Small Things
Spiritual Growth

Pursuing God through the small things

Small Things

.v1ctor., Flickr

We live in a day of extremes, and sometimes it seems our culture’s highest virtue is going overboard. Everything is super-sized, quad-shot, high-energy, maximum-strength, full-throttle.

I wonder and worry about how much of that infects our faith. If being radical for Jesus means being totally committed to the kingdom, that’s great. But if we’re obsessing on doing something big for Jesus, as if that’s the only thing that counts, then we’re missing something. The truth is that holiness and kingdom service are found in the small occurrences of normal days.

“It is a great misconception to think . . . for the sake of heaven . . . that one must undertake great, reverberating tasks,” said Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth century Russian bishop.

“Not at all,” he continued. “It is necessary only to do everything according to the commandments of God. Just what exactly? Nothing in particular — only those things which present themselves to everyone in the circumstances of life, those things which are required by the everyday happenings we encounter. This is how God is. God arranges the fate of each man, and the whole course of one’s life is also the work of His most gracious foreknowledge, as is, therefore, every minute and every encounter.”

The theologian, philosopher, and doctor Albert Schweitzer said something similar:

Always keep your eyes open for the little task, because it is the little task that is important to Jesus Christ. . . . The great flowing rivers represent only a small part of all the water that is necessary to nourish and sustain the earth. Beside the flowing river there is the water in the earth — the subterranean water — and there are the little streams. . . . Without these other waters — the silent hidden subterranean waters and the trickling streams — the great river could no longer flow. Thus it is with the little tasks to be fulfilled by us all.

Schweitzer of course did great things as well as little, a point that adds credence to the observation. Don’t neglect the little things. And don’t be discouraged if the little things are all you seem to accomplish. The kingdom is built of little things. What’s more, God has ordained them. The small tasks are exactly those good works that God has providentially prepared for us to do, and faithfulness is all he asks.

God is surely calling some people to big, hairy, audacious things. But he is also looking for trickling brooks and subterranean streams, without which the great flowing rivers shrink and dry.

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Fifty Shades of Grey
Books

Fifty Shades of Let’s Get Serious

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey

E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey sold over 10 million copies in its first six weeks here in the U.S., according to the publisher.

If you’re close to the publishing business, you know that number is high enough to induce acute tachycardia. Precious few books ever sell such quantities. But this book and its companion volumes are hardly precious, and there are some serious reasons to be concerned about the phenomenon.

I’ve now read several exchanges among Christians in the blogosphere and on Facebook about James’ trilogy. Some express concern and even moral outrage at the book’s graphic sexual content. Others are surprisingly dismissive. A sampling of sentiments from the latter to the former, include thoughts like these (paraphrased):

  • Some women just like variety in their reading; a person can only handle so much Nicholas Sparks.
  • If you haven’t read it, you can’t call it pornography.
  • It’s just a book. Lighten up.
  • Porn is different than erotica. Porn is visual, this isn’t.
  • Sex with one’s spouse can get boring. It’s about time women had access to the same sort of stimuli that men do.
  • The characters get married in the third book so the prenuptial prelude is okay.
  • It’s acceptable for some people, even if others don’t like it; so don’t judge people who enjoy the stories.

Some of these are obviously erroneous and contradictory, and I’m not going to deal with them in any systematic way. I mainly want to point out that Christians have offered these rationales for reading books that any previous generation would have called smut. Something’s wrong here.

I’ve got my past, and you’ve got yours. Nobody’s claiming to be sinless. There are shameful things in all of our lives that we are called to repent of and get beyond. But it seems as if we’re now caught looking for reasons whereby we can gratify our lusts without the consequence of guilt or shame or worse.

We’re called to something better than that. This isn’t about being prudish. It’s about being holy. I’m as poor at living that out as anyone, but that’s the calling of a Christian. That’s what we walk and work toward. And part of that calling is curbing our passions and starving our lusts, however challenging that might be and however unsuccessful we might be at times.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul tells us, “Flee from sexual immorality.” He tells us in Colossians 3 to “[p]ut to death . . . what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire.” And in Ephesians 5 he says that “sexual immorality and all impurity . . . must not even be named among you.”

Let’s get serious. Are we working toward Paul’s standard? Or are we leaning on an unsatisfactory view of Christian liberty to excuse our sin? We can do better than this — and we’re called to something much better than this.

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Duke Ellington
Society

Praying for grace instead of judging others

Duke Ellington

Dontworry/Jafeluv, Wikimedia Commons.

What if instead of judging others, we saw their failings as our own?

Some years back I read Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music is My Mistress. A statement he made about withholding judgement of others really stuck with me.

“We should recognize that everybody is capable of making a mistake,” he said, “and we should not raise any more hell about somebody else’s mistakes than we expect to be raised when we make one. Who does not make mistakes? Who is not limited? Everybody but God.”

A better musician than ethicist, Ellington did not draw out the thought much further than that, but there is a important idea hiding under the surface of his observation, one that pertains to our common plight as people.

My friend Matt Vest recently pointed me to a statement by Tikhon of Zadonsk that fills in the gaps of Ellington’s thought.

