Reading James in Oslo: reflections on text, mission, and preaching.
The parish that I served the last ten years, the parish of Gronland located in what is known as Gamle (Old) Oslo, is situated in an area where Christians are a minority and where the socio-economic status is generally low. Living conditions relative to the rest of Norway are quite harsh. Few of the most vulnerable in the parish attend worship. Those coming to church are a mix of more traditional labor-class people and young families with academic or creative arts background normally ranging in age from 20 to 93. Most Sunday morning worship services have present the multilayered folk-church: "the core" who attend regularly, another portion who participate once in a while, and a significant group who participate when there is a baptism for a child to whom they are related. We are called to preach the good news, addressing all of them.
In general, I am convinced of the following guides about preaching: 1. Preaching is and should be contextual, consequently all of us have to keep a lasting, scrutinizing, loving look on our context, our congregation and ourselves as we prepare our sermon. 2. Be aware of the outsider-perspective. 3. Never jump over the difficult parts of the text, theology, or life experience. 4. Comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable. 5. Pray a lot, look at Jesus, and be 100 percent present.
In our generally privileged, post(post) modern, and quite individualistic Norwegian society, James has an important voice to "fill out" the Pauline language about the relationship between faith and deeds. James encourages an integrated faith in action and challenges us to keep worship, theology and daily life together, anchored in God's own action and in a communal perspective for both church and society.
Gift (James 1:17a) (2)
I grew up in a rich, affluent area of Oslo with not so well-off but very solidarity-conscientious parents. I grew up with an ambiguity: on the one hand I wished for the gifts the other children received, and on the other hand I was proud of and agreed with my parents and their priorities. One Christmas Eve when I was a child I was given the boots I wished for so strongly, and I went to bed fully happy sleeping with the boots on. Today, I proudly wear the homemade jewelry I received from my youngest son.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights... (3)
God is good and generous. We have different images of God. Our images are heavily influenced by the "significant others" in our childhood as well as by those who are on the roles of our parish. We might even have several images of God: perhaps one for our emotions, another driven by our intellect, a third implicit in our prayer practice, and maybe more. Too many people still have a picture of God as a critical judge, who gives nothing without expecting more in return. Others might rest upon an image of God as a shrewd accountant who expects the believer to make their payments of strong faith only then receiving gifts and miracles in return.
We live in a consumer-driven society. Every day we experience, whether consciously or unconsciously, about 3000 adverts, all of which are telling us what we lack (properties, status, experiences, success, etc.) and how by buying their product we will make up for this deficit. This triggers our envy, complexities, greed, and shame. There is a Norwegian proverb: Mye vilha mer og Fanden vil ha fler [Much will have more, and the Devil will have more (people).]. Similarly my great uncle is fond of saying: The comparative is the conjugation of the Devil. In our contemporary world, we need to count our blessings, nurture our thankfulness, and cultivating a culture of unconditional affirmation--to be loved to be good--not to good to be loved.
Of course it may be that we have experienced too many losses, griefs and difficulties, or too much turmoil in our life just now to do this blessing-counting all the time. Or perhaps we have been fed an overdose of imposed gratefulness: "Eat your food even if you despise it. Remember the starving children in Africa." Our own problems or pains are never acknowledged in this perspective. We were raised to use our "indoor voice" that is soft and mild and to never complain or protest. Even when we sing the Kyrie Eleison in worship, we very often sound nice and mild. But the prayerbook of our Bible, Psalms, is full of complaining, accusing, utterances of revenge, protest, and questions. The Gospels tell us stories about how people are curious, mad, desperate, and stubborn approaching Jesus with their needs. Among these the Kyrie Eleison of our liturgy is quoted from the blind beggar, as he shouts, desperately getting louder and louder as Jesus passes by.
God wants us to be honest about our (troubled) lives and faith, our pains and anger, our questions and protest. And God challenges us to count our blessings, and to help one another by sharing God's gifts with each other.
