Updated: Sep 13, 2020
It is just after 10 a.m., and outside of my office, a line is forming. In this line there will be young, old, male, female, abled, and disabled, all here for one purpose—they need food. Today will be hot and cloud cover limited, but this has not, and does not deter the anticipated need of this company who knows where to receive nourishment. And so, I watch as parents interact with children, neighbors sharing umbrellas, and volunteers move about in preparation for this week’s distribution. Finally, the doors open.
In the wisdom of James, we find many sayings that convict us in light of a day like the one above. From chapter one, we hear “do not merely listen to the word…do what it says” (James 1:22), and in the second “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). James goes on to offer both condemnation and encouragement, not for one’s life of prayer, study, or knowledge, but a life of servitude—living out the blessings of the gospel.
If we are honest, we have heard this message more times than can be counted. It is often attached as a rallying cry to a particular initiative or ministry, where it tends to elicit quick, impulsive actions. But when it is over, and we step away from that story, we often find ourselves like the “one who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23b-24).
Now, if I am honest, I am both guilty and perplexed by this struggle. On the one hand, I see the work of food pantries, domestic violence shelters, and after school programs, and I am inspired in a way that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. But on the other, I find myself at home, parked in my two-car garage, sitting on my reclining couch, watching sports on a large flat-screen TV, having forgotten about the world of lines outside of food pantries. Which makes me wonder, what is it that creates such ease of forgetfulness in the face of biblical imperative? How can I, a knower of the word and hearer of God’s voice, find a disconnect between word and action in my own life? And how do I use this awareness to create a new pattern of behavior?
Perhaps this begins with the way that I look at gain and loss.
In their book on organizational leadership, Schein and Schein (2017) make the following statement: “In a capitalist society, it is inconceivable that someone might design an organization to operate consistently at a financial loss or that it does not matter whether or not a product works” (p. 22). Said in another way, as humans, we are wired to gain, not to lose. To think differently would cause the destabilization of the entire framework in which we have learned to operate. Why? Because it is against our culture.
According to Schwartz (2016), culture encompasses the beliefs, ethics, and practices of a particular people or society. It is common in our culture to hear norms such as: “hard work pays off,” “don’t work, don’t eat,” and “I am a self-made person.” All of which contribute to this instinct that it is unimaginable to think of operating from a posture of loss.
But then, as Christians, we are called to rethink. And we are invited, from Genesis to Revelation, to imagine a world in which the message of God’s love is told through caring for the vulnerable, the ostracized, and the hopeless. A world that “loses their life for [Christ’s] sake” to truly find it (Matthew 10:39). And a world that destabilizes the fragile framework of selfishness, to stand on faith enacted in every community.
So, how do you rewrite the norm of our culture? How do you break free from the rigid mindset that allows us to ignore the hungry, the marginalized, the sick, and the stranger? And how do you embody James’ petition to see your faith in action?
If you are serious about wrestling with these questions, I would recommend you seek your local United Way or other community-based nonprofit organization. These men and women know your community and can help you see and hear these needs. Finally, above all remember, Christians are called to be Christ’s hands and feet to all of creation, and that starts in our backyards.