Monday, August 20, 2012

Redeeming the Time – Ephesians 5.15–20

I don’t know whether you remember the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. The film is takes place during the Normandy landings. Three brothers have all been killed within days of each other. One brother remains alive, private James Francis Ryan, but is declared missing in action. In a bid not to send a fourth, horrendous telegram to a grieving mother, Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and seven men are sent on a rescue mission to save Private Ryan. In their attempt to bring Ryan home, most of the men are killed, and finally Captain Miller himself, having just blown up a bridge, is mortally wounded. As he lies against a truck, covered in blood and dirt, with the chaos of war all around him, and he whispers something in Ryan’s ear, ‘James… earn this. Earn it’. 

The letter to the Ephesians is written by an elderly apostle, imprisoned for his faith, to a young church. They are, you might say, Paul’s last words to church he loved greatly. In his letter, he reminds them of the enormous privilege it is to be a Christian and he reminds them that their privileged life is the direct result of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he closes his letter, he says, ‘In view of all this, live a different kind of life. He almost says, ‘Earn this, earn it.’

The lives we are to lead as Christians are lives which recognise both the privilege of being a child of God, and realise the price at which our adoption came, and remembering this to live lives characterised by carefulness and wisdom. Paul doesn’t hand us another set of laws detailing precisely what we should and shouldn’t do. He doesn’t want us to behave like infants, who need to have instructions from their parents for the smallest of tasks, and he doesn’t lock us into the ethical standards of his day, even though there will be some principles which are true for all time. Paul asks us to think carefully about the way we live. ‘Be careful how you live’ he says, not ‘be careful, because God is watching and if you put a foot wrong he is going to get you’. Be careful in gratitude for the great gift God has given us. We are to take our Christian life, our growth as disciples of Jesus, and our witness to the world with the utmost seriousness.

But it’s quite possible to be serious about religion in a rather unpleasant way. We can be religious bores. Go to any Church of England theological college and start a conversation on a theological topic, and you will find several people who will talk and talk and talk about it until you can take no more. You’ll wish you’d never started the conversastion. I may have even been like that myself! That’s one unpleasant way of taking religion very seriously. You could also be a serious Christian by being a person who never enjoys life: the Lord and Lady Whiteadder of Guildford, spending your time sitting on a spike for added discomfort. You might refuse all enjoyment of life and never even think of mixing with people outside the church. You couldn’t argue that this kind of person takes religion seriously! But it’s not an attractive way of life. We might be very serious about ourselves and our own religious opinions, lacking  the humility that says, ‘I am human like everyone else, and have been and can be mistaken’. Religious seriousness can lead us to claim a sort of infallibility for our ideas, and an arrogance towards those who think differently.

I don’t think Paul wants us to take the Christian life seriously in these ways. We don’t honour Jesus by becoming holier than thou know-it-alls. We don’t honour the God who created the universe by refusing to enjoy the world he has made. Neither do we ‘live in love as Christ loved us’ (Ephesians 5.2) if we despise the very people he loves. Being serious about our faith shouldn't lead us to being horrible obsessive, pedantic human beings. Rather, taking religion seriously will mean that our lives will be focussed on God, his gospel of love and forgiveness and his kingdom of justice and peace.

The God focussed life, Paul tells us, is one which makes the most of the time, or redeems the time as an older translation of the Bible put it. We are to understand how precious time is, and actively seek out every opportunity to discern God’s will and put it into practice. To show us what this kind of attitude which makes the most of the time looks like, Paul gives us an example to avoid and an example to follow.

So here we are, at the bit we all focus on. Drunkenness. We are to avoid a way of life which looks like drunkenness. Paul isn’t a first century temperance preacher, the Billy Sunday of ancient Asia Minor. He has no issue with drinking per se. In fact, I don’t think this really has much to do with alcohol, though I’m sure Paul wouldn’t have approved of Christians getting legless. In this passage, Paul is more concerned with the general character of our lives, not with specific behaviour. We all know that one way to loose focus, to loose control, to let time flit away, is to have a few too many drinks. After too much to drink, time slips by, the moments, the hours, the days merge into one. It becomes harder to act wisely, to make good judgements. If you are drunk, it is next to impossible to make a difference for good in the lives of those around us.

Instead, our lives should be ‘filled with the Spirit’,  thankful, brimming over with songs of gratitude to God for all that he has done for  us. We are to receive every day, hour and minute as a gift from God to be used for the good of the world and for his glory. The way to make the most of the time is to make our lives acts of worship to God. There’s an elderly woman that I visit. She has suffered some mental deterioration in her old age, and can’t remember very much these days, but every time I see her she always says ‘Every day I say to myself, ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, It never will surprise me what the Lord has done.’ Because he’s been so good to me.’ She has taken Paul’s advice seriously. Even now, in the evening of her life, she holds on to the goodness of God and thanks him with songs of joy. Don’t let the moments slip by, but accept them as a gift from God, opportunities for good.

