The Book of James — Pop Quiz

Sorry, I hope that “pop quiz” didn’t generate any anxious thoughts.  I know well what it was like hearing those words from a teacher or professor.  The anxiety was real—all too real.

Truth is, I didn’t like pop quizzes. Not because they were a surprise, but because I immediately began to question whether or not I had learned the material.  A quiz or test that you know about ahead of time allows for preparation and study. Pop quizzes don’t offer that luxury. You either know it or you don’t.

When examining James 1:2 carefully, it would not be out of order to translate the first few words like this: My brothers and sisters, whenever you face a pop quiz of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…” Why?  Because James knew that a pop quiz would measure the depth of a person’s faith. It would correctly assess the ability of a person to endure knowing that the full effect of endurance meant they were “complete, lacking in nothing.” Think about that for a minute.

In most evangelical circles when James 1:2 is discussed it is not often framed in those terms. But the word James uses for “trials” is a word used only 3 times in the NT. Here in 1:2, Luke 10:30—where the traveler “fell into the hands of robbers…”, and Acts 27:41.  The word’s primary meaning according to The Dictionary of the New Testament is “to come upon something by chance; to be innocently involved in something. The noun form of the word is used for “mishap” or “accident.”

If you’re following my train of thought you’ll realize where I’m going with this. I believe it’s where James was going; what really “tests” us is that which catches us off guard. Something we are innocently involved in that was totally out of our control.

How you define that in your life, either present or past, is up to you but I’m fairly certain you may be a bit like me and had an “aha” moment when reading that last paragraph.

Without getting too personal, I’ll share this particular experience. When my wife and I moved from Texas to North Carolina we were certain there were going to be challenges. We prepared ourselves to make adjustments and deal with things as they came. What caught us off guard was living with two mortgages for over a year because we could not sell our house in Texas. That was pushing us both to limits we’d not yet experienced. I was frustrated, often angry, and continually asking why this was happening. God didn’t seem to be inclined to answer our prayers or those of countless others who joined us in praying for a buyer. The whole process was indeed testing the level of my faith. I’ll confess going through that process did not bring me to any form of maturity. I was far from complete and lacking on many counts.

I often reflect back on that experience. Seeing how my wife responded to that time and how I responded to that time told me I had a good deal of work to do. If something similar happens again, I toss around in my mind whether or not I’d respond differently. Would I realize that what happened then has equipped me for now?

This is where “wisdom” comes in and we’ll make some observations about that in the next post.

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Detour from The Book of James

Hope you don’t mind…these past few days have been a bit challenging. I’m working through some health issues and the meds I’m on are throwing me for a loop. It’s been very hard to keep my train of thought.  So…for those who follow this  blog, instead of rambling through my next section on the Book of James, I’ve decided to share a very candid post by J.R. Daniel Kirk, Professor of NT. It comes from his personal blog which you can find here. It also does not hit far from the mark regarding what James is teaching in his letter.

I’m hoping to be back in stride next week.

Christian Hypocrisy?

I don’t think deeply about the question of hypocrisy, but it fleets across my mind on a regular basis. Especially when we’re talking about religious hypocrisy, and that of my own tribe, Christian hypocrisy.

It gnaws at the corners of my thoughts while I’m reading a book by an author, especially a Christian author, who has rubbed me the wrong way in person. It demotes the power of a sermon or devotional from someone whose way of life shows more concern for deployment of power than walking the way of the cross.

There is something right about this. We should be wary as we commit ourselves to teachers. “By their fruits you will know them.”

And yet…

The times when I really worry about hypocrisy is in my own work. In my own writing. In my own preaching.

I am often more acutely aware than anyone else could ever be how vast the disparity is between what I write and say on the one hand and my life on the other. I’m haunted, at times, by the possibility that this makes me just a big ol’ hypocrite.

But here’s the thing.ID-100131021

For me, and I imagine for a lot of writers and preachers, the beautiful pictures of how to navigate life here on earth, or of what the Kingdom of God looks like–the things I love to write about and preach on–these are not claims I’m staking to my own perfection, but the ideal I want to strive toward.

I write and I speak to create a vision of what might be, a vision that I hope will take such deep root in my own imagination that it will become the way of life into which I am molded.

When we say “hypocrite” we tend to mean that the “real” person is the jerk who blew me off at coffee hour. But for many of us who write and speak for a living, the “real” me is the one who has the courage to say those things that the shadow-self jerk from coffee hour hasn’t yet figured out how to live into.

It’s like Paul calling the Corinthians (of all people) those who have been sanctified (perfect tense!) in Christ Jesus.

As a strong J on the Myers Briggs and an 8 on the Enneagram, I am super quick to call b.s. on the books I read or sermons I hear. As I say, this includes what I read on my own screen as I type and what I hear coming from my own mouth when I preach.

