Ponderings of the General Presbyter
Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley
As my devotional reading lately, I have been reading through the book of James. I recommend it. James, believed to be the James mentioned as one of Jesus’ brothers and pillar of the early church in Jerusalem, does not mince words. Maybe that is why Martin Luther vehemently opposed the book of James’ inclusion in the cannon of scripture that we know as The Bible today. (Or maybe it was because the book of James does not fall easily under the theological rubric, so dear to Luther, of “salvation by grace through faith”). The book of James is believed to be one of the earliest writings of the church, around the year 60 CE written to the 12 tribes in the dispersion. After the stoning of Stephen, Luke records that the believers scattered in all directions and this letter may have been addressed to them. It’s a very practical book, reminiscent of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. James is, perhaps, most famous for his emphasis on works as being the natural outcome and inevitable manifestation of faith. “Faith without works, he puts it bluntly, is dead.”
In these days of strife and acrimony on the national and global stage (with the church chiming in at times) I was struck by James’ admonition in Chapter 1:19-21. “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.”
Quick to listen. Would you consider yourself quick to listen? Being quick to listen requires a certain level of curiosity and compassion two qualities that build trust and deepen relationships. One of the greatest gifts we can give another is the gift of our attention, our listening to them whether they are talking about their own lives or troubles or joys or whether they are talking about their theology or politics. Being heard, truly heard, is something we long for. And it’s a gift we can give.
James couples being quick to listen with being slow to speak. Many times our listening is really just preparing our own thoughts, rejoinders, or remarks. So the author of James stresses being slow to speak. Hear the person out without thinking about how you’re going to respond. Be slow to speak. Being slow to speak is the opposite of interrupting of which our public discourse has far too much. Be slow to speak.
James will go on to talk about anger and conflict which he seems to see as an outcome of the opposite of his admonition, ie, being slow to listen and quick to speak. Such conflict destroys the social fabric and does not promote God’s righteousness. In James’ mind our capacity to listen and our willingness to withhold our own speech to truly hear another avoids anger and conflict.
Here’s an invitation: this week, monitor how you listen and when and how you speak. If we do that, we all might learn the wisdom of James’ words.
As ever in prayer,