Doers of the Word and Meditations of the Heart

As a way of getting this blog started, I plan to pull several pieces of writing from my personal archives as a way of introducing myself. The first piece is a chapel talk that I gave at Asheville School on September 10, 2006. The service preceding my talk included James I: verses 1-22 and Psalm 19. Two hymns Benjamin Britton included in Noyes Fluddewere part of the service: the congregation sang “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” and our chapel choir sang “The Spacious Firmament.

Doers of the Word and Meditations of the Heart
My talk this morning is connected to the readings we heard this morning from the first chapter of James, specifically Verse 22, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only,” and Psalm 19, verse 14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” The hymns in this mornings’ service are both hymns included in Noyes Fludde, which I will reference in a moment.
While hiding under the altar and its thick floor length table cloth until our cue came, we could hear the din of the congregation as two by two the animals made their appearance in Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde pageant at St. James Episcopal Church. Thick rubber bands, rolling on and rubbing against my neck, held my ornate grey fox mask in place.
My family had made the move from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to St. James a couple of years earlier. St. James, far larger than St. Mary’s, sits on Franklin Street less than a block from where it becomes Monument Avenue in the shadow of the JEB Stuart monument. Unlike the other Monuments on the avenue that takes that name, the Stuart Monument is dynamic and athletic. Stuart is frozen moving north as he looks east toward downtown at the same instant his horse surveys points west. The two, horse and rider, are in total control, frozen potential, immortal in bronze. Stuart’s monument does not challenge us to think about the relative justness of the cause for which he fought, but only to admire the chivalric impression he left on the eve of the mortal wound he suffered at Yellow Tavern.
The spring air under the altar that evening was hot and still—except for an occasional shoulder punch to or from my partner grey fox, Whiz Howard. Whiz, by the way, could hit much harder than I could—he just might have been the hardest hitting seven year old on the planet. Above the altar rising in wooden relief from the back of the chancel was the suffering, yet somehow ascendant, Christ (a representation lost when the church was hit by lightning many years later). Higher still were these words from the 22nd verse of James: “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” So here I was—an animal hiding under the altar, beneath Christ writhing in crucifixion and words imploring me to do something beyond listening. I was apparently being called to action.
If someone had asked me growing up to quote biblical verse, “be ye doers of the word and not hearers only” would have been one of only two responses I could give without fumbling.
After several years spending summers meandering around Virginia playing junior tennis tournaments, I shifted gears and headed to Camp Maxwelton, a small all-boys camp at the foot of Jump Mountain northwest of Lexington, Virgina. I turned fourteen that first summer there, and I can’t think at all about that place without thinking of many things. The shortest and most important telling of the story is: I caught a glimpse of who I might become there without yet becoming that person. I think I learned at Maxwelton that one day I would grow up—a beautiful and yet disconcerting discovery.
Each morning, Leebo McLaughlin, the camp owner and director, would start the day with the assembled menagerie of 8-15 year old boys for a devotion. We would sit on low benches sunk into the ground, and he would sit on a plank grown between two mature White Oaks in a place we called “Death Valley” because of how the heat pooled there. That summer he focused primarily on the Lord’s Prayer. However, we ended each morning’s devotion with the only other verse I had in easy quoting reach: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” That verse stopped me cold every time, and between it and St. James’ directive set a challenge that to me seemed and, certainly can still seem, impossible.
My thoughts were for the better part of any day far from being acceptable to anyone, much less to God, I thought. My words weren’t much better (in fact, were worse, particularly if I was speaking to more than one peer at a time), and most of what I did resembled petty transgressions far more than a campaign to “do the word of God.” So after years of Sunday school and an exemplary education in a fine Episcopal school, I had little to show except a failure to meet the demands of the only biblical quotations I had committed to heart. My start as a Christian and as an Episcopalian did not seem promising.
Yet I certainly had good examples in my family to follow. I knew that if I were to face St. Peter the following day, I would be better to trade my grandmother Peters’ thoughts, or my grandfather Totten’s thoughts for mine.
The living of our lives, the day-to-dayness of it, tends to move us away from thinking about verses painted in gold around the chancel of a church or recited in the humid and temporary still of June mornings. However, as a teacher, one filled at times with inappropriate thoughts and an inability to complete my “to do” list much less fulfill the word of God on earth, I am required to fall into a rhythm that encourages reflection—what Joseph Conrad called “the auGUST light of abiding memories.” For me, this time is the two weeks before school really starts (perhaps for teachers it should be called the “AUgust light of abiding memories”)—before the first wind sprint is run on the field hockey field, before the first freshman has his shoulder-blades pushed deep into the football practice field turf, before the teachers move back into sweltering classrooms and stare at the perfection of a new planning book, and before one thing happens to limit the coming school year to anything less than what is ideal—frozen potential, immortal in bronze.
During this brief moment, besides rediscovering memories that lead me to verses memorized long ago, I try to remember exactly why I decided to teach in the first place. What was it that made me choose this trail and follow it passionately? Interestingly, the images that come to mind each year about this time are not only the images that led me to teaching, but they are also woven into my reconciliation with the two quotations that have troubled me intermittently for several decades now.
