May 5th, 2016
Last Sunday we took a look at how Jesus defines meekness in ways that were likely unfamiliar to us. For Jesus to describe himself by the same word for meekness we found in His beatitude, associations like “timid,” “reserved,” or “passive” prove far afield of what He meant by it. He exhibited none of those.
Then during Q&A we teased out a few of the domains where meekness has deeply practical application. Marriage, the family, and the workplace all represent rich fields in which meekness as He defined it would be necessary.
But in a letter to the churches spread throughout the region, James, the brother of Jesus and one of the shepherds of the Jerusalem church, writes:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (1:20-22)
In the sermon we focused on how meekness applies both when we are without power and when we possess it. But here in his letter there’s nothing pertaining to power. So what does James mean by receiving the word of God with meekness?
In the renewed flourish of attention on Eugene Peterson (and Bono) that we added to in last week’s Backstory, I was compelled to pull from my bookshelf his slim volume from the late 1980s entitled Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. In that book, he writes out of a growing concern–you might say anguish–for pastors whom he perceives may be busily working but who have effectively abandoned their callings. Rather than fulfill their role as shepherds, they’ve become, as he calls them, “shopkeepers”: animated more by a desire to build the operation (anticipating our day when pastors learn about “building a brand“) than forming a people for His Kingdom.
Underlying the abandonment of the pastoral role has been, he argues, the abandonment of essential pastoral practice–three priorities without which any pastor will be led to follow the siren call of superficial “influence.” Those three priorities are prayer, the reading and contemplation of Scripture, and spiritual direction (both offering and seeking).
As it relates to our original question about receiving the Word with meekness, Peterson retells an essay by Walker Percy which, to Peterson, functions fundamentally like a parable. Entitled “Message in a Bottle” (from a collection of essays under the same title), it imagines a thriving and diverse community living on an island. They have no contact with the world beyond their sandy borders. Their collective memory of how they originally came to this watery habitation has grown so faint as to become irrelevant. And their isolation from the rest of “civilization” has caused them to become, unsurprisingly, self-sufficient.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this island community is their command of language. Their capacity to speak with clarity, across clans and generations, would make any outsider marvel. Their industrial, educational, and political institutions all reflect an aptitude for communication that has helped them endure.
Ironically, one industry common to most civilizations but which never emerged here was that of advertising. The people never found it necessary to enlarge upon ideas using words; plain speech was adequate to their society’s need. (One can imagine political campaigns also being a foreign concept.)
The community engages in disagreement from time to time, but it’s never due to a lack of understanding between disputants. Differences of opinion do not stem from people talking past one another.
And so this remote, isolated, but flourishing people lived under the notion that they knew what they needed to know.
But one morning during a walk on the beach, an islander discovers a bottle come ashore with a note inside. Extracting the curious communique he finds scrawled on a small slip of paper a short message, “Help is on the way.” He scans the horizon looking for who might have sent this word, but sees none.
Over the next several weeks more bottles arrive, each with similar messages, “Help will arrive soon–don’t give up,” “Help left yesterday,” “Take heart, help will certainly come.”
Naturally word of these enigmatic words spreads across the community. Some find the floating dispatches entirely immaterial. But others begin to ask themselves, and then aloud, What could these mean? Who are they from? Of what help do they speak?
The puzzle of the messages was matched by the paradox of their response. Though they learned nothing new with each additional message–it was just riffing on a theme–their curiosity grew. And just in terms of information, they learned nothing at all; there was no content to these words from afar–save the idea that there was a world beyond their own, from a people they did not know, and who were in possession of words and knowledge the islanders did not have.
Upon realizing that their ostensibly self-contained, self-sufficient world did not understand as comprehensively as they might’ve believed, some were led to draw near to the shore each day, looking for yet another word from outside.
Peterson finds in Percy’s essay on knowledge a parable for the nature of Scripture and the impetus for reading it. The words of the Scriptures, he avers,
reach from beyond the horizons of our capacity and invade what we had supposed was a self-sufficient island of discourse. It hardly matters that the message is fragmentary. It hardly matters that we can’t figure out all the referents. It hardly matters that we can’t organize it into something systematically complete. What matters is that it links us with a larger world, perhaps a mainland. What matters is that it announces help in getting out of a mere island (an I-land) existence–efficient, smooth, scientific, harmonious–in which the self knows everything but its self. And its God.
James speaks explicitly in the opening of his letter how the Word is only heard when the word is also obeyed. Otherwise, he argues, we are like those who look at ourselves in a mirror and then immediately forget our face as soon as we look away. Reading with meekness anticipates following through.
But I think James might agree that receiving the word with meekness is first of all to approach the Scriptures presupposing that they offer a word from beyond our realm and understanding. They may not appear with perfect clarity upon our first inspection of their content. But they fundamentally deliver to us words not our own, about ideas we are without, for the sake of a life we might not otherwise think possible. Peterson quotes the German historian and social philosopher, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, saying, “before the listener can become a listener, something has to happen to him: he must expect.” Meekness expects to hear what is not from here, making time and attention for these otherworldly words and anticipating change from them.
Do we come to these words with the requisite meekness?
Until we do, we may live as islanders unawares.