I was thirteen years old when a friend invited me on a fishing trip with him and his father. They’d bought a new boat and planned to take it out for the first time. After putting in at the harbor, we trolled around the lake until we found what my friend’s father deemed a suitable fishing hole. He cut the engine and pointed to the anchor lying next to my feet. He said, “Mark, can you do the honors?
The anchor weighed about ten pounds and was tied to a thick nylon rope an inch in diameter. I tossed the anchor over the side of the hull. After the initial splash, the anchor began falling—first slowly, then more rapidly as it raced to the bottom of the lake. It whined and hissed as it threaded its way through the steel eyelet on the side of the hull. As I gazed over the side, listening to that whine and watching the rope cut through the water, the rope suddenly disappeared. The last thing I heard was a little “plop.” Just a subtle “plop” on the surface—like the sound a heavy water drop might make.
I don’t remember exactly what my friend’s father said next, but the colorful manner and tone in which he said it suggested what I already knew to true, based solely on the facts before me: (1) that little “plop” on the surface was the sound of the end of the rope; (2) the rope was no longer visible above the surface; and (3) that brand new anchor was never coming back up.
Do you have an anchor in your life—something to ground you securely when the waves and winds threaten to toss and overturn the little boat that is your life? And have you checked your knots, so that when you drop that anchor, you’re confident it will hold you in the storms of life?
For centuries, the symbol of the anchor has evoked images of security and hope—even in the darkest and most challenging of circumstances. Long before the cross became the dominant symbol of our faith, it was the symbol of the anchor that, for early Christians, represented the enduring strength of faith in an ever-changing, turbulent world. During the Roman persecution, when Christians were thrown to the lions or burned at the stake, the anchor pointed to the constancy of God’s faithfulness in the face of suffering. During periods of debate and conflict over church doctrine and Christian practice, the anchor pointed to the constancy of God’s wisdom in the face of shifting beliefs.
The New Testament writer, James, writes to those early Christians facing persecution from the outside world and doctrinal battles from within. They’re tested from all sides, adrift and wind-whipped by the constant waves of conflict and circumstance. So James throws them an anchor, in the form of a beautifully written letter, reminding them of their vital connection to one another, and their unshakable connection to God.
His letter is as relevant today as it was 1900 years ago. Our world is no less violent, and our faith no less fragile. James says that we need an anchor to keep us yoked to the eternal ground of our lives, and he begins his letter by reminding us to check our knots. You have this inward faith, he says—this anchor in your life—but does your lifestyle demonstrate that you’re actually tied to it?
Faith without action, belief without practice, is about as useful as a lost anchor lying at the bottom of the sea. Is your outward way of life—the way you live daily in the world—securely tied to God, the ground of your being?
James puts it this way:
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they’re like those who look at themselves in a mirror; they look at themselves and, upon going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
According to James, to be anchored to God is to remember who you are, at all times, and in every circumstance.
James is writing his letter to Christians who’ve fled persecution in Jerusalem and now live in cognito—protecting their identities, blending in with the rest of the world, living inconspicuously. So James give them instructions on how to live as authentic believers, reminding them of who they are and their obligation to stay engaged in the real needs of the world.
What he wants them to know is that, even as they live undercover, their identity as Christians must translate into conduct that confirms what they believe. Be doers of the word, he says, and not merely hearers.
It’s common for Christians to live in cognito even today. We can have relationships with people who may never know that we are followers of Christ. We can blend in so well with the rest of the world that our conduct, choices, even our words are not distinctively holy. How do we live public lives in ways that bear the visible evidence of an inward, spiritual grace?
Every one of us, to some extent, can relate to that experience of forgetfulness that James speaks of, when our personal identity is not expressed faithfully through our daily living. There’s often a gap between our beliefs and our conduct, between our creeds and our deeds, between the person we believe we are and the person others perceive us to be.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal minister. She’d been working on her sermon on the Good Samaritan one week. She concluded that the point of the parable is that God presents us with unexpected opportunities to act mercifully with unexpected people.
