Busyness and love are not the same

Here’s a random Lent thought for today. It may or may not have anything to do with COVID-19.

One of my favourite coffee mugs (not that I own it myself, but I’ve seen it) is the one that says ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’

Here’s my thought for the day. Jesus is not impressed with busyness. Jesus is impressed with love.

This is a hard lesson for us to learn, because we’re formed by a culture that idolizes workaholics. And this culture is creeping insidiously into the church, so that we’re all being brainwashed into thinking that the more activities a church puts on, the higher its level of spirituality must be. If you don’t have that stressed and exhausted look on your face, you can’t possibly be doing everything God wants you to do, right?

But how does that work right now, when we’re frantically shutting down our activities for fear we’ll infect each other? Should we just move everything online and get just as busy as we were before? Or should we take a serious look at why we think Jesus wants us to be so busy?

Years ago, in a letter to a child, C.S. Lewis gave some wise advice that I’ve tried to remember. I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be exact. Lewis told his young correspondent to remember that there were really only three kinds of things she had to do: (1) Things that must be done, (2) things that should be done, and (3) things she enjoyed doing. ‘Things that must be done’ include brushing your teeth, doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, cleaning the house and so on. ‘Things that should be done’ mean the ordinary rules of Christian morality. ‘Things that you enjoy doing’ – well, over to you!

Busyness is not godliness. Busyness might just be nothing more than busyness. I’m convinced that my Christian life works best when I do a few things and do them well, rather than scattering my energy like buckshot in a hundred different directions. Remember: Jesus is not impressed by busyness; Jesus is impressed by love.

2018 Random Lent Thought #34: God’s Love for Us Always Comes First

We began Lent this year on Valentine’s Day, which seemed appropriate, since Lent is about discipleship and discipleship is all about love.

But let’s remember that the fundamental love is not our love for God; it’s God’s love for us. Long before we ever thought of loving God, God loved us with an indestructible love.

So let’s close these Random Lent Thoughts for 2018 with a passage of scripture that sums it all up:

‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

‘This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

‘We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister’. (1 John 4:7-21 NIV)

2018 Random Lent Thought #33: Perseverance

“But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15 NIV).

I am not very good at persevering. I am much, much better at starting well and then giving up.

I can begin a new discipline enthusiastically, and be sustained by that enthusiasm for a few days. But then boredom sets in – or the desire to relax and have a good (or easier) time – and so I fall away. This is why so many of my efforts to grow spiritually have failed.

That’s probably why I love this word ‘perseverance’ so much (in the NRSV it  is translated ‘patient endurance’). ‘Patience’ and ‘perseverance’ go together. Patience helps me remember that the crop will not be produced overnight; everything good and worthwhile takes time to grow and mature. So it makes no sense to give up overnight. I need to persevere – to ‘keep on keeping on’ – even when the discipline gets hard, even when I get discouraged at the slowness of the growth.

Perseverance in what? According to verse 15, it’s perseverance in hearing and retaining the word of God. In Luke 8:21 Jesus adds ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’. I love the double meaning of ‘practice’ in English! It can mean ‘doing’ something as opposed to just ‘thinking about it’ – but it can also mean ‘doing it over and over again so that I can get better at it’ (which is how we form a habit). Both these understandings are vital parts of perseverance. So I hear the word of God through Jesus – I realize I’m being called to a new holy practice – I decide how to do it, and then I intentionally do it over and over again until I get better at it, until it becomes habitual, until it’s part of who I am.

I think the motivation for perseverance comes from keeping our goal in mind. Our goal is to see Jesus face to face and be transformed into his likeness. This is the big, overarching goal and it’s worth every ounce of effort we put into it. But of course there are smaller goals we establish as well, in the context of this big goal. By keeping our goals in mind we can motivate ourselves to persevere.

I’m getting better at persevering, but I’m still a long way from where I would like to be. Lent is nearly over. Lord, help us all to persevere with the good changes we have been practising through this holy season. Amen.

