James: A Letter to the Faithful Week Two - "Row, Row Row Your Boat."
Imagine that you are on a sinking ship.
If you need to imagine the motion picture Titanic, go for it. You are Jack--or Rose--and the song is playing in the background.
"Near... far... wherever you are...."
Okay, I take it that you are with me at this point. So in your imaginary sinking ship you are getting on board a lifeboat full of people, who have all been given oars to row.
All at once the people on one side of the lifeboat begin shouting that they are the ones who need to row--and that everyone else needs to pull their oars out of the water. "This will only work if we are the ones who are rowing!!" they exclaim.
The people on the other side begin shouting back, "No! We are the ones who need to be rowing!! Everyone on that side needs to pull their oars out of the water and let us row!!"
At this point you are probably watching Jack and Rose float away on their little scrap of wood and you're thinking, "I wonder if they have room on that thing for one more."
Here's the thing. If only one side of the boat rows--you're going in circles. It's not complicated, it's just physics.
And if everyone sits there arguing about who needs to be rowing rather than simply rowing---the sinking ship will probably come crashing down right on top of the boat or drag it down into the depths of the deep blue sea.
"I know that my heart.... will go on...." (humming tune in head)
So, let's take this beautiful imaginary scenario a step further.
Let's say that the lifeboat full of people is "The Christian Lifeboat" or "Christianity" or "The Church," whatever works for you. And let's say that the oars on one side of the boat are labelled "Faith" and the ones on the other side of the boat are labelled "Works."
So the people with oars marked "Faith" keep telling everyone, "We need to be the ones rowing--because when it comes to God's love it's not about what you do, it's about what you believe."
And the people with oars marked "Works" reply, "No! We need to be the ones rowing--because you need to actually do things to make the world a better place to show God's love!"
Now---what do you think is going to happen to this lifeboat called Christianity if this argument persists? If only one side rows--we go in circles. If we keep arguing--we just... might... sink.
Let me break this down a bit further. The two oars of the Christian lifeboat are labelled "What You Say" and "What You Do." And if we don't want to go down with the ship---we better start using both.
My grandfather's name was Leon Bloder. His parents came to America around 1907 from Austria--arriving on Ellis Island like most immigrants did at the turn of the 20th century. My great grandmother was pregnant with him when they arrived. My grandfather's family settled in Eastern Colorado where they farmed for the next seventy years when he finally retired--the last Bloder to leave.
My grandfather wasn't exactly a church-going person. In his generation it wasn't the most manly thing to do. He didn't drink all that much, occasionally smoked a pipe or cigar, was a faithful husband and father for all of his life.
He would give the shirt off his back to help his neighbors and friends. He loved creation, and taught his children and grandchildren just how beautiful even the most desolate prairies could be.
My grandfather read his Bible through at least three times in his life--he knew more about the Scriptures than most church-y people. He never really talked about his faith all that much, only a little and only when it mattered. In the end, we knew that he had a great deal of it. He may have ever talked about it much.
He just showed it.
By contrast, I once knew this man named Mr. Case.
Mr. Case was a member of the fundamentalist Baptist church that I attended when I was small. I remember Mr. Case standing upon Wednesday night prayer meetings and "testifying" about how good God was, how awful sinners were, and how incredible it was that his good God was sending them all to hell for their crimes and misdemeanors.
What most of us knew--or at the very least suspected fairly strongly--was that Mr. Case abused his children, terrified his wife and was a complete and total bully. I could have used a stronger word there. It actually came into my head.
Every week this guy would stand up in church proclaiming what an awesome Christian he was---he would pray loudly and incessantly during the prayer meetings of our church--he would condemn everyone who wasn't fundamentalist and Baptist to the depths of an eternal, fiery Hell.
But there was no evidence to back up his claims.
According to Mr. Case and most of the people we hung out with back then---my grandfather was one of the sinners who would roast in Hell simply because he didn't walk around spouting off about his faith.
I remember as a little kid actually weeping in my room as I thought about my grandfather going to hell.
Not much has changed in Christian culture, sadly.
There are far too many people who believe that the only thing that saves you from the fiery pits of Hell is when you say you believe.
They are rowing with one oar.
But what happens when you only row with the other oar?
You get something like this...
To the left is my man Mr. Case--and virtually most of what we might refer to as "evangelical" Christians in our culture.
But to the right is the Christian who chooses to row only with the "Works" or "What We Do" oar. In this scenario, all of Christianity comes down to what we do, and not what has been done by Jesus.
