A long time ago, our friend Augustine talked about disordered loves. His contention was things tend to be good in and of themselves but the way we often use those good things is problematic. God created these things, after all – and he called them very good – but these good things were created within an order and with purpose. God’s good creation was meant to work a certain way. So our problem, Augustine says, is that we get our loves out of order. We neglect some things while trying to use other things to do more than they were ever meant to do.
I think there’s a lot of truth to what Augustine is laying on us here. I think about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-21. He bookends this teaching with dual warnings about being careful where we look for our treasures and rewards. Don’t give or pray or fast to impress people. (This was a culture, after all, where giving, praying, and fasting carried major social capital.) If that’s where we’re placing our worth and identity we’ll get our reward, but be careful: those neighbors we’ve worked so hard to impress with our shows of generosity, pious prayers, and righteous displays of fasting simply cannot bear the weight our bid for approval, worth, and meaning places on them. Investing ourselves in such storehouses inevitably leads to loss because, “moth and rust consume” and “thieves break in and steal.”
Augustine reminds us it’s not that our neighbors are bad – or even that we should avoid their approval. Rather, when we make the approval and validation of our neighbors the locus of our worth and identity, the place where we store our treasures, we’ve gotten things out of order. We look for something from our neighbors they cannot possibly deliver in any meaningful way. Only God can. It is only in rooting who we are in God’s estimation of us that we can hope to find lasting worth and meaning and identity. This is “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In Matthew 6:21, Jesus ends by reminding us our hearts will follow our treasures. Another way of saying that is this: You will spend your life chasing the treasure you seek. More, other friends as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, and James KA Smith remind us that it is in this chase that we become who we are. The chase forms us, for good or ill.
What am I seeking? That’s the question we’ve been assigned to ponder and I spend a lot of time doing that. I too often recognize the ways I chase the wrong sorts of treasure – when I place too much stock in whether or not my friends and neighbors think I’m funny or smart or successful or good. I’ve had to deal with all the ways I’ve hitched my identity to being a vocational minister, and I’ve had to figure out what I’m worth now that I’m not that anymore. More, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that pursuing those treasures has often made me a more selfish person because it’s hard to both love and use my neighbors to satisfy my own neurotic needs. The only path forward I’ve discovered is to begin putting those loves back in order. This is, after all, the way Jesus showed us.
What do I seek? It has to be God. I stink at the pursuit. I struggle with it. I often get sidetracked and turned around. But, nothing else will do. Nothing else can.
Rob Sparks is a Jesus follower, a father and husband, a nerd, and a paper pusher. He worships and serves with the Fernvale Church of Christ in Middle Tennessee and occasionally blogs at robrsparks.wordpress.com
Back in the days when telephones were wired to walls, I had a cousin who would refuse to answer the telephone during dinner. He prioritised spending time with his family. He gave them the gift of his presence. Not just his physical presence, but his mental and emotional presence. For that time each day his wife and son knew that they were his #1 priority.
As mobile phones have proliferated the gift of conscious presence has become a scarcer commodity. You know a video strikes a chord when it has 50 million views on YouTube:
God has always valued this gift and throughout Scripture regularly promises his people the blessing of his presence. In Listening to His Heartbeat Harold Shank describes this gift as the “Divine With”. God promises to be with his people.
We see the precious nature of the “Divine With” in the first chapters of the Bible. God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden, but sin resulted in them leaving the Garden of Eden. Although they leave the Garden, there’s no indication that God left them to their own devices at that point. That comes down in Genesis 4:16. After Cain kills Abel we’re told that, “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” The ultimate punishment for murder was to leave the presence of God.
In the new testament the “Divine With” gathers greater momentum. Matthew 1:23 introduces Jesus with the name Immanuel, meaning “God with us”.
As Jesus prepares to die in John 14:16 he promises, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.”
Immediately prior to his ascension Jesus reassures his disciples saying, “surely I am with you always , to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Even the last words of Scripture in Revelation 22:21 contain the idea of presence, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”
This promise continually reminds us that when we sit down at the table with God, we’re his #1 priority. When we’re driving our car, when we’re at school or work, when we’re tired, angry, sad, lonely… God is with us and at that moment we’re his #1 priority.
