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Monday


Yet another Monday when I don’t want to get out of bed. It’s going to be a long week.


Sleep


I fell asleep before I could write a post last night. It was a busy day.


Wisdom From Above

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James 3:13-18
 
In verses 13-18, James addresses the subject of wisdom and understanding. He is concerned with demonstrating the sharp contrast which exists between the wisdom of this world and the wisdom that God gives.  Godly wisdom leads us along paths that lead to life. The alternative to following God’s wisdom, choosing to live foolishly in God’s world, is to risk our lives. Well clearly it’s better to be wise than to be foolish. It’s better to live a life that’s blessed by God than to risk missing out on the good things God has planned for us. But how do we do it? How do we get wisdom, and once we’ve got it, how do we show in our lives that we have it? 
 
How do we show that we have Wisdom? If you want to be wise, you need to show your wisdom by the way you live. And how is that? By your good life. Through works done with the gentleness that’s born of wisdom. James highlights what this means by showing the opposite sorts of behavior. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Now of course it’s not politically correct to be negative about someone, is it? There’s some sense to that when it comes to talking about others. It’s always easier to think of things to criticize about someone than things to praise. Not to mention that if you can criticize something in someone else, you feel justified in thinking better of yourself. But what we’re talking about here is self-examination. Here James is asking us to look honestly at our own hearts, at our own actions and motivations, to work out whether we’re truly acting with wisdom. 
 
What is it you see when you look at your behavior; when you listen to yourself talking? Are you envious of others? Do you envy them their gifts or their success, their family, their jobs, their looks, their new car? What is it that motivates you? Are you motivated by selfish ambition? By the desire to get to the top no matter what? Do you desire power in the roles you take on? Do you avoid positions where you know you won’t be able to exercise the power you desire? When you make decisions, how much do you focus on the effect they’ll have on you, or on your own agenda as opposed to that of others in the community? How about in your speech. Are you prone to boasting? To exaggerating for effect? Do you tend to emphasize how good you are, or your family is, or your church is, while downplaying others’ successes or focussing on their failings?
 
Now I could say I’ve seen that sort of behavior in others, but that would be to fall into the very trap of foolishness that I’m talking about. No my job is to ask whether I’ve done any of that, whether I fail in any of those areas. Believe me, I will be the first to admit that I fail in many of these areas.  However, just because I have failed does not mean that I cannot do my best to correct my own actions and ask for forgiveness.  I need to understand my own behavior and understand where that sort of behavior derives. I know that it doesn’t derive from godly wisdom.  This sort of wisdom derives from the fallen world in which we live. Far from being spiritually based it’s the work of the devil. 
 
Well, enough for the negative, what’s the positive side of wise living? “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” It seems to me that this is a tough list to live up to. Purity has the idea of being morally upright, innocent, blameless, motivated only by the sincere desire to serve others, ignoring self interest. That’s the first test. Then there’s the test of peaceable, gentle behavior. This is in stark contrast to the bitter envy and selfish ambition of the worldly person. The wise person seeks peace above selfish desire. They’re willing to yield to others even if their own desires aren’t being met. They’re full of mercy in the way they approach others. They bear good fruit, without any sense of partiality or hypocrisy. 
 
You’ve probably noticed that some people do lots of good works, but their motivation is actually self serving. They’re working to boost their own sense of importance or they do good things for people they think might be able to do favors for them at a later date. But the wise person acts out of pure motives, not seeking their own welfare but only that of those they’re serving. 
 
And notice the result: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The result of wise living is that we enjoy the peace that only God can give. Wisdom is worth having. So how do we find wisdom? We begin by realizing that God is the source of all wisdom and then we ask God to give it to us. How do we show that we’re wise? By our good lives; by works that are done with gentleness that’s born of wisdom. By our purity of life, by behavior that’s peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and goodness. Show that sort of behavior and there will be no doubt that you have the wisdom that comes from above.

Taming the Tongue

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. 
 
