Raise your hand if you have ever slandered someone by gossiping about them; raise your hand if you’ve ever been a grumbler and/or a malcontent. Yeah, me too. I’d like to think that I’ve improved along my spiritual journey – but let’s just say that it’s a work in progress. One of the most challenging issues for me is my tendency to let off steam, to vent, by gossiping and by grumbling and being, well, malcontented.
Some years ago, in the congregation where I served an internship, a dear and faithful Christian told me that she gave up chocolate for Lent, every year, always had. But this year she was giving up talking about other people for Lent. A couple of weeks in, I checked with her to see how it was going. With a chuckle – and a sigh – she said, “Next year, I’m going back to giving up chocolate. I can manage that.”
In the letter from Jude, whom scholars believe to be a relative of Jesus, we hear about Jude’s concerns for the congregation: “Certain intruders have stolen in among you. But these people slander what they do not understand, and they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct. They are grumblers and malcontents.”
“The word gossip originally implied a spiritual relationship. [It’s from the Anglo-Saxon, god-sibb, a God-relative.] A gossip was a sponsor at a baptism, one who spoke on behalf of the child and who would provide spiritual guidance to the child as it grew in years. A gossip was your godmother or godfather. Gossiping was speech within the community of the baptized.” The Rev. Dr. Richard Lischer retired a few years ago from more than thirty years on the faculty at Duke Divinity School. Before that, he was a pastor serving Lutheran congregations in rural Illinois and in Virginia Beach. He tells us about the role and function of gossip in community.
“For all its negative associations, gossip retains something of its salutary function in a small town … Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all, and all were gossips.
“The continuous reworking of the community’s stories, characters, and themes served two purposes. Gossip helps soften the edges of people who are simply too accessible to one another, who irritate one another to death, but who can’t escape one another or their common history. Gossip also explains peculiarities … and tells how they came to be.”
Most of this letter from Jude, among the shortest books in the Bible, sounds dire, even hopeless. But Jude, as an apostle, a teacher, a leader in the early Church, is in the business of hope – as are you and I, as are we all who proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and resurrected.
We are actually invited – urged – called to remember that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Jude feels compelled to write to his congregation and give them a warning: Be on the lookout for these grumblers and malcontents. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to hear his loving concern: Take care that you do not become like them.
And, he concludes with a blessing, a promise, a benediction. “It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”
In 1997, my dad, who was then sixty-one, underwent multiple-bypass surgery for genetic cardiac blockage. The cardiologist said that it appeared unrelated to lifestyle choices, but that nevertheless my dad’s left anterior descending artery was more than 90 percent blocked, and surgery was recommended.
At the time, my dad was a member of a biracial gospel choir called United Voices of Praise, which had toured in Germany and recorded a couple of CDs. My dad’s favorite was a song based on a portion of Psalm One Hundred Nineteen.
“Order my steps in your Word, Dear Lord,” the chorus says. “Lead me, guide me, every day. Send your anointing, Father, I pray. Order my steps in your Word.”
Psalm One Hundred Nineteen, verses thirty-three and thirty-four read: “Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me. Deliver me from the oppression of man: So I will keep thy precepts.”
Lying in his hospital bed, anticipating the next morning’s procedure, my dad found himself flooded with a sense of peace and trust unlike any he had ever felt in his life. He felt it again in the recovery room. Still drugged and disoriented, and grateful to be alive, he found himself drowning in gratitude.
It was not until later that he would learn that the choir members, during their weekly rehearsal, had prayed for him and for the medical professionals. And they had sung what they knew to be his favorite, “Order My Steps” … at the moment my dad felt lifted up and held by no less than God’s love and healing mercies.
And that brings us back to Dr. Lischer’s reminder of the origins of gossip: to narrate the community with a goal toward acceptance in Christian love. Maybe instead of struggling with not gossiping, I can pray to God to incline my heart and my mouth toward what gossip was meant to be: god-sibb, a God-relative, so that we are all, eternally, each other’s baptismal sisters and brothers. Each other’s keepers.
 Lischer, Richard. Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. © Three Rivers Press.