Wednesday, 30 October 2013


On Halloween we see children running around in costumes, and it seems like everywhere you turn you are confronted by skeletons and tombstones. Death, and all that is associated with its mysteriousness, is brought to our minds. We see caricatures of the dead in various forms- vampires, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster, ghosts, and skulls. Along with these ghouls come every creepy and crawly thing that might keep company with such creatures. It is a time when we are confronted with the mystery of death.
            However, this season is also playful. The skeletons dance. The monsters are cartoons. The coffins are full of candy, and the tombstones have comedic sayings like “Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake; Stepped on the gas instead of the brake”.
            Perhaps we laugh because we are uncomfortable. Perhaps we make the skeleton dance so that we don’t have to feel the loss of those we know and love who have died. Perhaps we fill the coffin with candy because we don’t want to recognize that we will someday fill it.
            In Revelation 7 we meet the dead, and they are drenched in blood. But, these are the faithful dead, not the reanimated zombified dead. And the blood that covers them is the blood of the Lamb, which purifies them and makes them clean.  These are the dead remembered and embraced by the Holy God. These dead are in eternal union with their Beloved; forever proclaiming their love to their Creator, Sustainer, and Sanctifier.
            These dead have faced the powers of the world, and in the world’s eyes they seem to have lost. They have fallen by sickness, by starvation, thirst, and by the various weapons of those who misuse the power given to them. But, these dead have not lost. They are the ones who have the true victory. The Lamb has now given them life that cannot be taken away by hunger, thirst, or any weapon. If anyone can make light of death- if anyone can smile at a skeleton- it is the saints of God, which includes you, by God’s grace.

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
 (John Donne- “death be not proud”)

Monday, 28 October 2013

contempt and humility- Luke 18

  A friend of mine who lives out west on the coast was picking up her daughter from school in the middle of winter. It was a really cold day, and she had 2 small children in the van with her, one of them was a young baby. So as she was waiting she had her car idling to keep the car warm. It’s one of those things parents can be a bit paranoid about in the winter, especially since babies can't tell you if they are getting cold.   So as she's waiting outside the school she has the van running.
            A very angry man came up to her and knocked on her window and started to lecture her about how she shouldn't be letting the car idol because it puts more carbon into the atmosphere. She explained to him that she had a baby in the car who would get cold if she turned it off, but he wouldn't hear any of it. When she wouldn't turn off her vehicle he went and stood in the exhaust behind her minivan and started coughing loudly to get his point across. I don't remember how it ended, but I do know that event did not make my friend care more about the environmentalist movement. If anything it had the opposite effect. That man may have been right, but he was filled with contempt and self-righteousness.   

