A prime example of the hypocrisy of party politics

I work for a registered charity which is authorized to issue receipts for donations so that people can receive a tax deduction for their generosity. The more they give, the more they get back. When the federal and Alberta amounts are combined, the refund on donations over $200 is close to 50%, which is nothing to sneeze at.

However, our charity (which is a church) is, of course, strictly forbidden from engaging in partisan politics. If we were to do that, we would lose our charitable registration and would no longer be able to issue receipts to our members for tax deductions.

Does it bother me that I can’t engage in party politics in my official capacity as pastor of my church? No, not really. On the other hand, if I was working for a charity that was trying to alleviate child poverty in Canada, I might feel a little more constrained by the system. After all, child poverty can’t be solved by donations alone. To use an old illustration, if you start noticing that the river is full of drowning babies, it’s not enough to have an efficient rescue operation; sooner or later, someone needs to go upstream to find out who’s throwing them in. And the answer to that question may well have political implications. But charities aren’t allowed to go near that, or they lose their status and their ability to issue income tax receipts.

And now, behold the hypocrisy of the Canadian political system. Today I gave a donation to a Canadian political party (most of you will be able to figure out which one!). On their website, they promptly informed me that according to Canadian law, when income tax time rolls around, I will receive a tax refund equal to 75% of my donation!

That’s right, folks. Registered charities can’t get involved in party politics or they lose their ability to issue income tax receipts, but if you donate to a Canadian political party (which engages almost exclusively in party politics), you’ll get 75% of it back at income tax time. That’s over half as much again as you’d get for donating to a charity that helps to feed the poor, as long as they don’t get political about it.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Wisdom and Humility (a sermon on James 3:13 – 4:10)

I don’t remember thinking very much about ‘wisdom’ when I was a young Christian, back in my teens. I was interested in ‘joy’ and ‘love’ and ‘power’ and ‘peace’, but I don’t remember wisdom figuring on my radar screen very much at all. I do remember very clearly, however, the first time I really paid attention as wisdom was demonstrated in a church context.

I was working in the three-point parish of Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake, Saskatchewan; Ken Burningham was the rector and I was his assistant. It was time for the Annual General Meeting of the church in Arborfield, and for reasons that would take too long to explain, Ken was at the meeting, but I was chairing it. There was an elderly lady in the congregation, Mrs. Lindsay, who had been the envelope secretary for years, but we all felt that the job was getting to be too much for her. I should add that she herself was not at the meeting. So the question was, what should we do?

Some people felt that we should appoint someone else to the position even though Mrs. Lindsay was not present to discuss it. Others were afraid she’d feel like we were casting her aside. There was a long discussion, which didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, and eventually I looked across at Ken, who had been very quiet, and asked him, “What do you think we should do?” He replied, “I think we should appoint an assistant to help her out”.

Immediately it was as if the fog cleared. There was a man present who was quite willing to become Mrs. Lindsay’s assistant, and so we voted unanimously to establish the position and appoint him to it. And the long-term outcome was good; as we had suspected, she was beginning to find the job too much, and within a few months she asked if she could step down and hand over her responsibilities to the assistant. No one’s feelings were hurt, and yet the work got done to everyone’s satisfaction.

That, I think, was the first time I consciously thought to myself, “Now that was wisdom in action!” Ever since then I’ve tried to take note when I’ve seen demonstrations of practical wisdom, and I’ve also noticed how very highly wisdom is valued in the Bible.

In our epistle for today James returns to the subject of wisdom, which he’s already mentioned earlier in his letter. He talks in verse 13 about the person who is ‘wise and understanding’, and a few verses later he contrasts ‘earthly wisdom’ with ‘the wisdom from above’.

But before we dive into these verses, let’s remind ourselves that James is not the first person in the Bible to think and write about wisdom. The Old Testament has a whole genre of books that scholars call ‘wisdom literature’; it includes books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, that gather together wise sayings to guide people in the art of practical godly living. In this wisdom literature there’s general agreement about where wisdom starts: Proverbs 1:7 says ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ – in other words, we need to remember that the relationship between us and God is not an equal one. God is infinitely good and holy and powerful, but we are not; we are God’s creations, and our understanding and wisdom are limited. True wisdom comes from the Lord, and we need to go to him in humility to learn the best path through life.

