We quickly discovered something about ourselves: We are excellent hearers.
No, really — with all due Mennonite modesty, it’s true. We can break down a sentence like nobody’s business. We can navigate the blogosphere to perform a word study. We can analyze literary context. Somewhere over the last century, one of us has inevitably heard a brilliant sermon that sheds light on obscure historical references.
But bring up the question of practice, and we freeze like deer in the high beams.
Love my enemies? I’m certain I would if I actually had any.
Welcome tax collectors and sinners? If only we knew some.
Parable of the rich man and Lazarus? (Awkward silence.) Obviously doesn’t apply since none of our homes have gates.
Sell our possessions? (Blank stares.) He can’t mean that literally.
Poor inherit the kingdom? Great idea; glad God’s on that.
Practice God’s Word every week, every day, in ways ever new and more encompassing? You’ve got to be kidding. Who could possibly live at that pace?
It’s like James has been to our church.
It’s easy to diagnosis the problem of the world, its tragic deafness to a Word it can’t hear over screaming sirens and blasting TVs. But good religious people, the sort who read Bible columns and show up for weekly discussions of Luke, are wizards at hearing. We suck in spiritual info with the relentless efficiency of a high-powered vacuum — another sermon, another Sunday school class, another book. We are voracious spiritual consumers, always craving a flavorful new phrase or freshly cooked idea. Truth be told, we’re gluttons. Gluttons of the Word.
This is not a condition we are used to owning as a problem. After all, many of us were taught that the measure of faith is the sum of hours we spend in the pews plus our Bible trivia score. Too much of the Word is like too much pecan pie — patently impossible.
But what happens when our hearing becomes vastly disproportionate with our practice?
According to James, the church has a problem. We’ve specialized in crafting expert hearers who are not equally skilled at responding. Week after week we gather and gaze in the mirror of the Word only to find our mascara running, our hair standing on end, our cheeks smeared with yesterday’s dinner.
But then we simply turn around and walk away, forgetting what we saw. We feed our endless appetite for words, gorge ourselves on truth, but do not recognize that until we act, these are empty calories. Faith is not measured by spiritual consumption but by how we convert the energy of the Word into concrete practice.
Hearing and doing for Christians should be one integrated act. Judgment, when it comes, will not be a question of what we knew but what we did with it.
This is particularly true, for both James and Luke, when it comes to poverty. God’s kingdom belongs to the poor. The Word is clear on this. But the community whose daily life is not fundamentally transformed by this Word has little in the way of true Jesus-faith to boast about.
How blessed would be the church — how blessed would be the world — if we dedicated a fraction of the energy we typically expend chasing down new words to living out the old ones we already know well?
Meghan Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church.