Sacred and ordinary Sunday

chair for sacred sundayIn the Sunday Life section of the Sydney Sun-Herald there was an article “Sacred Sunday” that got me thinking. The author Susie Burrell never defines what she means by ‘sacred’ but uses a practical ideal as the basis for her well-written article. “. . .we have to actively schedule more rest time, for the benefit of our health, our relationships and our soul.” Any Christian could use this same justification for making Sunday’s more special. (Of course, hopefully, we would go much further and bring God’s command into play — “Remember to keep the Sabbath holy.”)

What to do with Sacred Sunday?

Susie suggests five points for keeping a sacred Sunday:

  1. Sunday lunch — bring family members together, do some healthy food preparation for the week ahead
  2. Family-based activity — share some quality time together and also get some healthy exercise
  3. Prioritise — ensure you have adequate time for a proper sacred Sunday
  4. No electronic equipment — only face-to-face communication and activities, and getting adequate rest
  5. The mini-break — Get out of the city into nature

As far as these go, they are all good starting points for busy people to keep in mind. What would I add to what Susie recommends? (I wouldn’t delete anything.) I would add a new #1 that precedes her five points — #1 Worship God — Put aside everything else and spend time  with your local church community in their form of placing God at the center of life. Also consciously dedicate whatever you do on Sunday to God. But there is a far deeper significance to “sacred Sunday” than these points.

Let God be God

Psalm 80:19 makes the point that is most important about sacred Sunday: “Restore us, Oh Lord God of hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.” God established sacred Sunday for mankind as a day of rest so that we would make space in our busyness for Him to restore and save us. When we take control of Sunday, even doing the good activities listed above, we are implicitly saying, “I can decide what to do to restore my life.” Whether we intend it or not, we are saying the opposite of the Lord’s prayer (Thy will be done, thy kingdom come) — My self-will be done; my power to make choices is more important than the kingdom.

Perhaps you think what God is asking is extreme. Let me ask you, would you be willing to follow the strict Jewish law about doing no “work” on Sunday? Their intention was to take very seriously God’s commandment about the Sabbath. Do you subscribe to a truely sacred Sunday, allowing God to be God and restore you? I think the asnwer is obvious. We all do our shopping on Sunday. We are restored by going to the movies. Our families generally split and each individual decides how to spend Sunday. It’s almost impossible to imagine being open to God’s restoring power in a special way on Sunday, for only 24 hours a week.

But God’s kingdom — His Lordship — is present. Pope Benedict in his wonderful book Jesus of Nazareth puts it this way: “God’s dominion over the world and over history transcends the moment . . .yet it is at the same time something belonging absolutely to the present. . . It is present as a life-shaping power through the belever’s prayer and being: by bearing God’s yoke, the believer already receives a share in the life to come.” If this is the reality we believe — and I think somehow most Christians do — then ‘sacred Sunday’ is when we put aside as best we can our own choices and put on God’s ‘yoke’ by being open to His restoring grace. Can we do this for 24 hours? It may be our intention, but “the flesh is weak.” But if we become more aware of what’s going on in the kingdom and desire more strongly to be part of it and welcome God’s restoring power, then we have taken the vital first step of choosing how we would like to spend sacred Sunday. After that, stay tuned for opportunities to present themselves!

 

Singlemindedness

Somehow, singlemindedness seems a poor strategy in today’s complex, unpredicatable world. Better to have many options and a Plan B, C and even D. If you really focus on only Plan A, and that doesn’t work you fail. Balance not focus.

There is a different point of view. Singleminded people put all their energy into one desired outcome, one project. They accomplish things because of their intensity. “Failure is not an option” is their motto. Focus not balance.

Christian singlemindedness

William Barclay, in The Mind of Jesus, makes a fascinating point about Jesus’ singlemindedness. In his opening proclamation of his mission recounted in Luke 4:16-20,  reading from Isaiah to his neighbors in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus stopped abruptly, half-way through the passage. He read the words in Isaiah 61 about God’s mercy and then according to Luke’s account “rolled up the scroll and sat down” and didn’t read Isaiah’s next line, “the day of vengeance of our God.” Barclay concludes that Jesus was showing his singleminded focus on his mission, which was proclaiming the arrival of God’s mercy not vengeance.

What about us?

If you combine this event in Jesus’ life with some of the others it’s clear what he is saying to us today. His forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery; his forgiveness of Peter who denied him in his own hour of need; his parable about the workers who came in at the last hour and got the same wages as those who had worked all day, and many others. His message is clear — I want you to singlemindedly forgive and show mercy no matter what the circumstances.

You might then say, how do I show mercy in a singleminded manner? Jesus summarised that in the reading from Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of The Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclain the year of the Lord’s favor.” This means mercy and forgiveness and caring, without judgment, for everyone without exception.

With such clear instructions, it seems to me that we must make a distinction between “church-going” and “kingdom-living.” What we do inside “church” is important as preparation for singlemindedness in “kingdom-living”. One without the other misses the point. If Jesus had only read the passage from Isaiah to his neighbors and done nothing else, he would not have fulfilled what God’s Spirit annointed him to do. In the same way, if we see what we do outside of church as doing our best to live well in the world and maintain some kind of balance with living in the Kingdom, we are certainly not being singleminded. This may well mean that our “church-going” lacks something and, consequently, our “kingdom-living” suffers.

