We all begin our lives as babies in our mother's arms but as we grow, we begin with a few faltering steps along that road to independence and adulthood. Along that self-same road we all face, in one way or another, all those difficulties that somehow have to be overcome. We will often find that many of these difficulties may be surmounted through the help and advice of others, generally from those, who have acquired, experience, knowledge and the wisdom of age. Furthermore, in this age of books and information technology, we may discover that there is no shortage of instruction and opinion that may help as we travel the road of life. And If we want to achieve a certain sort of success there exists what I would call the 'self-help industry' that comes in all its forms, especially online or perhaps more traditionally in the form of self-help books.
More often than not, but not always, these books purport to offer us the secrets of success, which usually means how we can get rich, how we may obtain untold riches or how we can get anything we want. There must be literally thousands of books, like this in existence. One such book, first published in 1937, entitled, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is based on the idea that we create our own reality through our thoughts. If we know what we want and actively pursue our objectives, single mindedly and with faith, we can turn our dreams into a reality. So runs the usual blurb. The Victorian writer, James Allen produced his famous booklet: As a Man Thinketh, it was an exposition on the Biblical proverb (27.3): 'For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.' Both these writers, Napoleon Hill and James Allen, are essentially saying that we ultimately become the product of our own thoughts. In the Gospel of Matthew (6:21), Jesus said, 'for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.' I think that we can rest assured that Jesus, in this context, is saying as he does elsewhere in the same Gospel, that 'it is impossible to serve both God and mammon.' We cannot serve God with a divided heart.
At the same time, I don't think that simply wanting to have something or to own something is a sin. If we say that our God is a God of love he is also a God of common sense. Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount tells us not to worry about the things of this world, what we want or need. He said, 'your heavenly Father knows that you need them.' We just need to get our priorities right, firstly to seek God, and to acknowledge him first and if we can do that then all the other things will be added. It's just that all the other things that may be added cannot compensate for spiritual poverty, we cannot live 'by bread alone' and yet so many people act as if they can, the grasshopper mind, the restless, acquisitive soul always jumping from one thing to the next, the compulsive buying, the next new novelty, always having to have something new and having thoughts that go no further than this.
Before all this lockdown business began, ten months ago, it appeared to me that on Sundays the roads were just as busy as any other day of the week and that Sundays far from being the sabbath day of rest as I remembered them from years gone by, when all the shops were closed, people actually attending church and the town centres empty; were replaced by streams of traffic driving to huge shopping centres, super stores and retail parks. Welcome to the new Godless society.
Years ago, I remember how as a student minister I was advised to be 'more inclusive' which meant not using the 'God word' in my ministry. A friend of mine was wont to say in the face of all this opposition to Christian ministry, 'If you don't like religious language, instead of complaining, and spoiling it for everyone else, why don't you just stay away from church on Sunday and just go for a walk round Tesco instead?' That same friend once commented in the local press that on Sunday mornings that there were more cars queuing up to dump stuff at the civic amenities site than there were cars making their way to the local churches.
These civic amenity sites, recycling centres or tips as they are generally known, seem to be part of an endless cycle of car queueing. Queuing to get into the tip to dump all your unwanted stuff and then queueing again at the retail parks in order to buy more stuff that will eventually end up at the tip. The queueing at the tip must in some way be proportional to the frequency of visits to the retail outlets. It has to be. I think there's a manic restlessness driving this cycle of buying and dumping. Only this week another friend spoke of a house not very far from where she lives where the occupants regularly hire a skip to remove their unwanted household waste. I'm told that their neighbours regularly go to this house when the skip is full and help themselves to nearly new or even brand-new items that have simply been thrown out, some stuff can be found unopened; in its original packaging even.