To look upon another — his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects — is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important: do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you’d never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.

Tikhon’s understanding of the Golden Rule is more thoroughly expressed than Ellington’s but they both hinge on the same thought. None of us is better than another. All of us have failings. Sympathy should soften our judgmental edge.

That said, it is not enough to say that we all sin and therefore we ought to give each other a pass — which is how some treat the scriptural injunction against casting judgment. What Tikhon says that if we judge our brother, we are judging ourselves. We all suffer together. But we don’t get on by sweeping things under the rug. We don’t need a pass. We need grace and repentance.

This is the full meaning of doing unto others, as it relates to judging them. It’s the full meaning of bearing one another’s burdens. We don’t condemn the gossip, the glutton, the griper, or the groper. We instead pray for their healing (and ours). The unkind, the undisciplined, the unchaste, the ungodly need grace just like we do. If we are doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves, we will pray for their salvation as we hope for our own.

As Duke Ellington said, only God is without fault. And only God can save those who fall short of his glory. That includes the person screwing up and the person judging him for it.

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Community of Prayer
Prayer

A community of prayer

Community of Prayer

henribergius, Flickr.

Jesus tells us not to pray in public. But he doesn’t teach us to pray by ourselves.

The Lord addresses this in the Sermon on the Mount. Right after saying that we shouldn’t call attention to our charity, but rather do it in secret, Jesus tells his disciples to pray the same way. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites,” he says; “for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. . . . But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6.5-6).

Jesus directs his followers to pray in private, but he also assumes a certain togetherness, a community. Immediately after giving this correction, Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, the first word of which (at least in English) is our: “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” Not my, but our. That possessive pronoun indicates that we are not alone when we pray. The rest of the prayer follows suit, always using “us,” and never “me.” We call on God with others, even though we do it by ourselves in secret.

John Chrysostom draws out this point and elaborates it. We “make our prayer common, in behalf of our brethren also,” he says. In praying the Lord’s Prayer we take our brother and sister’s needs upon our hearts and tongues and even assume their presence as we pray. The individual Christian “offers up his supplications for the body [of Christ] in common, and nowhere look[s] to his own, but everywhere to his neighbor’s good.” The church is not divided. Rather, says Chrysostom, “we are all of us fellows . . . we are all of us knit together” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 19.6).

This strikes me as a powerful corrective to selfishness and ambition. Not only do we refrain from public spectacle that would amplify our apparent (but false) piety in the eyes of others, but even when we pray secretly we put others before ourselves. We may be alone in our living room in the early-morning hours, may be sitting in our car in traffic, may be out for a quiet walk, but we are invited, even directed, in those moments of solitude to hold up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Our Father,” we start, continuing with “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

There is no room for conceit or ego here, nor pride or selfish concern. Christian prayer is a family affair and assumes the reality of the church, the reality of our togetherness, the reality of our being knit one to another, as Chrysostom says. Even in private, we come before God as a people.

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The Business of Prayer
Prayer

The business of prayer

The Business of Prayer

D. Sharon Pruitt, Flickr.

It’s easy to delay prayer as we brace for the daily grind, and easier still to forget about it as we wade through the tumult of the day. But what if we thought of prayer as our first and most important job?

In his book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, John Climacus refers to prayer as the work of angels. Christians are invited to join in this labor as part of our walk with Christ.

I think there’s merit to linking words like work and labor to the subject of prayer. The word liturgy in fact comes from a Greek word denoting a public-works project.

The fourth-century Spanish poet Prudentius underscored prayer’s occupational nature. In his cycle The Daily Round Prudentius discussed the morning hours as the prime time for prayer.

He pointed to those who jump in the morning to eagerly start their day. “This is the hour that profits all for carrying on their several businesses,” he wrote, “be it soldier or citizens, sailor, workman, husbandman or huckster.” What motivates them? “One is carried away by desire for fame in the courts, another by the grim war-trump; and here are the trader and the countryman sighing for their greedy gains.”

But not the Christian. The Christian, said Prudentius, starts the day eager in prayer and supplication. “This is the trafficking whereby we grow rich,” he said, “this the employment by which alone we live, these the duties we enter upon when the sun breaks forth at its rising again.”

There are several examples in the Scripture of men starting the day in prayer. David and Daniel come quickly to mind. The memory of the church relates similar examples, while its living practice encourages believers to pray the hours as Christians have from the start.

When discussing unceasing prayer, as Paul talked about, Hilary of Poitiers acknowledged that for those of us who work in the world, the primary way we accomplish this feat is by making our tasks align with our prayer — doing work that pleases God, doing it for his glory, doing it in a righteous manner, etc.

Gregory of Nyssa in fact said that’s how we hallow God’s name, as the Lord’s Prayer says. We make God’s name holy in our actions.

When we do that, our labors align with the prayer in our hearts — even if words are not fresh on our lips or minds. But for Hilary’s advice to mean anything, we have to cultivate prayer when we are not otherwise disposed.

Starting the morning with prayer is the way by which we ensure that it echoes in our hearts throughout the day. And that’s our primary vocation.

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