Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Zeal and Fervor

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord (Romans 12:11).

I’ve concluded that the propane tank on my grill has some kind of sensor that tells it when guests are at our house. Without fail, it is when guests are present and the burgers are on the grill that the propane tank refuses to make fire, literally runs out of gas.

The frustration in this is that I don’t know what’s happening until I check the burgers, only to discover half-cooked meat sitting on a lukewarm grill. This usually means a hurried trip to get a new propane tank and an awkward delay in the meal.

I came across a Native American proverb that said something to the effect of “better a pot that boils over than one that does not boil at all.” The same could be said of a gas grill. No fire, no food.

In his letter to the Romans Paul gave this exhortation: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). The Greek word “slothful” that Paul uses here is the same word used in the Greek translation of Proverbs 6:9; it is the word “sluggard.” It suggests indolence or slackness.

The positive command coupled with this warning about sloth is a word that means “to burn.” It suggests the idea of a boiling pot. Thus we are told to burn or to be “fervent in spirit.”

Interestingly, few Christians aspire to zealotry. Zealots are dangerous. We think of zealots as being out of control, often angry in their passion for a cause, violent in the expression of their convictions. In American culture, the last thing a Christian wants to be is “zealous.” We prefer other words life “faithful” or perhaps “devout.” But zealous? No thanks.

However, in our fear of zeal we have unwittingly become slothful. Our faith is thoroughly tamed, void of adventure and risk. We’ve done the very thing that Paul warned us not to do. Spiritually speaking, the burgers are on the grill but there’s no fire. The pot doesn’t boil at all.

For the remainder of this week we will examine the deadly seduction of sloth by looking at its opposite: Zeal and fervor. Specifically, we’ll get a picture of spiritual zeal by looking at one of the most fervent and passionate characters in the New Testament – John the baptizer.

Consider your own life: is there something in your life that stirs ‘zeal’ in you? Perhaps the more familiar word for what we’re after is ‘passion.’ Where do you see this in yourself? When it comes to spiritual matters, what do zeal and fervor look like? Specifically, what would a fervent spirit look like in your life of faith?

Grant to us, O God, a zeal and fervor in our walk with you. Above all, make us passionate for the glory of your name in this world. Guard us from the timidity that so easily becomes sloth. Help us to live our faith in such a way that zeal is expressed in love and service to others. We ask this is Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 24, 2012

More of the Same

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecc. 1:8-9).

The words of Solomon are baffling. That a king could be bored is hard for us to believe. Here is a man who lacks nothing, bemoaning his boredom. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” Poor Solomon.

I find it hard to be sympathetic with a bored King. His words hit me in much the same way my children’s words do when they complain of boredom. “You’ve got to be kidding; how can you possibly be bored?” And yet, kids with computers and Xbox and smart phones get bored. Busy grown-ups with comfortable homes and beautiful families and well paying jobs get bored. And, as Ecclesiastes plainly shows us, Kings get bored.

Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, wrote that boredom is “the desire for desires.” That captures something of the inner deadness that boredom is. Look deeply into the deadly seduction of “sloth” and you’ll find boredom. The heart beats but never races. The eyes see but never dance in what they behold. The mouth speaks words but rarely to truly say anything.

Thus was Solomon afflicted. Maybe you know the deadening weight of this particular seduction. Caring about things requires so much energy and seems to make so little difference. Sloth isn’t a sin we commit. Sloth settles on us as we abandon our commitments.

In Ecclesiastes the boredom is described as a numbing repetition. What has been will be again. Solomon observed the movements of the sun and the wind. He watched the relentless flow of streams that feed the ocean but never fill it (Ecc. 1:5-7). All of this left him numb. That’s what sloth does. It makes us numb to joy and blind to beauty.

We observe the same traffic patterns in our morning commute, the same scheduled meetings, the routines of carpool and practices and laundry. Imperceptibly the sloth settles and the numbness spreads.

Typically, our first response is a change of pace, a new variable in the equation of our lives. This might mean a vacation or a career move. But over time even the new element becomes tired and familiar. What we need is the capacity to see into the ordinary repeated parts of life and discern the presence and purposes of God.

Sloth is what we’re left with when God is bleached out of an otherwise wonderful life. Absent God, the gift of ordinary things, of routines and practices, becomes burdensome.

Try this today: Look for God in something familiar. Identify a person in your world with whom you interact every day or every week. Determine to learn one new thing about that person’s life.

God, through this day and all of its familiar routines, help me to detect your presence. Remind me that you are at work in the most ordinary details of the most ordinary day, and help me to live this day in eager expectation. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Help from an Old Hymn

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . (Galatians 6:14).

My wife and I readily admit to our children that we are nerds. My children readily agree.

Marnie and I proved this to ourselves several years ago when we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary with a trip to London. Among the many places we visited there was Bunhill Fields Cemetery. I doubt that many visitors to London intentionally spend an afternoon at Bunhill Fields, but being church history nerds we did so eagerly.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries Bunhill Fields was a ‘nonconformist’ cemetery. That is to say, it was a burial site for those who had renounced their ties with the official Church of England. The names of those to whom the Church refused a ‘decent burial’ are surprising. They are, in my mind, some of the greatest names in Christian history.