And then, later in the week, as she’s driving, she sees a car with its hood up on the side of the road. As she approached, seat belts on, doors locked, she sees a tall black man stepping into the road, holding jumper cables and looking her straight in the eye. “The man needs help,” she said to herself—but you’re a single woman alone in a car…” The debate in her mind went on and on, until she finally made her decision: “I’m sorry, I can’t help—maybe the next person will.” She says, “I drove on to work, to complete my research on the Good Samaritan.”
The world has a word for that choice. It’s a label that the world is quick to stick on Christians when they fail to live up to their personal ideals, and once it sticks it’s painful to peal it off: hypocrisy. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does something entirely different. They play the part when others are looking, but when no one is looking, they read from a different script.
James calls it deception, and hypocrisy is the ultimate form of spiritual deception. The Greek word is hupocrites. The original “hypocrites” were actors in ancient Greek theater who would play two parts on stage at one time. When saying something humorous, they’d hold up a mask with a smiley face; when playing a tragic part, they’d hold a sad face.
The word “hypocrite” literally means, “One who hides behind a mask.” A hypocrite is two-faced: never truly known by others, and never knowing himself as he truly is. He’s someone who, as James says, looks in the mirror and see himself but, upon walking away, forgets what he looks like.
Some people can live their whole lives never knowing who they are.
In The Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is obsessed with dreams of being a big-shot. He’s exaggerating his successes, covering up his failure and lies, and everyone seems to know it—except for Willy Loman. After his death, while standing at his father’s grave, his son Biff says, “He had the wrong dreams. He never knew who he was.”
There’s a Willy Loman in all of us. We all live with that gap between our ideals and our actions, between the image that we have of ourselves and the image that we project to the world. Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance, and it’s part of the human condition.
We pretend to have it all together when we’re really falling apart; we pretend to be strong when we’re most afraid, successful when we have failed miserably. We try to be what others expect of us and we can’t measure up. Living in that gap can be one of the loneliest places on earth.
But accepting that spiritual gap is the first step toward healing it. That’s why, before James instructs us to act on our faith, he instructs us to listen— “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” he says.
The “implanted word” is God’s word of grace and acceptance. It’s God’s word that says, “You belong to me, imperfections and all.”
Alanis Morrissette had a song about that kind of grace:
You see everything
You see every part
You see all my light
And you love my dark
You dig everything
Of which I’m ashamed
There’s not anything to which you can’t relate
And you’re still here
“Welcome that word with meekness,” says James. Fall into the hands of a merciful God. Allow that mercy to define your inward being and your outward living.
CS Lewis once said that “The Church exists for no other purpose but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs…” But we don’t become little Christs at all once. The implanted word is slow to grow in us, which is why James uses the word “persevere.” “Those who look into the perfect law of freedom, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act, will be blessed in their doing.”
Janet Wolf, a United Methodist pastor, used to hold a weekly covenant group in her church. They’d read the Bible and ask the question, “How have we done in living this stuff out?”
One evening one of their homeless members named John came in. He said, “All right… You all know I’ve been trying to turn my life around and it’s not been easy. I used to be so bad. I was so bad that when I walked down the street folks crossed to the other side just to get out of my way.
Well, I’m trying to turn my life around, but last night I stayed at the Mission, and when I woke up, someone had stolen my shoes. Somebody stole my shoes… So I get my knife out. It’s a big knife… everybody knows I’ve used it before and I just might use it again. I get out my knife and walk down all those tables ’cause I mean to get my shoes back. And Jim starts hollering from the other side of the room: “You ‘member what we talked about in Bible study, ’bout if they take your cloak and you got another give ’em that one, too. John, put down that knife. They took your shoes; give ’em your socks.” And I tell ’em, I’m not giving ’em my socks. I want my shoes.
But Jim keeps hollering: “Put down that knife; give ’em your socks.”
So I finally folded up my knife, slowly. I put it in my pocket, and I walked barefoot to the Service Center and begged another pair of shoes. Dang, if it isn’t hard to live this stuff out” (as retold in, The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink, (Doubleday, 1998)).
“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” says James, and then “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”