Word and Deed

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

Matthew 7: 24-27

Every so often, perhaps in a moment of self-examination, I experience the gap between the call that I am from God and the ways that I am living. This can happen in various ways. It can occur when I read a passage from the gospel or hear a teaching or preaching as if for the first time and realize how much my daily life is governed by very different ideas and feelings. It can happen when I see in the actions and words of another an integrity and a desire for truth and justice that has been stifled and forgotten in much of my domesticated way of living. It can be when I have been put in my place by having my laziness or hurt of others pointed out to me. Sometimes, however, the experience is even more subtle. It can be when a word of God penetrates my consciousness as if for the first time, and I then recognize that in some very basic way I have not even heard before the message of Jesus and what it means to really live life to the full.

Over fifty years ago when we were novices, there was a saying on the chalkboard in the study room. It read:  “Winter is in the soul when there is no taste for spiritual reading.” As with many of the aphorisms that sourced our initial formation, I heard this as a poetic way of urging us to do our daily duty. I missed its significance as a description of experience. Yet, I have come to know the truth of the description at many times since. At times, I  have hungered for and craved the word of God, at others I have read or listened to it as I would the endless talk on radio and television — attuning and engaging when it stimulated me or reinforced my own perspectives and being distracted and ignoring it when it failed to interest or gratify me. As for “spiritual reading” and the meditation that it involves, I can avoid them for weeks and months at a time, living my life in a desultory way based on mere routine and habit.

I can read and listen to words for the information they afford me. When I do so I tend to take in the information, be it in reading or online, or in radio and television newscasts, and think about it, but not be all that affected by it. On the other hand, at times a word comes that engages my heart. It reverberates in my mind and in my heart in such a way that it challenges my life and demands of me a response, an action that changes the direction of my life. There is a discomfort of sorts in this but there is also a sense of being alive that makes the way I have been in the world feel as if it was “winter.”

In Hebrews we read: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).  To really hear the word of Jesus is to have “the thoughts and attitudes” of our heart judged. To act on the word of Jesus, to receive it as the “alive and active” reality it is, requires us to change our lives. Yesterday a friend sent me an epigraph from a book he is reading. It reads:

In our rapidly changing society we can count on only two things that will never change. What will never change is the will to change and the fear of change. It is the will to change that motivates us to seek help. It is the fear of change that motivates us to resist the very help we seek. (Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Intimacy)

The word of God that comes in Jesus is both call and direction. It is a call to change, and it gives us direction on how to change. It appeals to our will to change, to the deepest desire of our heart to move toward the direction of the truth of who we are. We resist it, often by ignoring it, because of our fear of change. We want greater life, but we also don’t want to abandon the security of the partial life, a life that is compatible with our surroundings, that we already have.

In verse 20 of the Dhammapada, the Buddha says:

All the holy words you read and all the holy words you speak are as nothing if you do not act upon them. Even if you read little and say little but live the right way, forsaking craving, hatred and delusion, you will know truth and find calmness and will show others the path.

What matters is our will to change. “Holy words,” the words of Jesus, for example, are encouragement to follow that deep will and desire and direction for change, for the way to go, for the path ahead. But encouragement and direction are nothing without will. Recently the religious community to which I belong has realized that the life force in us, the desire to live, must be acted on and acted out if it is to be more than wishful thinking. Far too often in life we wish for things, but without the commitment and resolution to work for them. So often we build a structure and routine for our lives and then behave as if the rest of life is merely what happens to us. The structures, routines, and habits that we build, however, are in large part built in response to our “craving, hatred, and delusion.” The word of Jesus, as that of the Buddha, as that of the life direction that always beckons through all of our life experience, is always attempting to break in and break through those structures, routines, and habits. It is always summoning us to return to that deep will to change and desire for true life that is in us, and then to act on that will and desire. To do so, however, will mean forsaking what we have built to support our “craving, hatred, and delusion.” If God is to transform our individual or collective lives in accord with the Divine will and word, we must act to reform them. We must act out our deep will to change and so overcome our fear of change. This can only happen, however, in act, not merely in word.

How often in life we long for relationships to be different. We desire to overcome distances and enmities between us and those who are close to us. We long for those fears and prejudices among various populations to be overcome. We hope to see new life in our communities and new vibrancy in our mission. When the word touches us, we feel these desires and hopes awaken in us. What is awakening in us, at these moments, is our will to change. Today Jesus tells us that it is our task to act on this will. It is to reform and to rebuild our lives so that they may conform more faithfully to the life that God knows in us. There is the power in the word to change us and to change things. We hear in the word the form we are to give to our lives. Our lives, individually and collectively, are, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “a work of art.” Our task is to be the artist of our lives.

In our day, the great obstacle to acting on the word is our passivity. As the late sociologist Neil Postman wrote, we are “amusing ourselves to death.” Countless times in a day I choose to divert myself rather than do the one little thing that is asked of me. I check my phone or computer when I should be more deeply attending to the person speaking; I watch a film or television program when I could be doing some good reading, or praying, or resting; I fall silent and withdraw instead of engaging another in helpful speech; I overwork by just doing another task instead of being still and attending to what I am being called to do; I allow another or the crowd to make a choice for me rather than doing so myself. To act on the word is to take responsibility for, to lay claim to, our own lives.

To hear the word and not act on it is to build on sand because there is no ground underneath us. To passively allow life to happen to us is to pass the time of our lives without ever living. It is exactly the opposite of the gospel injunction to give our life away. For to give our life away, we must have a life, and we must bear the responsibility for giving it over. Abandonment to the will of God is not passivity and irresponsibility. It is precisely to take on, as our responsibility, God’s will. It is to be active in the fullest and deepest sense. This is what it means to hear God’s word and act on it. When we act, doing all we can, on the word we hear, we are building on rock. We are living the truth.

I would say to young people a number of things. . . . I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You’re not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

One of the ways of doing it—two ways of doing it—is, one, remember the importance of self-discipline; second, study the great sources of wisdom. Don’t read the bestsellers. And, third, remember that life is a celebration or can be a celebration. There’s much entertainment in our life. And entertainment is destroying much of our initiative and weakens our imagination. What’s really important is life as a celebration.

In a very deep sense, I would say that the addiction, the drug addiction from which so many people suffer, is due to the fact that humans cannot live such a shallow life, stale. They need exultation. They need moments of celebration. One of the most important things is to teach humans how to celebrate.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 412

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