As you walk among the gravesites at Bunhill Fields you’ll see the burial place of John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Also buried there is Susanna Wesley, the godly mother of the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley.

Keep walking and you’ll come upon the burial site of Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748). Watts was a pastor, but we know him best as the composer of the much loved hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

The opening verse of the hymn is of particular interest to us this week:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

We close this week thinking about what we can do to wage war on pride or, in the poetic words of Isaac Watts, “pour contempt” on our pride. Watts’ answer is simple. We pour contempt on our pride as we look to the cross of Jesus. Pride is put to death at the cross.

We would be wise not to speak of the cross in a way that subtly inflates our pride. The cross does indeed tell us of God’s love for us, but it says much more than that. It tells us that God loved us while we still sinners. In this, we are profoundly humbled.

Every illusion that pride constructs, the cross demolishes. The first sin an every sin that flows from it will not be made right by more education or better economic systems. We need a savior. That’s what the cross tells us. And if we’ll look at the cross and ponder it prayerfully, our pride will look silly to us, worthy of our contempt.

In what other ways does the cross kill our pride?

“Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.” Amen. (Isaac Watts, 1707).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Grace and Grasping

. . . she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).

Your life is a gift, everything about it. Ponder that for a moment. Ponder it and ask yourself whether you believe it.

That’s not the same as asking whether you can affirm it. Sometimes we affirm things without really believing them. We may say that life is a gift but we don’t actually live as if this is true. We are prone to ignore all that we have received while we obsess over what we resent and regret. Our stress, our edginess, our fatigue tell the world that life is more grind than gift.

The story of what happened in the Garden of Eden may explain why we live this way. Yesterday we observed that the tempter’s first strategy in stoking human pride is to diminish God. In the midst of this something else is happening. In a very subtle way the tempter shifts the focus of life away from all that has been given to the one thing that has been withheld: The one tree of which God has said, “No.” Grace slips into the distant background. The goodness of the giver is called into question.

When life is no longer gift and when there is no good giver, there is only one way left to live: We define the good life based on our desires. We spend our energy scraping and clutching at what we want.

The verb “took” in Genesis 3:6 is very significant. Until now all has been given. The breath of life was given. The abundance of the garden was given. The work of tending the garden and naming the animals was given. All was gift – until the serpent appears in Genesis 3. Drawn to the tree by the serpent’s promise, the woman “took.”

This act of taking changed everything. Grasping, not grace, became our way life.

One of the most practical ways you can wage war on pride in your life is by identifying the ways in which life comes to you as a gift. If we can recover our capacity to see life as gift, we will cultivate thankfulness. Gratitude is the only fitting response to a gift. And gratitude has a way of tempering our pride. If truly proud people have a hard time being thankful, maybe truly thankful people will have a hard time being proud.

Your life is a gift, everything about it. Do you believe this?

If not, begin paying attention to the grace that surrounds you today. Wage war on pride by naming the gifts that God has placed in your life. Receive them all with gratitude. More grace, less grasping.

With each new day, O God, your gifts come to us afresh. Too often our sight is clouded by pain or we miss your gifts because of our frenetic way living. Grant that we might live this day with open hands, ready to see and receive what you give, ever thankful and humble before you. We ask this in the name of your son Jesus, the greatest gift of all. Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Empty Promises

. . . your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5).

Say the word ‘sin’ and immediately our minds go to a list of bad behaviors. To sin is to break a rule, to do something harmful or dishonest, to lie or steal or gossip or injure someone violently.

Perhaps, having managed to tame or avoid those clearly prohibited behaviors, we sin in more subtle ways. We define ‘sin’ in terms of wrong attitudes and disordered emotions. We manage to hide these fairly well. The well behaved are generally well thought of, and that suits us just fine.

But beneath the outward disobedience and the inner deceptions something deeper is at work. Sin has to do with what we believe, what we trust to make us whole, what we look to for our sense of well being in this world.

Every sin makes a promise and to sin is to believe that promise.

Seven of those promises will hold our attention in the weeks ahead. To the extent that a promise has the power to lure and entice we may rightly speak of these as ‘Seven Deadly Seductions.’ You may be more familiar with the designation of ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ But before there is a sin, there is a belief, a promise embraced, a seduction.

Pride promises you that the praise and adulation of others will make you whole and happy.

Sloth promises you that leisure and ease are the mark of success and the aim of life.

Lust promises you that the pleasure of someone’s body will cure your boredom.

Gluttony tells you you’re hungry when you aren’t and promises that the emptiness you live with can be fixed by food.

Envy promises to ease the pain of your resentments and tells you that if you can have someone else’s life, then life will be good.

Anger insists that you’ve been wronged or deprived and promises that hitting back is right and just, bringing satisfaction through venting.

Greed tells you that you deserve more, that more is possible and permissible. Greed promises you that getting more will prove you matter.

Each of these promises has one thing in common: they are all lies. And yet we are prone to believe them. In the weeks ahead we’ll be trying to expose the empty promises we’ve embraced. We’ll also look for the alternative promises that come to us from God and from the good news of God’s grace through Jesus.

For today: Which of the promises above are you most vulnerable to believing?

Far too often and far too easily, O God, we embrace empty promises. We place our trust in things that cannot save us and live our days restless and discontented. Help us to face hard truths about ourselves that we might embrace the blessed truth of your promises. As we go through this day remind us that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.