When I think of those skips, filled with unwanted goods, purchased probably just on a whim, just lying there in the skip under the rain swept skies of Oldham, I can't help feeling that there's a sadness to the whole thing. There is of course, the waste of it all and the negative impact to the environment, but there's something else here too - a deep sense of some spiritual malaise. Today, it's fashionable to talk about one's mental health problems which we are assured may be resolved through recourse to counselling, therapies or medicine or any combination of these strategies. Whilst I may acknowledge this, I do reserve the right to say that many of our problems are often of a spiritual nature. So, I return to that skip full of unwanted products and I think of the people, the individuals who have sought some solace, some comfort, some momentary happiness through what we have jokingly come to describe as ‘retail therapy.’
Indeed, there does seem to be a sadness here, a sort of unconscious, human suffering; a seeking of consolation in a world that simply defines itself through owning and buying stuff. But the skip stands as a silent witness against this notion, basically showing us that we cannot buy happiness, inviting us to believe that there exists a profound unmet need bringing to mind those words of Jesus, that, 'Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions' and Thomas A Kempis wrote:
(But) if you hanker inordinately after the good things in life, you will lose those of heaven and eternity. Therefore, make right use of this world's goods, but long only after those that are eternal. This world's good things can never satisfy you for you are not created for the enjoyment of these alone. Could you enjoy every good thing in existence, this could not of itself bring you blessing and happiness, for all the joy and blessedness rests in God alone, the creator of all things.
Our 'right use of this world's goods' as Thomas A Kempis says, is important but our wise judgement is also required at that interface between the spiritual and the temporal. 'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his own soul?' (Mark 8:36).
In the Acts of the Apostles (6: 2) we read:
But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
These few verses reflect a new situation in the early church, not only of growth but of division. There was division between those Jews of the diaspora who no longer spoke Aramaic, but Greek, the international language of the time. We can see from the text that not only had a divisive problem emerged in the church but the apostles were also facing increasing difficulties by being sucked into the administration of feeding the needy. In other translations we hear the apostles saying:
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.
Now, you might think that this is harsh indeed, but the reality was that seven men were appointed, in fact ordained as deacons in order to carry out this very necessary function of food distribution. But and this is an important 'but', the fact is as in each person’s life as in the life of the Church, there has to be an order of priority summed up in those words that 'man cannot live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' 'In the beginning was the Word', as it says in the Gospel of John. Through the drawing board, the plans and design must come before the workshop, so the word of God comes before creation and so must the preaching and teaching come before the serving tables at tables. How could it be otherwise? Our own chapel exists primarily for the worship of God, from our worship and acknowledgement of God, but it is from this small congregation that God's love has been made manifest in its service to the community. Again, we have Jesus' interpretation of the law as being to love God and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. We have to see that the love of God is the first part of the law and that love of neighbour must follow, that is the order of priority. God comes first.
The early Church knew that priority could not and should not be subverted, even though the feeding, clothing, and housing of the needy was a function of the church long before the secular state in the form of its social services took over those responsibilities. The apostles of the early Church made it very clear what their priorities were and we have to be alert to the subversion of those priorities. Such subversion may present itself in very reasonable ways: 'I'm not interested in religion and theology, why don't you just campaign against injustices and why don't you just feed the poor? And so, it goes on, the constant undermining, we see it in the story of Jesus' anointment with the spikenard. 'What a waste!’ cried Judas. ‘The money from the sale of this valuable ointment could have gone to the poor! And within a few hours, Jesus was betrayed and handed over for trial and execution.
We see the same thing in that slogan from the charity: Christian Aid, 'We believe in life before death' and nobody can disagree with that, can they? Except that it is a subversion. It’s a sop to those who would much rather see an end to faith altogether. They're the ones who may have already read the self-help book that Satan has written for them, 'All this shall be yours if you bow down and worship me'. Perhaps that's what hell is really like, wandering forever round a shopping centre and being able to buy everything that you see and wish for. When Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world and all its glory, Jesus didn't deny that it was Satan's to offer him - he knew it was! And he refused.
St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (2:8-10) wrote:
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
what God has prepared
for those who love him.”
But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets.
Photograph: By Rainer Zenz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=597239