‘James… earn this. Earn it’ – really and truly, Private Ryan could never earn what had been given to him. None of us deserve even one life given to save us. What he could do was live every second from then on remembering how precious his life truly was. It had been purchased at enormous cost. It was more precious than diamonds. How should we treat something that valuable? With great love and care, with thankfulness for the gift, and generosity with the riches entrusted to us.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wisdom from St Augustine

Here are some wise words from St Augustine on prayer, written to a Roman noble woman called Anicia Faltonia Proba, who was also a friend of John Chrysostom.

In order to obtainin this true blessed life, He who is Himself the True Blessed Life has taught us to pray. We do not have to pray with many words, as if our being heard depended upon the fluency with which we express ourselves, because we are praying to One who, as the Lord tells us, knows what things we have need of before we ask Him (Matthew 6.7-8). It may seem surprising that, although He has forbidden much speaking, He who knows what we need before we ask Him has exhorted us to ‘always to pray and not to faint’… giving us the example of a widow, who, desiring to have justice done against her adversary, by her persevering entreaties persuaded an unjust judge to listen to her. He was not moved because of justice or mercy, but overcome by her tiresome persistence. In this he teaches us how much more certainly the Lord God (who is merciful and just), hears our prayers to him… To teach us the same thing, Jesus also said ‘ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened.’… Why this should be necessary, since God knows what we need before we ask Him, might perplex us. But we should understand that the Lord our God wants us to ask not to be informed of our wishes (for nothing can be hidden from Him), but that by our asking, desire might deepen in us, and through our desire God prepares us to receive what He wishes to bestow. His gifts are very great, but our capacity to receive them is small and meagre. That is why Scripture says, ‘open your hearts and do not share the lot of unbelievers.’ For, in proportion to the simplicity of our faith, the firmness of our hope, and the ardour of our desire, will we more fully receive that which is immensely great; which eye has not seen, for it is not colour; which the ear has not heard, for it is not sound; and which has not entered into the heart of man, for the heart of man must enter it.
Letter 130.VIII.xv, xvi, xvii

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Freely you have received

I opened my pay slip the other day, and out of the envelope fell a piece of paper informing me of the revised Church of England parochial fees. For those of you who aren't CofE clergy, parochial fees are the charges the church makes for certain special services, e.g. weddings, funerals and associated things like the reading of the banns of marriage.

I initially ignored the piece of paper (I ignore most pieces of paper which come my way), but my wife read it and pointed out some peculiarities. I decided to pay closer attention to the document, and as I did I flew into a holy rage. It felt all wrong to me. I am supposed to be a minister for all parishioners. I am housed and paid to free up my time so that I can, among other things, provide this kind of pastoral support to anyone who needs it, whether the are a member of the congregation or not, whether they can afford the fee or not!

Now I am not so naive as to imagine that there should be no charge associated with any service which the church provides. I understand, for example, that there is a legal administrative aspect to the solemnization of matrimony. Clergy have to maintain and store legal records etc. But surely, this should never be more than you would get charged by a registry office? The local registry office currently charges between £100 and £250 depending on the day of the week (it's cheeper still if you go for smaller room). The new CofE fees charge £381, adding over a hundred pounds to the most expensive option in a Surrey registry office. Don't we want to encourage people to get married in church? Why on earth does the CofE go to the trouble (and expense) of 'The Weddings Project' to encourage people to marry in church when we then go and raise the fees?! OK, the church bit is likely to be the least expensive part of a bride and groom's 'big day'. But that is not really the point. To me it looks distinctly like the church is profiteering from marriage. When people accuse the church of being obsessed with material wealth, I now have one less reason to disagree with them. The church a worshiper of filthy lucre? Guilty as charged. 

Whilst I understand that some fee is necessary for weddings, in the area of funerals, I have no praise whatsoever for the Church of England. Why on earth are we charging for funerals at all? I feel very strongly about this. Every minister that I have ever spoken to has told me of the enormous privilege of taking a funeral. It is the final dignity we can afford to a fellow human being. It is a way of accompanying surviving friends and relatives through their grief and witnessing to the gospel of Jesus, the resurrection and the life. Why, Oh why are we charging people for this? And why is the charge £160? This is shameful. Visiting a council flat to comfort a widow who has just lost her husband of sixty years and helping her prepare to say a final farewell... and then charging her £160!

Less outrageous, though equally astonishing is the proportion of the fees which goes to the Diocesan Board of Finance. Take a funeral at a crematorium with no service in church. Of the £160 fee – £29 goes to the PCC and £131 goes to the DBF. Why does such a large proportion go to the DBF? I am sure they will argue that it is used as a contribution to clergy stipends. But in my diocese, it is made quite clear that churches are supposed to cover the full cost of ministry through the parish share. If the PCC already pays the DBF for their minister's stipend and housing through their parish share, why do they pay again by giving over 80% of the fee for a funeral to the diocese? The diocese shouldn't need this money. The PCC have the strongest claim to it, and even there, I think the morality of charging people for funerals is dubious.

I have a proposal. I would love clergy to organise themselves into something like a trade union, whose members refuse to charge for funerals. The establishment can stamp down on this if there are just a few clergy who refuse payment, but if thousands of ministers refuse to charge for funerals, what is the worst that can happen? They aren't going to sack us all!