Back to School

By Roth, Robert | Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Back to School


Roth, Robert, Sojourners Magazine


This would be a good month to rest the terms "readings" and "passages." These are lessons and we would do well to become students once again. Voices from the book of Proverbs and the letter of James--and poetically, the psalms--give us tangible instructions about practicing the Christian life. This Proverbs-James axis of practicality forms a natural bridge between the Old and New Testaments.

In some ways, we are provided spirituality by subtraction. Humility, silence, clarity, authenticity, and impartiality dear the way for God's guidance and gospel practices. In other ways, we are invited into righteous action.

So there is little opportunity here to stroke our chins or generate lofty abstractions. The main reprieve from this no-excuses schoolroom comes in the love ballads in the first two passages of week one and in Proverbs in week three--though in the latter it is on the street and in the public square where Wisdom is making her voice heard.

The epistle of James might open a door to a deeply ecumenical (and even interfaith) call to humility and service. Proverbs and James draw from diverse traditions, from Jewish ethics to Greek philosophy. Ironically, these aspects of the practice of Christian life offer common ground with classmates in other faiths with a similar bias for righteous action.

Robert Both is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

SEPTEMBER 3

Get Real

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Who wouldn't like to receive the sung praises of the Song of Solomon: "My beloved is like a gazelle" (even if the lovers personify God and the church or Christ and one's soul)? Who wouldn't enjoy a little of the adulation that the divinely inspired king receives in Psalm 45--he who smells sweetly of the aloes and cassia of exotic trees while traipsing through ivory palaces?

Get real. While the rhapsodizing of this week's poetic forays into the Hebrew testament illuminate faith history, the immediacy of James and Mark call us to action in real time. They are far more emblematic of the entire month's advisories. Which is to say: The party's over.

If we are to be "doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" (James 1:22), we must avoid the narcissistic temptation toward mirror-gazing and adopt a religious life with a fixed focus on caring for orphans and widows (James 1:23, 27). We must move beyond the religion of the Pharisees in Mark 7 that "honors [God] with their lips" while day-to-clay actions display everything from slander and pride to theft and murder (Mark 7:6, 21-22).

We are tempted to obsess on possible defilement from what goes into us with too little concern for the justice or ethics of what comes out of us, Jesus teaches. Even as a people, we are frightened of defilement by ethnic and national diversity and too easily overlook a growing acceptance of torturing others.

Participants at a counterterrorism conference in Florence, Italy, called on the U.S. to close the military prison at Guantanamo, while Britain's attorney general says, "The historic tradition of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom, liberty, and justice deserves the removal of this symbol." Then there is the central challenge of our living faith tradition: Be doers of the Word--a Word of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

SEPTEMBER 10

Love Everybody

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In response to displays of racism at world soccer matches, it's been good to see the "Say No to Racism" campaign emerge from soccer's world governing body, as well as the formation of a "Football Against Racism in Europe" group. At a match in Rome, a neo-fascist flag could be seen waving in the stands near another that read "Gott Mit Uns" ("God With Us").

First question: Where is the church? …

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