by Debbonnaire Kovacs
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
I had just moved into a new town, and had attended the small, local Adventist church for the first time. The pastor was in the midst of a series on the Ten Commandments, and he was on number five. As I recall, it was a somewhat confusing blend of hearty, unamusing (to me) tales of paddlings and switches, the recommendation that kids should be a little afraid of their parents, and then a wrap-up of how God is our Father and we should trust him and not fear him. I remember wondering how I was intended to put all that together. Seemed pretty contradictory to me.
The next morning, out of curiosity, I went to a local multidenominational church. It was six years ago, to be precise, and I still recall that the above text was the foundation of the sermon, and how it sank into my heart like rain on dry soil.
The pastor called us “beloved,” just like James, and reminded us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. He reminded us that it’s a given in life that we’ll meet people with whom we profoundly disagree, and that listening, in that context, is crucial. Disagreeing, and loving anyway. Being slow to anger.
I go to both those churches now. I love them both, and they both love me.
A couple of years after that first time, the Baptists held a Peace Conference in my town, and it was hosted by my multidenominational church. At the time, Bush and the Iraq war were big issues, and everyone was speaking out against the war (which meant against Bush). One night there was an open microphone session where many could have their say on any topic they chose. One who got up was a boy about 16, and I’ll never forget what he said.
He leaned shyly into the microphone and said, “I wish I could talk to President Bush.”
I figured I knew what was coming. He’d had it dinned into his ears his whole life, most likely, that Christians are for peace, not war. But he surprised me.
“I’d sit down with him, and I’d look him in the eyes and ask him, ‘Why are you so afraid?’”
There was a silence in the room, and the boy let it be silent for a minute. Then he said, “Everybody keeps talking about him and saying things, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not for the things he does. But I just think he needs somebody to listen to him. That’s what I’d like to do, if I could.”
It seems to me that this lectionary text comes at a good time. As my pastor said (as if we needed reminding) we are always coming upon people with whom we profoundly disagree. There is never a shortage of controversial ideas, and I do believe we should all have our say, all be up-front and direct and transparent about what we believe and why. But are we also listening? Are we being quick to listen and slow to speak? Slow, especially, to anger? Are we “bridling our tongues”?
And seriously—if someone asked you to complete this sentence: “True religion is this:—“ how would you complete it?