Images of God and our prayer (James 1:17)
On InterRail this summer I came across an old Daily Mail article about Angela Buttolph, a Christian fashionista, expressing how important faith is in her daily and professional life. She expresses that she even prays to God for help in choosing the right outfit for an important event. "Jesus is my stylist.... I really don't pray about my clothes that often. But I don't see fashion as something I can't pray about. I think God cares about what I care about." (4) I do believe that our prayers can address all kinds of both minor and more vital issues. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he gave them the Lords Prayer, which is quite simple and straightforward. It welcomes the kingdom of God, and addresses food and forgiveness, temptations and protection against evil. I would not guess Jesus was very worried about his outfit during his earthly life, but I suppose God will listen to Angela Buttolph and her dressing prayer with the same divine interest and attention as to everyone else.
The Bible is full of prayers of all kinds. There are several Gospel accounts that recall how the Son of God needed time by himself to pray. It is quite possible that we have this need as well.
Christian (even more Lutheran?) prayer is very simple. Where, when, how doesn't matter. Sitting, laying, dancing, walking, kneeling. Shouting, singing, silent, conversing. Complaining, accusing, praising, confessing, asking for help. Philip Yancey suggests that prayer is a most common, everyday activity (on a random day more Americans pray than those going to work, having sex, driving a car....). At the same time, prayer opens the Christian to address some of the most complicated theological questions about our lives, our relationship to God, the problem of evil. Such an everyday thing that gets at the heart of our lives is both exciting and challenging.
Images of God and prayer (James 1:17b)
... coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (5)
Scripture portrays God in many different ways. The fullness of God cannot be captured in human thinking and metaphors, but our God-talk takes advantage of what we have. James here talks about God as unchanging. The Bible embraces contradictions by conveying images of God as the uplifted, perfect, unchangeable, everlasting, faithful, predictable--but also emotional, compassionate, involved, and changed by the encounter with human lives. (6)
In his book about the problem of evil and human suffering, Yancey finds comfort in realizing the very human aspects of God: how God plunges into our lives and suffers with us, is vulnerable and disappointed, betrayed and let down, and listens to all our prayers full of whatever concerns and issues. (7) I agree. Nevertheless I realize I don't want God to be too human, too negotiable, too emotional, too unpredictable. James expresses something similar as he emphasizes God's trustworthy goodness and salvation.
Prayer changes the one praying and the one prayed for, but what about God?
The Danish hospital chaplain Preben Kok wrote a book tided, Skold ud pa Gud, which translates, Yelling at God. (8) He shares how his own and his patients' serious illnesses and sufferings have exposed him to a God who does not fix everything, does not protect us against all sorts of trial and evil. Kok, rather, witnesses to a God who never walks away. He argues that we need to acknowledge our own vulnerability and dependence, surrender to God and share the responsibility for our life and wellbeing with God. Where we have power, we should be accountable, but where we do not, we should be children of God similar to the way we (if we were lucky) have been children to our own parents: cry out, scream, surrender, protest.
Scripture is promising concerning prayer. For example: "Pray... and you will receive." (9) "If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (10) Quite a few of us, however, have experienced that it is not at all that easy. Sometimes we do not actually receive an answer at all or at least something very different from that for which we had hoped.
My experience is quite often that prayer changes me. Prayer transforms the one praying. Prayer transforms people knowing that others are praying for them. To me it comes as a form of inner peace, a renewed life perspective, a source of power and strength, a sign of comfort or hope in my surroundings.
But what about God? Like when Abraham is negotiating the fate of Sodom and Gomorra with God, (11) does prayer change God? Does such an image of God place too much power in human agency or not?
A world filled to the brim with prayer might help to fashion a different world, but God is unconditionally capable of doing whatever God wants, irrespective of our prayers.
