In the romantic comedy As Good as It Gets, perennial bad boy Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an obsessive, compulsive author who spends his days writing romance novels. When he ventures out of his fastidiously ordered apartment, his walk resembles something like a lurching game of hopscotch as he dodges over the cracks of New York City’s sidewalks as anxiously as others dodge meeting him. You see Melvin hurls insults like hand grenades at all who cross his path and especially at his neighbors. As he hop scotches over these cracks on the sidewalks each day, his ritual includes this: breakfast at the same restaurant where he’s seated in the same seat and served by the same waitress, the only person who has enough patience and perseverance to withstand the barrage of his verbal barbs. You see, Melvin Udall uses words as weapons.
Now in the film, his behavior is comical, but it’s also heartbreaking. His words and actions leave him friendless and seemingly unlovable. Melvin, the writer of cheap romance novels, is also author of his own costly isolation and the pain he inflicts on others. In today’s reading from the Epistle of James, we hear of a very different author and that author is God: God who gives all good gifts and who wants us to draw near. God gives us the gift of sacred word so that we might author that word in the world. James says that every generous act of giving, every perfect gift is from above. It comes down from the father of lights. What a beautiful turn of phrase, the father of lights. I think James is using that as a metaphor for God as the creator, the one who created sun and moon and stars by uttering words: “Let there be light and there was light.” And then God said, “It is good.” James is a lover of words. In Hebrew the word devar, which means word, also means deed. And so it is with God that James said, “In God there is no variation, there no shadow.”
Like a beautiful poem that does what it says, God’s word and God’s deed are one. Now, if we are to become doers of words and not merely hearers of them, then our words and deeds must become one. So how are you doing? Do your words match your deeds? Or do your words sometimes create the opposite effect from that which you intended from them? Perhaps you wanted to offer a word of comfort, but it was received as criticism instead. Or have your actions ever denied the very thing for which you most yearned, like Melvin writing romance novels but never finding love for himself. Perhaps you long to grow closer to a friend or spouse, and yet some sort of attentive behavior seems only to push the beloved away. I think that’s why we find the character of Melvin Udall so comical and yet poignant, because there’s a little bit of Melvin in each of us.
When was the last time you were angry and used your words as weapons? Teenagers and parents are quite good at this kind of verbal warfare. Or when have you withheld your words in ways that have wounded? We all know someone with an emotionally reserved parent, let’s say a father who never told his son, who never said, “I love you.” So the son spends a lifetime trying to recover from such wounding. Biblical theologian and Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis said it hurts to admit that our own hearts are foreign and occupied territory. It hurts to admit that we are committed to habits of mind and lifestyle and patterns of relationships that inhibit the fresh and life-giving word of God. And so we must repent of these habits, habits of self-inflicted violence, and open the places in us that are closed to God.
James says that we are to welcome the implanted word with meekness. Now to someone hoping to be a doer of word, that might sound kind of counterintuitive, but prayer is where God speaks to us in our souls, it is the very seat of our will. So receiving that implanted word from God is not passive at all, but rather becomes something like a handshake with God. We consent to allow God to reshape our will and we in turn say we we’ll partner with God, that we’ll walk with Jesus Christ in peace and walk with our love, in love with our neighbor. And the least, such oneness and vulnerability before God might seem frightening or just the discipline of going to prayer each day might seem daunting. So we resist opening to God in this manner, but through daily devotion to word and prayer, God’s love is able to counter our resistance.
Like the fiction of sand and grit inside the oyster, a fiction that ultimately creates a polished pearl, a pearl of great price. You see, God wants to give us good gifts so that we can pass on God’s gift of love to others. And sometimes the best gift of love that we can give to others is to become more loving ourselves. So James offers these words of practical advice so that we might grow in love. He says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for anger does not produce the righteousness of God.” Think about it. James’s community must have been very short on listening and very long on making demands. There must have been people who were stirring up trouble and spewing all kinds of toxic words because James mentions the issue of anger not once but twice.
Perhaps some news reports from our country’s recent town hall meetings concerning health care reform might come to mind. James’s practical advice about how we are to use our words with gentleness is a word we need to hear. Curbing speech and practicing patience create a natural habitat where God’s word implanted in us and nourished can flourish. When we receive God’s word with gentleness, writes James, that word has the power to save our souls. With that power working within us through the Holy Spirit, we can become better listeners. We can become slower in speech. Think about it. Do you always need to be right? Or to be in control? Then ask God to work on that, that circumstance in your soul, and we can learn to mind our speech rather than speaking our minds. We can learn to bridle our tongues by practicing patience and curb our anger by monitoring levels of frustration and stress.
So what besides prayer are the practical ways we can accomplish this? Well, here’s one approach that Benjamin Franklin practiced with great regularity. Every morning Franklin would get up and say, “What good can I do this day?” And at the end of the day he would say, “What good have I done this day?” It’s a common spiritual tool that comes to us from the Christian practice of Ignatian spirituality. It’s called the examine or spiritual inventory, and it is to be done each day. It is a mirror that we hold up to our souls so that we can reflect on our spiritual progress, giving thanks for the gifts that we received this day from God and the gifts that we enacted. We’re also asking for God’s grace to strengthen us where we have fallen short, where our words have wounded, where, unlike a word processor, we can’t just delete them. In the examine, when we go to God with this, we understand that each day is a new day to begin again.
Saint Benedict, another great master of Christian spirituality, reminds us that as we seem to make spiritual progress we need to stay disciplined, but we must also pace ourselves and not be too tough or demanding. Using the image of our souls as a tarnished pot or vessel in need of cleaning, Saint Benedict says we must not scrape the rust off the vessel too vigorously or we will create an irreparable hole in the vessel we are trying to clean. So we must go gently with ourselves. It is the mark of humility. As one Christian caregiver is wise to remind us, human beings are not a problem to be solved but mysteries to be loved. And that is a life-giving message, not only for the Christian community but beyond. Because when we are quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to anger, God’s word at work in us and in the world can sometimes create astonishing transformation.
I recently heard a story about a young boy, a 13-year-old who was tempted by the lure of the Los Angeles gang scene. He’s an angry boy, broken and disruptive. His name is Alex. He was walking in his hood one day and he said this kid gave him a dirty, angry look. Now the rules of the hood are very clear. If someone gives you a dirty look, you must beat them up if not destroy them. But Alex was conflicted. So he slowed down; he wasn’t sure that he wanted to hurt the kid, so instead he approached him and said, “Why are you giving me that dirty, angry look?” And the other kid said, “I’m not giving you a dirty, angry look, I didn’t even see you. I’m angry because my brother was shot and killed.” So what did Alex do? Instead of beating that little boy up, he took the boy’s hand and miraculously not one but two lives were transformed that day.
You see, God wants to reconcile the whole human family; that’s the word of the kingdom, a peaceful flourishing of all. God has a vested interest in how we employ our words and the kinds of disciplines that we keep to dispel anger and violence in arenas both personal and global. Christians, by the grace and gift of God, are to be first fruits of this new peaceful and just reality. We are called to respond in word and deed by walking in holiness of life. As the late Dag Hammarskjöld said, “The road to holiness necessarily passes through the way of action.” Word and deed must cohere or else our faith is barren.
Today’s reading is clear: religion that is pure is this, says James, to help the widow and the orphan who are struggling and in so doing to remain unstained in the world. Beloved, God wants to be involved with us so that we might be involved in the world. God wants to make us whole so that we might be holy gods in the world. God has called us to be first fruits of the kingdom, fresh and succulent fruit, melting like sugar on the tongue of the world. And so my prayer is this, may your deeds and your words be one in love this day and always. Amen.