For those that believe that their salvation is inextricably connected to their works, their life can become an endless cycle of ritual, duty, obligation, and often drudgery. When the good you do in the world is done because you feel like you have to--it's hard to feel any joy about it.
I have had painful conversations with people who have lived this way--rowing with the Oar of Works their whole life. They find they know very little about the Bible and even less about the love of Christ. They go to church, give a little money, volunteer for mission events on occasion, and do all of these things because it's what you are supposed to do---what they've always done.
There is no joy... No passion... No glow on their face...
James, the brother of Jesus knew all about this struggle. In fact, he wrote about it in his letter to some first century Christians who were struggling to figure out which oar to use in their own boat.
Let's do some reading in James chapter 2 verses 14-26
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James begins strong with a statement that he'll actually use to round out his argument... I'll give you a literal translation of the verse 17: "Faith by itself, that does not involve actions is a dead corpse." He doesn't mince words, does he?
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Then James has an imaginary conversation with someone about this issue. He throws a little head knowledge vs. heart knowledge discussion into the mix, too. It's like he's saying, "You give God your intellectual assent? Awesome. You deign to give God a nod by saying that you believe in Him? Good for you! Even the demons do that, so... well done champ."
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
Then he tosses some Abraham in for good measure. Abraham was often used as an example by early Christian writers to demonstrate the way that God was reaching the Gentiles--which honestly caused no end of consternation among the early Jewish Christians. The point of using Abraham was that he was not exactly "Jewish" because he came to know and believe in God before the Torah was given to Moses.
In this case what James is trying to say is that in the moment when God told Abraham to sacrifice the son whom he loved more than life--Abraham was going to do it, because he had faith that God would do something to either save Isaac, or something even more miraculous.
Abraham's faith was cooperating and being completed in action. In other words, his faith existed but it wasn't truly manifested and fully formed until he acted.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?Why not add some Rahab into the mix, too? Again, Rahab was also used by early Christian writers as an even more extreme example of how God calls whom God wills. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho when the children of Israel stopped their after leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for forty years. She hid the spies who came to scope out the situation before the Israelites attached the city.
"She claimed her rights," it says in the text---her "right standing with
God." Like Abraham she would have been considered a "friend of God," which in Greek culture meant that you had the same mind as God.
26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.And just like that, James comes right back to that stark image of a dead body. "If you say you have faith," he says, "but you don't have deeds--it's like you're dead."
All of this reveals something unbelievably profound: The unity between attitude and action. Your attitude is revealed by your actions. Your actions are shaped by your attitude.
It doesn't matter what you say, if you don't show that you have faith--the inference is that you really----don't.
And on the other hand, if you are just rowing like mad with your works oar--thinking that by doing more, keeping your rituals, your traditions doing your duty that God just has to love you... maybe your actions aren't exactly motivated by anything that resembles faith.
Are you rowing in circles?
Maybe you've were taught that the sum total of what it means to be a Christian is being able to point to a particular moment--a prayer you prayed, a confession you made, that time you got baptized when you were ten...
You did that. You're a Christian, they told you, and maybe you even got a certificate to prove it. But you haven't really shown it. You think that people who care about God's creation, who try to help the poor, who try to solve things like hunger, war, hatred and racism---are just wasting their time...
Or maybe you've become so obsessed with doing things that you no longer find any joy in any of it. You're going through the motions--singing songs that you don't mean, saying words you don't really mean during worship--during times of confession, prayers and whatnot.
And then it happens. You hear someone talk about how much they love Jesus, and how much joy that following Jesus gives them... You hear them talk about how their life has been transformed because when they started following Jesus everything changed... and you are surprised by this.
And you wonder why you don't feel the same thing.
Let's go back to that imaginary sinking ship. Let's call that sinking ship, The USS Tired Old Religion or the USS Boring Old Church--and that sucker is going down like a stone.
With the melodious sound of Celine Dion drifting over the sea you look at the two groups of people who are arguing over which oars to use and inspiration washes over you.
You sit down in the middle of the boat, shoving aside the pompous old lady with the big hat and you grab her oar. You push back the angry young man on the other side and grab his. And then you begin to row---with both of them.
No more arguing and sitting still.
No more rowing in circles.
You just row, row, row your boat away from that big old sinking ship, away from that awful song that gets in your head and never leaves--- and into the sunset toward your future.
It's only when you row with faith and works that you will actually go somewhere.
Because the two oars of the Christian faith are labelled "What You Say" and "What You Do."