9/2/18: Cleaning the Lens, James 1:17-27
Cleaning the Lens
Fourth in the series, Practicing Community
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Second Lesson: James 1:17-27
Rev. Scott Dickison
Over these next three Sundays as part of our extended look at life in Christian community, particularly practices of living in community, we’ll be turning our attention to the Letter of James, which tradition claims was written by James of Jerusalem, the leader in the Jerusalem church and the younger brother of Jesus himself. Elsewhere in the New Testament we’re told that James was not among Jesus’ followers during his life, but came to faith following the resurrection—not hard to imagine, how one might resist being a disciple of one’s older sibling. Can you imagine having Jesus as an older sibling! What kind of therapy would that require? It’s a New Yorker cartoon waiting to happen.
Our ears are drawn to some of James’ more declarative, bumper sticker-worthy statements in this passage: Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Good messages, as far as they go: follow through on your commitments, care for the vulnerable—we typically hear and read these verses as calls to mission and service, and that’s a fair reading, but there’s something deeper going on here. James means them less in the sense of mission to others outside the community, and more as what it means to live in Christian community. What James seems to be describing here is a kind of posture toward others that a person of faith is to have. He’s not offering a check list. What he’s offering is a way of seeing others and seeing the world, an approach to life and life in community. And this approach, I’ll offer you, is one of gratitude.
Gratitude is more than an essential posture toward community, it’s an essential posture of faith. Gratitude is where faith begins: with the understanding that all good things come from God, that life itself is a gift. That God made us “and not we ourselves,” as the Psalmist puts it. That you might never have been, but you are, as Frederick Buechner puts it.
Gratitude in this sense is less something we feel in the moment and more a way we stand. It’s behind all that we do, shaping our lives, putting us in a position to respond, to react—shaping what we see. In the same way, gratitude is never named directly in this passage, but all its fruits are there. Things like generosity, patience, forbearance, discipline. When gratitude is our posture—this root sense of the giftedness of life—other things seem to fall into place.
And when it comes to living in community, when there’s a culture of gratitude in place—one where people not only live from a posture of being grateful to God, but also a desire to be grateful for each other and the life they share—things seem to fall into place among them. Tensions don’t simmer long enough to reach a boil. People talk toeach other and not abouteach other. People trust each other, assuming the best in each other, seeing each other in their best light. People feel heard and seen and valued. We’ve all experienced something of what this kind of community feels like—hopefully even within our own congregation. It’s a health that’s difficult to describe but impossible not to notice, as I’ve heard someone say.
And unfortunately we’ve all felt the opposite too—the posture James is warning his people against. What we might call a posture of ingratitude. Ingratitude, too, in this sense is less about feeling ungrateful in the moment, and more an approach or a posture toward life and our relationships. In communal life it may manifest as a “culture of complaint” or presumption, distrust, and ambivalence. As Christine Pohl puts it in her wonderful book, Living Into Community, we’ve been drawing from in this series, “These forms of ingratitude are deadly [in that] they kill community by chipping away at it until participants long to be just about anywhere else.”This is what James is talking about when he counsels the church to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger: Trust each other, assume the best in each other. Remember the word of God you claim that says we are all God’s beloved children and live as if this were true.
Which of course sounds good and we all want to live in this way, but it’s a struggle at times when living in community. Conflict between two people is difficult enough to manage, so when it involves a whole community it’s incredibly challenging. The larger a community gets and the farther away from the decision-making process people become, the more room there is a for distrust and presumption and discontent, and gossip and parking lot conversations take the place of honest discussion. Or on the other end of the spectrum, Pohl points out sometimes our insistence on perfection in a community or our desire to find or create some ideal place and people leaves us dissatisfied or unable to appreciate the goodness that we have—however imperfect. We’ve all tasted the fruits of ingratitudebefore and they’re hard to swallow.
But there’s a tension here, too, because who gets to decide what’s an honest, deserved complaint and what’s an example of ingratitude? A culture where people aren’t free to question vision or performance or even levy complaints is just as stifling as one that’s dominated by them. Who’s to say who is acting out of gratitude or ingratitude?
And even on an individual level, encouraging gratitude as a practice can feel empty because none of us feel grateful enough. I don’t know a single person who’s said, You know what: I’m sufficiently grateful. If I were any more grateful, it would just be too much.No! I believe most of us know we should be grateful for their life or their many blessings or their health, their family—and try to be and are most of the times, but sometimes we can’t quite get there, and that’s okay. And probably the least helpful thing for us to hear when we’re feeling angry or disappointed or anxious or hurt or neglected is that we should be grateful—that’s just another form of religious shaming.
