‘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. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.’
James 1:17-18; excerpt from James 1:17-27, lectionary text for Aug. 29, 2021
This is not where I thought I’d be at summer’s end. I remember April and May. The relief of being vaccinated. The satisfaction of submitting spring semester grades, wrapping up the entire, grueling, academic year, with only two summer courses to teach. The pleasing surprise of coming awake one morning before my alarm, sunrise summoning me up and out to walk, to recover that daily rhythm of summers past.
Now it is the end of August. Sunrise is an hour later. We’ve gone from azaleas to crepe myrtle, from ‘Brood Z’ cicadas (95 dB) to ‘oak leaf itch mites’ (don’t ask!). I planned a family funeral repast, taught my two classes, graded papers, preached, anticipated re-opening, walked in the mornings, read the news, was increasingly undone. COVID is coming back around, more virulent than before. Division persists, expands, embitters; the disharmony is its own distinct pain. Smoke from western wildfires hazes the eastern sky. Haiti endures assassination and earthquake. Hurricanes Fred, Grace, Henri, and Ida sweep through in swift succession. Afghanistan suffers violent collapse. I am swamped, over-aware of my inability to make a difference, paralyzed by my own puniness. Also I broke my toe, so morning walks are paused. ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’ (Jer. 8:20).
I’ve journaled all summer but not written to post. A half-dozen false starts, each easily deleted as it existed only electronically. I revert to pen and page, write on a leaf bound into a book, something I cannot easily delete nor discard. I push to write on through, pray the unfurling line of ink is a line to haul myself out into, again, a broader place. I open my book, take pen in hand, and hitch my line to the letter of James.
The lectionary text begins mid-way through chapter 1. The references to ‘giving’ and ‘gift’ seem a non-sequitur after verses discussing temptation and testing and desire and sin. There’s an echo, though, of earlier verses, where James wrote of God’s own generous, ungrudging ‘giving’ (James 1:5), and of the ‘full work’ of endurance: that we (‘you’) are full, perfect, complete (James 1:4).
Full, perfect, complete. None of these do I feel now. I am more aware of incapacity and lack. James writes of looking into a mirror and promptly forgetting the self you’ve seen. What I read is an injunction to catalogue flaws as if self-recrimination had not already overwhelmed me in the face of the world’s needs. I turn away. Seek distraction. I’d open a browser if I wasn’t tethered to a pen. Turn back. Reread what I’ve written. Reread what James has written to me, and realize why: not to shame but to sustain (James 1:3-4, 12). Look where James is telling me to look: into the text, ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (James 1:25).
The law, the gift, the work of endurance: each is described as ‘perfect,’ meaning ‘complete,’ ‘lacking nothing.’ ‘Look into the perfect law,’ James urges. Be reminded of who we are. Beloved (1:16; 1:19). God-birthed. First-fruits — we described as God’s own choice offering (Deut 18:4; Jer 2:3). Given by God, given to God.
I am small. My hand cannot hold the world. I cannot put out the fires, hold back the storm surge, cure the pandemic, end the rancor, stop the war. This is true. But it is not completely, fully, perfectly true. If I allow myself to be consumed by that incomplete, partial, imperfect realization, I become even smaller, more less-than than before, not self-emptied so to be filled with God (Eph 3:19), but too scant and scattered a soil to bear the implanted word (James 1:21).
I am small. So. My hand can hold the word. And a page, and a pen. I can write a line. I can plan a syllabus and teach a course. I can pray for my students, for family and church and world and self. I can look into the perfect law, and I can look at the world, and I can remember that I am God-birthed and God-beloved and God-given to bear the word on. May that be enough for now, to carry me through the next step, and the step that comes after that.