            In our Gospel reading we meet another man who was filled with contempt and self-righteousness. Jesus tells a parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. Likely this is at one of the daily atonement services, where a lamb was sacrificed for the peoples' sin and incense and prayers were offered. The Pharisee stands off by himself, maybe so he's not touched by anyone who is ritually unclean. He prays by thanking God for his own goodness. He prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." We are left wondering if he is actually thanking God. Or is he just basking in his own sense of self-satisfaction. The Pharisee obviously feels he is righteous and looks on the sinful people around him with contempt. Contempt has the effect of making you feel better about yourself by thinking someone else is really horrible. It’s a bit like making yourself feel taller by beheading the others in the room. He isn’t a robber. He isn’t a con artist. He isn’t living in sexual sin. … I'm sure we've all met people who are sure they are good people because they've never killed anyone. They aren't like Hitler, so they are basically good people. 
            The Pharisee goes a step further.  He's not just ‘not bad’- he's actually really good. He even goes beyond the requirements of the law. The Old Testament requires fasting on festival days, but the Pharisee fasts twice a week. The Old Testament requires a Tithe, or 10%, from certain kinds of income, but he tithes on everything he has. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty. He is a super Israelite. He stands and basks in his own sense of righteousness. How good it is to be one of the righteous, especially more righteous than the other people around you.
            Traditionally, in the first century, the people would often pray out loud. So it is also possible that his prayer is a bit of a sermon to the people gathered for prayer. Get it together people. Be righteous like me. I'm sure we've all heard prayers that are a little more like sermons than prayers- "...And Lord as we sit down to eat our supper, please remind Johnny to do his homework and eat his vegetables...".         
            The environmentalist who confronted my friend was basically right.  We are in the middle of an environmental crisis. Maybe she should have found a way to keep the baby warm without having to keep the van running. It is a good thing to care for the environment. As Christians we should be on the front lines in caring for creation. The problem was the judgement he was heaping on her head from a heart that seemed filled with pride and contempt.
 Of course as soon as we bring judgement on the Pharisee or the environmentalist we realize that we have become the Pharisee in the story if we start to look on the Pharisee with contempt- glad that we aren’t like him. … What was wrong with the Pharisee was not his dedication and good works. What was wrong with the Pharisee was his sense of comparative righteousness which led to pride and contempt. "God I thank you that I am not like this tax collector". Pride, self-righteousness, contempt, and judgement are poisons to our soul. When we try to justifying ourselves by looking at others with contempt we destroy humility in ourselves, which is the necessary stance before God to receive grace.   
            It might be helpful to talk a bit about why humility is important, and to do that we have to look at what kind of a story we are in.  St. Augustine taught that we are living in a state of sin. The world is polluted by sin, and that toxic sludge creeps into us from the moment we are born so that we are inclined towards selfishness. We are still God's good creation, and so we still carry God's image, but that image has been broken.
            All religions have this basic belief- Something is not quite right. Something is not quite right with the world. Something is not quite right with us. We are not enlightened. Things are out of balance. We are disconnected from who we really are, or who we are meant to be. We are fooled by illusion, and lies. It is expressed in a myriad of different ways and through a variety of stories from as many cultures. Something is wrong with us and the world. The religions of the world, each in their own way, teach us about how to deal with the brokenness. They give us a new way to think about the world, or they give us actions to do, or they give us hope for a future time when the world will be fixed. They all give a way of dealing with the brokenness. Either way, from the time we are children the brokenness is a part of us.
            This is basically what Augustine referred to as Original Sin. We have inherited this pollution. It was part of the world we have been born into, and we will add to the pollution as we add to it our own personal sins. Our own pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, jealousy, and unwillingness to use the gifts God has given us,… all add to the toxic sludge that permeates the world and results in war, violence, oppression, and addiction. In our brokenness we chase after what we think will make us happy, but it eventually just leads to more pain and emptiness. Paul says in Romans Ch7, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do". It's that monkey that you can't get off your back and just when you think you have shaken it off it sneaks up on you again.   We are stuck up to our waste in a mud pit, and the more we wiggle to free ourselves the more stuck we get. … The Christian response to the brokenness is to acknowledge that we need someone to come pull us out.   
            This is where the Pharisee gets it wrong. He thinks he has worked his way out of the mud, because by comparison to the people around him, he looks like he's doing alright. But, he doesn't see the root of all sin living in his heart- Pride. Pride is the seed of sin. Pride leads to contempt. Contempt leads to anger and hatred, which leads to murder.  The prideful Pharisee might have good works, but with pride planted in his heart he is a ticking time-bomb.

            And this is where the Tax-Collector gets it right. Jesus isn't saying that there is anything good about his job.  Tax-collectors were crooks and traitors who worked for an occupying army. Often they were already wealthy and they gouged the poor to make themselves more rich and powerful using the authority of their Roman oppressors. They were allowed to skim as much as they wanted off the top as long as Rome got their share. Anything extra the tax collector was free to have.  It was a rotten system that led to all kinds of corruption. … But, this Tax Collector seems to have realized his part in the world's problem. He realizes that he is pumping that toxic sin sludge into the world. And he comes to God for forgiveness because he can feel his own sin weighing down his heart. The Pharisee doesn't see his own sin. … The tax collector sees his own brokenness- his greed, and gluttony. He stands at a distance from the rest not because he is afraid of being polluted like the Pharisee, but he feels like he is not worthy to stand among them out of shame over his own sin. He is so burdened by his own sin that he hangs his head and beats his chest. He is feeling deep regret and remorse. I know there are moments of sin and stupidity in my life that will come back to me in a quiet moment and I will have a gut reaction as the memory hits me and almost without thinking about it I’ll groan and feel as though I’ve been hit. I think that kind of full-body reaction the tax-collector is having.
            The tax collector calls out for help in humility. Humility is just seeing yourself as you are- no better, no worse. Humility is seeing yourself as God sees you. The Tax collector calls in genuine humility for God's mercy. And that is the prerequisite to receiving it. Unless you genuinely realize your need for atonement you don't have the ability to receive it. Unless you realize that your relationship with God and the people around you is messed up, you can't really ask for and receive help from God.  Humility is the seed of all virtue. With humility planted in your heart you are bound to be led into a transformed life.    

