The Importance of Piety

James 1: 26-2:1

Religion! That’s what church is all about, isn’t it? Yet the word has a forbidding ring in our time. One of our young preacher’s on a Youth Sunday a couple of years ago said it. He said he liked this church because it is not so religious that it bores him. I am sure that there are many who draw this equation. Religion equals boredom. I have encountered many who describe themselves, at least to this minister, by saying, “Well, I am not a very religious person, but…”

We do use the word in a neutral sense at times. He belongs to such and such religion. We study comparative religions. Bob Hope once said, “I do benefits for all religions — I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.”

But the negative tone sounds when we are talking about attitudes, pious ways or manners, when we say someone has got religion. “The habit of religion is oppressive,” said the late Peter Ustinov. All of this is unfortunate, because it is a noble word that finally has nothing to do with devotions or denominations. Religion is not primarily the various forms and rituals, creeds and cultures we often associate with the word. It does not refer to a certain swarmy personality, pious appearance, emotional extremism. At least not according to James, the brother of Jesus, in his little letter.

His is a classic definition. Genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their troubles and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the mores of contemporary culture. Let’s note first the second part of the definition. The old King James says, “to keep oneself unspotted by the world.” I remember learning that verse as a young lad and being very disturbed because nobody bothered to explain it. I usually arrived home from school or play very spotted and I still have a tendency in that direction.

But it highlights a dimension of healthy authentic religion — without which neither individuals nor society can survive. All great religion involves, first of all, a controlling view of life over against the confusing and chaotic ideas and attitudes peddled by the culture around. High religion always involves, therefore, limits, boundaries, restraint. It involves struggling with wit and will to keep ourselves from corruption by current cultural values in so far as they contradict the high moral demands of our God, the guidance of Jesus. Real religion means surrender to, submission to, control by fundamental principles and perspectives, injunctions and rules, because without this we become the victims of every external or internal impulse that comes along. We lose both our sense of worth and our sense of direction.

The word, religio, from the Latin, means “to bind,” “to bind oneself to one’s God and his will.” Behind it lies the insight that we are not truly free to be human and happy unless we bind ourselves to certain eternal perspectives and principles, no matter the current fads and social drift. A society that forgets this, loses sight of this, is headed for confusion, chaos, and collapse no matter how wise its institutions.

A Russian Christian, the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev who watched it happen said this. “Man without God is no longer man: that is the religious meaning of…modern history. Interiorly divided and drained of his spiritual discipline, man becomes the slave of base and inhuman influences; his soul is darkened and alien spirits take possession of it. The flowering of the idea of humanity was possible only so long as man had a deep belief in and consciousness of principles above himself and was not altogether cut off from his divine roots.

The English historian, Paul Johnson, writes about the tyranny and destruction wrought by 20th century gangsters in power. Johnson points out that Marx and Freud assumed religion was a fantasy and always had been. Nietsche, the third of the trio, was also an atheist. You think Nietsche is not around. He wrote in 1886 “The greatest event of recent times — that “God is dead”, that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable — is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.” “…the decline and collapse of the religious impulse,” he said, “would leave a huge vacuum which would produce new messiahs, uninhibited by any religions restraints. Think Hitler. Think Stalin.

Is not the history of Europe in the last hundred years the story of the loss of religious restraint upon political institutions and individuals? I am convinced that democracy only became possible with the development in the west of a certain kind of character-type, the kind of person who is, for the most part, self-governing, governed by an interior judge and lord. I really wonder whether it is possible over the long run to sustain democracy if the erosion of that kind of personal self-discipline continues.

As with nations, so with individuals. We have developed an incredible reticence about absolute values, fundamental principles. We resist passing judgment on anybody else’s misconduct. The first rule of social life whether in the office or on the campus is tolerance of all kinds of deviation and distortion of human existence.

We are called to bind ourselves to certain rules and standards, because if we don’t, we not only wreak havoc on the world around us, but we destroy ourselves. In passing, it is interesting what James gives as a specific example of discipline and restraint, submission to higher law and will. It is not avoidance of sensual abuse, economic dishonesty and self-aggrandisement, important as these are. It is a seemingly little thing —the control of one’s tongue. “Does anyone think he is religious? If he does not control his tongue, his religion is worthless.” It seems a little thing, but when you think of it, an awful lot of the suffering in the world from the international to the interpersonal level is caused by words. It was with words that Hitler first began to destroy civilization. It was with words that George and Mary almost destroyed a marriage. It was with words that the conflict in the Middle East first smoldered. It is speech out of control, personal and media speech, yielding to impulse, shooting for sensation, competing for attention, that eats at self-worth and meaning, generates anger and bitterness, desensitizes the heart, destroys love and relationship, seduces into foolishness. James is right.

So genuine religion has ultimately little to do with elaborate ritual or pious posture. It has to do with submission to a higher will and way. Lest that sound too severe and forbidding, note well that at the same time, authentic religion is the source of power and purpose. Submission to a higher will creates not only control and self-discipline. It creates direction for one’s life. I am inclined to tell my young friend that any religion that is boring is not too much religion, it is too little. Real religion, real faith in God generates new focus. A higher will and purpose does not stifle, but stimulates, not only restrains but renews. Because it enables us to transcend ourselves, our own petty preoccupations and miseries, in service of larger ends and care for one another. The greatest mystery of life is that satisfaction and joy are felt not by those who take and make demands but by those who give and make sacrifices. In these alone the energy of life does not fail.