To listen and to act (James 1:19-27)
In Norwegian this is the passage title. The words for "listen" (hore) and "act" (gjore) are phonetically quite similar and rhyme. Not so in English, unfortunately. (12)
Listening is challenging enough in our fragmented, noisy, consumer-oriented culture. My husband is a really good listener; very attentive, always asking further questions, capturing a lot of stories. He might return home without having uttered a word about himself. People are starving for good listeners. Danish missionary researcher Mogens S. Mogensen talks about "theology of listening," sharing how the Danish Lutheran Church organized encounters with neighbors of other faiths and life-views simply to listen. (13) The church representatives received valuable knowledge about people and their context and about how they looked upon the Danish church. These meetings increased the goodwill toward the majority church and nurtured people's own faith, as participants were encouraged to express it--to speak it into being.
There can be serious ambiguity in how our "acting" corresponds with our listening and talking.
On the one hand we long for authenticity. We respect people who act upon what they hear and say, conveying a contingent expression. On the other hand, we find a charming solidarity when people fall into temptation, such as talking about a penchant for chocolate, drinking or dropping out on jogging. That is, it is not desirable to be too perfect. Our Facebook-lives encourage us to uncommitted "liking," wherein acting is reduced to a click or screen-touch. But true acting speaks louder than words, and we remember much more profoundly things we do than things we just hear or "like."
The first person in the Bible to give God a name is Hagar. An Egyptian slave woman in a desperate situation escapes from her owners. She encounters God in the desert. From then on, she called him "the God who sees me." (14) In the Exodus story, God repeatedly states of God's self: "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians..." (15) God sees and listens and acts upon it.
The same pattern is apparent in the life of Jesus. He asks people questions, listens to them, and transforms their lives. Shane Claiborne has written a book The Irresistible Radical: Living as an Ordinary Radical (16) wherein he reflects upon the power of the gospel when turned toward everyday life. In Norway, it is interesting to acknowledge howour main diaconal organizations enjoy great respect independent of their quite different theological profile and reflection. This is likely because they listen to the most marginalized and excluded in our society, and they also act upon it. People find this utterly trustworthy.
The law of liberty (James 1:25)
Freedom and freedoms--liberals, conservatives, radicals, all emphasize different perspectives as they fight about the ideological ownership to the word "freedom." Commercial, cultural, religious, ideological powers do this as well.
What is freedom about? Fewer restrictions on alcohol and jet-skis, increased tax-free quotes and reduced tax on fortune and inheritance? Freedom of expression? If so, to what extent? Freedom to beg in the street? Our government wants to criminalize that. Freedom is a core concept to most people on many different levels. Freedom expressed in basic human rights is about the freedom to life, providing for basic needs, safety, love, education, justice, religion, expression. It implies freedom from poverty, violence, oppression, exclusion, starvation, etc.
A challenge comes when your freedom collides with mine. Who is to surrender? Is there a hierarchy of freedoms? If so, who decides? Is it about power, or about the significance of a particular freedom? Which has priority: my right to drive faster or your right to walk safely in the street? My right to increased ease of access to alcohol or your right to be less exposed to the negative effects of increased ease of access and consumption of alcohol? My right to a comfortable and consuming lifestyle or your right to a more sustainable and green society? My freedom to use niqab without stigma or yours to see my face and encourage "oppressed" women to stand up against this practice?
From a liberal standpoint, freedom is often said to be about individual choice, to have different consumer options. On a certain welfare level, of course, that might be partially true. But the many poor people in Norwegian society do not have these choices. To a significant group, namely the poor and marginalized, freedom is about basic needs.
From another perspective, when people, for different reasons, make life choices that are destructive for themselves and others, what are the limits of freedom?
And another, recall how Thomas Merton, when entering his new little monastery cell, talked about "the four walls of his new freedom." Freedom can also be about fewer choices, fewer expectations, less stress, more focus. It can be exhausting to get up every day and continually make new assessments about hair color, study, partner, hobbies, work, how to realize myself even better. Recall Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby Mcgee: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Freedom can be about not being owned by material stuff and property. Recall the Chinese proverb: "If you own more than three things, they own you." On the other hand, in a different meaning--a life with nothing left to loose, nothing worth fighting for, might be poor.