But I’ve had to flip the script a little. Because what I would claim for me, and what I know a lot of other preacher types especially would claim for themselves, is that they are more who they truly are, more integrated and their best selves, in that moment of speaking the truth that we stumble to put into reality.

The act of writing or speaking is often the way that the religious professional engages in the crucial business of calling b.s. on the life that doesn’t live up to the beautiful and powerful ideals that infuse our Christian story.

You might have a hard time believing this, but I often struggle to say or do what I’m thinking.

Yesterday I got a crappy, watery espresso shot in my cappuccino. I didn’t say anything. (I know, how on earth can I be an Enneagram 8 and be insecure about engaging in face to face conflict?! Note to self: work through this with the therapist.)

There’s a paradoxical safety in numbers when speaking–in white church, anyway, they won’t tell you you’re wrong. There’s a safety in writing–I don’t have to see your faces or your reactions. I can be myself, and you help me to do it.

So what are we to do when our “Hypocrite!” sirens start going off?

First, take a second to name the disparity you’re seeing.

Second, try to give a generous read on whether this someone painting beautiful pictures to hang in the living room of her malice or self-absorption, or whether is it someone pointing the way toward a more beautiful land that she hopes we can all help each other get closer to.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, look at how the person handles their crap. If you see the disparity but the person never admits to doing anything wrong in particular, you might be on the trail of a hypocrite. If this is a person who cannot apologize, cannot ask for forgiveness, admits to no awareness of the disparity, then you might start backing toward the door, or leaving that book (or blog!) unread.

Maybe what I’m saying is that we have to extend to our leaders the grace to be simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and a sinner)–just as long as they are able to own up to the sinner part.

Let’s be slow to play the hypocrite card.

If our only measure for playing it is whether there is disparity between a person’s religious vision and the life they actually live then what we’re really saying is not, “You’re such a hypocrite,” but really, “You’re such a human.”

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominic

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The Book of James–Part III “Who Are You?

The theme song from the original CSI always captured my attention. With poor hearing I expect it was a few years before I figured out exactly what all the words were…but the lead in; “Who are you…” always sucked me in—“Tell  me, who you are…I really want to know”.  Of course, almost predictably, they found out who the “who” was by end of show.

It’s not quite that easy with the Book of James. Continue reading

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The Book of James — An Introduction

First, let me offer a disclaimer. There is little doubt I’ll not cover all the ins and outs of this letter regarding questions, concerns, and even controversies. Therefore it’s important for you to do some individual study in order to catch the full scope of the background and import of James’ message.

Even though some in history have referred to James as an “epistle of straw” (Martin Luther), if we look closely, it’s clear there are weighty matters being discussed in this short epistle. Continue reading

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A Little “dipsychos” Goes a Long Way

I’ve been doing a short study on the book of James. If you’ve not spent time in that book, it’s not only a wonderful book, it’s practical and challenging. Perhaps one of the most oft quoted passages in the book of James comes in the first chapter and deals with doubt or double-mindedness..dipsychos.

One of the sources for my study made a comment about James 1:5-8 and the idea of double-mindedness that made me stop and think a good bit. I’ll share that comment in a bit, but first let’s take a quick looks at the word double-minded.

The idea of double-minded, dipsychos, is a word that’s only used in James and then only twice. There are no real corollaries in the Greek translation of the OT except perhaps Psalm 12:2 where the Psalmist talks of a double-heart.  James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, uses the word in contrast to faith.  In other words, one who expresses faith cannot be double-minded.

Faith here is not belief in God but the idea of actually trusting God to do what he says. To do what’s right for those who do believe in him. It comes in the context of asking for wisdom. “If any of you is lacking wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. BUT ask in faith, never doubting, for…the doubter (literally ‘the man’v.7) being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord (vv. 5-8 NRSV).”

In this context E. Tod Twist makes this observation about the people James is addressing; “They struggle with a conflict of loyalties: God and his direction versus self and personal desires.”  Now that my friend, should start the wheels turning.

What exactly is God’s direction? How, and more so, why do I (self), or my personal desires, send up a flag of conflict?  Doesn’t God want to grant me the desires of my heart?  If I move to do the right thing for the right reasons how could that be a conflict of loyalties?  Are the questions I have about God, the Bible, and perhaps the Christian life, as some people describe it, evidence of a conflict of loyalties?   Of double-mindedness?

As if that’s not enough, what prompted this idea of “wisdom”?  Why would I want to ask for wisdom? It seems, based on the context, wisdom has to do with the testing of my faith, endurance, and the idea of “lacking in nothing” (vv. 2-4).

As in nearly every instance the key to putting some of these pieces together is context. In this rather short epistle, the context is not so much other teachings; we haven’t gotten that far in to the letter. Rather, it deals with who the recipients of the letter were. Once we get a handle on that then we can begin to see how and why James starts off with such a deep and challenging thought.

And we’ll do just that in the next post.


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