Doers of the Word
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
30 August 2009
In 1945, as the Second World War came to a close and the world began to walk unsteadily from the ruins of the past into the dawn of a new age, George Orwell wrote,
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
Now, in the wake of a world-wide war which had killed tens of millions, displaced tens of millions more, devastated cities and countries, and raised profound new ethical concerns because of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, and in a climate of food rationing, refugees, disease, wrecked economies, new threats from the Soviet Union, etc., etc., you might have wondered why the current state of the English language would be Orwell's primary concern.
Because Orwell saw language as deeply connected to all those other things. For one thing, the current state of the language was not the result of sloppiness. He wrote, "it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes." And for another thing, our language would affect our ability to deal with all these issues. Orwell again,
[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. . . . If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.
In his novels, his essays, and his journalism, George Orwell fought against totalitarianism with the pen. He believed that for totalitarianism to rob us of our freedom, it had to lie and create a schizophrenic language. And for us to maintain our freedom, we had to resist by thinking and writing clearly.
One of Orwell's contemporary heirs is the Christian writer Marilyn Chandler McEntyre whose latest book title abruptly catches your attention—Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. McEntyre writes that "caring for language is a moral issue."
Just turn on the news these days and you see that Orwell and McEntyre are speaking truth. Our public discourse if filled with lies, exaggerations, distortions, and fear-mongering which steal our chances to think and talk clearly on a host of significant issues. And in the midst of this the lectionary offers us James chapter 1 for our reflection and worship.
For James the heart of the gospel is in how we treat one another—whether we care for, respect, and love each other. Sometimes in biting language, James takes on the sins he sees in the early Christian communities. What has troubled him is that the more well-to-do members of the community do not treat the less-well-off as equals. They are particularly lacking when it comes to their relationships with the orphans and widows.
For James, charity is not enough. The real church is radically egalitarian—everyone is equal. There is no hierarchy of privilege. Many of these snobs have excused their behaviour by claiming that their faith is sufficient. But sufficient for what, James seems to ask? James believes that if you are going to follow Jesus, then your living will be transformed. You will act differently, relate to people differently. This is the evidence that you have truly understood, embraced, and embodied the gospel. New Testament scholar William Countryman puts it this way, "Human beings can absorb the meaning of the gospel message only as they act on it."
Or, as James so eloquently says, "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only."
Notice that for James the word that we hear and do is connected to liberty, to how we treat the least of these, to our relationship with the world. Could it be that much like Orwell, James understood that language is deeply connected to our relationships with people and issues of politics and economics? Yes, I think James does get this.
"Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." How we handle words does affect our relationships with other people. Our relationships with other people affect how we handle our words.
This summer we experienced some interesting use of words. One of our state representatives issued a "Proclamation for Morality." Yet, ironically and hypocritically, this proclamation did the following:
- It misquoted various Founding Fathers. Some of the supposed quotes it used are not known to exist in the extant writings of the person to whom the saying was attributed. Others were taken wildly out of context.
- It also blamed the economic collapse on gays, divorces, and others it didn't like instead of upon the factors which are well-documented as causing it—greedy financial companies, conspicuous consumers, failed regulators, bad monetary policy, cowardly politicians, etc.
- And the "morality" it argued for is a tired old set of issues from the culture wars. Not real issues of economic morality like poverty, hunger, access to health care, exploitation of the environment.
It is no coincidence that those who abuse our language in this way are also those who violate the law of liberty and love James is writing about. They hold to their privilege, excluding others from full access to church and to the blessings of society.
Opposed to their darkness, fear, and hatred, is the grace and truth which comes from God, whom James here calls our Father and Mother. The "Father of Lights" and the Mother who gives birth to us by the "word of truth."
Every act of generosity and grace originates with God. Every act of hording privilege, of denying grace, of excluding the other, is contrary to God.
When we act with grace and generosity, then we are acting in light and truth and are the first fruits of God's new world.
In order to be the co-creators of this new world, we must learn some skills: listening, slow to speak, slow to anger, ridding ourselves of wickedness, welcoming with meekness the implanted word, caring for orphans and widows.
To be doers of the word and not hearers only means to practice the disciplines of the Christian faith. Yes, things like prayer, study, worship, and service. But also disciplines like stewardship, simplicity, confession, hospitality, sabbath, friendship, forgiveness, and peace-making.
When we are learning to play baseball, there are a set of skills that have to become habits for us. We have to work at throwing and catching and hitting. For most people these don't come naturally but have to develop over time with lots of work. Plus, we don't develop these skills alone. We learn in the context of a group of people, and we learn from teachers. We can't learn to throw a ball well by ourselves; we learn from our parents or our coaches, and we learn by throwing to someone else. I, for one, have never developed this skill. I throw a baseball quite stereotypically for a gay man.
In Christian spirituality, we must also develop habits and learn new skills. Just like baseball, we do that by practicing with other people. Activities like prayer and Bible study, which we can do on our own, are still activities where we can learn from each other when we practice them together. Which is one of the many reasons we have small groups and encourage everyone to participate in those.
The Christian disciplines open us up to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. By the sheer daily routine of these, our patterns of living are altered, our consciousness is cleared of rubbage and opened to new wonders, and our hearts become attuned to the desires of God.
"Word" in James' passage has multiple meanings, I believe. It surely means "word of God" and all its many facets—Jesus, scripture, preaching. Word of God is so intimately tied to God's creative work--the voice of creation, the logos which tabernacles with us. "Word" here in James also implies something about language itself and how we use to it create or destroy relationships with other people.
Are there any spiritual disciplines of the word which we can practice? Activities of the word which open up space for the transformative work of the Holy Spirit? Marilyn Chandler McEntyre herself mentions twelve. As I read these, let them float through your imaginations. How do you already live these practices? If you don't, how can you practice them? And how might you experience the Spirit of grace through them?
- Love words – "Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power . . . and it means using words as instruments of love."
- Tell the truth – "precision is . . . an instrument of compassion"
- Don't tolerate lies – "the call to be stewards of words requires . . . us. . . to call liars to account."
- Read well – When we approach a text, she suggests that we ask these questions: "What does this work invite you to do? What does it require of you? What does it not let you do?" "Good reading is a pastoral calling."
- Stay in conversation – "Good conversation is a courtesy, a kindness, a form of caritas that has as its deepest implicit intention binding one another together in understanding and love."
- Share stories—"being taken into story keeps us 'dwelling in possibility.'"
- Love the long sentence – The long sentence "prevents us from indulging our vulgar appetites for action, information, and explanation—the fast food of fiction."
- Practice poetry – "because the love of beauty is deeply related to the love of peace."
- Attend to translation – "to stay in contact with the complicating alternatives to our own linguistic window on the world"
- Play – "Be joyful/ though you have considered all the facts."
- Pray – "make our words an offering and let God make them worthy"
- Cherish silence –
Our activism on behalf of justice. . . Our peace-making. . . Our hospitality toward the stranger. . . Our inclusion of the excluded. . . Our care for those in need . . . James writes that these originate in our being doers of the word. It seems that the ways we talk, read, and write are the mirrors that reveal who we really are. Our good use of the word schools us to be compassionate, loving, and holy.
Therefore, let us make our every word a generous act of giving, so that it will be born in truth from the bringer of light.