May 19, 2017

Playing Possum

One evening 15 or so years ago, as I stepped out onto our front porch, I encountered a surprise guest, or I should say, several surprise guests. An adult opossum with a few much younger ones sat quite comfortably in a row on the 3-feet high concrete ledge that wrapped around our porch. They were down on the right side, at the opposite end of where I had come out. They stared at me and I stared at them — all of us frozen in the uncertainty of what to do next.

I moved first, slowly backing my way to the door and into the house. Once inside, I decided to watch the opossum family from our living room window. Shortly after I left, they began to move around. Before too long, they left the porch and made their way up our driveway and through our backyard.

Opossums have the reputation of being able to "play dead" when threatened. Apparently, they're pretty committed to playing the part, flopping on their side, staring at a fixed spot, and even letting their tongue hang out of their mouth. (National Geographic) Their bodies look altogether lifeless.

James' Spirit of Deeds

I started thinking about opossums as I reflected on James' teaching on faith and deeds. James writes: "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." (James 2:26, NIV) I've read this passage before — lots of times actually. As I read it this time, I noticed something I had previously overlooked.

Normally, we talk about faith inspiring our actions. We say that faith should lead us to act out what we believe. But James flips this association around. Instead of saying that deeds embody our faith, James describes deeds as inspiring our faith. The spirit/deeds animates the body/faith. By equating the body with faith and the spirit with deeds, James teaches that faith cannot live; faith cannot survive without actions to animate it.

Without deeds, faith is just a corpse, nothing but dead weight. Or to say it differently: without deeds, our faith is like an opossum flopped on its side, staring off at some distant spot, tongue hanging out. 

(As an aside, I suppose James' take on faith and deeds also means that when we have deeds without faith we're just ghosts — we have nothing substantive to support our actions. But I'll save that thought for another time.)

Are We "Playing Possum" in our Worship?

One of the places I feel this disconnect between faith and deeds most acutely is in communal worship. At least in my community, we have a tendency to use a lot of words about faith during our worship. Coming from a confessional tradition, I am not against words. In fact, I really like discovering new ways to verbally describe our faith, whether through songs, prayers, sermons, or creeds and confessions.

But after reading James, I am left wondering how we are giving attention in worship to the deeds that are supposed to animate our faith? Perhaps more pointedly: if our communal worship is only oriented around verbal expressions of faith, but has no deeds, are we simply “playing possum”? That question, along with James’ blunt declaration that even the demons believe there is one God — “and shudder”, has given me quite a bit of pause as of late. Where do deeds — deeds that animate and inspire our body of faith — come into our communal worship? If faith without deeds is dead, as James says, then it seems to me that deeds would be a recognizable aspect of lively worship, which is one of the central spaces in which our faith is nurtured.    

I’m not thinking so much about testimonies about deeds — though those could play a useful role in celebrating what God is doing in and through a particular community of faith. Rather, I am wondering how our worship gatherings could be transformed so that deeds happen during and through our times of communal worship. For example, what might it look like to “care for the widow and the orphan in their distress” (James 1:27) during and through our worship — and how could such actions breathe life into our faith?  

I recognize that I’m mixing categories — worship and mission, faith and deeds — that we’ve often held separate from each other. And I readily admit that I don’t have any immediately clear suggestions for what deed-filled worship could look like. Instead, I am wondering out loud — and inviting you to wonder with me: how could our communal worship welcome James’ spirit of deeds in order to give life to the body of our common faith in Jesus Christ? Or to borrow from another New Testament writer: “how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV)

Chris Schoon (Th.D., Wycliffe College) is the Director of Faith Formation Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Previously, Chris has served as a pastor in both Michigan and Ontario. Along with contributing regularly to Reformed Worship, Chris is the author of Cultivating an Evangelistic Character (Wipf & Stock, 2018), which takes an in-depth look at worship and discipleship in the missional church movement. You can find him on Twitter: @chrisjschoon.