Linda and I stood outside the church one night this week, waiting to come into Kirk Hall. We weren’t here for a worship service. I wasn’t coming to work. There was no wedding, funeral or Session meeting. Instead we were waiting to be admitted to one of the 47 theatrical performances that have happened over the last 11 days at 7 venues around Victoria (including 34 performances at Kirk Hall) in this years Fringe festival. We waited in line for over 30 minutes to pay our $11 ticket fee and be admitted for the sold-out show. We were actually there for the 2nd show that evening, the first still in the hall finishing that performance. I noticed the irony…a sold out show for a paying audience on one of 11 evenings to see one of 34 performances at one of 7 sites. What incredible and sustained interest! Not to imply in any way the performances were not worth the price paid because the one that we saw that night and the others we have seen were indeed worth the price, and the commitment of time and energy to see them. The dichotomy, however, was now several days later, there wasn’t a waiting line to get into St. Andrews, and no need to purchase advance tickets for this morning’s worship for an average price of $11 per ticket. It makes you wonder if what we do here has lasting value. Is our ritual overrated, our tradition meaningless, and our beliefs outdated? A life of faith is indeed complicated. Living with integrity, having the words of our lips match the actions of our hands, our professed beliefs align with our day to day decisions is hard. Our worship here indicates that we need tradition, ritual, worship, prayer – but those are the things that can become empty, meaningless, rote or hypocritical if they don’t shape our character and become evident in our choices.
Perhaps you saw the funeral of American Senator John McCain this week in which on two occasions poet, author and journalist Ernest Hemingway was quoted from his novel, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. It tells the story of Robert Jordan fighting during the Spanish Civil War in the late “30s. He had been ordered to blow up a bridge and knew that he might not survive. He had fallen in love with Maria a young Spanish woman and wrestled with his own mortality during a war that might claim his life. “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today. It's been that way all this year. It's been that way so many times.”
Today in this time and in this place, how will we prepare ourselves for what matters most? I would like to think that today is a training session for tomorrow and all the successive days to follow. Too often I am afraid that I look back in regret – over something I said in haste, or find that attitudes that in retrospect, resemble what is described in the passage from James when he says, “Give up sordidness (nastiness, smuttiness). Looking back if I keep up with my reactions, would I be surprised how often my responses show a sour disposition? James recommends that we be quick to listen and slow to speak.
I find within myself a tendency to reverse that order and more quick to speak and slower to listen. After all, speed is rewarded in our world. You want fast internet and cars. Leaders are valued for being quick thinkers with ready answers. A Google search takes longer to type the question than it does to receive the answer. Speed is imperative in today’s world but envision a new model in which we listen first – listen longer and practice speaking less. My minor in college was “speech”, as it seemed to fit with my life’s calling in being a public speaker. I know of few or at least limited options available to guide us in becoming better listeners. But listening is critical to understanding.
- Proverbs 18:13 “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame”
- Proverbs 17:27 “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.”
- Proverbs 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, he talks about the ministry of listening. In it, he warns, “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.“ He who can no longer listen to another will soon be no longer listening to God either; He will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life.
Listening is difficult to maneuver in our world and it isn’t automatic. It isn’t merely a habit to master such as, “remember to stand up straight or don’t eat too fast. Listening comes from something deeper – from a deep desire to please God by valuing others in the way that God values them. James, the brother of Jesus, in his short epistle is known for his verse, “Be ye doers of the word and not merely hearers only.” Does that devalue the listening goal? Not in the least. It explains however the internal process of imprinting (listening) and action. He illustrates, “If you are like a person who stands in front of a mirror, but then forgets the image they saw, then it was a waste of time standing in front of the mirror.” Standing in front of the mirror like listening is like taking a picture, imprinting an image meant to be responded to with understanding and compassion. You may even need to bridle your tongue in the same way that you bridle a horse to keep it in check and from running away. We accomplish this by remembering that the greatest value of our words does not come from our mouths or even our brain, but rather from our hearts. The deeper meaning of this passage is wrapped up in the call to listen first and speak last but do it all with integrity. Listen to your heart by first listening and being aware of God’s heart. Integrity listens to another because integrity values them just as God values them. Listening to another may be the last thing in the world that you feel like doing. When your listening begins with a heart of Christ-like integrity that what you say matters because who you are matters, then you will be amazed at how much easier it is not to listen and react..but to listen and act. In that vein, we are called to do some rather amazing things such as care for widows and orphans. If you hear this the way they would have heard this in the first century, you would be as flabbergasted as they were. When they heard “widows” and “orphans”, they would have immediately had the image of WORTHLESS. In their culture, widows were mere property to be sold, bartered or traded. Orphans consisted of those not who had lost both parents but those who had only lost their father because the father was the sole provider in the Biblical family. The meaning here is that real faith, with integrity values the weakest and the vulnerable. It calls to us from our deepest resources and calls us not to pretend to listen or to care, but to devote our very lives to responding to others from a deeper core of compassion, kindness, mercy and love.
We do not have to move far to find our first learning lab described earlier in the Mark passage. Jesus and the disciples were “schooled” by the professional religious practitioners (the scribes and Pharisees) because they weren’t washing their hands before they ate. For the Pharisees this was more than about hygiene. It was what in part defined their faith and they used it as a tool to measure whether others were as faithful as they are. This happens all the time in religious communities to this day with well-meaning Christians using a checklist to see if others love God as much as we love God. Jesus explains that it isn’t what is external that matters but what we find in here. Instead of dishing dirt about one another, Jesus reminds us that the real dirt is ground deep down inside, right into our hearts. Our broken, sinfulness is what’s dirty, not whether we follow all the rules, cross our “I’s” and dot our “t’s,” and define faith in our own terms.
Jesus takes us back to the heart. “Theft, murder, adultery?” Not me, How about you? Read on…”deceit, slander, pride, and hatred?” Perhaps that is far enough. These are found in the heart and they pollute our words, our attitudes and our actions. Keeping and maintaining a heart of integrity involves a different set of practices.
Soren Kierkegaard, prolific 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian is best remembered for his saying, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” For Kierkegaard, the one thing he called “The Good. Only in Good do we find truth and integrity. To will the good thing is to will what God wants as a choice.
Purity of heart include actions such as “to act kindly, to pray, to guard against evil thoughts, to let go of judgments of others, to obey God, to accept what happens in light of God’s love and providence, to repent of past sins, to help others, to work for peace and harmony, and to behave calmly, humbly, compassionately and guilelessly. As God’s follower, this is our life’s work. It is neither easy, nor automatic, but its rewards are infinite. As Linda and I left Kirk Hall after witnessing a magnificent theatrical presentation about family, I was led back to my question “If what we do here has lasting value. Is our ritual overrated, our tradition meaningless, and our beliefs outdated?” Part of the family detailed in the theatrical presentation told about a particular family member that was religious, but judgmental and prideful. That family member actually led people away from the church, not toward it because we act toward the vulnerable with hearts of integrity. “Does what we do here have lasting value?” If our focus remains “to act kindly, to pray, to guard against evil thoughts, to let go of judgments of others, to obey God…”, frankly I’m going to need a bit more time. How about you?