On Integrity: Mirrors, Ships and Living Truthfully (James 1:19-27)

This was the message I gave during our meeting for worship at Camas Friends this past Sunday.

James 1:22   But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 

Mirrors and Self-Examination_

Integrity is about rightly seeing what it is that we reflect in the world, it is about owning up to the image we portray of ourselves, and of others. It is about not just knowing truth, but living it.

James 1 never uses the word integrity, but it does use the image of a mirror so we get the idea that people who hear and do God’s word reflect or should expect to see something in the mirror.

So you use a mirror maybe to check to make sure you don’t have anything like asparagus stuck in your teeth right? What would you think of me if I looked, started to walk away, forgot whether I had food in my teeth, walked back to look again, walked away, maybe I forgot again, and on the cycle goes.

What would you think? Not paying attention? To hurried? Not really seeing? Only seeing partially?

The Greek word mirror shares a root with the word “oraw” which means to “see” – “to perceive by the eye, catch sight of, to notice.”

What do we notice when we look in the mirror? What do we see? Is it what want to see? And do we continue to return to the mirror because we liked what we saw, didn’t like what we saw, or maybe aren’t really looking at all?

I think part of what James is pointing out just how hard it is to enter into self-examination and to be honest – it is too easy to look for what we want to see (positive or negative).

Magic Mirror_

There’s another image of a mirror in popular culture, and that the image of a magical mirror from snow white.This is a story about a whose “had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony” and whose wicked step-mother the queen had a magical mirror that told her what she wanted to hear.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall / Who is the fairest of them all?” “You, my queen, are fairest of all.”

Until one day when it says: “Queen, you are full fair, ’tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.”

Now I think this sheds light on James and the discussion of Integrity.

The queen is wicked, but she wants to look good right? She wants her “container” to look good but is far less concerned about the content that goes into that container.

She’s the kind of person who looks good on TV, her platform sounds good, she preaches a good sermon, only to learn that she doesn’t believe or practice anything she actually says. We might say none of the pieces fit with her, it’s all a big game, or a performance for some other end.

If integrity is about having “all the pieces fit,” or having everything line up, then the wicked queen is like a puzzle box you find at Goodwill that is missing the key pieces of the puzzle — or better yet, it is a box that has pieces from multiple puzzles mixed in.

But — James is saying something completely different here. He’s not saying look in the mirror so that you might feel guilty, or see what you want to see, he is saying that we need a different mirror altogether.

Or as St. Clare says:

“Place your mind before the mirror of eternity; place your should in the brightness of her Glory.”

If you read closely you’ll notice he doesn’t say — when they look at themselves in the mirror, and then on going away, you remember what you really look like…That would have been the reverse parallel of what he initially said — “don’t be like this, be like this…”

Instead, he says, we should look in a different mirror altogether:

But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

The mirrors we use are too often magical, they tell us what we want to hear. Often we are poor judges of ourselves, judging far too harshly, making ourselves out to be “scum of the earth.” This seeing of our image in the mirror only adds to a sense of guilt that I don’t measure up.

The other kind of “seeing” is one where we are more like the wicked queen, putting on a show or a performance, may be we are too self-assured. We do this to protect ourselves, it’s understandable given some of our life experiences, but it’s not the movement towards freedom and wholeness either. This “seeing” is one that isolates ourselves from any criticism, or from any deep friendships because there is a deep insecurity. Isn’t this what is behind the wicked queen?

We need a different mirror, the mirror of eternity, the law of liberty, the spirit of Christ in our lives to begin the work of making us whole people.

We need a different mirror, one that is not simply honest with us, but helps us learn to be honest with ourselves.

We need a different mirror, one that one that helps us find freedom and wholeness, one that flows from the grace and the mercy of God.

Finally we need a different mirror, one that helps to us to see our blindspots and our false-selves, that helps to bring an integrity into our lives that reflects the very image of God in our world.

Ships_

And this is where Quakers come in. For Quakers, the testimony of integrity is about living truthfully. It is about letting Christ who redeems us, bring an end to our blindspots, to our false-selves.

It doesn’t necessarily mean we will have it all figure out, but that we are truthful and honest about where you are at, we are honest about what it is we don’t have together. A life of integrity is not needing need five press conferences to try and explain how everyone else is just misunderstanding you, if you have integrity you own up to your stuff and you enter into the process of growing into truth.

For Quakers, a life of integrity is about allowing the change that begins inside to work its way out into our daily living. We know that we cannot change the world, we cannot change our exteriors if we do not change on the inside.

And to encounter Christ is to encounter a deep, grace-full and eternal truth.

We still have a saying from back in those days, “let your life speak.” And there are many ways to let your life speak truth. Here are some examples of how early Friends sought to do this:

For one, they refused to take oaths or swear on anything, taking seriously Jesus’ command to let your yes be yes and your no be no.