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
James 3:1-12
What James has to say here in the third chapter is very true, practical teaching. This is lesson number one on how to be a good disciple. James says it very plainly in verse 2. “For we all stumble in many ways.” No question there. “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” He’s not saying anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect in speaking, but is perfect, period. Because if we can get hold of what comes out of our mouth, it will keep everything else we do in check. It’s the same thing that psychologists have been telling us, that Jesus told us long ago — what comes out of the mouth reflects what’s in the heart, and it’s what’s in the heart that makes us do the things that we do. Sin begins first in our heart. We get the next indication of it as it comes out of our lips. Then finally, as we have felt it inside, as we have spoken it aloud, we create it.
 
We often don’t pay much attention to sins of the tongue—gossip, slander, lying, exaggeration. Perhaps it’s because we so mindlessly commit these “respectable sins” that we don’t regard them as seriously as we do sins such as hate or adultery.
 
Also, let’s admit that bridling the tongue is tough.  All of my life, my father told me that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  Nevertheless, I grew up speaking “rashly like the thrusts of a sword” (Proverbs 12:18). As I matured as a Christian, I tried to follow the advice of my father by cutting back on my cutting words—behavior modification. But I discovered I was focusing on the wrong organ.
 
I got help from the New Testament writer James, who calls the tongue a fire, a world of iniquity, a restless evil full of deadly poison (James 3:6, 8). That’s serious!  James continues, saying that although many birds and reptiles have been tamed, “no human can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). And James leaves it at that—without a how-to formula!
 
Then James seems to switch subjects. In 3:13-18, he says that evil behavior comes from bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart. This heart-mouth connection sounds like the teaching of his half-brother, Jesus: “For his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).
 
Our words create and they endure, and James tell us we have got to watch what we say. The very first step in Christian discipleship is being able to keep track of what comes out of our mouths, and to guide and shape that to make sure that the words are good, kind, loving, and truthful. It’s the most basic form of self-control. As James says, if we get that right we’re likely to get everything else right as well. The basic rule for Christian speech happens to be the basic rule for all the rest of Christian action — do it in love. If you can’t do it in love, don’t do it. Whether it’s speech or action, love is the guiding principle that underlies every law in scripture, that underlies everything God wants from us. We need to think about that.
 
So I encourage you to look at the things you say. How much of it is criticism? How much of it is loving? How do those weigh out in the balance? If you put them on a scale, do the loving words weigh heavier than the critical ones?  The most important thing is that you say what you say with love in your heart. Remember that who you’re talking to is someone made in the image of God, and a person for whom Christ died. They may be driving you crazy, but say that to yourself again and again until you can speak as if you were speaking to Jesus. Then, nine times out of ten, whatever you say is going to be all right.

Faith Without Works Is Dead

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
 
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder!  Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”-and he was called a friend of God.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?  For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
James 2:14-26
 
Faith without works is dead faith because the lack of works reveals an unchanged life or a spiritually dead heart. There are many Scriptures that make it very clear that true saving faith will result in a transformed life which is demonstrated by the “works” we do. How we live reveals what we believe and whether the faith we profess to have is a living faith.
 
Many profess to be Christians, but their lives and their priorities indicate otherwise.  James is simply saying that if you ‘say’ you are a Christian, then there had better be some appropriate works manifested or your faith is false. This sentiment is echoed in 1 John 2:4 which says, “If you say you have come to know Him, yet you do not keep His commandments, then the truth is not in you and you are a liar.”
 
Apparently, there were people who were saying they were Christians, but were not manifesting any of the fruit of Christianity.  Those people exist even to this day, especially those who espouse hatred toward the GLBT community.  Can this faith justify? Can the dead ‘faith’ that someone has which produces no change in a person and no good works before men and God be a faith that justifies? Absolutely not.  It is not merely enough to say you believe in Jesus.  You must actually believe and trust in Him.  If you actually do, then you will demonstrate that faith by a changed and godly life.  If not, then your profession is of no more value than the same profession of demons: “We believe Jesus lived.”
 