2018 RLT #32: Loyalty

Sorry the RLTs have been a little more sparse in the past couple of days; life has interfered a bit!

One of the key texts for Lent is surely these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34b).

In the Christian church we have a long history of spiritualizing this text. We’ve sometimes done it by broadening the definition of the ‘cross’ to include any suffering that we’re called on to bear. So my cancer is the cross I have to bear, or my difficult relationship with my spouse, or the loss of my job, etc. etc. Another way we’ve done it is to understand ‘deny themselves’ either in terms of ‘saying no to yourself (i.e. turning away from self-will and submitting to the will of God), or even to understand it as ‘to deny things to yourself’ (giving up coffee for Lent etc.).

I’m sure there’s plenty of spiritual fruit in these approaches. I do think, though, that they do not reflect the meaning the words originally had. Mark wrote his gospel for Christians in Rome who were being persecuted by the Roman empire. They were being arrested, taken before the magistrates, and given the choice of denying Jesus or dying in horrible ways. In this context, let’s pay attention to the whole passage, not just verse 34:

‘Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38, NIV 2011. Note that in Greek the words translated ‘life’ and ‘soul’ are the same).

The original meaning is stark and challenging. You have been brought before the magistrates and you have two choices: you can deny Jesus and live, or you can deny yourself and die a horrible death. Taking up the cross means literally that: being willing to be seen as a rebel and a traitor to the empire because of your allegiance to Jesus, and being willing to die for that. Taking up the cross does not mean crucifying lust or selfishness or greed – at least, not originally. It means being willing to be publicly identified as a follower of Jesus, and if that means suffering and death, being willing for that to happen, just as Jesus followed his Father’s will and was crucified for it.

So this Lent thought challenges our ultimate allegiance. Let no one give an easy answer here. Peter was faced with this issue a few chapters later, in the middle of the night before Jesus died. He confidently predicted that even though all the other disciples would abandon Jesus, he would never do so, and yet a few hours later he denied Jesus three times. So let’s not say with shallow self-confidence ‘Though none go with me, still I will follow’. Rather, let’s be aware of our own weakness, and pray for the strength to give our allegiance to Jesus, to live it out day by day, to be willing to be publicly identified as his follower, and if necessary, to suffer for it.

Most of us in the western world are not going to be executed for our faith. The price we pay, though occasionally still a challenge, will be much less serious than that. All the more reason for us to be willing to stand up and be counted as followers of Jesus, to be unafraid to live by his teaching, and not to be dissuaded from it when folks around us are not jumping for joy about it.

2018 RLT #31: Praying Together

As I mentioned a few days ago, I think you can make a strong argument that prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. The prayer that Jesus gave us is a community prayer: ‘Our Father…’ Of course we should pray alone, but even when we pray alone, we still pray as members of a community.

Throughout Christian history monastic orders have born witness to the importance, and the power, of daily community prayer. Most of the daily offices we use today originally evolved in monastic settings. And perhaps most of them find their natural home there still. For those of us who aren’t called to celibate community life, they often need a bit of adaptation to fir naturally in our situation.

For most of my Christian life my natural community has been my family. But is it possible that the obligation to pray prayers originally developed for monastic communities might make it harder for us to develop prayer forms that work well for families (especially families with small children)?

I know I usually failed in this way. When my kids were little, we were on-again, off-again in our family prayers – more often off than on. During Advent we were good – everyone loved the Advent wreath and the ‘same old’ Advent book (woe betide us if we tried to change it!). But through the rest of the year – not so much.