            Before the confession in the Book of Common Prayer it says this, "YE that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways...". … Truly and earnestly. We are welcome to the sacrament of Absolution if we truly and earnestly repent. The confession is not a magic formula to grant us forgiveness. It presents us with the opportunity to open ourselves to receive forgiveness. As we do the confession we should have specific personal sins in mind, rather than a general sense of being a sinner. We all live in a sin sick world, but that sin finds specific expression in our lives. Maybe we drink a bit too much, maybe we look at internet sites that we shouldn't, maybe we gossip a bit too much, maybe we judge others, maybe we are a bit greedy with our money, maybe we are filled with anger. Sin has an expression in all of our lives. We all have something we struggle with. And that stuff is not news to God. But purposefully and specifically confronting it and bringing it to God is important.  

            Sometimes we talk about repentance and we start to think God wants us to have bad self-esteem. That’s not what humility is about. What God wants is repentance, or “metanoia”. He wants us to be in a continual state of turning towards God. He wants us to be continually changing our minds and hearts. He wants us to see the world and ourselves as God sees. This starts with humility. The alternative is to live in an illusion.  God knows the deepest and darkest parts of yourself. God knows the parts of yourself you keep secret even to those who are closest to you. God knows about them. God doesn't want us to remain stuck in the mud. Christ stands with his hand out to us who are stuck in the mud. What we have to do is have the humility to grab hold. Christ has done the painful work. He has shed his sweat and blood on the cross for us.  He wants to transform us. He wants to make our lives better. He wants to work through us and transform the world by transforming our little piece of the world. God wants to speak peace into your life. That is what it means to be justified. You have peace with God. Your relationship is healed. The Tax collector went home with his relationship to God healed. Sure he had work to do. He had to fix some things in his life, but God was there to help him. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Church as a Hospital