Obedience to God is the mark of true saving faith. James uses the example of Abraham and Rahab as the type of works that demonstrate salvation, and both of those examples are of people who obeyed God in faith. Saying we believe in Jesus does not save us, nor does religious service. What saves us is a life of faith demonstrated by ongoing obedience to God.
 
Faith without works is dead because it reveals a heart that has not been transformed by God. When we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and experienced the “washing and regeneration of the Holy Spirit,” our lives will demonstrate that by the way we live and our works of obedience to God. It will be evident by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) in our lives and a desire to obey God and live a life that glorifies Him. Christians belong to Christ and as His sheep they hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:26-30).
 
True saving faith is always manifested by good works and a life that desires to live in obedience to God. Ephesians 2:8-10 makes it very clear that works do not save us but that we are saved “for good works which God prepared beforehand that we would walk in them.” When we are truly born again you will have hearts that are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit where God’s law is written so that we might walk in His statutes and judgments. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
 
I challenge you this week to help someone out, to do some godly work.  

Nothing 

I have nothing for today. Come back tomorrow when I hope inspiration will strike.


A Wreath

Peter A. Gilbert’s Look at Life through the Humanities

December 24, 2007
Simple holiday wreaths made of evergreen branches make me think of a wonderful poem: “A Wreath” by George Herbert. Herbert was an Anglican priest who lived in England about the same time as Shakespeare. He wrote metaphysical poetry, poetry that emphasized wit cleverness or startling similes, rather than comparisons and images that seem natural—like love and roses, purity and fresh snow.

In high school, you may have read a poem by John Donne, another seventeenth-century Anglican clergyman, in which a man tries to seduce a woman by comparing their potential encounter to a flea that has bitten them both. It’s hard to imagine a less romantic object or argument to make his case—and that’s the poem’s charm.

Donne wrote another poem that compares two lovers saying goodbye to each other to a compass, the kind of compass with which you draw a circle. Although the lovers must part temporarily, they continue to act in sync: as the man travels around, the woman stays put at home, but leans toward the circling man. And its the woman’s standing firmly at home that causes the man’s circle of travel to stay true and not wander. These two poems are classic metaphysical poems built on an idea, a conceit, a clever and startling comparison.

Now to Herbert’s poem “A Wreath.” The poem’s wit rests in the fact that each of the poem’s twelve lines overlaps with the next line, just as the evergreen branches in a wreath overlap one another to form a circle. You’ll hear how the end of one line kind of repeats at the beginning of the next line. And the end of the poem, you guessed it, brings you back to the beginning—like a circle, a wreath, or a garland that crowns a hero.

It’s a religious poem, but one doesn’t have to be Christian to be struck by the poem’s beauty and technique. Here’s George Herbert’s “A Wreath”:

A Wreathed garland of deserved praise,
Of praise deserved, unto Thee I give,
I give to Thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live, —
Wherein I die, not live; for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to Thee,
To Thee, who art more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity.
Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know Thy ways,
Know them and practice them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.

So, because of its structure or style, the poem itself literally becomes, as the last line says, a wreath, and that wreath-poem becomes, in turn, a garland—a crown of praise. Clever indeed.

This article first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.


Home for Christmas 


I made it home for Christmas. I’ll be here two weeks. Right now though, there is no wifi so until I can fix that, posts might be spotty at best.


Sleeping In 


Today is the day I am taking for my birthday holiday at work, so no work, no blog. I’m sleeping in. If the mood strikes, I may write something later, but for now, this is it.


Post Birthday 


Thank you all for your well wishes on my birthday. Last night to celebrate, I had some sushi and a bottle of prosecco. Both were delicious. Then I went to bed early. I’m taking tomorrow off as my birthday holiday, so today is my last day at work this week. I hope all of you have had a wonderful week.


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