But there is a special kind of energy and creativeness that James has in mind. Genuine religion is this :” to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering.” Doesn’t sound very exciting on the face of it. What’s that all about? The peculiar service and sacrifice that characterized Jesus, that brother James calls for, is service and sacrifice for the sake of those whom the times and culture marginalize. In those days, it was the widows and orphans. They had nothing to offer. They were unproductive as far as the economy was concerned. They could give little or nothing in return. And it is precisely in reaching out to such as these, then, that the real life was to be discovered. There is a lot of talk about spirituality in our time that is pretty shallow and self-centered because it never leads beyond a kind of narcissistic navel-gazing to involvement in the needs of the real world. That is why the sacrifice and service which lead to real life means standing against even dimensions of the religious culture of the day.

The popular culture invariably says, “Cater to those who can do you some good. Love those who may be worth something to you some day, your family, your well placed friends.” Against that attitude comes the truth of life, the reality as we reach out to the widows and orphans of our time, the children, the aged, the marginal, the handicapped, whoever has little or nothing to offer us, we discover the real rewarding, satisfying, joyful life. It may be simply a matter of businessmen and women, who care not only about the bottom line which is understandable, but who go out of their way to acknowledge dignity and need in their colleagues or employees. It may be professionals who care not only about excellence of performance but who take the time to see before them more than a kidney or a client. But you know what it can involve. You tutor the kids of Cabrini or Good News. You visit the retirement homes or teach in the church school. You go to the shut off and shut-in. My mother logged 1,000 hours visiting the sick at Presbyterian Homes before she died recently. Even in health care herself, she would visit her neighbors to encourage them. You work tirelessly in Rummage and Bazaar and at funerals and weddings, in all the avenues of service listed week by week in our bulletin, and untold avenues of service out beyond this fellowship. It may not always be easy or fun. But you know that this is not something you have to do. Nor is it just a hobby to kill time. This is true religion, because it is the source of meaning and joy for your life.

The late Henri Nouwen was a spiritual father to many of us through his writings and life. His career went from days as a Harvard professor to working with handicapped children in a home called Le Arche up in Canada. Shortly before he died, Henri wrote this in his diary. “Where is God? God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness and need…I realize now that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the many “worlds” is to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being.”

This consumer society focuses us continually upon our own wants and needs and desires. What is the modern mall but a smorgasbord of tantilizing offerings to our every wish and dream. Even churches are sought and enjoyed on the basis of what they have to offer. But we need religion, not as an add on, another set of services for our needs, but precisely as an antidote to all this, to this world of competition and consumption. For real life lies not in having our needs met, but in transcending concern for what we want and need in the name of greater ends than our own selves. “Set your mind on, bind yourself to God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else,” says Jesus, “And then the rest will come to you as well.”

A few years ago a relatively young and successful executive of an international bank in Manhattan talked about how at age twelve he’d given up on religion. His parents didn’t go to church much and he more or less followed them out of the church. Then he went on to describe the emptiness that settled in over his adult years, in spite of the fact that he had fulfilled the script, was well- known and successful, an emptiness that led him back to a sanctuary one Sunday where he found himself praying for direction. Then passing the church bulletin board on the way out he focused on one notice: Volunteers Urgently Needed at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.

This bank executive was there the next evening in a group that included a lawyer, a housewife, an opera singer, a member of the United Nations Children’s Fund, an advertising executive, a grandmother and a theology undergraduate. He testifies that he found new life in that hospital. One evening, the director of volunteers led him to the pediatrics ward, where six “boarder babies” were sleeping. These little ones, she explained had been abandoned or had come from drug-addicted mothers, or both, and often waited months for adoption or foster care, real orphans. What they needed most was to be held and loved. Could he help?

At the first thought of doing this, he was terrified. But thereafter for some time at 10:00 p.m in the evening you would find this bank executive in pediatrics, cradling one of these babies in his arms. And, he commented later, the emptiness is gone. But it remains only to be said that the religion of which James writes is by definition a voluntary thing. The religion that makes a difference in us is a choice, a decision. A controlling view of responsibility, a care and concern for those in need; these have meaning and power only as these are freely and fully embraced.

I sympathize with the little guy who was experiencing his first day of first grade. At lunchtime, he packed up his crayons, papers, scissors, and paste and was ready to head out the door. His teacher stopped him and said, “It’s time for lunch, Tommy. Why aren’t you with the other children?” “I always go home when the other kids go to eat,” he replied. “I’ll come back tomorrow.” “No, Tommy, that was last year when you were in kindergarten. This year you get to stay all day. You go to lunch, then come back here in the afternoon to study and do more work. You’re only half through for the day…there’s lot’s more,” Tommy thought about this for a moment, then shook his head in frustration and grumbled. “Who signed me up for that?”

Well, life feels that way for all of us on some days. Someone signed us up for learning and labor, care for the safety and security of our own, and we really have no choice. But the opportunities to serve that make a difference, that can be the source of meaning and joy, we have to sign up for. The widows and orphans we have to sign up for. So let’s get in line again.