Today we remember Saint Luke. Saint Paul refers to him in his letters as “the beloved physician”, which is why he is connected to healing. We know him best for his early biography of Jesus in the “Gospel of Luke”, and the second half of that work, which is the “Acts of the Apostles”” where Luke describes the early growth of the church.  Being a physician, and being the author of texts that contain the teachings of Christ do not contradict. They are both aiming at health and restoration.  
            It has been said that the church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. The church is concerned about the ultimate and eternal health of human beings. The Church is not primarily concerned with making people behave morally, though that is a part of what happens as we are healed. The church is not primarily a philosophy club where those with similar ideas and worldviews gather together. The church does have a way of looking at the world, but this is not the goal of the church. The Church is a hospital.    
            We are told that the world was not meant to be this way. We read the papers, or watch the news, and we look into our own lives and they are stained with brokenness, disease, war, sickness, and death. In the beginning, we are told, God created human beings absolutely healthy. They were filled with love for their creator, love for one another, and love for all creation.  Through their own choice, they turned from God and forgot who they were created to be so that now human beings are characterized by confusion, destructive desires, and brokenness. What we have come to know as normal, is not the way it was meant to be.[1] 
We are also told that since the day human beings allowed brokenness onto the world God has been working to repair it. Since that day God has been working to bring us back to a state of health where all parts of our lives are brought under His care and desire- Body, mind, spirit, relationships, emotions, finances, our relationship to the rest of creation.  
God may use numerous means to bring us healing- prayer, nutrition, exercise, counseling, medication, Bible study, surgery, meditation, sleep, our numerous other means. Ultimately it is God who is using all these means to bring us healing (Ex. 15:26).
            This is why Jesus came to us. Jesus is the ultimate physician of our souls and bodies. Our healing comes as we enter the kingdom of God, which is here and is continuously growing. As signs of that kingdom of healing and peace Jesus shows us miracles. We read in Matthew (9:35) that “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity.” Jesus in his compassion and mercy is about healing the entire person, body, mind, spirit, and social relationships. Jesus’ ultimate goal to heal the relationship between the world and God. Jesus’ physical healings foreshadow that great healing, which is God’s desire for creation.
In Jesus we see humanity as it was meant to be- he is the fully healed human being. This is God’s desire for us as well. As followers of Jesus the church is meant to be an instrument of God, brought into being to help heal the split between us and God. The church, as a hospital, receives the broken, fallen, sick, and confused human beings, and through a variety of methods working with the presence of the Holy Spirit, helps them to begin the process of becoming healthy.  In the church we are trained to take on the life of Christ. In repentance we admit our brokenness and we learn to follow the teachings of Jesus. Jesus himself, his actions on the cross, and the way he taught us is God’s medicine to heal us.   
The proof of this medicine is the lives of the saints who manifest the healing of God most clearly. They have followed the way Christ has taught us and they have exchanged their symptoms of hostility, jealousy, anger, idolatry, murder, and adultery, …. for the Fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
As followers of Jesus we are charged with the task of sharing this medicine. The theologian Paul Meyendorff says “we are Christ’s presence in the world, and we, as the Church are charged with bringing healing to those around us”. …  Healing lies at the center of the church’s service to the world.    In the books of Acts Jesus’ Apostles continue to be surrounded by healing as a sign of God’s Kingdom (Acts 9:32-43).  God uses the church as the body of Christ to heal, but that doesn’t always mean physical healing. Sometimes physical healing happens in God’s mercy and as a sign of the greater healing to come, but this is a mystery. St. Paul had a thorn in his flesh that was not healed, but nevertheless we are told to pray for each other.  James 5:14 says “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
 Paul Meyendorff says, “the very purpose of the Church is to heal us, to restore the rift between God and humanity which is caused by our sin and leads to death. This is achieved precisely when we are united to one another and to God in the body of Christ, which is the church”… “Jesus Christ is here asking for nothing less than the healing of the whole world, all humanity, all creation. This is achieved when we come to know Christ, when we become one with him and with one another. Everything that the church does, all its sacramental and liturgical life, all its teaching, is directed at restoring the proper relationship between God and creation, which has been corrupted through our sinfulness. This is the real meaning of Christian healing, and it involves the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.”[2]
Baptism is our entry into the church. In baptism, we enter into a new relationship with God, and are joined with Christ. Meyendorf tells us that in this new relationship “sin, sickness, and death no longer dominate us. We become children of God, heirs of the kingdom, members of Christ’s body, the Church. This new relationship is to endure for ever, and neither sickness nor death can destroy it”.[3]
Baptism is the ultimate sacrament of healing and is aimed at the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.  Hear this Eastern Orthodox prayer over the baptismal waters: “Therefore O loving King, come now and sanctify this water by the indwelling of your holy spirit, and grant to it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan; make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities…  Master of all, show this water to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life …”[4]  That is the healing God wants for us.
            We will still deal with sickness until the fullness of God’s Kingdom is here. Meyendorff says,
“In this new life, sickness and death no longer have the same power over us, for they have been defeated. Sickness and death continue to exist, but they now mark not the end of our existence, but a transition to eternal life, a passage into the kingdom. Just as Christ himself died and rose again, so we too shall die and rise. In Christ, our ultimate defeat is transformed into victory!”[5]
            Baptism as our entry into the church is really at its core about healing. It is about healing our relationship with God. When that is restored health begins to happen in all other areas as well. Baptism is primarily a healing sacrament. In Baptism we are set on the path of restoration and wholeness. “The sickness and death which once ruled our lives are defeated, in the sense that they, just like the cross, become a means of victory and a passage into the kingdom”.[6]
            The Church is a hospital for the broken. It is the instrument of God for healing the world body-mind-and soul. So may you embrace your baptism and the healing that began on the day you were baptized.  

[1] Kyriacos Markides, Gifts of the Desert, p.86-97
[2] Paul Meyendorff, The Anointing of the Sick, p.19
[3] Meyendorff p20
[4] Meyendorff P21
[5]Meyendorff P21
[6]Meyendorff P23

