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Posted on June 28, 2020 by Kathy Miller

"Watching Our Tone"


When I was in seminary, one of my preaching professors had a habit of telling women in his class that our preaching was “too emotional” and people would tune us out if we were emotional like that.  When a woman preached a sermon and expressed herself passionately or with anger or excitement or tears, he would almost always say they were being “too emotional.”   When men preached in a similar way, no such criticism seemed forthcoming.  And so in his class, we learned to preach extra calmly, to not raise our voices, to not get “too excited” or do anything that might seem “too emotional” while we were preaching.  It was frustrating.  But, it turns out it wasn’t just us.  Women preachers all across the country report being told that when they preach passionately or show anger or sadness that they are being “too emotional” and the congregation will tune us out if we don’t calm down.  


The term may have existed back then, but I didn’t know it.  But now I recognize this feedback as what is now commonly referred to as “tone policing.”


Tone policing is the act of silencing a person’s ideas and thoughts on the basis of their emotional tone and therefore ignoring the actual content of their message.  Basically, that one person says, because of the way you are speaking, I can’t or won’t listen to the content of what you are saying – usually because something about the tone makes the listener feel upset or angry or uncomfortable themselves.    We’re hearing about it a lot lately because it people of color often report that when they speak with any emotion, they are shut down by those who interpret their anger or sadness or passion as inappropriate or because it makes them uncomfortable.  Black people in particular share that they are often perceived as angry when they speak with what they consider to be passion, or that when they are rightfully angry the tone makes other people so upset  that their anger falls on deaf ears.


And I was thinking about this, this week, as I read Psalm 13 because I don’t think tone policing happens just between people.  Tone policing also happens, at least in our denomination and culture, with how we are taught to speak to God.  So many of us have been taught that all our conversations with God should be polite and calm and submissive.  Our prayers should be quiet and respectful and deferential.


We have been told never to show God our anger or frustration or fear, never to be too demanding, and for goodness sake, never bring any doubts to God. In other words, when we are with God we don’t want to come off as “too emotional.”


But this doesn’t match what we see in scripture at all, especially the Psalms.  The writers of the Psalms put it all out there.  They lay everything on the line.  Many Psalms are about loud, boisterous praise and singing to God.  Other Psalms suggest banging drums and playing trumpets to give thanks for creation.  And then there are many Psalms which offer deep and mournful laments, full of pain and suffering, doubts and questions – real weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Some Psalms rave about God’s constant presence while others starkly accuse God of abandonment. 

And many Psalms are filled with questions for God – why’s and, like in Psalm 13, how long’s.  The Psalms are raw, honest conversations with God expressing the full reality of human life.  No tone policing here. 


And these Psalms are ancient, but if we can look past some of the old language and understand some of the metaphors, they are still so relevant. The cries, the anger, the hurt, the suffering, the frustration, the doubts, and the joy all resonate still today.  


Today, we might add things like:

 “How long, O Lord, until I am free of the pain in my body?”

“How long, O Lord, until my loved one gets sober?”

“How long, O Lord, until I no longer feel this terrible grief?”

“How long, O Lord, until my loved one is healed?”

“How long, O Lord, until I find a job, find a partner, find myself?”

“How long, O Lord, until this virus passes and we can worship together and see our families and hug and sing together again?”

“How long, O Lord, until we will stop having our hearts broken by the news of the world over and over again and how long until there will be justice for all people, and how long until the oppressed will be free?”


We intimately know the kinds of questions the Psalms ask of God.  And the inclusion of these kinds of questions in places like the Psalms are what make the Bible such an unusual holy book.  If a team of advertising and marketing people sat down today to write a holy book about God, they’d write something about awesome, beautiful people who are so inspired by God that they only do good and they live amazing, perfect lives where no one is oppressed and the victorious are always just.   


But that is not the Bible we have.  Our Bible is full of people who feel abandoned by God or frustrated with God or angry at God. Our Bible isn’t tone policed at all – there is plenty of anger, rage, frustration, sadness, weeping right alongside the joy and good. So much of our Bible speaks not of all that is well and good, but instead tells the stories of the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten, the abused, those who suffer and struggle. 

