Picture with me the scene. In a crowded Panera Bread restaurant, two women sit together at a table. Their food lies in front of them, but neither plate is barely touched. As you move closer, you see that one of the women is in her 20’s, the other in her 50’s, and they are wildly gesturing as they argue with each other. You take a table fairly close to them: close enough to eavesdrop, but not so close as it looks like you are eavesdropping. You catch the gist of the conversation: the two women are arguing about a common family member – a brother and son named Jack. The night before, he told his parents for the first time that he is gay, and his mother is trying to make sense of the shock that it has caused. His sister has known for years, and has been supportive of him from day one. Now, the argument has come to stalemate and both women are looking down at their half-eaten food. Mom is the first to break the silence.
“I just don’t know what we did wrong. It feels like we did everything that we were supposed to raise him right, and this is what happens!”
The daughter responds, exasperated: “Mom, you didn’t do anything wrong. No one has done anything wrong. It’s just who he is!”
“According to whom?” she responds. “According to your friends? Of course, they don’t think it’s wrong. No one in your generation thinks it’s wrong. And that’s the problem. Everyone gets to define right and wrong for themselves. How are you supposed to know if anything is really true? It’s all relative!”
Across the table, the daughter blushes a little bit. She had just started going to a new church, and the pastor had preached that very sermon a couple of weeks before. She remembered thinking at the time how much of what she believed was truth simply came from her friends or her favorite bloggers or what seemed to make sense to her. Her preacher had asked some pointed questions about why we believe what we believe, and she was rather embarrassed to remember how much of her “truth” came from the internet.
She gets a little defensive, and fired back at her mother. “Fine, okay, then. You tell me why Jack is wrong. Why he is wrong to have this lifestyle, this orientation?”
“Easy. Because the Bible says it!”
“Really? Where? Where does the Bible say that your son is innately wrong because of the people that he is attracted to!”
Now it is mom’s time to blush. She stammers around, trying to remember Leviticus and maybe there was something in the New Testament that condemned it. Her daughter sees her opening and charges through: “In fact, I don’t think that you use the Bible any more than I do to define right and wrong. OK, I should know the Bible better. And sometimes I let my culture and my friends define what is right and wrong for me. I will admit that. But are you any different? You grew up in a different time with a different culture and have different friends. But do you believe that homosexuality is wrong because you have studied the Scriptures on this issue, or because your friends posted something on Facebook about how wrong it is? Or because someone in your Sunday school class says it is? Or because you have always heard it is, or it grosses you out, or it just feels like it is, or even though you have no idea why?”
Now, mom is fired up. She knew that her daughter has a point, but she shakes it off and fires back:
“This is ridiculous. Of course it is wrong. He is wrong. You are wrong. This is not a matter of personal opinion. It is a matter of Right and Wrong.”
“Funny, Mom, I was just about to say the same thing.”
And the conversation goes on that way for a while. Truth. Opinion. Right. Wrong. What does the Bible say? It seems clear that both of them are arguing from the perspective that they think is right, as a matter of their faith. But their perspectives are completely different.
Finally, the mom makes a comment about the book of James in the New Testament, and the daughter throws her hands into the air. “James? What does James have to do with anything? James isn’t even here to defend himself.”
And that’s when the conversation starts to get really interesting. Every head in the Panera turns toward the door as in walks a fully-bearded, fully-robed, Biblical author. He moves with purpose to the table where the sit and pulls up a chair and sits down. Both the mom and the daughter are somehow less surprised than anyone else in the restaurant, and they start a conversation with this man who looks like the Biblical author of James. At this point, you give up trying to look like you aren’t eavesdropping and you pull your chair around to hear better.
“I heard my name,” James responds, and asks what they have been talking about. After a full ten-minute explanation, he sits back and thinks for a moment, stroking his beard.
“I don’t know if I have the right answer that either of you is looking for, but I definitely have some ideas. I don’t know if either of you have actually read my book, but let me give you the highlights and see if it helps your conversation.”
First, “be quick to listen, slow to anger, and slow to speak.” This should be your starting point with every conversation you share. Of course, we are not all going to agree with each other, even if both parties are committed and passionate believers in Christ. But if you are not willing to listen, then you aren’t going to get anywhere.”
Second, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” And immediately, the daughter jumped in: “See! I told you, Mom – mercy, not judgment. You have to have mercy and stop judging J—–!”
James raises a finger and she stops mid-sentence.
“Slow. To. Speak.”
“Quick. To. Listen.
“This is not that hard to understand.”
“And anyway, are you not being judgmental of your mom, here? You talk about love and demand that any action or behavior should be accepted in the name of love. But you put your mother in the impossible position of either agreeing, or being a love-less bigot, which seems pretty judgmental to me.”