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Thankfulness- Deut 26

It is not an uncommon experience to be shocked by the ingratitude of people as we read through the Bible. We read about God rescuing the people from slavery in Egypt because God hears their cries and suffering. Then, as soon as they are miraculously rescued through the parted sea they start complaining and wishing they were back in slavery. They complain about being hungry … and God provides them with manna to eat. They complain about not having meat…  and God rains quail on them. He brings them into the Promised Land … and they complain that they don’t have a king. When they are in the Promised Land they even turn and worship other gods, basically rejecting the God who rescued their ancestors from slavery and brought them to a land of abundance. The Bible is not always about heroes who should be imitated. It is mostly about God interacting with a group of people who are very very human.          
I have worked with teenagers for a long time. It seems like one of those things that gets said about teenagers in every generation that “teenagers nowadays are entitled and ungrateful”. It is a comment I have found frustrating because I have noticed just as much, or more, self-entitlement from older generations- be they my generation, my parents’ generation, or my grandparent’s generation. No generation has a monopoly on entitlement and ingratitude. I see it on the road. I see it at the coffee shop. I see it in the grocery store. I see it in myself.
I was in Cuba in 2001 with a youth group on a mission trip. When we first arrived we tried to make conversation with our limited Spanish. “Tengo mucho calor” I said with a smile, which means “It is very hot”. I was proud that my university Spanish was paying off…. In the morning I found out that our hosts had gone out and bought numerous fans. Not an inexpensive purchase for our hosts, who lived quite humbly.  I felt about an inch tall. … I actually wasn’t that warm. I was just making conversation. … It was a moment of realization I never forgot.  I realized that I often would complain about something when starting a conversation. I would complain about the news, about the weather, about the government, about people driving,… you name it. Complaining was my ice-breaker.  I hadn’t really noticed it because we do it so often and in Cuba they didn’t really do that. At least the people I met there didn’t do that. That event made confront the fact that ingratitude had taken up residence in my heart.
I think ingratitude is something we all face. When we get new sneakers, or a new car, or a new house, we are filled with gratitude, but that soon passes. What once inspired thankfulness in us becomes the expected, normal, and usual. What once inspired gratitude is taken for granted. Or worse, we begin to feel like we deserve it. For some reason it can be easier to focus on the bad events in our day. We take our spouse for granted and instead focus on an upsetting email. We take our blessings for granted and instead are consumed by a rude comment spoken by someone in the street we don’t even know.
I once attended a church where during the prayers space would be given for people to pray about all their needs. In the middle of the service people would pray out loud so everyone could hear. They would pray things like, “Help my son find a job”, and “Heal Jenny’s cancer”. I loved that moment in the service because suddenly we were sharing each other’s pain and lifting that pain up to God. … Later in the prayers there would be a similar space where we were invited to pray out loud our thanks giving to God…  and usually it was much more quiet, if not silent. I don’t think the silence meant that we were ungrateful, but I think the silence pointed our forgetfulness.              

In Deuteronomy 26 we read about a practice that God’s people used to nurture thankfulness. When they were harvesting they would take some of the first fruits of the harvest and bring them to the temple. When they came to the temple they would say to the priest “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us” (26:3). They publicly remind themselves that God has done something in the past to make it possible for them to be on the land that has produced their crop.
Then after their offering is placed before the altar they would say, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;  and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me” (26:5-10). The worshipper is reminded of where they came from. They came from a wandering nomad. Their ancestor was a nobody- from nowhere. As a nomad, he had no place of his own. In his old age, Abraham had no child of his own. Though Abraham wasn’t particularly special, God chose to bless him. Through God’s intervention he had a family.  His family was small at first, but grew into a nation, which was a sign of great blessing.  They were eventually enslaved and mistreated in Egypt, but God rescued them miraculously and lead them to the Promised Land. So their ancestor was a nobody with no land, who was made into a nation with a land. They were enslaved and now they were free. The worshippers are reminded that if God didn’t bless their ancestors, then they would not be enjoying the fruit of the land. In fact, they could still be slaves, or they might not exist at all.  Out of this remembrance they are commanded to celebrate. They are to use the bounty of the land to celebrate and include those who do not have a portion of the land.  
I suspect we could benefit from a similar practice. We could look into our past and ask who our ancestors were that we ended up in Canada. Was there something special about us, or our ancestors that we are blessed to live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world?

