Silence and Action
Yesterday I was speaking to some students at CalPoly and one of them asked me “Who gets to decide what’s sin?” I was rather taken aback by the question because it assumed an external authority, but it is a good one if we reframe it a little… how do we identify sin?
A Church of England priest recently hit the headlines when he preached that if you were hungry you should steal but to steal from the big chains who wouldn’t be so effected by it, not small local businesses! I suspect that if, like Jesus, I went for a very long time without food and had the opportunity to get some bread I wouldn’t consider it a sin to do what it takes. Even more so if I had others with me who were also hungry.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the season when we prepare ourselves for the annual re-membrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter. It is traditionally a time when we recall our sinfulness. By that I don’t mean a laundry list of things we may or may not have done wrong but when we reflect on the many ways in which we fall short of God’s glory and of being fully the people we were made to be. As we grow in the spiritual life, so we become conscious of things in the ways we behave and respond that keep us from being fully Christ-like beings. Lent is a time to consciously examine our thoughts and behaviors, to consciously think about our spiritual practices and discern how God is calling us to change, to grow and to mature.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean giving up something. Though it may. Fasting has long been a spiritual discipline encouraged by a number of faith traditions. It is a way of denying our selves so that our higher Selves can connect more freely to the divine. As people who live in incredible luxury – we are the richest in the world – we get used to having things. We get used to our habits. Fasting, or voluntarily choosing not to do or have something that is habitual, shakes us up. It makes us see things in a different way. It causes us to exercise our wills and to become aware of how indulgent we often are towards ourselves.
Laziness may be one of our besetting sins. We have come to see ourselves as being pretty good people who try to do our best and not hurt others. We care about our families and look out for those around us. But making a real effort for our spiritual growth, an effort which requires discipline and perseverance, is too much bother. So much so that we’re not sure where to start. Spiritual discipline often means doing something which doesn’t seem to make much difference and keeping on doing it when it’s inconvenient.
I’m sure several of you have been enjoying watching the winter Olympics and the incredible skill of the athletes. They are not able to engage with speed and daring without having first practiced and practiced and practiced, and given up other things in order to develop their skills. At times it probably seemed meaningless, but they kept on. They kept on in the hope that they might make it to the Olympics, might win a medal. We keep on in the hope and assurance that God is waiting with open arms for us to move closer into her embrace.
I read an article about how the winter Olympics has changed. In order to keep audiences interested and engaged, they have added more extreme sports. As a culture we have a tendency to want more, quicker, and more intensely. We have shorter and shorter attention spans, so instead of being able to sit and muse over a novel, we read it as rapidly as possible and then download another. Writers ramp up the amount of gore and horror as each book somehow has to outdo their previous one. Extreme sports, which used to be an unusual activity for particularly daredevil young men, have become mainstream.
I wonder whether if Jesus were living now he would have been more inclined to give into the final temptation, to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple. It would have been a great publicity stunt. It would have gotten a lot of attention. But he dismissed it out of hand, without really explaining why.
Our culture is full of opportunities. There are always new things that can be done, good ideas that can be developed. New records to be broken, new pinnacles to be leapt off. So another of our besetting sins is that of frenetic activity.
It’s a paradox. I am suggesting on the one hand that we are often lazy, and on the other that we tend to get too caught up in activity. And of course, I am talking about myself. I confess to you that I fail to take be adequately disciplined to sit with God, and to allow adequate time for prayer and spiritual reading. I also confess to you that I get caught up in the possibilities of what can be done without taking into account what I am already doing, and without pausing long enough to clearly hear the voice of Spirit.
As I have looked at some of the responses you gave in our recent Mutual Ministry Review I think we have the same dilemma as a church. It certainly isn’t unusual for a small church like this to take on some of the characteristics of its priest in charge – and not necessarily her best ones!
There is certainly much to be done as we work together to consciously connect people with the incredible and unconditional love of God. We have big visions, and we will all need to help to bring those into reality. At the same time, if our focus is on what we can do outwardly and not on who we are as God’s beloved children and as spiritual athletes, all our activities become no better than Jesus bungee jumping off the temple.
We get to live in the paradox of stillness and action. Without action our words become just noise. But without stillness our actions become just activity.
So as we enter this Lent together let us encourage one another to stillness and to spiritual discipline so that our actions may be empowered by God’s Spirit and in alignment with his will.