The first image is a very early memory. I was standing in the doorway to the dining room in our old house on Bromley Lane looking at my mother across the table. She was fumbling with something. Scooped suddenly into the air by my father, I could see that she was fumbling with photographs and sheets of paper that a summer breeze had scattered across the table and onto the floor. As my mother worked to put everything back in order, my father explained they were writing a book. I’m not sure why this image comes to mind, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with learning—my parents remained learners, so they, in many ways, naturally became teachers. They had researched the book, a short history of courthouses in the Richmond area, together, written it together, and decided to share it with others together. Twenty-five years later they completed a much more ambitious work on courthouses in Virginia. My parents remain writers, researchers, photographers—they are lifelong students and teachers. During this time of year I remember that their work, like mine, offers a place in the world of learning and teaching.
The second image comes from a public hearing in which my mother, as an architectural historian, was involved. The City of Richmond in the early seventies was planning to tear down Old City Hall, a gothic revival building which sits just north of the State Capitol. Many Richmonders had come to plead for the preservation of the building, but it didn’t seem as if they were getting very far. After patiently waiting his turn, an elderly, and apparently homeless, gentleman approached the podium. At first clearly nervous in front of the television cameras, he smiled, “[T]his building’s been here longer than I have,” he paused as if to demand the careful attention of his audience. “It’s like a rock in that river,” he said casually waving a hand toward the James River, which runs through town five blocks to the south. Although I cannot quote him accurately, the gist of his speech was that a rock in the river affects the whole flow. Through his metaphor that seemed to stretch until it might have broken, this man taught an entire city how to see City Hall. He understood what was beyond the grasp of some city planners; that is, the building had meaning that transcended its failings as a modern City Hall. Today Old City Hall remains—photogenic and functional as an office building. This gentleman knew the power of words, and Old City Hall still stands. Through his teaching, he influenced the world around him, and, as a result he placed himself in it—he was like a rock in the river, too.
I have come to believe that when James implores his fellow disciples to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only,” he is asking them to take their place in the river, also. This river is the river of time and space—a river of God’s creation. In the verses that precede verse 22, James speaks about endurance in resisting temptation; he speaks about humility; and most importantly, he asks of every person that we be “swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” It strikes me as more than simply good advice in that it presents a way to be a doer of the word—a way to be a rock in the river. He is not just challenging us—he is teaching us how to meet the challenge.
Challenging us and teaching us how to meet challenge is one of the key characteristics great teachers share. Great teachers also have the ability to teach things worth knowing. With this in mind, it is worth remembering that James had had a good teacher, one who shared parables, and, thankfully, if not always “slow to speak,” was certainly “swift to hear” and “slow to wrath.” Finally, great teachers have the ability to reveal to students that all of us should be in the process of becoming—becoming thinkers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, speakers, listeners, challengers and leaders, as well as becoming kind, charitable, and faithful. I believe that whenever we strive to be great teachers, we are necessarily striving to be “doers of the Word,” for we are striving to be as Christ was. For me, the challenge of “Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only” becomes more approachable in this light—this “august light”—and the idea of becoming a rock in the river becomes more understandable.
But David’s psalm is still echoing—“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” There are several things about this worth noting—things, frankly, I missed for a long time: first of all, it is a prayer from flawed man not a demand from a wrathful god. (Note how the sentence would sound if we changed the pronoun: “Let the words of YOUR mouth, and the meditation of YOUR heart be acceptable in MY sight.”) As a result, it represents the human desire to have words, feelings, and thoughts be acceptable to God rather than a command from God that it be so. The renaissance poet, George Herbert, recognized a similar desire as the psalmist when he wrote in the poem “Discipline”:
Though I fail, I weep
Though I halt in place,
Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.
Here Herbert asserts that it is a process of becoming that leads to God. This is particularly comforting when I think of the man to whom we traditionally attribute the psalms—David. The David of the Hebrew Bible certainly was not a man who brought a clean slate to his prayers. In the context of James’ advice, David was often slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to wrath. The second thing worth noting about the quotation from the 19th psalm is that God already knows all our words and meditations and loves us anyway. Finally, the psalmist refers to God as his “strength”; therefore he believes the strength, which is necessary to reach for words and meditations acceptable to God, comes from God. This too is comforting, for just like James giving us a way to meet the challenge he believes God has set, the psalmist has a desire to reach God and knows that the strength to do so comes from God. For the psalmist, for George Herbert, and for us, I believe, God is creating a challenge, as well as offering us the strength to attain it. Talk about a great teacher!
As I stand here this morning, I feel prepared for the stretch of river that lies in front of us here at Asheville School this year. The rhythm of academic schedules, still new, yet already familiar, has started to obscure the “auGUST or “AUgust light” that led me to the ruminations that I have shared this morning, and I feel the tug of the current that forever pulls us toward what is next. I move on though to what John Milton, at the end of his poem “Lycidas,” calls “fresh woods, and pastures new” knowing that the quotations from James and from the psalmist will continue to both challenge and sustain me. I hope that you will take time to think about the things—the stories, the quotations, the people, and the faith—that challenge and sustain you. I also hope you will take the step to share those things with others, for in doing so you become not a statue—frozen potential, immortal only in bronze—but rather part of the rock that challenges and sustains all of us.