A few weeks ago, we began going through the book of James at church. Last week, we were in the end of the first chapter and spent some time talking about James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” When I have read this in the past, I always approached it like two different ideas, two different things that we needed to do in order to practice true religion, but our pastor suggested a different approach. What if we read this verse as one command – that the action of caring for orphans and widows is actually the way in which we keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. The process itself of our caring for those on the outside and margins of our society, the forgotten people groups, actually kepps us from being contaminated by the culture in which we live.
As I thought about this more and more, two things flooded back to my mind that I read over the last few weeks. The first is from Anne Lamott’s new book – Some Assembly Required. It is written as somewhat of a journal of her grandson’s first year of life. In one of the entries, she wants to communicate to her grandson the secret of life and she says this:
Everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map. This lack of instruction manual is how most people develop compassion, and how they figure out to show up, care, help, and serve, as the only way of filling up and being free. Otherwise, you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others, so that no one will know you weren’t there the day the instructions were passed out.
Two things really struck me about this – first, that we all must arrive at a place in life where we recognize that we, too, are flailing around, imperfect, broken and far from having all the answers. There is a need in life to let go of chasing after an image of ourselves where we appear whole, smart, and put together. Secondly, it is in this place of recognizing our own shortcomings that we can truly connect with other human beings, in particular, ones that society would tell us are ‘beneath us.’
As humans, we tend to always try to fit into the level above us, climbing up and up, associating with people who our culture dubs valuable. Jesus, however, demonstrated a different way, coming down into our filth to live among us in our dirt and grime. There must be something tangible in James’ statement that choosing to associate and spend our days serving the least among us is the very thing that keeps us from being polluted by the world’s ideas to seek more and more for ourselves.
The other item that I haven’t been able to move past yet comes from an interesting article I happened upon in Newsweek, (“Forget the Church, Follow Jesus” written by Andrew Sullivan). There are two quotes that really struck me. First, was his description of the doctrine of Jesus:
Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching.
The first few statements I know so well and have heard so many times, but it is the last, the idea of giving up power over others, that I haven’t been able to move past. Similar to Anne Lamott’s comment of the need to dominate and shame others as a response to hiding our own shortcomings, this concept of desiring power over others is, I believe, a real threat to truly living like Jesus, and it can be found in all areas of our society, and even more sadly, our churches, and yes, myself. It can be seen in how we pick our friends, how we decide on and promote our political views, how we communicate our stance on certain doctrines and the impact on those who differ from us, how we pursue wealth and feel like we are more accomplished than others who haven’t been as successful as us.
Sullivan, toward the end of the article, describes Christianity in a different light than how it may be perceived in today’s culture. He says, “It is meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement.” The religion of unachievement? Some of you reading this may automatically react in disagreement, that God doesn’t want us to be unachievers, but don’t dismiss this idea so easily. Let me give you one example of how this might play out. Chris and I have been talking about the challenge we sometimes face these days when people ask us what we are doing, where we are living, etc. It seems that the choice to follow God this last year has been one of ‘unachievement’ by the world’s definition, as we struggle to articulate that we are living with family, on support, and have given up most of what we owned a year ago.
It is a humbling, yet beautiful place to be and one that I do not think we would have discovered it we had continued pursuing the things we had before. I think James’ words are, in essence, showing us that associating with and serving the people on the outskirts, seeing Jesus in them, is part of the solution for keeping our eyes on Jesus and off of the pursuits of the world. This is the way to keep oneself from being polluted, from wanting to dominate or shame others in order to prove our own value. I can look at my life, the people I surround myself with, the places I go (and don’t go) and see how far it is I have to go to be able to consider myself as one who cares deeply for those being forgotten by the world. So many days, not even a fleeting thought is spared for the people James instructs me to focus on.
Jesus: “I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?”
John 5:40-42 (The Message)