James talks about "the perfect law, the law of liberty." (17) Law and freedom, at least in a Norwegian context, very often will be perceived as opposites. Freedom is a core concept in Christian theology. The Bible tells us that that we were chosen to be free and that Christ has set us free, (18) but people outside (and quite often inside) the church relate Christianity to law, to commandment and restrictions. When my eldest son chose social-humanistic, academic confirmation last year, (19) the organizers asked me to be one of ten lecturers on the concept of freedom, myself from the perspective of Christian faith and others from the disciplines of, for example, biology, anthropology, psychology, history, etc. A friend asked me: How could they ask you as a theologian to lecture on freedom? Isn't your expertise more about rules and commandments?
In James' anthropology, humans are created in God's image with a certain freedom and corresponding responsibility, though heavily influenced by the battle between evil and good.
Why do people associate Christianity not with freedom but with commandments and restrictions? I have to guess. We have a history of being more able and willing to communicate judgment than grace. We ought to tune more carefully into the Christian freedom as different: freedom FROM guilt, death, and the fear of not being loved, and a freedom TO receive grace, do good, be unconditionally loved, eternally.
The tongue is a fire (James 3:5-6) (20)
Is gossip the most common sin of all? How devastating its consequences can be! "A good lie might walk from Bagdad all the way to Constantinople, while truth is still looking for its sandals..." How much more is this true in our times! Facebook, the lunchroom, etc... There are so many questions to consider: How do I deal with gossip? What is gossip? What is a lie? What about the little white ones? Are we supposed to say the truth always, even when it hurts? What are our motivation for lying, gossiping, or for telling the truth?
With all our channels of communication, both praising and cursing have reached a threatening level. James states that with the same tongue we are praising God and cursing humans created in the image of God. He offers several metaphors, which are useful in our times as well, e.g., how we manage a big horse by putting a bit in its mouth, (21) or how we maneuver a big boat with a small rudder. (22)
The tongue has great power. In today's world we stand in the tension between the Christian ideal of self-control, which some understand as preventing people from being straightforward and honest and standing up when needed, and the ideal of fully expressing all your thoughts and emotions irrespective of how they can limit, dominate, or hurt other people. (23) How we admire self-discipline related to training and weight loss but not so much with respect to talking and gossiping! James challenges us. How can fresh and bitter water run from the same source? (24) Jesus says that it is not what comes into the mouth that causes uncleanness, but what comes out. (25)
Rather, the Christian is called to speak truth in love. It seems simple. The Eighth Commandment is basically, "Don't lie." (26) How much more so when lying is covering up for evil, transgressions, cowardliness, injustice. Still we need to say more. The Bible tells us to "speak truth in love." (27) Tell the truth, generally speaking. Avoid it when it damages more than it heals (after a thorough power analysis of the case). What we say should be true, but we do not always have to say all that is true. Scrutinize your own intentions for lying--and for telling the truth. The golden rule might help us on the way: "Do unto others as you want others to do unto you." (28) Remember that this is not always black and white. Consider the woman who has to lie about being busy, because she actually is not able to say "no" without an explanation. Consider your friend who has finally spent some money on herself and her hair, and asks you what you think. The children ask us about "bad men" or the suffering of other kids. The simple answer is "don't lie." The more difficult answer is "don't lie, only sometimes."
Truth without love can be brutality. Love without truth can be a lie.
Suffering, prayer and anointing, community (James 5:13-20) (29)
James says: "If somebody is suffering, then pray." It sounds a bit easy. It is a profound truth though to bring all our life to God in prayer and to remember God's presence in all aspects of our everyday life. We confess a suffering, crucified, and resurrected God with a blood-stained, tortured, and slaughtered body and a throne in heaven. We believe in a God who is present in all Creation--suffering, crying, fighting, comforting, healing, triumphing. This God is accessible in prayer whenever, wherever.