And there’s a power dynamic at play here, too. It’s a power move to say that someone else should be grateful. Well, they should just be grateful for what they have. They should be grateful to have a job at all, they should be grateful to be in this country.That’s not gratitude. That’s something else. Or in a different way, Pohl asks, Is it right for us in the church to expect gratitude of the people we serve—at the crisis closet to the Christmas Toy Shop we run in December or when we volunteer at Daybreak of other places? Or should it be enough to simply know when we serve others we serve Christ and have that be enough, and beyond that extend grace in a situation no one wants to be in, and consider the world of contexts that have led to it?
The truth is, gratitude is never something we can demand from others. We can hope for it and—more importantly—do our part to create conditions worthy of gratitude. But gratitude can’t be forced—not even in ourselves. We can’t force ourselves to be grateful. What we can do is give ourselves a little grace to feel how we feel—and then to pay attention to how we feel, and ask why we feel that way. And this may be the most concrete way we can “practice gratitude.”
As Pohl points out, gratitude and ingratitude “are closely tied to what we notice,” what we see, or what we choose to see. Are our eyes drawn to the blessings of a community, the good work being done, the good people, the holy rhythms, the sharing of gifts—imperfect as all these things surely are? Or are we drawn to the flaws and imperfection we see—in others and in ourselves. It may be that those things are truly there, and it may be that they need to be addressed—and so there’s a tension between working for excellence in our community and ourselves and being grateful for what’s there—in other, in ourselves. Of course, what we’re wanting is honesty about a situation: we don’t want to stick our head in the sand when something needs to be addressed, but we also don’t want to overlook good work being done by good people.
And this is one of the real dangers of ingratitude within a community, and maybe even especially a church: we so often fail to see and properly recognize and appreciate what Pohl calls “the quiet, undramatic…longterm contributions” that are made by so many. We folks who’ve taught children’s Sunday school week after week for 30 years. The people who tend to the flowers, coming to the church on Saturdays to water them so they’ll be fresh for Sunday. Who arrange them on the altar, divide them up after the service into smaller vases to be taken to folks in the hospital through the week. The folks who run sound and A/V, who come up to the church on Saturdays to clean out storage rooms and replace amplifiers. The keepers of knowledge—the ones who know where things are and who to talk to for this or for that. The ones who write notes to shut-ins, the kitchen staff who grinds up food for seniors to eat on Wednesday nights. All the people who’s countless, small gifts truly make us a church.
Time and time again in scripture we’re told to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to. To be careful not to assume we see and know everything about the world or in others or even ourselves—all we see is not all there is. The way of Christ is first of all a way of seeing before it’s a way of doing or living. Seeing what God sees, seeing whom God sees, and then acting. Seeing the vulnerable in their distress, seeing ourselves in the mirror and remembering our face. So much of faith has to do with where we train ourselves to look.
So for a person of faith or even a people of faith, we might think of gratitude as a lens we hope to see through. When we look out on our lives and the world, on our families, our community, our church, ourselves, our faith teaches us to see these things through the lens of gratitude. Not making light those darker or rougher parts that need attention, but seeing them in the light of gratitude.
And occasionally lenses need to be cleaned—I tell you, having worn them every day since the age of eight. Over time dust accumulates, or smudges, anything that can obscure your view. And so it’s good practice to clean whatever lens you’re looking through to keep seeing things clearly. This can be a spiritual practice, too. Richard Rohr says that real prayer happens when we “clean the lens” in this way, when we take a step back and ask ourselves: What am I seeing, and what am I failing to see? Who am I failing to see?Or maybe even, How am I seeing, and how am I failing to see?
Practicing gratitude in our own lives may mean taking time to clean our lens: stepping back and asking ourselves what and whom we’re paying attention to, and how we’re paying attention? Are we seeing through the lens of gratitude to God? And if not, what would take to give ourselves permission to begin?
And as a community: what are we doing to nurture a culture of gratitude? Are we seeing each other and the gifts we bring, especially those gifts given silently over the long road? Are we being doers of thatword? Who in our community, our congregation, needs to know of our thanksgiving and how can we show it?
How can we be a grateful people ink world? Would it begins in this hour? Would it begin in the prayers we offer in this place? Would it begin in hearing the sounds of this music, or that silent moment we find in the midst of worship each week? Would it be in that moment that we would put into practice what it means to be a people of gratitude in other moments, m other days, with other people? And would it help to know that we begin these things over, and over, and over again, together? Amen.
Richard Rohr writes about this in Everything Belongs.