This morning’s lectionary passage from James is full of so many words of wisdom. I’ve told friends, this week, that I could have preached 25 different sermons today. But you’ll be happy to know I’ve narrowed my field of focus. So I’m inviting us today, to consider the words of verse 19: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
I’ve always loved the book of James because it does offer such simple and plain advice to encourage us in our faith and in our daily living. And while this particular passage sounds simple, it’s not always easy to consider how we might actually practice it.
While the language of James sounds much simpler than much of the letters attributed to Paul and other books of the New Testament, we easily hear echoes to the voice of Jesus in the clarity with which James encourages us to live. There is an underlying sentiment that when we live by faith, when we are compelled to lives that follow Christ, then we will be drawn to consider how to we treat one another. That our faith would be reflected in everything from the quotidian aspects of our lives to the major decisions we must face. James reminds us that no one and no act is exempt from being held up to the light of a life that draws on the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
And it is with that compulsion that we find ourselves considering today’s passage. How might these three simple commands influence our living in these days?
James tells us that everyone must be quick to listen. To truly listen to someone, presumes that you are not speaking. Good communicators will tell you that to listen well, you must not be perpetually thinking about what you will say next. James is reminding us that our first inclination should be to listen. We should hope to gain information, learn from others and seek to understand them. That can’t be done if we are not quick to listen, but instead we are quick to dismiss or blow off or even ignore.
We all love to tell our stories, share our values and feel heard. When a new mother gives birth, we ask her to recount her birth story. When someone dies, we listen as the grieving loved ones tell the story of who they were and what they learned from them. At every moment in between, from birth to death, we are hoping that someone will hear us. Because when we feel heard, we feel understood and known.
This summer I traveled to Rome, Georgia to attend the memorial service of my friend Jared’s father, Jim. After an unexpected death earlier in the spring, Jim’s family chose to wait until it was a bit more Covid-safe to offer the opportunity for folks to gather and remember him.
I arrived the night before the memorial and met my friends Jared and his wife, Lindsay for dinner. Afterward, they invited me to the backyard of Jared’s parents’ home so that we could continue to share stories and simply enjoy our time together.
The complexity of this story is found in the fact that Jim had been caring for Jared’s mom, Susan as she has been in the grips of dementia. This meant that with Jim’s passing, Susan would need to be moved to a place where she could receive the constant and incredible care like Jim had been almost single-handedly giving her for years. Because of these significant life changes, it was now up to Jared and his brother to begin the process of selling their parents’ home.
Lindsay walked me around their house as I listened to her tell stories about how well Jim and Susan had loved their family, friends, and their entire community for so long. We talked about the mundane things related to selling any home- simplifying spaces, removing personal photos, and getting the home show ready. As we walked toward the living room, she said, “You know the one thing there were more of than anything in this house? Chairs. There were chairs everywhere. Jim and Susan were always hosting their friends, or a Bible study, or inviting people to just sit for a while and chat. If you came into their house, they were going to offer you a chair.”
Instead of moving chairs from room to room as necessary, it seemed that Jim & Susan simply accumulated more chairs. No matter what room you entered, there was space for you. There was a place, and there was time to sit and talk and most importantly- to be heard. At Jim’s memorial service the next day, person after person spoke of how well-known and loved they felt because Jim had really heard them.
We made our way outside into the expansive backyard. As we walked past cousins catching fireflies in the mid-summer Georgia twilight, Lindsay ushered me around the yard to see the beautiful ways they had cared for their yard. Toward the back of the property we came upon a shed and Lindsay offered that it is where they’d needed to store some things to make the house ready to go on the market. We opened the doors to the storage shed, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw that it was, indeed, full of chairs. Surely there were other things in that shed, but there were chairs as far as the eye could see. And all I could think was, “I want to be this kind of person. Someone whose life communicates that I always have enough chairs.”
Who has listened to you? Who has invited you to pull up a chair and they’ve really heard and understood you?
Dr. Louise Isham, renowned social worker with the National Institute for Health Research in England said, “Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals.” When we listen, we inherently put the needs and stories of another above our own. We imitate Christ in the ways that he heard those who came to him and he didn’t turn away any who might share their story with him. Those who encountered Christ felt known, heard and understood. James is inviting us to listen with that same Christ-like attention.
James also knows that our listening is not just intended for those we love and like. But we should be quick to listen to all voices. We are not called to believe all voices or agree with all voices, but we should approach all people with open ears and open hearts so that we might better understand each other’s stories.
When we are quick to pull up a chair and listen, we learn from those speaking. Our own egos are set aside so that they might experience Christ sitting in a chair there as well.
Along with being quick to listen, James encourages us to be slow to speak.
There is a discipline practice that was used in schools for some time- especially if you were a student in the 70s and 80s. That is the dreaded fear of getting your name written on the board.
If a class was getting particularly unruly, the teacher would warn everyone that the next person who spoke would get his or her name written on the board. There was typically some type of consequence to having your name written on the board- having to write sentences, stay longer after class or some other form of discipline that also doesn’t exist any longer.
Unfortunately, I know about this punishment so well, because I was often quick to speak… and quick to get my name written on the board. It was just so hard to keep myself from talking! So hard to keep myself from chatting with Heather and Jennifer about who was going to turn the jump rope at recess. So hard to keep from reprimanding Bret or Mike when they asked to borrow a pencil for the umpteenth time. Certainly my teachers didn’t expect ME to be quiet- I had important things to say!