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an abstract intellectual concept; it’s not something we learn in endless coffee shop conversations about ‘the meaning of life’. It’s intensely practical; it’s about discovering the kind of life God designed us human beings for, and learning to live it out in the midst of our ordinary daily occupations.  Not surprisingly, Jesus agrees with this approach. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount he gives us the well-known parable of the wise and foolish builders. He tells us that the wise man, who built his house on the rock, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and acts on them’ (Matthew 7:24), but the foolish man, who built his house on the sand, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and does not act on them’ (v.26). Wisdom, then, is to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice in our daily lives.

This is godly wisdom, and it’s essentially humble; we assume we don’t have the ability in ourselves to choose the wise path, so we go to God and ask him to teach us true wisdom. As Christians, we believe that God has come to us supremely in Jesus, so we expect that in the life and teaching of Jesus we’ll find the clearest and most accurate embodiment of the wisdom of God. I think it’s part of our Christian faith that we see Jesus at the very least as the wisest man who ever lived, and so following him means looking to him for the wisdom we need in our daily lives.

But there’s another voice in the biblical tradition, a rebellious voice. We first run into it in the third chapter of Genesis where we meet the serpent, who tempts the man and the woman to follow their own path rather than the one God has set out for them. The serpent contradicts God’s instructions to the man and the woman:

‘God knows that when you eat of (the fruit of the tree) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5).

The next words are very revealing:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).

The woman saw ‘that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’. Here we have a different path to wisdom; the snake says, “There’s something good that God could have given you, but he’s chosen to hold it back from you. The only way to get it is for you to strike out on your own, reject God’s commands and find your own path through life. If you do that, you’ll become as wise as God and you won’t need to keep asking him what to do”. This is the way of pride and arrogance, when we say to God, ‘Your way sounds interesting, but I don’t think it’ll work in the real world, will it?” As if the human race has a great track record of making things work in the real world!

This is the biblical conversation James is stepping into in our reading for today, and he clearly spells out the two kinds of wisdom. In verse 13 he says,

‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’.

He goes on in verses 17-18 to describe what heavenly wisdom looks like:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

But earthly wisdom is an entirely different animal; look at verses 14-16:

But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

What sort of wisdom is this? This is what we might call ‘worldly wisdom’, the wisdom that knows how to look out for itself and ignores everyone else. This is the person who knows how to play the game of life in such a way that they get the cream and everyone else gets the dregs. The essential characteristic of this so-called wisdom is selfishness and self-centredness: a person who has this devilish wisdom is entirely absorbed in their own interests and cares nothing for the interests of others.

Is this likely to produce peace? I don’t think so. In order to have true peace, we need to develop a genuine concern for the well-being of others, but if instead we grow a world where everyone thinks only of themselves, this will inevitably bring people into conflict with each other. You want that patch of land? So do I. You want that pot of money? So do I. You want that spot in the centre of the stage? So do I.

We all know where that leads, don’t we? Look at chapter 4 verses 1-3:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Are you surprised that James addresses these words to Christians? Do we really expect Christians to murder people when they don’t get what they want? Sadly, one look around the world today will tell us that this happens more often than we’d like to believe. But even when it isn’t literally true, most of us have probably experienced church life that feels like a war zone. After all, we all want a church that caters to our own needs and desires, and when someone proposes a change, our first thought is always “How does this affect me?” And if a decision at a church meeting goes us, we’re indignant and demand to know why the others won’t let us have the kind of church we want! When you get a whole church full of people who feel that way, it’s not surprising that there’s conflict.

So what’s the way out? James would tell us that we need to remember that God is God and I am not, so we need to step down from the throne, apologize to God for sitting on his chair, and then take our place in humility before him, asking him to guide us rather than always assuming that what’s good for me must inevitably be good for everyone else as well.

In verse 6 James quotes again from the Book of Proverbs:

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”.

That reminds me of a quote from the end of The Hobbit – the book, I mean, not the Peter Jackson movie! Gandalf is talking with Bilbo about how his actions have helped the old prophecies to be fulfilled, and Bilbo is shaking his head at this idea. Gandalf says,

“And why not? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies just because you helped them come about. You don’t really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all.”

“Thank goodness!” Bilbo replied.

