The Hard Work of Faith: Reflections on James 1:22-27
Bray, Jan de, approximately 1627-1607. Caring for Children at the Orphanage in Haarlem: three Acts of Mercy, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Put the word into action.
If you think hearing is what matters most,
you are going to find you have been deceived.
- James 1:22, The Voice
In these unprecedented times, where information and misinformation can be disseminated instantly and globally at a finger's click, our vulnerability to deception is extraordinary. As James warns the first-century Church, taking in without giving out can lead to a spiritual lethargy that lends itself to self-fulfilling causes rather than loving service to others.
Especially people who care about strangers
Who care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend...
- James Rado & Gerome Ragni, "Easy to Be Hard" (from the musical Hair)
Sometimes I have to ask myself, do I cherish the idea of loving my neighbor more than actually doing so? The answer, honestly, is: of course. Love is hard to live out. We have to get involved with people to really love them. A messy, dirty business it is, too.
If some fail to do what God requires,
it’s as if they forget the word as soon as they hear it.
One minute they look in the mirror,
and the next they forget who they are and what they look like.
- James 1:23-24, The Voice
“For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe," said St. Anselm of Canterbury. "But I believe in order to understand." Faith flourishes better as a verb than a noun. I may claim that I have faith in the safety of elevators; but it only is true if I get on one. Now, I do not advocate for a "blind" faith; that is more like foolishness. For faith is a child of hearing, trusting and the experience of trust being rewarded. I don't think twice about getting on an elevator now; my many experiences---and the experiences of others--- with elevators have confirmed my faith in them.
However, it is possible to open your eyes
and take in the beautiful, perfect truth found in God’s law of liberty and live by it.
If you pursue that path and actually do what God has commanded,
then you will avoid the many distractions that lead to an amnesia of all true things
and you will be blessed.
- James 1:25, The Voice
Faith is in day-to-day choices more than rapturous events, though God knows we needs events to keep us inspired. So we remember the events, and hold the sacred rituals, to keep us on the path. The danger, of course, is in ritual becoming rote, a tendency that has plagued disciples for all of human history. It seems every outpouring of the Spirit is often followed by dry traditions in which we can't remember why we do them ("the amnesia of all true things"). That is why it is crucial to go back to the origin of the story, how we got here, in order to re-imagine how we can put "God's law of liberty" into practice each day.
One of my professors at Fuller Seminary, the late Ray S. Anderson, wrote a great book called Minding God's Business, in which he asks: "How do we disengage our methods from bondage to what has always been in order to make them servants of imagination, of hope, of the future?" (p. 46) I submit that we do so by the art of daily practices that reflect God's "beautiful, perfect truth." Dr. Anderson's address at our baccalaureate service encouraged us that the true intersection of God's plan and the daily challenge to put it into practice lies simply in us; that is, the presence of Christ in us, the Incarnation lived out minute by minute. As the band Depeche Mode put it, to become for others
Your own personal Jesus Someone to hear your prayers Someone who cares Your own personal Jesus Someone to hear your prayers Someone who's there
- Depeche Mode, "Personal Jesus"
If you put yourself on a pedestal,
thinking you have become a role model in all things religious,
but you can’t control your mouth, then think again.
Your mouth exposes your heart, and your religion is useless.
- James 1:26, The Voice
When I was a child, our common interpretation of breaking the Third Commandment ("You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain") was to simply avoid swearing. But it is less about which words we use then about whether our lives are consistent with what we proclaim. If we call ourselves "Christian" or "disciples of Jesus" or "followers of the Gospel", do we in fact live it out? We must be careful what we say, for our mouths do expose us. From our own lips will we be judged by others, and if we claim to represent Christ, then the validity of the Message is at stake. By making such claims, we are in essence making promises to people. Do we keep them in our daily lives?
If not now
Then when? If not today
Then Why make your promises A love declared for days to come Is as good as none
- Tracy Chapman, "If Not Now..."
Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective
is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly
and resisting the evil influence of the world.
- James 1:27, The Voice
Nineteenth-century Scottish preacher and writer George MacDonald doesn't pull his punches any more than the apostle James, confronting those who "cannot face the troubles and dangers of adopting a child." He goes on to say:
They would if they might get one of a good family,
or from a respectable home;
but they dare not take an orphan out of the dirt,
lest it should spoil their silken chairs.
- from The Seaboard Parish
Lest I give the impression that I am someone I am not, I must confess that my wife and I, though in our idealistic youth were sincere believers that we would one day adopt a needy child, have actually never done so. Instead, we have found ourselves in a support role to other families who have made that courageous choice. And we would today caution anyone who desires to venture into adoption that it is indeed a risky venture, one that must be endeavored with eyes wide open and lots of support in place. In truth, there are many ways to care for the widows and orphans of our day, as well as anyone who is in need.
Like any mission work of love, our life choices must be an answer to a call, discerned prayerfully and validated in community. The path of discipleship is lined with the bodies of many who had the best of intentions, but not the preparedness to weather the storms. Sadly, it is often the failure of the supporting community more than the pilgrims themselves. But we cannot do the hard work of "real, true religion" alone. We must rely on, and have faith in, one another to pull it off. This way of living is in contrast to our cultural values of individualism ("pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps") and even "my personal Savior" spirituality. In so doing, we can find ourselves each grappling for our own "way" to God, removed from the rich story of how we got here. As Gregory Wolfe put it:
Ironically, the spiritual-but-not-religious embrace a consumerist mentality that in other contexts they harshly criticize. The irony is compounded when one realizes that these spiritual individualists—inheritors of an “I” culture—most often pluck items off the shelf of “we” cultures. Spiritual tourism offers the benefits of wisdom derived from those who submit to authority and discipline and tradition without having to do so oneself.
- from the essay "Religious But Not Spiritual," Image Journal, Issue 68
The beginning of any renewal, as Twelve-Step groups will attest, is in the acknowledgement that the task is too big for us. We need one another, not only to succeed, but to regularly confess how much we fail. Fortunately, faith in our God is in the assurance of things hoped for: that He will use even our failures to accomplish His great work. Let us strive boldly forward in that faith together. Amen.