The practice of anointing the sick is scarcely described elsewhere in the Bible. As far as I know, it is not a very common practice in the Church of Norway, but it is in Pentecostal or Roman Catholic churches. Nevertheless preaching gives way to practice, and this text provides an opportunity to highlight and elaborate the practice of anointing the sick--a bodily, concrete, and physical (less verbal) expression of Christian care. Consider reflecting upon the blessings and challenges connected to the practice of anointing the sick.
Another important aspect of this text is the relationship of sin and illness. It is not uncommon in the Old Testament to understand illness as a punishment for sin. Jesus explicitly rejects this, but very often keeps the healing and the forgiveness of sins together. James in this lecture supports this way of thinking; it is very important to state clearly that people who suffer from illness should not feel more or less a sinner than anyone else.
James challenges our understanding and practice of community. Are we building trust in a way that opens up for confessing our sins to each other? Are we ready to show the less successful dimensions of our lives, speaking honestly about life and faith?
When I started practicing judo at the age of 20, the first thing 1 learned was how to fall--to fall in a way that reduces the risk of injury and makes it easier to get up again. To fall and get up again is sort of the Christian core pattern, and Christian congregations should be experts on that. More often, I think, we are so afraid of falling or of having others see us fall, that we pretend not to fall at all, ever. Instead we pretend to be honest about our daily dependence on God's grace.
"... if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." (30) Church history tells us how the clergy in power have frequently tried to forcibly convert people. It is an ugly, recurring aspect of the church's story. Confessing and conversion processes should be analyzed in power-perspective with the speck and the log story always in mind. (31) That said, to comfort and to trouble each other in a healthy way, nurturing faith and lives and community is a good thing. James is a significant guide on that road.
Research Fellow, PhD Candidate, Det teologiske Menighetsfakultet
(1.) Approximately 76 percent of Norway's five million citizens are members of the Church of Norway.
(2.) The pericope for Year B, Proper 22 (Sunday, August 30, 2015) is James 1:17-27.
(3.) James 1:17a, NRSV.
(4.) Angela Buttolph, "Living on a Prayer: Can God help you survive a slump or pick a party dress? More women believe the answer is yes..., in Daily Mail Online, 9 February 2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/ femail/article-1139164/Living-prayer-CanGod-help-survive-slump-pick-perfect-party- dress--More-women-believe-answer-yes-. html. Accessed 30 September 2014.
(5.) James 1:17, which also resonates with 1 John 1:5.
(6.) For example in Hosea where God is pictured as the despised, suffering, grieving lover.
(7.) Cf. Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009). Norwegian title: Bonn: Har det noen bensikt?
(8.) Preben Kok, Skold ud pa Gud (Copenhagen: Informations Forlag, 2008).
(9.) Matt 21:22.
(10.) John 14:14.
(11.) Gen 18:16-33.
(12.) The Contemporary English Version of the Bible has a slightly different subtitle, "hearing and obeying," which emphasizes obedience more than action. A subtle difference.
(13.) Morgens S. Morgensen, "A Missiology of Listening for a Folk Church in a Postmodern Context" in Foundations for Mission, Emma Wild-Wood and Peniel Rajkumar, eds. (Oxford: Regnum, 2012), 190-204.
(14.) El-roi. Gen 16:13.
(15.) Exod 3:7-8a, NRSV.
(16.) Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
(17.) James 1:25a.
(18.) Galatians 5.
(19.) Confirmation age youth in Norway have the option of taking Confirmation in the church from the standpoint of Christian faith or outside the church from a social humanistic standpoint.
(20.) The pericope for Year B, Proper 24 (September 13, 2015) is James 3:1-12.
(21.) James 3:3.
(22.) James 3:4.
(23.) Consider the many debates and discussions on the Internet that are rough and so full of harassment and hate speech that they silence the more sensitive participants and threaten the freedom of expression.
(24.) James 3:11.
(25.) Matt 15:11.
(26.) Exod 20:16.
(27.) Eph 4:15.
(28.) Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31.
(29.) The pericope for Year B, Proper 26 (September 27, 2015).
(30.) James 3:19.
(31.) Luke 6:4Iff.
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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