“Meanwhile, Mom, you haven’t even stopped to ask your daughter why she is so passionate about this topic, about why she supports her brother in this decision, about what their conversations have looked like over the last several years. I fear that you haven’t stopped to hear your son, either. Where is the mercy in your treatment of your children?”
“It seems like both of you are pretty judgmental on this count! You both think that you have the moral high ground, here but maybe if you listened to each other, you might learn something.”
“My point in the book is to help Christians to understand that the way we treat each other matters. In my church, there were Christians who were trying to put people in certain categories – rich, poor, acceptable, unacceptable. And things have unfortunately not changed too much. We still have litmus tests that are meant to categorize people, and if someone isn’t in the right category, we think that we are right to judge them. But my point is that we are all guilty under the law, and if we disobey any of it, we are just as wrong. All of us require the mercy and grace of God’s love. That’s why mercy triumphs over judgment. Because in the world of right and wrong, all of us are wrong, but God reaches down and grants us the gifts of reconciliation, of transformation, and of sanctification: we are all made Right! We all deserve judgment, but we have all received mercy! Who are we to judge and categorize each other on this side of grace?”
“I write in the book that we have to be doers of the word, not just hearers only. But it sounds like neither of you have even stopped to hear the word in the first place. If I could help you understand a third point, it would be that: hear the word!”
“This is just one issue among many. Whenever we disagree about any issue, this is an important step to take! You both talk about right and wrong. But we understand right and wrong together. “Doing” the word includes spending time in community with one another. Listen, we aren’t going to agree on everything. Even in the Church. Maybe, especially in the church! But because of God’s grace, when we do disagree, there are some steps that we can take to get on the same page:”
“We come together. We understand right and wrong in community. We understand right and wrong in relationship. And while it is easier to stay in our silos and believe what we want to believe and only hang out with those who agree with us, that is not living it. Not living it in community and practice and relationship. That means that we have some hard conversations from time to time, but just because a conversation is hard doesn’t mean it is bad. Sometimes the hardest conversations are the holiest moments. But we have to come together.”
“We pray together. We sit down and pray for wisdom before we read the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us understand right and wrong. Humbling our hearts and praying to God for wisdom is the best way to comprehend this. But more often than not, we deny the Holy Spirit that power because we would rather just re-tweet something, because it was said in a sensational or provocative way. Or simply repeat what someone else said or wrote, instead of stopping to ask for the Spirit to help us understand the issue. We come to the Scriptures with hearts of prayer to receive wisdom, not just ammunition for our immovable point! So we come together, we pray together…”
“We read the Scriptures together. We hear the word. We look at what the Scriptures actually say to us instead of assuming. (Both mother and daughter turn bright red at this point, and look away.) I am amazed at how many people refer to the Bible as the reason they believe something, but when you ask them what the actually Bible says about the topic, or where it talks about it, they have no idea. We have to take the time to hear the word.”
“And then finally, we do together. Once we actually take time to hear the Scriptures, we have to allow the word to influence us, to permeate us, to transform us, in all parts of our lives. We have to do it. Are we reading it with a spirit of openness to change and transformation? And are we putting into practice what we read?”
“Which brings me to my final point for both of you. I talk a lot in the book about the importance of the ‘Royal Law:’ ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ Of course, this means that the way that we disagree has to be surrounded by love. We have to walk into the conversation loving one another, and we have to walk out of it loving each other.”
“But I would take it a step further. I write in the book that the royal law means that we have to act out our love. Faith without works is dead. We can say that we have faith, but if we don’t act out that faith by loving each other, serving each other, caring for those in need, our faith is dead.”
“And so maybe that is the point that I would make most loudly. When you disagree on a point – this one or any other – maybe the best thing to do is serve together. Grab the other person by the hand and go serve at the soup kitchen. Go work at a local food pantry. Go stock the shelves at the free medical clinic. It seems counter-intuitive…how can serving together help you figure out your disagreement? But it can actually be the most helpful way to figure out your disagreement. Act out your faith. That is how you get a healthy perspective. That is how you get outside of your own head and your own need to be right. That is how you understand right and wrong. You may well find that when you serve together, you have found a new wisdom as well as a new relationship. And you have found a faith that is not dead, but is alive and verdant and powerful!”
At this point, they close the Bible that had been sitting on the table between them, and the robed figure of James disappears as quickly as he had appeared. The two women stand up and hug for the first time, and leave the restaurant together.
As you look down at your food, long since cold, you think about the conversations that you have had that have been void of listening, void of mercy, unaccompanied by much hearing or doing of the word. You wonder if your own faith is dead or alive.
And so you grab a refill on your coffee and you pull up your Bible app on your phone, and you start to read the book of James.
And this time, you aren’t surprised when he walks back in the door and has a seat right next to you.