Wendell Berry has many characters that I like, one is Hannah Coulter. You learn to love Hannah as she sorts through the memories of her life and offers her steady voice. With simple eloquence she sets this before you, “Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air….it has a body and a place!”
That’s the encouragement James offers to the church in Jerusalem. The love of God in Christ Jesus is now embodied in a particular place. It doesn’t come out of thin air but must be articulated, made flesh. James gives a steady voice for sustaining the beloved community by living faithfully.
Our high calling is to live the gospel of love and become a body and a place. The visible fellowship is a gift worthy of our most artful expressions. An important characteristic of Royal Lane for me throughout the years has been that you have been willing and able to invest your energy and best selves in being and doing church.
Thomas Moore in his book, Care of the Soul: A Guide to Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, said, “The soul prospers in an environment that is concrete, particular, and vernacular. It feeds on the details of life.” Life is best lived when we are in touch with the real stuff of life. James challenges the early church to accept the challenges before them. He says if they lack wisdom about what they are to do, they should ask God. When we do not know what to do, God helps us by offering clarity, prompting our obedience, nurturing our responsibilities, and calling forth our obligations to the details of life that are before us. The responses we make to the swirling issues of pandemic, Afghanistan, and justice become a production in time.
James is writing to the church facing two fundamental crises:
First, the chaos of conflict: “There arose among them a reasoning, an argument, of who should be the greatest” (Luke 9:46). Bonhoeffer in clear and no uncertain terms understood that at the beginning of Christian fellowship there is a life and death struggle of superiority. One of my favorite church members said it like this, “This is church not heaven.” Our disillusion can be replaced with understanding. Wisdom can surface to equip us to survive our strong wills.
Second, the arduous task of being the church: “What’s wrong with us that this is work?” Community building requires us to move beneath the surface of congeniality. Not the easiest move to make, but one my brother loved to call, “We’re into the good stuff now!” This step is not often done without conflict, but it may be where we find what we need to do. The disciples tended toward retreat when the going got tough. They requested, “Send the multitudes away for the hour is late!” Our temptation is to look for the way out of strife rather than to look for the way through.
While pastoring a new church start, a mentor friend from a strong, established church empathized with me, “No one wants to build a congregation. They want it Redi-made, already put together.” We are not enthralled with the details of life. We say, “Pardon the vernacular!” We prefer to dress it up. The vernacular takes effort. It runs counter to our mission statement: “Never let them see you sweat!” For if you’re sweating, you must be pressing! So, we fan ourselves profusely. We fake it by being cool, calm, and collected.
That’s why the book of James is so refreshing. James hands out denim work shirts and gloves to those who would follow Jesus. He coaches them to consider it all joy, and nothing but a gift, when they encounter various trials. He shapes new understandings. When they are up against it, the testing of faith produces endurance and leads to perseverance making them perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Paul spoke of being energetic and working out salvation, working out wholeness, in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). We should not distrust our need to develop our faith. We should put our best effort into appropriating our salvation into our daily lives. Don’t be disillusioned! It’s worth all the effort you can put into it.
Our salvation, like life, is a gift. James says God is the source of every good gift. We are the product of God’s work in time; “The first fruits of all things that God made; the crown of all God’s creatures” (1:17-18). Carlyle Marney was intrigued with God’s decisiveness to dive into the stuff of our existence. In Christ God’s love became incarnate.
For James faith is more verb than noun. We do faith rather than have faith. Faith shows by our action. We put faith into practice (praxis). “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22). When we hear and don’t act on what we have heard, we are like those who glance in the mirror and then walk away without any idea of who we are or what we look like (1:23-24). Hear the word of the Lord! Trust that it is at work in you. It does not return to itself void. Join your efforts with that which is at work in you. God’s creative activity is our model.
A young monk just entering the monastery was eager for something weighty, something lofty. Seeking spiritual guidance he consulted his mentor, “What’s the meaning of life?”
The old monk responded, “Have you finished your breakfast?”
“Yes, yes,” he answered, impatiently.
“Then go wash your bowl.”
Do the thing that is before you and do it well. The next thing for the church as far as James was concerned was visiting orphans and widows in their distress along with the personal assignment of guarding against the corruption of your own soul (1:27). We are called to invest ourselves in justice and love in our community.
As a student seeking to discern the claim of God in my life, I remember my friend, Owen Finley, sharing in chapel about his father, a pastor in a small, rural community. His truthfulness was like a current of air rushing over me giving me lift. He said, “When I think of the tireless devotion of my father to that congregation, and the enormous work and effort that he put into it; when I think of the light coming from his study window into the church yard, I’m not sure I have what it takes in me to do the work of Christ.”
His confession has been a gift to me; especially at those times when the incline has been steep, when I’ve doubted if I can do this hard thing. We then sang, “We’ll work ‘til Jesus Comes!” and something in me changed. I discovered myself being open to the tasks which would be mine.
Oh, God, for this day we give you thanks. Give us wisdom and courage to do the work that is before us? Amen