I was at a corn maze yesterday and they had an air canon. They would load, apples, oranges, tomatoes, and pumpkins into the canon and people could pay to shoot fruit and vegetables at an old rusted-out bus in the middle of a field. After I got over how cool it was I started to think about how blessed we are to live in a place where we have so much food that we can shoot it out of air canons at rusted out buses.
Is there something special about us or our ancestors that we live in Canada and not in Syria? We tend to applaud individual accomplishment, but we couldn’t accomplish without a society that provided the freedom to pursue our gifts. We are in a country that provides universities where we can be trained. We have hospitals without which many of us would not have made it into adulthood.  We have a strong economy that allows us to be employed and to make more money than we could make elsewhere in the world.
Ultimately it comes down to God’s provision. God gives us the ability to produce. He gives us life. He gives us talent. He blesses us with strength to work. He grants us intelligence to design. As creator, it all comes back to him. Deuteronomy teaches, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (Deut 8:17-18). 
   To nurture thankfulness we can do two things. We can retell the story of God’s blessing in our life and we can offer sacrifice. This has been the practice of God’s people for thousands of years.  First, we remember. We retell the story of God in our lives. We remind ourselves that all we have and all we are is because God has provided us with life itself. This includes our individual stories, but it also includes the bigger story we find ourselves in- The story of God rescuing his people from slavery. The story, ultimately, of God loving us so much that he took on flesh and showed himself to us through Jesus Christ, and loved us so much that he was willing to die for us on a cross to show that he would not hold anything back, but would offer himself completely in love. And, through his resurrection he offers us eternal life. In a few moments we will participate in the Eucharist, which is where we remember and re-live that story. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving. Every Sunday we have a thanksgiving meal where we remind ourselves of God’s great deeds which have blessed humanity.   
 Second, we will sacrifice. If we are thankful we will also offer to God some of our harvest. Not because he needs it, but because we are thankful and the act of giving graces us with grateful hearts and allows us to participate in God’s action of blessing. It has always been the practice of the people of God to offer back to him from our own lives.  We do this by offering to the church, to the poor, to our families and our friends. We learn to be generous because we recognize that God is generous with us. This is not a dreary act of duty. God commands this to be an act of celebration that excludes no one.    

The Christian life is a life of thankfulness. In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances…” (5:18). That doesn’t leave any of us out.  We are all called to lives of thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving!       

Monday, 7 October 2013

Feeling sloth-like? 2 Timothy

The pastor and writer FrederickBuechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[1] … I think it is a profound statement. Our calling is where we use the gifts God has given us to serve God and our neighbor in the world. It means that God is calling us to where we will find our most profound happiness. … God has given us all a gift. That gift is to be used in our particular lives to bless the particular people in our lives. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14).  I think this is what he was talking about. You are God’s person in your particular place. God has placed you were you are for a particular reason. If your light doesn’t shine in your place then it will be dark there. God has given us gifts so that we can be the lights of the world.
We have to get away from this idea that we can only use our gifts to do religious stuff in the church. We have bought into an idea of sacred and profane that is not very Biblical. There really isn’t a separation between what we call sacred and profane. If we believe that God is the Creator then it is all, in a sense, sacred. Our gifts might have something to do with Sunday morning, but they might not. Our gifts might mean that we are serving people in our daily lives through our jobs or through our friendships, or our families. Our gifts might mean cutting the lawn at the church, or visiting and encouraging a neighbor who doesn’t get out of her house much.  Our gift might mean joining our pastoral care team, or it might mean doing your job as Jesus would do it- which means doing it well, with integrity, and honesty, and with a heart to serve those you work with.  Using your gift might mean that you are actually in the wrong field of work and that you should seek more training or another job. … But, our gifts don’t always have to be about our job either. It’s nice when your gifts overlap with your job, but they don’t always. Sometimes our job gives us the finances to free us up to use our gifts. … The exercising of our gifts is sometimes called “ministry”. As Christians we all have a ministry. It can be active or it can be inactive, but we all have a ministry.
Paul was reminding Timothy of this when he said, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:6-7). Paul is reminding Timothy of his gift which seems to be lying dormant. Christians in general, and Paul in particular, had been persecuted.  In verse 8 we read “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God”. Paul is telling him to not be ashamed, which means he is tempted to be ashamed, or possibly afraid. Perhaps if Timothy activates his gift then it is more likely that he too will end up in chains. That is pretty powerful motivation to not use your gifts. Paul tells him to “rekindle” his gift. It is as if his gift is glowing embers and Paul is telling him to put some wood on the embers and blow on it until it becomes a flame.  The fear and shame seems to have caused Timothy to neglect his gift and so it has become glowing embers rather than a roaring fire. 