Yes, indeed – I’m only a little fellow in a wide world after all, and that’s something I need to remember on a regular basis! And so, after encouraging us to repent of our sins and return to the Lord, James ends this section by saying,

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:10).

So where are we going with this today? What does it mean for you and me as we leave this place and go out into the world as followers of Jesus?

James has described for us the world we live in – a world torn by conflict and war, a world of winners and losers, a world where the winner takes all and the loser has to pay the price. And he’s asking us, as the biblical writers so often do, “Do you seriously think you can change this without changing the basic selfish orientation of the human heart?”

True wisdom starts with a recognition that God is God and I am not. My knowledge is limited, but God knows everything. I’ve seen only a tiny corner of his universe, but God has seen all of it. I’ve only seen fifty-six years, but the whole of time and eternity is spread out before God. And as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, when I argue with God, I’m arguing with the very person who gives me the ability to argue in the first place! Rather strange, don’t you think?

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. A proper awe and respect and reverence for God will lead to a desire to learn his ways and put them into practice in our daily lives. And this will mean recognizing that I’m not the lead character in God’s play; there are seven billion others on the planet as well, and every one of them is important to God. So rather than being concerned that everyone notices what an admirable person I am, I need to be shining the spotlight on others, so that everyone gets their share of the light.

Let me close by reading you the last two verses of chapter 3 from the ‘New Living Translation’; I think it’s very helpful:

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favouritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

The First and the Last

There’s an old story about a Puritan and a Quaker having a conversation about pacifism in eighteenth-century America. The Puritan was arguing for the so-called ‘Just War’ position – i.e. that Christians are permitted to participate in war so long as certain conditions are present – while the Quaker was trying to persuade him that the teaching of Jesus forbids Christians from engaging in all violence and warfare, with no exceptions.

After they had been arguing back and forth for a long time, the Puritan said, “Well, I can see the strength of your argument. In fact, if all men were as you are, I would be a pacifist”.

The Quaker replied: “Then the difference between you and me is simply this: you want to be the last good man on earth, and I want to be the first”.

Pastoral Evangelism

I was trained as an evangelist in the Church Army in Canada (now Threshold Ministries) and served in this role for twelve years before my ordination in 1990. As a Church Army officer I exercised my evangelistic ministry in a parish context, and I’ve continued to do that since then as a deacon and priest. My dad was a parish priest with a wonderful evangelistic ministry, and he gave me a great example of how the two vocations (pastor and evangelist) – often seen as distinct and indeed somewhat different from each other – can be brought together in a life-giving way.

So I was thrilled yesterday to read a very fine short sermon from Bishop David Chillingworth on this subject. Bishop David is bishop of St. Andrew’s, Dunkeld and Dunblane, and he is also Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He blogs regularly about his ministry at Thinking Out Loud. The sermon below was preached at a service of the restoration of the commission of a Church Army evangelist who had resigned from the Church Army on his ordination (as used to be the requirement), but had since decided to take up the offer of the restoration of his commission. I have been present on similar occasions here in Canada and they are very moving for all concerned; the sense of healing can be very powerful indeed.

I love the way Bishop David expresses so succinctly what I have always tried to live out in my ministry, and more intentionally in the last few years: the refusal to accept the idea that the gifts of pastor and evangelist cannot co-exist in the same person. Of course they can! I saw it clearly in my dad, and I like to think it’s true for me too. I’m very grateful to Bishop David for giving me permission to reproduce this short sermon. Here it is.

Re-commissioning of Revd Nick Green

12.9.15

‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through  him’

Our Service this evening – the re-commissioning of Nick as a Church Army Officer – celebrates and affirms that work of evangelism.  It’s the great tradition of John the Baptist who came to bear witness to the one who would come after him – to proclaim the coming of Christ and to call people to repentance.  And St Paul declares the centrality of faith – but reminds us that faith needs to be proclaimed.  It needs those who are called to proclaim it and respond in obedience.

I was delighted when Nick told me that he had decided to accept the invitation to receive back his Church Army Commission.  I know that he thought and prayed deeply about that.  In these moments, the question is, ‘Is this something of the past which I have now left behind – or do I carry it forward as a guiding principle of my life wherever the call of God may lead me?’  And I think it is the latter.  So there is in our worship this evening more than a touch of the gospel of reconciliation – a reintegrating of Nick’s calling to be an evangelist with his ministry as Rector of St Mary’s, Dunblane.  And what is the gospel if it is not about reconciliation – the breaking down of the barriers between us and the breaking down of the barriers between God and his people.

