“This country’s going to hell in a handbasket.” I’ve long wondered what a handbasket has to do with a trip to the infernal regions. I’m not sure how that particular container became linked with shaking the hand of el Diablo. I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly evil about handbaskets. They frequently are taken on picnics, and there doesn’t seem to be anything especially sinister about picnics, unless a spot is chosen right next to an anthill!
(Side note: the world’s largest handbasket is the building in Newark, Ohio, former home of the Longaberger Basket Company. In the late 90s, Banu had a Longaberger Basket party when we lived in Nebraska. That’s when her love affair of the baskets began!)
I tried to find out the origin of that phrase. It seems to date back to the 1600s. Another variation was “going to hell in a wheelbarrow.” Apparently, that wasn’t quite as catchy, so “hell in a handbasket” it was.
I think it’s safe to say, one who utters that phrase is expressing a grim outlook. The poet of Psalm 12 clearly shares that perspective.
“Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from the human race” (v. 1). Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket.
There could be any number of reasons for that lamentation. It might result from certain beliefs or attitudes or practices.
The psalmist (who traditionally is identified as David) wastes no time in uttering his complaint, his cause for concern. In the place of the godly and faithful are those who “utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a deceitful heart they speak” (v. 2). The genesis of so much wrongdoing lies in the words that come out of our mouth.
What are we to make of “flattering lips and a deceitful heart”? Has anyone ever experienced that? Have we ever been guilty of that?
What does the psalmist suggest as a remedy? “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts” (v. 3).
I’m reminded of the song by R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People,” which came out in 1991. It was inspired by a propaganda poster distributed by the Chinese Communist Party two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre. There is the iconic image of the lone protestor standing in front of a tank. He came to be known as “Tank Man.” The government wanted to promote the image of the population as “shiny, happy people holding hands.”
It was indicative of a policy of flattering lips and deceitful heart portraying deadly events in an obscenely deceptive way.
One of the ironies of that song turned out to be its popularity. People often enjoyed the shiny, happy tune, thinking it was about shiny, happy things—not realizing it was satire, dripping with sarcasm. R.E.M. didn’t intend it as propaganda, but it worked very well as such!
Verse 4 continues the thought of flattering lips and boastful tongue with “those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own—who is our master?’”
The Revised English Bible puts it, “They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail. With words as our ally, who can master us?’” With words as our ally. What a delicious phrase. In another translation, it reads “our weapon is our lips.”
In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, who is the central character, makes the statement, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted all else will follow.” By the way, I read his book in 1983. I wanted to be sure I read it before the year arrived!
The Orwellian concept of language focuses on Newspeak, in which the government deliberately reduces words and the ability to express freedom of thought. For example, “bad” becomes “ungood.” “Very good” becomes “plusgood,” and “wonderful” becomes “doubleplusgood.” Language becomes narrowed, as does awareness, even the ability to conceive.
1984 gave us the helpful reminder, “Big brother is watching you.” What a pleasant thought.
Would it be a surprise to know—to be “aware”—that we employ our own forms of Newspeak? Of course in our case, the goal isn’t deletion of language but the deletion of trust. That includes deletion of trust in definitions of words.
Once upon a time, a “vaccine” prevented, or almost certainly prevented, one from obtaining a disease and being able to spread it to others. Sadly, that is no longer the case. The word “appropriate” seems to have lost its contours. Case in point would be drag shows held in schools, even elementary schools, being called appropriate.
With words as our ally. Our weapon is our lips.
Moreso than any other, it is government who uses words to redefine the truth. “The first casualty of war is the truth.” So said the ancient Greek poet, Aeschylus.
In her article, “Acceptable Torture,” Karen Hunt comments, “It’s worse than that. Truth has become the first casualty of everyday life. The elites have manipulated, discredited, and denied the truth so convincingly that it has all but disappeared.”
In a speech at Texas A&M University, a recent CIA director “jokingly asked his audience, ‘What’s the cadet motto of West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do… ‘We lied, we cheated, we stole,’ he continued, laughing as if he thought that was very funny and clever. And the brainwashed audience laughed along with him.” He then added, “It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.”
I honestly don’t know what that last comment is about. Certainly it doesn’t mean he believes deception is glorious? Or does he believe it epitomizes America? Beats me.
Chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel notes “every careless word,” or “every idle word” (v. 36). We’ve just seen plenty of careless, idle words.
Words have power. Besides “idle,” the Greek word (argos) also means “lazy.” We too often don’t consider the impact our words carry. Or maybe we do! We might intend our words to hurt, calling each other stupid, ugly, worthless. We utter curses rather than blessings. Jesus tells us, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” What is in us has a way of coming out.
Words have power. That power can be wielded for good or ill. That power can be filled with grace or filled with reproach.
Words have power; they have energy. We are to pronounce blessings and avoid curses, not because it’s nice, but because what comes out of us comes right back to us. We clothe ourselves with whatever we produce. If we emit positive energy, we are bathed in what is good and true and holy. If we emit negative energy, we are bathed (maybe I should say defiled) in what is wrong and false and unholy.
There are some words of wisdom which state, “truth is in order to goodness.” (It’s a nugget from our Presbyterian history, but I think it’s available to all!) The truth must serve the good. It must promote goodness. It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down. The truth can be told with malevolent intent. I call that “the devil’s truth.” It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help. To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.
What stories do we tell about each other? What stories do we tell about ourselves? Are they stories of despair and discouragement? Are they stories of acceptance and affirmation?
I’ve often wondered, how many wars have been started (both wars large and small) over a word misheard? Once the word is out there, it’s out there. It really is impossible to “take it back.”
There’s an illustration all of us will recognize. What happens when we give a tube of toothpaste a little squeeze? Here comes the toothpaste. But what if we have a change of heart? Well, we could return it from whence it came. I have tried that, and to my amazement, I’ve never been successful. It’s impossible to take the toothpaste back.
In his journals, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession. “I have just returned from a party,” he says, “of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—[inserted in the text is a dash taking up half the line] and wanted to shoot myself.”
Of course, none of us have ever spoken foolish words, whether accompanied by drink or not! Idle words, indeed. Having said that, even when we speak out of turn, our words can be transformed; they can be redeemed.
Far from words as our ally, from words that are idle, the psalmist paints a new picture. “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (v. 6).
All the impurity, all the duplicitous language is burned away. The promises of the Lord—the words of the Lord—are rock solid to the ends of the earth.
“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found / Far as the curse is found.”
The Lord promises protection to all who seek it, because “on every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the human race” (v. 8). Another translation puts it, “The wicked parade about, and what is of little worth wins general esteem.” What is of little worth wins general esteem. That’s almost as delicious as “with words as our ally.”
Where are you with your words? What are you uttering? What are you claiming? What are you rejecting or owning? Words have energy. They indeed have power. We either build with our words or destroy with our words.
In Deuteronomy 30 the Lord says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).
That’s a tall order! I don’t know if anyone ever really gets there, but it is a lofty goal. If that’s the stratosphere, it makes it all the more doable here at ground level. It makes it all the more likely that idle words are silenced. It makes it all more likely that we see the faithful reappearing among the human race. That includes the face in the mirror.
There is a word which liberates. It is the word—the word permeating the cosmos. It is the word with all power. It is the living word. It is the word that defeats death, Jesus the Christ. It is the word rising from the dead and letting us know that in the end, nothing has truly been wasted.
 Søren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 7.
 Revised English Bible