For another, they didn’t use the names of the days of the week, preferring to say “first day, second day, etc.” because the days of the week are named after pagan gods. They felt this was a way to speak truthfully about what they believed.

For another they were careful about what claims they made about knowing what truth was:

There’s an old Quaker joke about Herbert Hoover, who was himself a Quaker, and it is said that he was traveling on a train with another friend, and while they were traveling through the great plains of the Midwest his friend turned to Hoover and said: “Herbet, look over there, do you see those sheep that are shorn?” And Hoover responded, “Well, they are at least shorn on this side.”

What does it mean for us to limit our claims to truth in today’s world (We’re always so sure we know exactly what truth is)? What does it mean to speak accurately? To reflect accurately? To not have to swear, or make promises or take oaths because we can be trusted the first time we say something?

Early Friends were convinced that God had initiated a radical change inside of them, they had met the spirit of truth, that Jesus was truly making them into a new creation, and there was no way to show this other than to begin to live lives of radical truth.

Therefore, if you are convinced that God is the creator of all people, and everyone is a child of God the way you live that as a truth is through peacemaking, the way you live that as a truth is by working to abolish slavery, poverty, and oppression of any kind.

This is how truth is mirrored back to the world by our lives.

In closing:

I have struggled with integrity in my own life, there are many times that I talk out both-sides of my mouth. At one point I was working at a bookstore that was struggling to stay in business, all the while I was still buying, selling and advertising for Amazon which was our main competitor. I was reaping the benefits of a company that was helping to put my own place of work out of business. (Read more about my feelings on Amazon here).

Another thing that has been really alive and challenging for me this week is something Ron Myers shared with me concerning apple. On This American Life a couple weeks back they ran a show on Apple’s manufacturing practices. The show features a bonafide ‘Apple fan boy,’ who travels to Shenjen China where the iphone and ipad are manufactured at Foxconn. Foxconn employs more than 400,000+ who live within the compound because of their working schedule. They sleep 9 to 10 foot cells, if you are caught talking to a union you will get an automatic 12 years in prison, they make about $1 an hour, and 16-35 hours shifts. One of the images we have seen a lot is the “suicide” nets that Foxconn has put up around the building because of having so many people jumping from the tops of their buildings in an attempt to kill themselves. One other piece that is shocking is to learn that the chemicals the workers use to keep the iphone screen clear is a neurotoxin that has left many of the workers with uncontrollable shakes.

And here’s something I carry around with me, it totally does not line up with anything I say that I believe.

The iphone is so cool after all.

The Quaker minister and activist John Woolman, who had spent much of his life working for equality of those who were enslaved, and who worked to reveal the problems of poverty in our society. Now Woolman was the kind of guy who sought to live a life of integrity by everything he did. If there was anything that was connected to slavery he would not use it or participate in it, he just went without a lot of things because he wanted to reflect an image that was true to how he understood God’s call and vocation for him from scripture.

For instance, Wooman practiced things like:

“He wore undyed clothing to point out the impurity of his generation, both physical and moral, since indigo used for dyes was a product of slave trade. Other peculiar behaviors of his included refusing to eat and drink from silver vessels, since silver was likewise a slave product. He abstained from rum and sugar because these were also the produce of slave labor (Birkel 52). He often walked everywhere he went, etc.

And this makes sense, otherwise, how could a man fighting for abolition in his personal life continue to participate in the benefits from that very system he desperately sought to destroy?

So in 1772 on his trip to London on the sea vessel “Mary and Elizabeth” he was concerned that to ride in the cabins above deck would in another way to benefit from the cruelty placed on others, so he decided to ride in the steerage down below with the sailors.

He felt that he must ride there for two basic reasons:

One reason was the expense of riding in the cabins was such that Woolman believed much of the money was going to superfluities, as he called it, –or unnecessary luxuries — on the ship only to help the ship owner get more rich at the expense of those who worked below for very little. (Sound familiar?!)

The other reason was that he did not want to, as he put it, “become tangled in the spirit of oppression” with them and so against the advice of many, he decided to ride down below. He felt that this not only helped him identify with those who were oppressed but gave him opportunities “labour to turn their minds to the fear of the Lord.” He also saw that their poor working conditions largely contributed to their sad states and their heavy drinking.

For Woolman, “all who learn of Christ who was meek and low of heart, all who are redeemed, and who allow the law of liberty, the mirror of truth, to shape their lives, will be people who are led not to covet, will be content with little, and will reflect the Creator’s concern for the well-being of all people.

In a word, they will be people of integrity, they will live truthfully.

For us, our call is to live more truthfully. It is to embrace the law of liberty, to practice self-reflection in the right kind of mirror, it is to enter into the process of becoming whole and honest people. We must allow the law of liberty to show the places of inconsistency, where the pieces do not fit together, where the integrity of our structures is comprised, and lead us to inner and outer change.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.