But there is more to this.  There seems to have been a time in the life of the church when decisions tended to be presented in binary – or adversarial – or straightforward ‘yes and no’ terms.  I constantly meet the legacy of that in my own ministry.  And I think that the time when the Church Army said to its evangelists that if they sought ordination in the church they would have to give up their commission as evangelists.  It had to be one or the other – it couldn’t be both and.

I believe passionately that there are many circumstances in which both/and is just what we need and what the gospel requires.  And my experience is that much of the energy which we need comes when we bring things together rather than keeping them apart.  Wasn’t the ministry of Jesus like that – healing, teaching, feeding, caring – all wrapped up together?  As Nick goes about his ministry in Dunblane – caring, teaching, shaping worship, building relationships in the community – what could be more creative than that he brings to that the heart and passion of an evangelist?

So it’s going to be both/and for Nick.  And I think it’s going to be inside and outside the church.  The Priest and Pastor is at the heart of the community of God’s people.  The evangelist is with those without faith – the evangelist is often outside – like John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness.

So Nick the Rector – and Nick the evangelist – bring together that inside/outside understanding of the church.  The tendency of the church to tame and domesticate is offset by the call of the evangelist to be with those who are not part of the church.

This is a really important moment.  I am delighted and honoured to be part of it.  I am delighted to be part of the growing partnership between the Church Army and the Scottish Episcopal Church.  I pray that God will bless us as Church and Church Army do both/and and inside/outside in his name.

**********

Note: For a good example of how the ministries of evangelism and pastoral care can be combined, it’s hard to beat David Hansen’s superb book The Art of Pastoring. David is a Baptist pastor, and his book gives many examples of how witness and evangelism can be built right into the daily work of pastoral care in an ordinary congregation (the book was written in the context of a multi-point charge in rural Montana). I highly recommend it.

Taming the Tongue (a sermon on James 3:1-12)

When I was in one of my early parish appointments, in rural Saskatchewan, Marci and I used to run a little youth group in our home on Sunday evenings. Usually about six kids came out; they were all related to each other, and the truth is that we weren’t actually that much older than them. A couple of them weren’t too happy about being there, but their parents insisted, so along they came! But the nice thing is that we’re still in touch with most of them, and we see them from time to time when we visit Saskatchewan in the summer time. Most of them are still active Christians, and of course parents too (in a couple of cases, parents of married children, which tells you how we are!).

A few years ago when we were back in Saskatchewan we were visiting with a couple of people who had been in that youth group. One of the girls – now a mother of four herself – said, “And where would we be today if it hadn’t been for that youth group? We certainly wouldn’t be following the Lord”.

That’s the sort of thing that sets you thinking about ‘influence’ – the way your words and actions can have an effect on people that you don’t even realize. Today our reading from James is talking about the tongue, so I want to focus in for a few minutes on the Christian teachers we have in our lives and how they influence us.

When I was thirteen my Dad asked me a question that changed the course of my life. He had been lending me Christian books to read, and one of them had gotten me very curious. One night at our youth group meeting he said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I knew he was right, and later that night I prayed a prayer committing my life to Christ. That was the beginning of my conscious Christian journey, and it all happened as a result of Dad’s question. Words can be very powerful.

In my late teens I went off to Toronto to train to become an Anglican evangelist. I was feeling a bit apprehensive, because lately I’d been beginning to suspect that, although I had a very lively experience of Christianity, I couldn’t really give a reason for it – an intellectual case that would stand up under fire. Again, my Dad helped me out. In the airport in Vancouver we stopped in the bookstore, and Dad bought me a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with the recommendation that I read it. Most of you will know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia stories, but you may not know that he also wrote some excellent books explaining the Christian faith. I read Mere Christianity and it was exactly what I needed. I know it had an influence on me, because I lent it a few years ago to a United Church minister, and when he gave it back to me he said, “Do you have any idea how much this guy has influenced you?”

