humanity. That is where my thought came from.”
        The living word continues to create more understanding and love between God and humanity when we do what you have said, “allow the word to master us.”

        Frankly, I’m tired of “The Gospel” being identified and taught as a 5 step or 3 step or any number of step plan to salvation. It is so much more than that. Actually, I don’t think it is that at all.
        I like the idea of “allowing the word to master us”. If we listen and dwell with patience, then we might come away with the intent of scripture rather than just another debate of what instruction means what. Maybe this is how we can live more fully in the reality of Christ. It takes more faith to “allow the word to master us” as it takes away our own efforts to master the word.

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