It is only a matter of moments to be born, but it takes many years to grow up into the person you were meant to be. That is true whether we are speaking of the physical world or the spiritual one. And in all that messy process we can sometimes lose sight of the end goal– no wonder the letter-writers in the first century took the time and the ink to remind us over and over of where we are headed, and why. James is barely into his first paragraph when he says “…when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:3-4) We tend to think that our end goal is Heaven, and skip right over that important truth that it is our maturity in the faith that God is interested in. Heaven is merely the final destination.
One of my favorite stories when I was little was the one about the Velveteen Rabbit. It wasn’t a fluffy just-for-fun kind of book, but one of those that asks hauntingly big questions from a child’s perspective. Decades later I find that we grownups are still rephrasing the rabbit’s “What does it mean to be real?”….”Who am I?….Do I matter as a person in this world?”….”What makes a life that is worth something?”
The leather horse in the storybook nursery had surprisingly profound insight into the rabbit’s question. He told his young friend that becoming Real was a process of being loved that lasted all your life– and often it hurts quite a bit, but you don’t even mind, because getting hurt is part of being Real. All these years later, I find that Big-Brother James reveals a similar perspective in his letter to the early Christ-followers. He says that who we are and why we matter are all wrapped up in our relationship with Christ. We get to prove that our faith is real by putting it to work in a million down-to-earth everyday ways: at home with our families, at work, on the street where we live, in the gathering together of the saints. In the process, we are growing up into Christ and learning to reflect the glory of the One Who made us. And yeah, all that does hurt quite a bit at times, because it is lived out in the real world, in community with all-too-real people.
James says we are supposed to love them just because Jesus loves them too. But we may as well be honest… loving people is hard sometimes. In all the ways they bump up against us, and see things differently, and act in their own interests, we can end up feeling rubbed raw and raggedy. That’s not all bad. In the words of the leather horse, “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.” Gradually, as we endure, we are becoming more like Jesus in love and understanding and patience. James says you can recognize that transformation in a person’s life: “… the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds.” (James 3:17) Maturity doesn’t come all at once– it is a bumpy, sometimes messy process– and the only way we can hang in there is by fixing our eyes on the sharp vivid reality of Resurrection Life ahead. James writes his encouragement to us: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)
No question about it, it can be a struggle to extend the gift of Grace to people who don’t deserve it. Somehow it is easier to accept grace myself than it is to hand it out over and over again. I can get weary of listening long, and being slow to anger, and controlling my tongue, and forgiving offenses… but James says this is what it means to really live in the Kingdom of God. Anything else is just pretending. And in that rugged everyday process of shedding our old skins and learning to live according to God’s wisdom together, we are becoming Real. We are finding out who we were meant to be, and discovering the reasons we were placed here and now, and James promises a good result in the end: “those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18) Specifically, Jesus says that harvest of righteousness will be a joyful Home in the depths of His love. “When you obey My commandments, you remain in My love, just as I obey My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with My joy.” (John 15:10-11)
Turns out that we and the stuffed velveteen rabbit have quite a bit in common. And it is the fortunate individual who discovers the blessing of being Real and Loved, being completely known and accepted for how we are made. “‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’”
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)
“We are not for long, and we are what we long for; we are but dust, and we are but our hearts; we are a vapor, and we become what we come to love. Love Him most and we who are a vapor become a fragrance of praise that will last for all of forever.” (Ann VosKamp)