“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” -James 2:1-4
In 1987 a commuter plane’s co-pilot went to the back of the plane. While trying to secure a loose door he was pulled out. The other pilot began to land the plane immediately and even called a helicopter to look for the body. When the plane landed they discovered that when the door opened the pilot had not fallen after all- he had caught onto the door and held on! His grip was so tight around the door that they had to pry them off once the plane landed.
As this new church year begins, we need to examine what we are holding onto with that same type of white knuckled grip. We need to give ourselves a spiritual check up! The first thing that happens when you go to the doctor for a check up is the doctor begins to ask questions about your health, such as “Does anything hurt?” or “What kind of habits do you have?” At a spiritual check up, we could ask similar questions and find out what we are holding onto, what we need to let go, what is hurting our spirits, or what we need to do.
Sometime we are reluctant to look at our spiritual lives closely. We may fear that we will discover that only a very little part of ourselves is spiritual. Or, we may not want to examine our spiritual lives because the spiritual is one of the great mysteries of life. Even Albert Einstein, the great scientist, knew that it is more than important to examine the spiritual. It is vital. It is necessary. Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is at the source of all true art and science. Those to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt with awe are as good as dead; their eyes are closed – to know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”
Once we finally do admit that there is something beyond ourselves, some mystery that demands our attention and truly is the most beautiful thing that we can experience, then we have started the spiritual check up. When our doctor prescribes a change in lifestyle, hopefully we follow what the doctor orders. But what happens if we look at our lives in relationship to God, our spirituality, and we discover we need to make a change? Making a change in the spirit, the way we think, feel, pray, believe, trust, and love, is a change that makes demands on us that goes far beyond the physical. A spirituality that does not ask you to make changes is not one that will help you grow. A spirituality that does not make demands is not spiritual after all; it is just another part of the material world.
Phyllis Tickle’s article “With or Without Religion” underscores this point: “Much of spirituality in bookstores is frightening to me, as a Christian, because it’s a generic god, or it’s just ooey-gooey. It’s feel good, because it asks nothing. It makes no demands. And people who need that reassurance should be entitled to it. I’m not trying to be arrogant here or condemnatory. It’s just that you can only live in that so long before its sheer sweetness will kill you. It’s like eating too much icing.” That image is one we can understand. And when it comes to assessing our own spirituality, it may take a long time before we realize that we are eating too much icing. In the Scripture reading from James we learn that it is not looking at ourselves that begins this journey of introspection. Rather, it is observing how we treat others. The passage describes a situation in which we might react to how someone is dressed when they enter the room. It’s the superficial judgment that we cannot avoid. The Scripture describes our snap to judgment when we see others, and how we react. Seeing someone who is dressed nicely gets the reaction, “Sit here,” and someone in rags is told to sit at a different place. This especially convicts me. Each time someone comes into the church from downtown looking for help, I immediately try to assess if they are truly in need of help. I can really understand this situation and how some of James’ readers were failing in this respect, because I had, too. They were failing in the area of Christian love by treating others in an uneven way. Rich visitors were being warmly greeted in their church, while poor visitors were regarded as something of an inconvenience. But the whole situation was filled with irony. The readers of this letter were suffering persecution because the powerful of their society were playing favorites, and now they themselves were doing the very same thing when they came together for worship.
James was not saying that we gain mercy from God by showing mercy toward others. He was saying that we reveal who we are by how we treat others. So our first step in the spiritual check up, at looking at how we are inside, should not be how we think we are, but rather, how we are treating others. Theologian Tilden Edwards writes about this outward looking measurement in the article, “We’re Spiritual and Religious”: “I can define spirituality differently every day, because it is such a huge word. One way to think about it, for me, in its broadest sense is to say it has to do with the way we probe and respond to that deepest yearning in us for the infinite, but that which is more than all the finite things that life gives us – our jobs, our families, our educations, whatever else there is that’s definable. As St. Augustine said, we are restless until we rest in God. In that sense, it belongs to every human being, whether they use the word God or not, because it’s, I think, part of our intrinsic human nature to have this longing for something more – the allness of reality, the fullness of truth, the greatness of love. There is something more that we yearn for. Since every human being is made out of this larger spiritual stuff – as the great Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin said, we’re not human beings on a spiritual journey, were spiritual beings on a human journey – that means anything anyone is doing, anyway that search is being manifest, has, in my book, God in it…. There are two basic callings, historically. One is a deeper, intrinsic communion with God, which is just an end in itself love affair out of which all other loves derived. The other is how that overflows into caring for the world – with your gifts and strengths and creativity and so forth.”
So maybe the first way to consider our spiritual check up is to review how we are treating others, our loved ones and strangers. If we are judging them by how they look, rather than who they are, and then acting in certain negative way, then we are far from where we should be. Of course, this looking at how people appear and are dressed is only an example of how appearances rule our hearts and minds. It may not be how others are dressed, but how we are dressed, how we view ourselves, and what we are doing that appear to be spiritual but do not match our behaviors after all.
Maybe you had a professor like I did in college who had the reputation of being a very spiritual person. He even looked spiritual according to the college students. He dressed in natural tones, and grey hues, and his clothes seemed to be recycled from something or from some kind of natural fabric that may have been a potato sack. Everyone seemed to remark about his fashion choices; they kind of defined him as being very “spiritual.” My friend and I enrolled in his world religions course, and once he said in class that Americans were so obsessed by what they wore because they had labels on everything, Izod and Polo, etc. So I said, “But you are American, too, and so you must also label yourself by what you wear as well.” “Good point,” the professor said to me, “so what might be my label?” I said something like, “Karl Marx- Communist Russia?” My friend wrote a little note in big letters on the top of a piece and tilted it toward me. It read, “You just failed.” Actually, I think that comment actually helped me pass the class. I think the professor liked it! Maybe that was the look he was going for. My friend had an opportunity to get some extra insight into this professor. He took a campus job near this professor’s office and observed how he treated others. He made his secretary cry. He hung up on people. Behind the scenes, my friend discovered that he wasn’t spiritual at all. He may have looked like an all-natural example of something, but his behavior revealed that he was not a very good example of anyone who had the love of God in the heart.
So the point our Scripture makes goes very deep. We are not to judge others by their appearance or, even stronger, we are not to discriminate against the poor. We cannot “make” ourselves spiritual by how we appear. True spirituality manifests itself in our behavior toward others. A spiritual check up means that we first need to look at how we are in relationship to others. Sometimes that means that we have to give up some things that we realize are not making us what we thought was giving us our identity. Like the professor, the clothes that he wore that the students perceived as being “spiritual” were not making him spiritual. In the same way, what we believe may be making us spiritual may need to go so that we can focus on really changing how we act.
It is difficult to make this kind of inside out change. There are some things that we are holding onto in life so tightly, like the pilot who held onto that door until the plane landed. Jesus had a way of bringing people back down to earth and telling them, in effect, that they are safe now and do not need to hold on anymore. There are many ways to get closer to God, but James gave a message loud and clear that encourages us to look at our behavior and how we treat others as a vital step in becoming spiritually healthy.