The danger that Paul is highlighting here is sometimes called “acedia” or “sloth”. We sometimes think of sloth as laziness, but it really has more to do with using our gifts. Sloth is really about when a person stops using their gifts. This means that sloth can come across as a kind of lack of activity or sluggishness, … but it can also look like a kind of feverish activity. … Both are sloth. We can avoid using our gift by running around avoiding it, or by just ceasing to do any activity. The sickness in the soul is the same. It is the desire to avoid using one’s gift.
Take the story of Jonah, for example. In the story God told Jonah the prophet to go to Nineveh and call the people there to repentance.   Jonah did not want to use his gift and so he busied himself and boarded a ship sailing in the opposite direction. Jonah could have just as easily could have stayed home and sat in his house and watched TV (or the ancient equivalent). The disease in his soul would have been the same even though he could have presented two very different symptoms.
If we look at our lives with honesty we will see our tendency. Do we shut down and sit on the couch? Or do we run around like maniacs with way too much to do? It is possible that in both cases we are dealing with sloth. … Of course it could be something else entirely, but we should consider sloth to be a possibility.
Sloth can come about for a number of reasons. Maybe when we are trying to use our gifts we meet with some resistance. Maybe God is calling us back to school and we feel the weight of not having an income, and of sitting in a classroom, and the pressure of taking tests. When we allow those obstacles to get in our way it is possible that sloth could appear. … So our desires being denied, or when our plans fail, then sloth can sneak into our hearts. We throw up our hands and say “why bother”. So we stop, or we run in all kinds of other directions. Both are avoiding using the gift God has given us and the life he is calling us into.
Sloth can then become a kind of sadness about God, or a boredom with God, or a feeling of indifference to God. When we are living lives listening to God and trying to follow the footsteps of Christ there is an energy and passion that is present. … But, when we ignore God’s call on our lives and resist him, then our hearts will be marked by those decisions and we will become bored or indifferent with God.
The cure for sloth is difficult, but the church does have advice. For those who are tempted to run around and fill their time up with other good things, they need to slow down. They actually need to stop if they can and reevaluate their lives. Their excuse is that they are too busy to use the gift God has given them. They are probably doing very good things. The problem is that God has not given anyone too much to do. And they feel like they have too much to do.  God gave a Sabbath to his people and told them to take it very seriously. God wants us to rest to appreciate all he has given us so that we will have thankful hearts. This also renews our relationship with God and gives us space to sense where He is calling us.  So those of us that are hurried and frantic people are to take more time to meditate on God’s word. We are to slow down and approach God in quite extended times of prayer.  God gives us enough time to do what he is asking of us.
For those whose sloth is more likely to look like sitting on the couch eating potatoes chips they are instructed to get a pattern and stick to it. Do everything they can to fight the urge to do nothing. They are encouraged to work with their hands and get their muscles working. They are to stay away from those who tend to drag them into idleness, and instead surround themselves with people who are motivated. They are also encouraged to look at their lives from the perspective of standing before Jesus to give an account of their life. Those of us that suffer from this should turn to God and pray for a heart filled with desire to seek God. The joy we discover as we draw closer to God will destroy sloth.
Timothy was likely not respected because he was young (1 Tim 4:12; 1 Cor 16:10-11) and he was also being intimidated by the persecution he saw Paul dealing with.  Paul tells Timothy “…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). To not use our gift is a kind of cowardice. The spirit we have been given is of power, love, and self-discipline. Each of these is important in order to defeat sloth in our lives. Timothy is told to “hold to the standard of sound teaching” (v 13), and to “guard the good treasure” (v 14). The gift he has been given is precious and it is sinful to not use it.     
We are in the midst of a stewardship campaign at the moment. Part of stewardship is to consider how we spend our money out of gratitude to God who gave it to us. Another part of stewardship is time and talents. Time, talent, and treasure are really a way to talk about our whole lives in a simple way. Time and talent are just as important to consider. Jesus said, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”. There is no shortage of work for the children of God. Sloth can get in the way. It can get in the way by neutralizing us, so we are stuck on the couch instead of using our gifts. Or we can become so frantically busy that we don’t actually have any time left to give to the church or to develop the gift god has given us.  
            May God grant us passion and spiritual hunger, not to avoid sloth, but to be alive in the life God has given us. May God give us a rekindled passion for our calling, which is where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[2]


[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC
[2] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC
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