And yet, not once did it cross my mind to consider the importance of being slow to speak.
We live in a time when it seems that all of our opinions and thoughts should be broadcast loudly for the world to know and see. And while, being able to articulate your values and needs is nothing to shy away from, firing off opinions and desires without consideration for context or audience is a trap that’s simple to fall into. And so, our scriptures warn us against just this type of speaking.
James invites us to be slow to speak because he knew that when we are slow to speak, our thoughts are more measured. When we are slow to speak, our feelings are present, but they are not running the show. When we are slow to speak, our adrenaline doesn’t motivate our speech and tone and word choice, but instead we take time to be thoughtful, intentional and clear.
For many Americans, one of the biggest, unintended blessings of this Covid pandemic has been that we’ve been forced to slow down a bit. Our schedules have shifted. Our priorities have been reevaluated. Much of our normal patterns and expectations have been put on hold, or have at least slowed down. Perhaps you’ve developed some new habits- you’ve taken more walks around your neighborhood, read more books, had more conversations around the dinner table, worked on long-put-off projects around the house. If nothing else, there was certainly more time for slowing down if we opted to pay attention to it.
And yet, as the pandemic continues to shift, the pace of the world seems to be picking up steam once again. Our sense of urgency has quickly ushered us back into a world where we are inundated with the global atrocities, polarized political opinions, and both personal and communal struggles. And so, we want to speed up our voice.
We want to quickly offer our suggestions, our fears, our anxieties- all in the hopes of finding answers and certainty and comfort. Being slow to speak invites us to set aside those fears in exchange for silence and perhaps even stillness. Sometimes our voices reflect the voice of Jesus, but often, when we are quick to speak, they do not.
James encouraged the early church, and us, to remember that our words are valuable. Our words can be life-changing. And so we must take time to consider both the good and the damage that they can cause. Our words, our language and our tone can betray our hearts when we don’t use them with intention and thoughtfulness.
When we are slow to speak, we are not holding back truth. We are not silencing ourselves. Instead, when we are slow to speak we are able to offer the most authentic version of ourselves, and most importantly, the most clear reflection of our faith.
Do others hear your faith reflected in your words? When you communicate, is Christ honored in both the concepts you share and the speech that you use?
When we fire off with our words, we are forgetting to pull up a chair for another. We are choosing to grandstand, to find our soapboxes, we are offering a monologue. Pulling up a chair offers the chance for conversation, slowness of thought and speech. It allows time and space for the Holy Spirit to be present.
Perhaps for you, it’s most difficult to hear James tell us to be slow to anger. God is certainly great enough to handle our anger! We even see the example of Christ’s anger as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Isn’t anger good? Isn’t anger allowed?
Yes. James is not telling us to refrain from anger. We are encouraged to be slow to anger.
Perhaps you have taken a dance class before. Or maybe you have watched a show like Dancing with the Stars. Learning a specific piece of dance does not simply happen immediately. Learning to dance is done slowly at first. First, you are taught a count or two of 8. Once you’ve caught on to that, you might be taught multiple measures of the music. When working on a piece, a dance instructor might then turn on the music, but at a slower tempo. It’s only once the piece is fully understood, the steps fully grasped that the tempo is sped up.
Dancers learn slowly so they can truly learn and process the individual steps. So they can be attentive to make sure each leg, arm, and movement of the head is in the correct place.
The same could be true for our anger. What if we approached our anger more methodically? What if we examined our annoyances, our irritations, our resentment with more intention? What if we slow down to see what is true and real versus what is wrapped up in emotion or passion?
James is reminding us that righteous anger is one thing. Quick, hurried, anger is another. Being slow to anger invites curiosity into the space- so that we might examine what lies ahead with a tender, open heart. Being slow to anger offers us the opportunity to find compassion for that which distresses us. Being slow to anger affords us the time to try and empathize with another person’s perspective or actions.
But being slow to anger doesn’t necessarily take away the harm of the offensive act against our sensibilities. Being slow to anger may also show us more clarity about what is causing us pain. Being slow to anger pulls up a chair for God to enter the space and show up to comfort and heal what hurts.
In what relationships do you need to follow James’s approach?
With whom might you be more readily quick to listen? Perhaps you might literally need to pull up a chair to hear someone share their story with you so that they might feel the peace that Christ offers in them being fully known.
In what circumstances might you more intentionally slow your speech? Maybe you can literally pull up a chair for yourself to sit in prayer, to slow down your thinking, to invite the Holy Spirit into your conversations before you speak more broadly.
And what issue or interaction might be inviting you to slow down and examine your anger? How might you literally pull up a chair to take time to more thoroughly understand another perspective, or more methodically craft your response so that God is able to bring healing and wholeness to your heart?
James goes on in today’s text to remind us that these actions are not one time things. They are also not boxes to be checked off to insure our salvation. Instead, truly following Christ is not found in simply saying what we say we believe, but it is how we interact with, treat, and care for others.
How is God inviting you to pull up a chair for someone to sit beside you? For you to be quick to listen and truly hear, slowly speak so that you more fully understand, and even if the conversation or interaction is difficult, be slow to anger? How can you make sure that there is always a chair in the proverbial shed for whomever might stop by?
Or maybe it’s your turn to freely, thoughtfully, calmly share your story with someone who wants to hear it. Either way, I invite you to pull up a chair.
And may it be so.