These are just a couple of examples of the way the words of wise Christian teachers have had an enormous influence on my life. Words can have a great effect for good, especially when they’re backed up by the way the person lives their life. And the opposite is also true, of course: the words of an evil person can have great effect for evil. Adolf Hitler was a powerful speaker and he used words to tragic effect; more than fifty million people died in the Second World War because of the power of his oratory. Or think of the way the words of some parents haunt their children their whole lives long, leaving a legacy of despair and hopelessness because all the children experienced was criticism and judgement, not encouragement and hope.

In today’s reading James says ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’ (James 3:1). I note in passing that, in the original context, when James talks about ‘teachers’ he’s talking about those who teach the Christian faith in the community of the Church. It may well apply to schoolteachers too, but the original text wasn’t talking about them.

It’s easy for us to see why James was so concerned about this. A word or two in the wrong direction and someone’s life can be sent down the wrong path for years. One sermon challenging a central Christian belief, and a whole church can be led astray. One word out of place in a pastoral conversation, and a vulnerable listener can be encouraged to make a disastrous move that will affect the rest of their life.

This is the power of the tongue – or the pen or the keyboard, for that matter. Controlled by God’s Spirit, harnessed for good, our words can have an incalculable effect for good. But when they’re out of control, or used for unscrupulous and selfish ends, they can result in great evil. That’s why James teaches us that the control of our tongue is one of the most important parts of our Christian discipleship.

Where did James get this idea from? Well, from his brother Jesus, of course! Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:34-37:

“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”.

Jesus, of course, speaks these words to all of us, not just ministers and Christian teachers, and James broadens it out to apply to all of us too, in verse 2 of our reading for today when he says, ‘For all of us make many mistakes’. He goes on to use several illustrations to make two points: that the tongue is powerful, and that the tongue is hard to control.

The first illustration is of the horse; look at verse 3:

‘If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies’.

The horse is powerful and fast, but it can be controlled by using a very small instrument – the bit and the bridle. Once in place, the bit and bridle can be used very effectively to guide the direction the horse takes. And to James, the tongue is like a bit and bridle: using it, we can guide the lives of others and have an enormous impact on them. The tongue seems so small and the crowd seems so huge, but watch them as they are swayed by a powerful speech! And one person’s life can be marked forever by a few words said to them by another person.

The second illustration is of the ship; look at verses 4 and 5:

‘Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great exploits’.

The ship travels all over the world carrying cargo and passengers. If James thought the ships in his day were large, imagine what he would have said today about supertankers and aircraft carriers! But the direction of the ship can be set by one person using a comparatively small tool – the rudder. James imagines the rudder getting big ideas about itself – ‘boasting of great exploits’, as he says. People are sometimes aware that they have this power, and boast in it; Karl Marx famously said, ‘Give me twenty-six soldiers of lead and I’ll conquer the world’ – referring to the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in the printing press, of course. Sounds like he was ‘boasting of great exploits’ to me!

These first two illustrations emphasize the power and influence of the tongue, but James goes on to give us two more that underline how difficult it is to control it. The first one is the illustration of a fire:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. (vv.5b-6).

 Here in Alberta we’re used to watching forest fires each year and we know how hard they are to control once they get going. And we know that the tongue is like a fire. How many times has someone started a piece of gossip about someone else, and the next thing you know, it’s spread, as we say, like wildfire, and perhaps an innocent person’s reputation is ruined forever. Or someone in one part of the world makes incendiary comments on a blog post, and the next thing you know people in another part of the world are rioting and killing. There’s a ‘Pandora’s Box’ effect about speech, isn’t there? Once a thing has been said, there’s no calling it back.

The tongue is like a forest fire, but it’s also like a wild animal. James exaggerates slightly at the beginning of this one! Here’s what he says:

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (vv.7-8).

Of course, there are many species of wild animals that can’t be tamed (anyone tried taming a mosquito?). But the point James is making is clear: taming the tongue is more difficult than taming a wild animal. Anyone who’s seriously tried to do it knows how difficult it is. If you’re in the habit of being argumentative, or judgemental, or gossiping, or critical, it’s very difficult to get out of that habit and learn to use your power of speech positively rather than negatively.

Nowadays, of course, there’s a whole school of thought that says we shouldn’t even try to control the tongue. We’ve been told by pop psychology that if we have these feelings of rage or frustration or vengeance, we should just ‘vent’ and let it all come out; if we don’t, we’re told – if we just bottle it up inside – it will eventually lead to violence, either toward others or ourselves. Millions of people around the world now use Facebook for just this sort of venting. Are you angry because you got cut off in traffic? Post a nasty comment about the other driver on Facebook – addressed to him, of course, even though he can’t read it – and you’ll instantly feel better (although your Facebook friends might not!).