Distinctions and Generalizations

We live in a world filled with information. Media, Facebook,  email and mobile phone connectivity push information at us continuously. In fact. our lives are so completely full of information that we constantly need to make quick judgments about whether we should pay attention or not, or whether something rings true or not.

We ought to use critical thinking to make better judgments about what is true versus what appears to be true but isn’t, in important areas of our life. Much of what we encounter in the media or Facebook has some “spin” or bias connected with it and it requires some effort to sort out what is true. That’s especially important for Christians.  Jesus claimed to be “The way, the truth and the life.” Therefore, we ought to try to see things with “the mind of Jesus” to better understand the truth in the complex situations we encounter.

On the 7:30 Report last night in Australia a story was featured about the Victoria Police’s investigation of how the Catholic Church mishandled paedophilia cases in the past. Too say the least, the report was damning. This story was about the Catholic Church but it didn’t just affect Catholics. News about any Christian or any Christian church reflects on us all. Therefore we need to be able to help people outside the church understand how we Christians view such ugly incidents. This involves making some important comparisons and distinctions, rather than just generalizing, “Religion / Churches / Christians are all ___(epithet)____!”

Three important comparisons

First, I’d like to make three comparisons so help clarify some basic concepts that many people use quite loosely.

  • Church and organizations (government, corporations, etc)

Every Christian church is an organization. Like every organization, the primary interest of its leaders is the survival of the organization first and achieving its purposes second. There has to be an organization in order to be able to collectively work toward its goals. Where the church organization differs from other secular organizations (perhaps) is in its values. How the church survives, and how it achieves its purposes is paramount. The end doesn’t justify the means. Thus, church organizations are (and should be) held to account not just against the usual organizational criteria, such as ethics and following the law, but also each should be measured against its own espoused value system.

  • Religion and other institutions (legal system, healthcare system, etc)

Religion is also a human cultural system, which organizes itself to communicate certain foundational ideas and ways of thinking. There are no precise boundaries that limit ‘religion’ on our planet, so religion is a global cultural system. To a large extent, religion is out of the control of any church. In modern scientific terms, the Christian religion is a complex system that emerges from the interaction of enormous numbers of phenomena at all levels of all Christian churches as well as outside the church. This is exactly how the global legal system, global healthcare system, global economic system and all global systems work. In general all leaders are powerless to control how their specific brand of complex global system behaves and evolves. In fact, all these systems interact with one another, and influence each other’s emergence. The global system of religion is shaped as well as shapes, as we well know, by global political and economic events. That said, churches need a global understanding of how the system of religion works (or doesn’t) to advance the cause of love and peace on this planet

  • The Kingdom and reality (two views of “what is”)

We Christians also make another comparison, which hardly anyone else understands. We believe that, besides day-to-day reality, we also live in God’s Kingdom. Therefore, in addition to the realities of ‘church’ and ‘religion’ I described above, there is the real Kingdom of God. That is the fundamental meaning of who Jesus is — “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What is the Kingdom? Is it ‘pie in the sky by and by’ as some cynics describe it? Or is it “what is” right now? Some Christian scholars describe the Kingdom’s reality as being “already but not yet” fully present. The cynics would say the “already” bit is so tiny as to be non-existant. They may be willing to concede a hidden reality that only exists in some individual Christian hearts, but not many of those. I am of a different opinion, which I’ll cover in the next part of this blog.

Important distinctions

So, what about the paedophilia news story? What distinctions ought we Christians to make in understanding this ugly situation that involves all of us?

  • As an organization, the Catholic Church ought to be criticized. The way it handled paedophiles was inept and didn’t follow its own ethical or moral value system. I suspect that the Catholic Church organization is already taking steps (like any corporation or goverment organization would) to find the flaws in its governance processes that allowed this evil to persist for so long. And, the wider society has a right to keep criticizing the Catholic Church’s efforts. None of this means, however, that the Catholic Church ought to be condemned and destroyed. That would be like saying close down a major bank because fraud was discovered in some of its transactions.
  • Religion has a lot to answer for, which goes well beyond paedophilia. I won’t catalogue the evils that have been done in the name of religion down through the centuries. The distinction to be made, however, is whether those of us who are ‘religious’ need, advocate and support this institution — or are those who say “I’m spiritual but not religious” on the right path? The value of religion is its global power and capability to bring God into the world’s affairs. (That power is also its human weakness). For Christians to say that we don’t need religion is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ on a global scale. The question is, how to help the global Christian religious culture to evolve toward something that is closer to a “godly presence.” That is the task I have decided to support in this blog — transformation of the global Christian religion through ‘bottom-up’ transformation of all local Christian communities. Had local Catholic communites taken more responsibility for paedophilia, this current situation would likely have been fixed long ago.
  • Perhaps the most important distinction we Christians need to understand and apply is between living in a secular reality and living in God’s Kingdom. I described the ‘already but not yet’ idea above. My personal view is that the ‘already’ part is far more powerful than we Christians allow ourselves to imagine. The mystery of the Body of Christ is having a profound effect (in God’s time) on our everyday secular reality. The story of the “final days” is being written right now — and we individual Christians in our local communities are the Change Agents. So, in the paedophila case, we are responsible for changing the church and religious system that allowed that evil to persist — beginning right in our own local church, whether we are Catholic or not. It’s not a case of “That’s a Catholic problem.” We are all brothers and sisters, in one Body. Bottom-up change begins with the Spirit’s actions in each individual Christian when such outrages occur.