(Photo of grangrenous foot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
2 Timothy 2:14-26:
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.”
In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work. Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
It should not surprise you my ears pricked up at the word "gangrene." Lord knows I've had enough gangrenous limbs and parts of limbs as surgical path specimens in my two decade career. Gangrenous legs are my least favorite surgical path specimen--hands down.
First of all, they don't come in fixative. They don't make jars of formalin big enough to hold a leg. Second of all, they're big and bulky. They're messy to cut in, they take a painstakingly long amount of time to examine because it's important to examine the major vessels in the limb for things like atherosclerotic plaques and blood clots, and the physical nature of gangrene makes them slippery, slimy, and smelly. Finally, there's the phenomenon in NE Missouri about some people wanting their nasty old gangrenous legs back to either take home to bury, or store in a freezer to be buried with them when they die. (My typical thought is, "I don't get it. You didn't take care of it when it was connected to you, and NOW you want it back like a keepsake.")
So I spent some time today contemplating this business of anger, gossip, and backbiting being like gangrene.
You know, there are actually two kinds of gangrene--dry gangrene, and wet gangrene. The photo above is more or less "wet" gangrene--red, swollen, abscessed and full of pus that is just waiting to ulcerate and make an infected mess. "Dry" gangrene is a type of gangrene that usually is the result of ischemia--poor blood flow or no blood flow because of an embolus (blood clot)--and the result is a dry, dessicated, blackened look to the distal limb, almost like it was in a fire or left out in the sun to dry.
Well, when you get to thinking about how "profane chatter" spreads throughout an organization, or a family, or God help us, a parish...it really does have aspects of wet and dry gangrene.
The agents of wet gangrene are things like engaging in active gossip, displaying temper as a tool to get one's way, psychological bomb throwing, dropping little tidbits of "infection" about individuals, and infecting attitudes by constantly displaying a negative attitude about change. People who cause wet gangrene in an organization are, like their biological counterpart, easily noticed by their smell.
Dry gangrenous agents, in my mind, are things like passive-aggressive behavior, manipulation, silence as a manipulative tool, and the people who start shirking one responsibility after another because they're not happy with how it's being led, but never saying a word about WHY their unhappy. People causing dry gangrene have a habit of forcing others to address THEIR discontent rather than showing it themselves.
Wet gangrene is usually noticed because it stinks. Dry gangrene is more often uncovered when something is moved that normally is not moved (like a sock) and it's uncovered by accident, and it's obvious there has been an attempt to hide it.
Now in reality, all gangrenous limbs are a mixture of both wet and dry gangrene in varying proportions. That's true for spiritual gangrene in a family or in an organization, also. One might smell the wet portions of it early on, but the areas of dry gangrene might not be noticed right away.
But, the fact remains that by the time gangrene has firmly set in, generally the only way it can be effectively treated is to amputate the limb--and amputation will result in loss of significant function of that limb. This decision to amputate will almost always be from the outside. Very few people who own a stinking, rotting lower leg say, "You know, I really think we need to cut it off." Quite the contrary--we will do anything, say anything, try anything, and deny anything to avoid having something of ours amputated.
It's also no secret that most amputations could have been avoided with early and appropriate wound care. However, wound care is work. It's frustrating. It's slow. Results are not always evident right away. Sometimes it involves lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking or managing one's diabetes better.
When we look at this passage in our Epistle, what Paul is telling Timothy is essentially, what lifestyle change is recommended to prevent gangrenous wounds in the early church from setting in. After all, what good is a church without feet to carry the Good News in Christ, and hands to reach out to others in Christ's service? He boils it down to three little words--"avoid profane chatter."
Now, I think it's way too simplistic to boil that down to "don't cuss," or "don't gossip." The word "profane" comes from the Latin word "profanus," which essentially means "unconsecrated." The corresponding Greek word in this text is "bebelos" (βεβήλους) which can mean "unconsecrated," "secular," or "common." We more or less infer "unholy," "un-spiritual," and "really bad." We tend to think of "profane" as a particular act rather than a state of being. We focus on individual cuss words or individual acts of snarkiness and gossip, and blow the whistle and wave the red card of sin at it, when in reality, I think we need to think of it a little more globally.
I think what it means, at least to me, is, "Don't be common." "Don't sit around and talk about the empty stuff, and the stuff that tears down."
This of course, demands behavior from the flip side. It means, "Be an uncommon person in God's service." "Talk about the stuff that builds up." I have discovered relatively recently that the way to learn to stop myself from being in a harmful state of being, is to actively do things that put me in a more helpful state of being.
When we sit down and ponder our faults, character defects, issues--whatever we choose to call them, and actually get specific about it--we discover those things where we can be agents of wet spiritual gangrene as well as dry spiritual gangrene. Focusing on the shame and guilt of how we misuse creation via "profane chatter" only pushes us into more shameful, guilty manipulations to hide the gangrenous parts of our selves, our families, and the organizations in which we participate. It's more efficacious to align our souls to the building and care of creation, and, as healthy tissue develops from it, the gangrenous tissue can be debrided instead of amputated. Granted, there may always be scars, but a scar is better than a rotting limb or a missing limb.
It's also important to remember that our own internal "gangrenous agents" require at least one other person to spread. "Profane chatter" with oneself only gets you labeled as schizophrenic. No one person in a family or organization is solely responsible for spiritual gangrene. Obviously, we can't control other people (no matter how hard we wish or try.) But we can control ourselves and our own behaviors. What I'm discovering is that the more I align myself to build up the Body of Christ, over time, it matters. Others notice and others change themselves in a far more effective way than if I had tried to control them. Likewise, when I am around people who want to build instead of wound, I want to change myself. It works far better than when others try to control me with their words and behaviors as if I am the gangrenous agent and they are not. The more I realize that my natural inclination when treated that way is to resist and push back, the more I realize that when I have tried to control others, that has been THEIR inclination, too--and that no longer seems surprising.
To turn all these "don'ts" into "do's" seems daunting but I can boil it down to four sets of four words as the antidote--four little phrases to put on my to-do list:
Have a personal serenity.
Align myself towards God.
Acting is better than reacting.
Build instead of wound.
If we could all practice these four things with intention, what would happen to the hands and feet of our families, our parishes, our workplaces? It's certainly worth a look.