Well, there may be some truth in this, but there’s something else we might want to think about too. We’re given the impression that there’s a finite load of resentment or anger down there, and if we just vent it, eventually we’ll come to the end of it. But what if that’s not the case? What if there’s an infinite supply? What if getting into the habit of exploding with rage at people just increases our propensity to do so? What if speaking out in anger just makes us a more angry person?

Remember what Jesus said in the quote from Matthew I read earlier?

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure”. (Matthew 12:34b-35)

What comes out of your mouth, in other words, is a reflection of what’s in your heart. James says much the same thing in the verses at the end of our reading:

With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (vv.9-12).

It might seem as if  James is completely negative about the tongue, and we might even be led to believe that it’s impossible to change it and use it for good. Certainly he wants us to know how hard it is. Habits dig deep grooves in our brains, and once they’ve been dug, it’s hard to change course and dig new ones.

Hard, but not impossible. Alcoholics do learn to stop drinking. Anger management classes do help people to stop expressing their anger in inappropriate ways. And the Spirit of God can go deep down inside us and heal that poisoned well, so that what comes out is not abuse and hatred, but love and compassion.

It takes two things to tame the tongue: a decision on our part to recognize the problem and do something about it, and the help of God’s Holy Spirit.

James is not wasting his breath. He wouldn’t be writing these things to us if he thought the situation was hopeless. He’s writing to challenge us, to lead us to recognize the problem and to come to a genuine repentance. And once we do that, we can put steps in place to begin a process of change.

Let me give you what I hope is a rather humorous illustration: the year I gave up swearing for Lent. I should explain that I don’t think that swearing is actually a very serious issue – certainly not on the level of vengeance or selfishness or conceit or lust – but I was getting a little tired of my potty mouth. I’d picked it up in the Northwest Territories, where the locals seemed to think those words were just part of ordinary English, and I’d gotten used to it. But in the Lent of 2006 I decided I wanted to change direction, so I gave up swearing for Lent.

At the time Marci and I were in the habit of going to a local pub on Monday nights for an open stage, and I decided that every time I broke my resolution I’d fine myself a dollar off my Monday night beer money. Of course, the other musicians there knew I usually had a beer, so they noticed the first week when I had coffee instead. One of them asked me what was going on, and when I explained it to him, he burst out laughing! For the rest of Lent he watched me like a hawk each Monday night; “Pretty rough week, was it?” he’d ask if he saw me having coffee!

Well, I can’t claim that I entirely eliminated the habit, but I certainly got a little more control over it. And in the same way, it is possible for us to put a framework in place in our lives that will help us change the way we use our tongue, for good and not for evil.

But we can’t do it by ourselves. Remember, Jesus told us that the trouble is within, in the heart. So let’s close with some words he spoke about how the heart can be cleansed and redirected. These words are found in John 7:37-39:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’.

The Holy Spirit can fill us and cleanse the poisoned well within, so that what comes out is no longer poison, but living water. So this week, let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us, and help us to get control of our tongue, so that our words are a blessing, and not a curse, to the people around us.

Enjoy It

I remember years ago hearing Harold Percy talking about our response to the Good News of Jesus and the new life he offers to us. He talked about three things:

  1. Enjoy it
  2. Model it for others
  3. Spread it by our words and our actions

I honestly think that many churches skip over the first step too quickly – especially these days, when we’re desperate to grow, or be useful, or both. But if we skip over the first step too quickly, we won’t have a compelling story to share with others, so we won’t grow. Neither will we have the energy to be useful; we’ll just be tired and full of guilt at all the good things we could be doing, but aren’t.

So let’s take some time, as individuals and churches, to simply enjoy the new life God has given to us in Jesus. Let’s bask in the unconditional love he has poured out on us. Let’s boldly draw near and worship him in spirit and in truth. Let’s pray often, not because we feel we should, but because we want to, because we’re finding a real sense of God’s presence and God’s love when we pray. Paul says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!’ On this day, the Lord’s Day, why don’t we focus on that joy?