In a newspaper article recently written by Esau McCaulley, a New Testament scholar at Wheaton College, McCaulley digs into the pain and anger of the psalms.  He wrote the following about Psalm 137, which I think applies to Psalm 13 as well: “Psalm 137 is trauma literature, the rage of those who lived. The question isn’t why the Psalmist wrote this. The question is what kind of song would the families of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Eric Garner be tempted to write after watching the video of their deaths? It would be raw and unfiltered. But more than an expression of rage, this psalm is a written record in time. It is a call to remember. This psalm, and the other psalms of rage, require us to remember the trauma that led to their composition.”[1] 

McCaulley is pointing out how unusual it is for scriptures to include these particular voices – the voices of the traumatized and oppressed.  We know history is usually recorded by the victorious, the people in power, but that is not what we find in our scriptures.  From the Torah stories of the Israelites enslavement, to the voices of the prophets speaking for the poor, the widow, the refugee and orphan, to the Psalms filled with lament and rage, to the letters from Paul to communities being martyred for their new found faith, to Jesus’ insistence on lifting up the ostracized and oppressed, our scriptures allow for the voices rarely heard, and even less often, lifted up, to be featured. And, what’s more, God hears the rage.  And when God hears their anger and passion and hurt, God doesn’t ask them to be quiet, doesn’t tell them to watch their tone, doesn’t tune out or walk away. God listens deeply to their cries, and because God listens, the Psalmist concludes this Psalm, which begins with a deep cry of anguish– How Long, O Lord –with the words: “But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for God has been good to me.”

The Psalmist feels God has been good and that he can trust God’s love because God does not turn away from rage, anger, or lament but listens deeply and responds.

McCaulley went on to write, “The miracle of the Bible is not that it records the rage of the oppressed. The miracle is that it has more to say.”[2] God hears the cries of God’s people, hears the hopelessness and despair and instead of judgment or returned anger or denial or dismissal, God listens and stays with the people.  This is the gift of our scriptures.  The Scriptures show how over and over again, the oppressed and despairing, the angry and marginalized are heard and then find hope in God as they seek justice and love and find the strength they need.

We will all spend time in our lives asking “How long, O Lord.”  I don’t know what your particular “how long’s” will be in the future, but we know there are collective “how long’s” to ask together now – How long, O Lord will our souls be bruised and battered by the sins of “othering” one another.  How long, O Lord will we continue to participate in systems designed to exclude or injure people.  How long O Lord will we see the worst in one another and close our eyes and ears to the cries of the suffering.  How long O Lord, will we diminish ourselves and each other by not seeing You in each of us.

God hears these cries and comes alongside us to offer us signs of hope.  Hope that we can find justice together.  Hope that we can learn to see one another with greater empathy and compassion.  Hope that our anger and frustration and lament can be used to refine us and give us the strength and courage to create lasting change.


So, friends, let the Psalms be an example to you of the kinds of conversations you are invited to have with God.  Do not let yourself be tone policed anymore.  Bring the fullness of who you are before God – ready to show the rage and anger, the hurt and betrayals, the feelings of fear or abandonment, the traumas you’ve experienced and the ways you’ve failed. Bring before God the desire to have your eyes and heart fully opened, even if you suspect it will hurt at first.  Bring the desire to root out in yourself the ways you hurt others, especially the ways you don’t even know you’ve hurt others yet. Bring the desire to live into the fullness of your humanity before God, not worried about being tone policed, silenced, abandoned, but confident that God will listen deeply and guide you towards hope and healing.


Do this not just for yourself, though you will benefit.  But when we learn to come to God  with our whole selves and know the incredible grace and mercy and love we feel, it teaches us to listen more deeply to the voices of others – to not tone police them, but to hear their anger or frustration or sadness and not let it make us so uncomfortable that we turn away or miss their message. Let us learn to listen the way God listens and to respond the way God responds with compassion and mercy and a willingness to seek out actions of restoration and healing on behalf of others as well as ourselves. 


Because it is just true, that when we are able to bring more of ourselves before God, we are able to be more fully and honestly in relationship with one another and we will find ourselves filled with God’s hope. A hope which inspires greater compassion, more justice and more love.  May our prayer today be that in time we will see many of our “How long, O Lord’s” turn to “I trust in your unfailing love;  my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for God has been good to me.”


[1] Mccaulley, Esau. What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger. 14 June 2020,


[2] Mccaulley, Esau. What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger. 14 June 2020,


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