A generous life
Fred Craddock, was my professor in seminary. Later, when Time Magazine named him one of the 12 most influential preachers of the 20th century, he set up the Craddock Center providing to provide education and social support for poor communities of Appalachia, and train preachers ministering to poor communities. When I last talked with him he was traveling with his staff in a large tour bus through the poorest communities of the poorest region of this country singing songs, telling stories and setting up Head Start-like programs for children who consider it a blessing to have shoes and decent clothes. So, here is a man, renowned for his preaching, who has dedicated himself to bring compassion, mercy and a measure of justice to the poor.
When I asked said, he said, if I had it to do all over again, I would preach more about God.
Dr. Craddock, who has influenced more preachers than anyone can count, whose life is the embodiment of a righteous man, wishes he had preached more about God. He didn’t say anything about preaching less about the works of love and justice, only more about God. What are we to make of this? What is the relation between the work of justice and charity and the love of neighbor and the love of God? Can we have one or the other as if it were just another option of our own choosing much like we choose everything else?
I’m just not into the whole love of neighbor thing; not enough time, you know, and besides people are strange and complicated. It’s just not my thing. But the love of God now that is something I can understand. Prayer. Meditation. Silence. Coming close to the Divine. This is my thing, and it’s not as messy as the other either.
You know, different strokes, for different folks. Whatever.
This way of choosing our “religious” options, like consumers picking a lifestyle from a
variety of preferences, is one way to understand the relation between the work of compassion and the love of God. It’s in the DNA of our country. One might call it the American way. Individual choice is applied to everything, including religious tastes and preferences. We could call it the sovereign self. The kingdom of me; because after all, it’s all about my personal happiness; right?
But scripture gives us another way to consider the relation between life of neighbor and love of God. The letter of James is an extended effort to integrate the work of compassion – with a God-centered life. While our natural tendency may be to focus first on what we can and should do, James would have us focus first on God: who God is and what God has done. Once that focus is so deeply embedded in our lives then, and only then, can we proceed to live virtuous lives that bring forth mercy, compassion and peace. For James, a life of virtue is the end point of the Christian life. He called it holiness.
When we hear the word holiness most of us think saccharine sweet quality or religion-on-the-shirtsleeves-piety. Yes, when I think about Fred Craddock, for instance, I think holiness, not sweetness. In fact, there is a razor edged quality to his critique to the way things are that is anything but sweet. His life is centered on God and from it has come a passionate care for widows and orphans, the poor and the strangers, those who have no place to call home. That is holiness.
So if we are to begin with God, and not with the sovereign self, who is God? James gives a clear-eyed description of God and then connects God to everything else.
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
God is the One whose very being is generous. One could say that overflowing generosity is the quality that describes the triune God. From God’s very being, all gifts of every variety flow freely and generously upon us. The usually somber John Calvin gushed that he “that he was ravished with astonishment” at the generosity of God, whose love knows no bounds and whose mercy is everlasting. Ravished with astonishment is my favorite phrase.
If God is overflowing with generous love and mercy; what about us? Is there a connection? James would have us understand that our lives have a purpose that is intimately connected with this generous God. We have been given birth in Christ that our lives would be shaped in the likeness of God’s life. In other words, the end point is that we would be as just and generous as God, from whom we receive our birth.
This is what he calls holiness – a just and generous life is what we are called to pursue. No other life truly satisfies other than the one that is generous, compassionate and centered in God.
Eugene Peterson once asked: “What good is a truth if we don’t live it? What good is an intention if we don’t know how to sustain it?” Like the man who spent so much time talking about what he was going to do, that he died before he had time to do anything, James says there are those who hear the Word of God, but it goes in one ear and out the other, like those who look in a mirror and forget what they see. Talking is not enough; hearing is not enough.
When I was young, I heard someone from Minnesota say that the best measure of the strength of a nation is how it treats the poor, the lowly and the vulnerable. I read that the same thing was said other night. Both might have been been reading James, who says the best measure of the Christian life is how we care for the orphans and widows. Orphans and widows included a whole class of people who were the most vulnerable to suffering and neglect. Never forget the children. Do not neglect the widow.
James calls this pure and undefiled religion.
All is gift. We live in response to the Great Gift Giver, the source of all generosity. This a generous life.
Praise the Lord. Let us come to the feast to receive the gifts of God.