Now that Marci and I have the house to ourselves, its easier for us. And for the past few years, we’ve started every day with prayer together. I get up in the morning, make a pot of tea, bring her a cup, and then we sit up in bed with our tea and pray our own ‘poor man’s Morning Prayer’ together, using the bare outline in our Canadian ‘Book of Alternative Services’. It’s very simple; it goes like this:

Opening sentences and either Psalm 95 or Psalm 100
One or two other psalms (depending how long they are) (see below)
A Bible reading, with a commentary (see below)
Each of us prays in our own words
We finish with the Lord’s Prayer

We don’t use the daily lectionary; we find it works better for us if we take one book of the Bible and work our way through it. At the moment we’re going through ‘Mark’ and we’re supplementing it with the daily explanations and comments from Tom Wright’s little book ‘Mark for Everyone’. Tom Wright (‘New Testament for Everyone’ series), William Barclay (‘Daily Study Bible’ series), John Goldingay (‘Old Testament for Everyone’ series) and the Bible Reading Fellowship ‘People’s Bible Commentary’ series (now available as PDF downloads at https://www.brfonline.org.uk/commentary-downloads/) are all very good and helpful.

For psalms, we start at the beginning of the book and work our way through it, usually doing two psalms a day. If they’re especially long, we might just do one. If they’re very short, we sometimes do three.

In the prayers after the reading, we both have little lists that we use. I’m hopeless at remembering all the people who’ve asked me to pray for them, so I keep a list and revise it every week. We pray for our own concerns, family and friends, wider concerns and world issues (of which there are rather a lot right now!), and try to remember to add thanksgivings too.

We’ve tried adding Evening Prayer to our routine as well, but it rarely seems to work for our schedules.  But we rarely miss Morning Prayer; I’d say we average six days out of seven each week. I like this because it keeps me steady, draws us closer together, and gives me a Bible reading partner who thinks differently from me.

I don’t know what your pattern of daily prayer is – or if you have a prayer partner you can pray with regularly. If you would like to start daily common prayer with someone, I commend this as a model that might work for you.

 

2018 RLT #30: Rich Toward God

‘Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

‘Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

‘And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

‘“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

‘“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

‘“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”’ (Luke 12:13-21 NIV2011)

Jesus sandwiches this parable between two powerful and categorical statements. The first is a warning to be on our guard against all kinds of greed, because ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. Today, of course, there is a powerful advertising industry dedicated to convincing me that that’s exactly what life consists of (not to mention politicians who tell is it’s our patriotic duty to consume more and more in the service of the false god of The Economy). This all ties in to the idolatry of my greed; the delusional state in which I think, “I’ll be happy if I can just have…” (insert your own preferred next purchase here). This is delusional, because none of the stuff we’ve bought so far has made us happy; it’s just made us more fixated on burglar alarms.

Jesus addresses this issue by setting it in the context of eternity. When we meet our Maker face to face, the size of the bank account our relatives are fighting over won’t make a blind bit of difference. But there are things we can focus on, right now, that will make a huge difference on that day: loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is true wealth, Jesus says; this is what he means at the end by ‘being rich toward God’.

So Jesus ends with the second categorical statement: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” God, please help me not just to think about this, but to practice it: not to accumulate more and more stuff, but to focus on the things that truly matter in the light of eternity. Amen.

2018 RLT #29: Focus

‘Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

‘“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”‘ (Matthew 6:25-33 NIV2011)

This is one of those gospel passages that is so outrageous that you just know it must have come from Jesus, because if it hadn’t, no-one would have dared to make it up. Jesus didn’t live in wealthy suburbia; he lived in first-century Palestine, where the poor had plenty to worry about. Hunger, thirst, homelessness, the tender mercies of vicious Roman soldiers – life was precarious at best for many people in Jesus’ audience. So how dare he tell them not to worry? And how dare he tell them that if they seek first the kingdom of God, God will provide for them? Throughout human history, how many people have starved to death believing that?

I’ve come to believe that we have to accept that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point here (as he so often does). And what’s the point? It’s not so much worry as focus: what are we focussing our lives on? The enjoyment of luxuries or the fulfilment of the promise of God’s kingdom?