The repetition of this promise throughout the centuries reassures us that God’s longing to spend time with us emerges from deep within God’s heart. God’s presence provides me with tremendous comfort. As I write this blog I can pause and talk to God knowing here’s right here listening to me. I value his presence.
It’s tempting to end this post right here: warm and fuzzy. But as I revel in God’s presence I also appreciate that I share the same responsibility.
Job’s friends frequently serve as an example of people practicing presence. Job 2:13 tells us that “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
As God’s presence comforts us, we have the opportunity to encourage others with our presence.
In Matthew 28 Jesus makes his promise to be with his disciples in the context of telling them to go throughout the world meeting and speaking to people. In other words, as you give the world the gift of your presence and share the promise of God’s presence with others, I’ll be with you.
That, is the gift of presence.
This blog post was previously published here.
Jesus knew the truth that what we celebrate matters. Shortly before his death Jesus instructed his disciples to remember his death through a simple meal. (Luke 22:14-20) I imagine that without this instruction the disciple may have decided to celebrate other aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Earlier the apostle Peter had wanted to construct shelters to memorialise the spectacular event of Moses and Elijah appearing and talking with Jesus. Other disciples could easily have chosen to celebrate Jesus healing ministry or concern for the poor.
How would the history of Christianity differ today if the first followers of Jesus decided to politicise His criticism of the religious establishment? Would they have sought revenge against the pagan Romans? Would they have sought to initiate an uprising and seize control of the temple, freeing it from apostate religious leaders?
Instead, Jesus preempts these possibilities by establishing a celebration of his death and his resurrection. This move required the first Christians to pursue understanding of his death. Why did it happen? Do you remember what he said? Do the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a resurrected Messiah? How does this impact us? Does this change our relationship with God?
The simple meal. The memory. The celebration. The understanding. Jesus directed the focus of future generations for thousands of years to the thoughts that are most important.
Our churches still face the same opportunities. In addition to the Lord’s Supper, we get to decide what and who to celebrate.
I once visited a church and watched an elder call every one 18 and under who had a birthday that month to the front of the room. As they stood on the stage with him he prayed over those children. What an affirmation that these children matter to God and to the church!
I know of a church that hosts a VBS each year for special needs children. This event shines the spotlight of love and grace upon these children and their families, letting them know that they’re valued and important.
Last October, the church a friend of mine attends encouraged everyone to wear purple one particular Sunday in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This topic seldom receives attention from churches and this congregation sought to publicly stand with victims of abuse.
I recently saw a church workshop advertised with the theme, “Reprove, Rebuke, & Exhort”. This celebration clearly communicates what matters to them: Reproving and Rebuking. Getting things right. Doing things right.
I’m aware of many churches that have special “Mission Sundays” or “Ministry Fairs” as they highlight the need to send and support missionaries around the world, or the importance for members to involve themselves in church ministries.
Each of these churches chose to express issues, topics, causes, and people that they view as important through celebration.
It would be overly simplistic to infer that the reverse is true. Just because a church does not celebrate a particular cause or person does not mean that they don’t care. No one church can emphasise every issue. If they try to acknowledge everyone, eventually no person or cause is particularly special because everyone’s treated the same.
Which brings us back to where I began: What we celebrate matters!
With this in mind, I’m thrilled that my church celebrated our racial diversity last Sunday through a special day that we call Harmony Sunday. I’ve been part of multi-ethnic churches in the past who preferred not to acknowledge their diversity. Taking one day to celebrate the reality we see each Sunday communicates to the church and the community that each person matters. It reinforces God’s vision for his kingdom as a house for all nations. And most of all, it communicates that this topic is important, not an accident.
I am convinced that events like Harmony Sunday are vital for the good health of multi-ethnic congregations and those seeking to broaden their membership. Among many other benefits, this type of celebration gives permission for conversations about race to take place. It communicates a desire for the church to provide a safe place for dialogue.