Being doers – Sept 2, 2018
In his book You Are What You Love, scholar and theologian James Smith seeks to re-think discipleship from the bottom up. In a video introduction to the first chapter, Smith describes how the book “revisits some of our most fundamental assumptions about who we are and what we are.” He goes on to say that [quote] “our standard approach to discipleship tends to assume human being are thinking things. So we assume that discipleship looks like depositing all the right ideas, beliefs and doctrines into our intellectual receptacle.” He suggests that while this is good, it’s not enough. He wonders, “What if human being aren’t just thinking things? What if we are less driven by what we know and more pulled by what we long for?” What if human beings are fundamentally lovers? What if we are made to love God, to desire God, to hunger for what God desires for his world?
Our first reading from the Song of Solomon would seem to suggest such a possibility. Today is the only day in the 3-year lectionary cycle that a portion of Song of Solomon is assigned. It’s an odd book. One commentator wonders if it’s the “least” biblical book in the Bible or the most! It never overtly mentions God, prayer or “any aspect of Israel’s religious practice or tradition.” It is undeniably a book about love and while it’s debated whether its original context was religious or secular, in the context of the rest of the biblical canon, it can be read as a reflection of “God’s passionate and troubled relationship with humanity.” (Davis, 231) That said, the book is also undeniably odd. By “odd,” I mean sexy. It is a love poem… a story of lovers that doesn’t shy away from our bodies or our desire. In the short passage we heard today, both the desire and passion are palpable: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…” It reads as a lover beckoning their beloved… like God calling on our desire, as one calls their lover, to deeper and more intimate relationship.
Understanding human beings more as lovers, as desiring creatures, than as “brains on a stick,” as Smith describes, changes how we think about our Christian discipleship. It means we have to consider the fullness of who and what we are in a different way. In particular, the full title of Smith’s book highlights this shift. It’s called You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. More than being “brains on a stick,” Smith argues, it’s our dispositions, our inclinations, the habits of our regular life that need to be formed towards Christ. Our habits are those things we do each day, or each week, or each year. Our habits are how we spend our money and our time. Our habits are the truth about our life. Smith invites us to a greater consciousness about our habits, for our habits reveal what we love, the direction of our desire. It’s only when we’re aware of it that it can shift to orient more towards God and God’s desire for us and for the world. The spiritual power of habit can make all the difference.
Our reading today from the letter of James also addresses who and what we are as the basis for our Christian discipleship. Immediately before the beginning of today’s reading, James overtly addresses whether or not God can be blamed for human failure, writing: “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” (13-15) We are tempted by our own desire, not by God. This would be a good argument for doing our best to ignore our desire… to deny it in favor of a more intellectual approach. If we fill our brains with all the right stuff… the right beliefs, the right ideas, the right doctrines… if we live in our heads, we can avoid the evil inclinations of our desire… right? It’s a great idea. It’s a great goal. Kind of like making a new year’s resolution to lose weight, or to pray more. We all know that by the time January 3 comes… well… that’s the end of that.
But James doesn’t stop there. He describes God not as the source of our temptation, but rather the source of our giftedness and exhorts us to “welcome… the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” If we stopped reading there at verse 21, we might still decide that a purely intellectual approach will work best. But that isn’t the end of it. James goes on to implore us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” James doesn’t specifically describe the spiritual power of habit, the way Smith does, but his writing points to something similar. Be doers of the word and not merely hearers. What we do matters. Our habits… the patterns of our lives… the concrete, lived reality of our everyday… that is what reveals the state of our discipleship more clearly and more honestly than any words. It’s what reveals what we love.
James goes even further to describe those who only hear the word as deceivers, writing: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” This is what can all too easily happen when we live primarily in our own heads. How easy it is to deceive ourselves about ourselves. The smarter we are, the more powerful this temptation, for the greater our ability to rationalize. Our human ability to create our own world in our own heads, that is little connected to the physical lived reality of our everyday life and relationships, is extraordinary. And so James encourages us to choose a different path: “… those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.” It is in our doing that we form our habits and through that formation, grow in our discipleship in Christ. When we persevere in doing, instead of being content with hearing, our lives will be transformed with an abundance of grace, with greater depth and meaning, with more than we can ask or imagine.
In the book we will be considering for 4 weeks this fall, Falling Upwards, Richard Rohr writes about the spiritual tasks of 2 different phases of life. In the first half of life, he describes how we create a kind of box, a container, for who we are. In the second half of life, we learn to love the contents of the container. The process of getting there begins when we stumble or fall, as we all do eventually. It’s an experience that comes to us unbidden, for, as Rohr writes: “until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.” (67) This experience of what he calls “necessary suffering” involves facing who we really are, including our shadow side. It means growing through and beyond the breakdown of the image we have of ourselves. It means letting go of the deceptions we hold about ourselves, and getting real in a new way. The process may be uncomfortable, and yet, Rohr writes in concert with so many spiritual giants before him, it is the source of a greater fullness of peace and love and wisdom. It’s about growing into being “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
This week I encourage you to notice the habits of your life. Notice your day-to-day rituals and wonder about the desire that underlies and drives them. What do you love? A good place to start is with your calendar or your bank statement, for little is more revealing about what really matters than how we spend our time and our money. In what way is God calling you, beckoning you, as a lover calls his beloved, to desire greater generosity, broader wisdom, and deeper peace? How could you move past hearing, to do something in response this week?