(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on September 20, 2015.)
It’s our second week looking at James chapter 1. You’ll get a chance before we are done today to share some things you notice in this chapter.
I’m drawn to focus on four verses that capture probably the central theme of James, verses 22-25. Open your bibles and leave them open for today as I read.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Those who listen to the word but do not do what it says are like people who look at their faces in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, go away and immediately forget what they look like. But those who look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25, TNIV)
I think this is one of those parts of the bible where you least need a preacher to break things down for you. It preaches itself. Don’t just listen. Don’t just receive and think about all that God intends for us. Do it. Put it into practice. Make the walk match the talk.
This is one of the places in the bible that is fairly clear and understandable, so most of what I want to do today is flesh it out in a way that helps us see ourselves and others more clearly, and most of all that spurs us to action. We’ll finish today by sharing what you find as the action steps throughout chapter one, and then have each of us leave with a commitment to put one of the action steps into place this week.
In other words, we will make a plan to not just listen to this, but to do what it says!
One thing that did open this up for me was reading others who elaborated on the contrasts that are here in this passage.
There’s a quick look in the mirror, contrasted with intently looking into “the perfect law that gives freedom.” There’s immediately forgetting what you look like in the mirror, contrasted with continuing to look, not forgetting but actually persevering (an echo of verse 12) in doing what the word says.
The “word” here, the “word” that we are to act upon and not just listen to, is more than the bible. It’s “the gospel as taught by Jesus, then practiced and proclaimed by his followers,” as James Adamson puts it. I like that, because right in the definition (“practiced and proclaimed by his followers”) is the outcome James is pointing us to: be doers of what we hear.
The “perfect law of liberty that gives freedom” is such a beautiful phrase. We often think of the law being harsh, legalistic, something that kills–Paul’s letters add on to that harsh image. But James represents a tradition that sees Jewishness and Torah and Law much more positively.
Adamson also writes of a long standing Jewish hope that the Messiah would come and bring a new interpretation of the law of Moses. He writes, “Jesus in his life and his death had realized the ideal to which the law had long looked forward–an ideal of righteousness and love–and had established the meaning of the perfect law.”
James has this consistent habit of bringing us back to the teaching of Jesus. To obey God is to act in righteousness and love. We’ll see when we move on to chapter 2 the way James defines and fills in the details of the perfect law of liberty…it is the freedom of seeing ourselves as God’s chosen ones so that we are then enabled to “Love our neighbors as ourselves.” The actions we are called to do are the actions of love and care for the orphans and widows, for the poor, for our neighbors.
Ralph Martin writes, “We are set free from ourselves to serve our neighbors…the fruit of [our] character…has been touched and renewed by God’s salvation. Freedom is not from the works of the law…but rather it connotes a release from self-interest and a new capacity to practice God’s will in the interests of one’s needy neighbor.”
How does this freedom happen?
How exactly does looking intently into all that Jesus taught, all the bible teaches, all the church teaches…how does that help us understand ourselves better and free us to love our neighbors? How does looking intently into that truth serve like a mirror, showing us the truth about ourselves and the world?
At one point this week, when thinking about this passage, I thought of artists. Artists look intently at things and at people in order to draw or paint them. And when I think of artists, I quickly think of our own Nicole Williford. She’s been a part of NFC for a couple years, and you may remember times when she’s led music. (You can see more of her work here.)
I remembered seeing on Instagram a series of self-portraits that Nicole had done, and so I asked if she would be willing to talk with me about this “looking intently” as an artist, and how it might connect to this passage in James. We sat at the bakery yesterday and talked for more than an hour, and I’m so grateful. I am NOT an artist; it was such an alive learning experience for me to hear her talk about how she sees and perceives the world, how she goes about the process of drawing and painting.
I’m excited to share just a little bit with you today, and I’m guessing Nicole would be just as generous as she was with me if you want to hear more from her yourself.
Often Nicole is staring at herself in a mirror right next to paper or a canvas, trying to get an image of herself drawn.
“The first time I sat down to draw myself from a mirror, a lot of my insecurities came to light…things I thought others thought about me, that I then picked up and owned. I think, ‘this is how others perceive me’. Once you draw that and put it on paper, it becomes clear it isn’t the same as in the mirror. Art is a process of building and breaking and searching for something precious beneath all this junk we’ve added on. The longer I practice my seeing, the longer I spend loving and appreciating myself, the more honest my drawings are getting. And it helps me see others more honestly as I do that work.”
I found this insight really powerful, and it helped illuminate the image in James quite a bit. Gazing intently at God’s teaching, God’s perspective of ourselves, is a way to hold a mirror up to our own self image. It makes our perception of ourselves more honest. And that doesn’t happen quickly or instantly…it takes a lifetime of faithful gazing at ourselves through God’s eyes.
Look at this self-portrait Nicole did in middle school.
Already, that’s better than any drawing I will ever do in my lifetime. I was impressed as soon as I saw it. But Nicole pointed out all kinds of things I couldn’t see, ways that this portrait isn’t as honest as it could have been.
In drawing, one of the dangers she told me about, something I’d never thought about, is symbols. We all know how to use simple shapes as symbols of something else…a tree can be drawn with a triangle on top and a little rectangle trunk on the bottom, and we know it’s a tree. Two dots and a curve is a smiley face. Nicole said:
“We project the common symbols on reality, instead of looking. I know the structure of a face, but I’m not looking. I’m putting down what I know a face should be instead of what I’m looking at.”
