A very long time ago, when I was till in corporate life, I was in a seminar where each of us was asked to take a biblical name as our own, and explain why. I hate those kinds of exercises. Anyway, I chose James, as in the letter of James, but I don’t think I ever explained why. Maybe, as a relatively new Episcopalian back then, it was in opposition to my Lutheran upbringing. After all, wasn’t it Luther who said something about wishing the letter had not been included in the canon? If not, it was my childhood pastor who was death on works righteousness, and made a huge point of it whenever James came up.
Be that as it may, James spoke to me. Be doers of the word and not hearers only. If you say you have faith, show me by the way you live, and I’ll show you my faith by what I do. And what about the favoritism you show to those who are important or wealthy, and the disdain you show to those who are poor and maybe a bit strange? Is that any way to follow Jesus?
That was a problem. My hearing was adequate, but no more than that. My doing was OK in a minimal sort of way. Besides, I had a career that would no doubt lead to high corporate office one day soon, and all this was a distraction.
Not many should become teachers, he wrote. Teaching was what I loved. My consulting work was a form of teaching. I taught short workshop courses in a summer program. I was an adjunct at a college in NYC. I sometimes admitted that my job paid for my teaching habit. The problem with teaching is that, in James’ words, the tongue is an uncontrollable fire with which one both curses and blesses. It is very hard to tame the tongue, and it is the spoken word more than anything else that has ignited wars, revolutions, riots, domestic violence, and you know how much more. Yet it is the spoken word that Paul has said is to be used to build up and not tear down. Somewhere at the pivot point between cursing and blessing, building up and tearing down, are teachers. Which way will they point? Not many should become teachers.
Anyway, James chastised his readers, including me, to knock off engaging in conflicts driven the selfishness, and the evil spoken about others, sometimes with smug contentment. Good grief! Those are two of the most popular pastimes in American culture. But that wasn’t enough, he finished it off by warning us not let riches or the pursuit of wealth become our god, or come between us and God. James had spoken, and with unrehearsed thought, I chose James as my name for the exercise I wasn’t all that interested in.
The seminar instructor was an old friend, a fellow teacher, a respected mentor, and, as it turned out, a third order Franciscan (I had known him for years and learned that only after he died). As I reflected on James while he rattled on lecturing about the theology of love, he stopped and said, “Steven, when God is talking to you pay attention.” I don’t know why he did that, but it was the beginning of my journey toward ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church.