Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Weaving Straw into Gold

I've been reading the Epistle of James recently. Martin Luther referred to James as the "Epistle of Straw." He didn't like it because its pragmatic focus on issues of community and practice seemed to put too much emphasis on good works. And Luther was really heavily into this "by-grace-ye-are-saved-through-faith" thing.

But I like James, very, very much lately. Few texts in scripture explore the virtue of patience in more depth and with more nuance than this one does. Right from the beginning, he sets the tone:

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. (1:2-4)

"Temptations" here could also be translated as "trials." The core message of James is that as we encounter various trials of our faith, our temptation is to try to force the issue, try to fix it ourselves in ways that are generally counterproductive. He speaks of the "double minded man," the person who does not know him- or herself, in the grasp of desire. He speaks against temper -- swiftness to anger -- which is the result of frustration that occurs when our efforts to force something don't produce the outcomes we desire. It is this inability to free oneself from desire, and the ensuing frustration that he sees as the fundamental cause of war:

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (4:1-3)

On the flip side of this coin we see those who have all the good things of this world because they've succeeded at the greedy game of accumulating wealth. For them, James reserves some of the most biting criticism in all of scripture:

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the crust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. (5:2-6)

James recommends detachment from the cycles of lust and greed which lead to war and oppression. By holding our tongues, by keeping silence, we still the frustration, the anger and the anguish that lead to violence. By concerning ourselves with the well-being of others who are poor, we shift focus away from our own wants and needs and lusts.

Patience is "unto the coming of the Lord" (5:7). It is not enough to free ourselves of the external manifestations of impatience. It does not help if we carry grudges in our heart or if we seethe in silence. It is a complete transformation of the heart which is required, by placing all of our trust in God.

And how do we achieve this complete transformation and total trust? Through prayer. Whenever we are confronted with an evil that cannot be solved by compassionate action, we turn to God. Whenever we face a conflict among us because of some irresolvable difference, we are to step back, defer to the other, and pray for God to teach us and resolve the error. And that brings us to one of the favorite texts from James among LDS:

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (1:5)

Wisdom is more than just knowing things. It is knowing how to navigate through a perilous world. It is knowing how to live with integrity when everything around us is trying to destroy the things that are truly valuable. It is letting go the ephemeral and focusing on the real.

And what is the real?


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