In the Lord’s prayer we are taught to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, then God’s kingdom has come. What is God’s will? A world where everyone has enough and no one has too much; a world of compassion, justice, and genuine community; a world where people turn from false gods to the one true God, the creator of all. Jesus is telling us to focus on this, to place all our hopes in this, and to direct our energies in this direction, rather than the gratification of our own egos or our own hunger for more and more luxuries.

Focus on God’s will and God’s kingdom, and live in trust in our heavenly Father. That’s our lesson for today. I think we’re going to need a little help with this one, Lord!

2018 RLT #28: ‘Hallowed’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

2018 RLT #27: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV).

The Anglican liturgical tradition in which I was raised has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. But Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of pretention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

2018 RLT #26: Rest

Which commandment of God is most consistently ignored in the western world? I would argue that the command to take a weekly day of rest is a strong contender for that position.

‘Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…’ (Exodus 20:8-10a)

‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).

In years gone by. the Sabbath (interpreted as referring to Sunday) left a bad taste in the mouths of many Christians. It featured a long list of things you could and couldn’t do. Could you go out for a meal? Could you read a newspaper or watch TV? Could you go to a soccer game? In some houses all you could read was the Bible or Pilgrim’s Progress!

Nowadays we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. Very few Christians seem to have any qualms about going out for lunch after church on Sunday (and thereby requiring others to work). Sunday sports is completely acceptable; in fact, if you’re a parent of a child in a sports league, it will likely displace church for at least half the year. We’re proud of the fact that we’re no longer legalistic. “We don’t interpret the Sabbath literally”, we say, meaning we don’t actually take any notice of it at all.

Also, society has changed; we no longer live in Christendom, and there is now no longer a single, agreed-on day of the week which is completely safe from the demands of economic activity. Your employer can require you to work any day they like, and require you to be available, via smartphone, at the times you aren’t at work (and if you’re self-employed, your customers will certainly expect that!).

I find it interesting that we so often counter an extremism by going to the opposite extreme! And all the time, looking at the people in my parish (especially the younger people), I find myself thinking, “Wow, they could really use a rest!” I’ve read that we sleep on average two hours a night less than our grandparents used to sleep. Most of us don’t work in jobs that wear us out physically, so we don’t go to bed exhausted and fall asleep right away. Also, we drink lots of caffeine, use electric light all evening and stare at screens – which plays havoc with our bodies’ production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.

Do we now begin to understand the sheer generosity of God? In Egypt the slave-drivers required the Israelite slaves t work 24/7 to produce bricks for their building projects, but when God led the slaves to freedom he gave them the priceless gift of a day off! Yes – the Sabbath was made for our benefit! God taught them – and he teaches us too – that we run best if we don’t give ourselves over to economic activity 24/7. Once a week, we need to take a break. ‘For best results, follow Maker’s instructions’!

Never mind what society says is legal or illegal; we can’t expect a secular society to make it easy for us to follow God’s instructions. We have to take responsibility for this ourselves. Maybe our Sabbath will not be Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) or Sunday (the Christian ‘Lord’s Day’). All right – so what day of the week are we going to take as our Sabbath? And how are we going to take it?

Monday is my Sabbath, and I try to start it at least by Sunday evening. I don’t work on that day, I don’t book meetings for it, and I don’t check work email through the day. Marci and I are both off, so we have things we do together (one of my ideals is to spend a couple of hours outside, but I’ll freely admit that’s more of a summer than a winter thing).

I know of people who observe a digital sabbath – once a week they disconnect from all their screens and spend the day doing other things. In today’s world, where the screens so often summon us back to the demands of employers/customers and the relentless, 24/7 economy, I find that idea rather attractive, although I don’t do it myself (because I use my computer to write, and writing is one of the things I do for relaxation).

This is not about legalism. This is about health, wholeness, well-being, shalom. We have been told quite clearly that we run best if we take a regular weekly day of rest. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. In other words, it’s not a law, it’s a gift. Which makes it so sad that today we so often refuse it. In the end, we’re the ones who suffer by that refusal.

What concrete steps could you take to receive the weekly Sabbath as a gift from God?