And then she talked me through this drawing.
“That’s not my nose,” she said. “The nostrils are just two holes because we all know that’s what a nose has, but they aren’t MY nostrils. The eyes are circles, and not shaped like mine at all, the eyebrows, the dimples…they are all symbols. A real face is so much more complex. It’s sort of silly that we would dumb it down to a symbol. Your task as an artist is to get it honestly in its complexity, to see it and share it.”
Then she took me through a series of self-portraits over time, ones that made it crystal clear how she has grown in the seeing, grown in gazing intently, grown in conveying the complexity.
This one I think is from high school. She said, “Those are pretty close to my eyes and eyebrows. That’s just about my nose. But the mouth, that’s still just a symbol. It’s not MY mouth. And the hands, especially that big out of place pinky, that’s not mine. It’s like a rectangle with a little fingernail on it.”
Think about this in the context of what James is saying, gazing intently to find more and more of how God sees the world, how God sees us, in all our complexity.
Sometimes we take big symbols of Christian truth and project them on ourselves, without really taking the time to gaze intently. Maybe we learn that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and we paste a symbol of that all over ourselves that overwhelms, that blinds us to the specific ways WE sin, that just sort of gives an overall feeling of rejection and failure.
Or maybe we learn that we “are made in the image of God,” and we paste that over us like a big coat that covers up any imperfection, an unreal sense that everything we do is ok, a symbol that also sort of dehumanizes us…or at least doesn’t honestly reflect us.
The real you…the real me… we are far more complex and interrelated. I have specific ways I sin, ways I act out of an unhealthy need for acceptance from others. And I have beautiful, unique parts of me, made in the image of God in ways no one else has. You do too! These good and bad parts are all tangled up and interwoven in very complex, non-symbolic ways.
It takes time…time listening to God and the bible and my church, time to understand God as the true measure of what is good, the true measure of what is sinful in the world. It takes time, examining myself intently, to see and untangle an honest picture of who I am.
Back to the progression of Nicole’s self portraits.
Stunning, isn’t it? The work she’s done “intensely gazing” at herself shows here. In fact, she said often her self-portraits have this intense, concentrated look about them, because she is concentrating so hard to see her own face and get it down on paper.
To me, it looks like she got it. But she says she still struggles with the cheeks. When she draws them, she always has to draw, erase, draw, erase…because she can see by comparing the paper to the mirror that she always draws the cheeks too big, too round.
One reason for this, she said, is common to many people–body image issues in our society cause us to see ourselves not as we are. As we compare ourselves to perfect models, to those simplistic “symbols” of beauty, we get a self-image that is negative in comparison. The work she does to compare her perception, the perception shaped by others in so many ways…the work to compare the perception with the mirror helps her move to more honesty.
The other reason it is difficult, she said, is simply the bone structure of her face. She discovered this when she sculpted herself. From the front, her cheeks look wider than they are, because it sort of narrows in a way that only shows from other angles, angles that a three dimensional sculpture can get in ways a two dimensional drawing cannot. The truth is, she says, “I still struggle to get it right in a drawing. I sometimes just leave the cheeks undrawn.”
What Nicole was able to help me see is how often we dehumanize ourselves and others.
Sometimes it comes because we reduce ourselves or others to symbols that are simply not complex enough to reflect honest reality. Sometimes it comes because we don’t do what artists do, carefully comparing the drawing with a mirror of reality.
“The work I’m doing is to recognize the humanity of others. Painting people recognizes their value, that they are worthy of the time, effort and materials. You are loved and beautiful because you exist.”
With those words, Nicole brought me back to the power of James’ words. When we don’t take the time to examine ourselves carefully, we forget the truth of ourselves as God sees us. We let others’ perceptions create our self-perception, sometimes tearing us down, sometimes building us up unfairly.
Our goal instead is to keep gazing intently at the perfect law that gives freedom…to keep gazing at Christ and what he has done to free us; to keep studying the bible, which teaches both our goodness as ones made in the image of God, and our failures as ones who selfishly go our own way; and to keep listening to our church community, which gives us an honest look at ourselves and the world in all its complexity.
I love the image of taking the skills learned in understanding ourselves honestly, and carrying that over to how we view others. Rather than fawn over the ones we respect and love, rather than always attack and vilify those we don’t like, we can let God’s perfect law of freedom help us recognize each person’s complex humanity.
That leads us to action! That leads us to love. That leads us to caring for the widow and orphan, to not showing favoritism to the rich.
I love the way Nicole’s perspective on painting brought James to life for me, and I hope I’ve conveyed a little of that to you today as well.
“Jesus redefined the practice of God’s will as ‘love for the neighbor’”, wrote Ralph Martin. Another piece that Nicole brought to life for me is the close connection between gazing intently at the mirror, right alongside the practice of doing a painting. She was doing the paintings as she was studying. The action went hand in hand with the gazing intently, just as James encourages our lives with Christ to be.
I want to invite you to look through James chapter 1 for the action steps you see represented there. If we are supposed to do what we hear, what we read…what are some of the specific things here in chapter 1 that are things to do? As you speak them out, I’m going to try and write them on the screen. The goal will be at the end of the day, we can choose one of these action steps that we will try to put into practice this week, as a way to practice being doers.
What things do you see in James 1, action steps to try and do?