Our theme is a challenging one. The three articles in this series are quite different in style but all portray complementary aspects of the life we should all aspire to. The first reminds us to focus our attention on the simplicity of a life in Christ. The second is a sketch of our Lord often under pressure but surmounting it by seeking to redeem fallen man out of adversity. Finally we look at the advice of the Apostle Paul, principally given in the epistle to the Ephesians, of the kind of people we are called to be, reflecting our high and holy calling. Overall, they help portray what it means to be a saint.

Firstly allow me to use a homely illustration. “Goodnight Moon” is a popular story that many parents enjoy reading to their young children. It depicts a bedroom at bedtime. Each object in the room is individually addressed with a “Goodnight” greeting. The room contains few objects – we would describe it as being spartan. Yet despite its simplicity, the room evokes warmth and security, peace and order. It is ‘old-worldy’ and unsophisticated. It certainly is out of place in our world which seems to be always cluttered with gadgetry, restlessness, noise and conflict.

To be connected or disconnected

Could it be that its popularity is due to its simple underlying message: for all of our dazzling technological prowess and the lifestyle that accompanies it, we have lost something vital – a feeling of connectedness? This is ironic. Never before has humanity had the capacity to connect so readily; yet alarmingly, never before has loneliness and depression stalked us so pervasively. If recent statistics are to be relied upon, satisfying relationships seem as unattainable in our apparently “connected” age, as if we were never connected at all.

“This one thing I do”

The Apostle Paul declared, “this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before …” (Phil 3:13). Simplicity itself! Yesterday has gone, along with all its triumphs and regrets. There is only today in which to live, and tomorrow for which to live. Paul defined his life in terms of a short, simple and clear goal to which all his energies were directed – this is what it means to be connected. He counted everything else as but dung. “For to me to live is Christ”, he says in the letter to the Philippians. Could it be that much of our spiritual restlessness is due to our loss of focus? If so, we are of all men most miserable! A life that is continually distracted, forever running, and cravenly defined according to non-biblical measures will never be fulfilling. So how do we restore that single-minded and exciting fervour for a life devoted to our heavenly Father? How do we embrace, genuinely and convincingly, a life lived in Christ? And how do we make this appealing to our children and to our children’s children?

Success and significance

Consider our world. It is built on rivalry (Eccl 4:4 nasb). Organisations compete for market share. Politicians parley for power. Employees stay long hours at work believing that the next promotion is dependent on that extra bit of effort. Our state schools reinforce this culture. For every winner there is a loser, and no one remembers (or cares about) who came second or tenth. Meanwhile the person who came last wallows in feelings of worthlessness and embarrassment. So too with peer approval. We obtain worth, vitality and acceptance through constant reference to, and mirroring of, peer values. No wonder we feel so devalued when everyone is locked into obtaining peer acceptance.

Contrast this with the requirements of the gospel for feet washing and considering others as being better than ourselves. There is nothing more stark or radical than a life lived in Christ. Maybe if we were to define our lives less by worldly success and more by spiritual significance, less by wealth and more by godliness, we would begin the transformation required of a Christ follower. “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure and turmoil with it” (Prov 15:16). This all sounds repressive. Is all striving ungodly or to be down-played? Abraham was successful, even in a worldly sense. That success didn’t just happen. Nor was it decried. But his life was overwhelmingly one of significance. Uncluttered by the turmoil and distractions of Sodom, which he despised (witness his abrupt interchange with the king of Sodom), Abraham built up the ecclesia in Hebron, ensured that everyone down to the lowliest servant was cared for, and made God the total focus of his life. Everything else gained significance and received energy by that motivating faith in, and focus upon, God. He led a significant life whereby God was his only reference point.

Lot, by contrast, struggled with an unrepentant Sodom. His futile attempts to turn the city around left him wearied, confused and vexed. The ecclesia, and even his future sons-in-law, saw him as laughable. Lot was connected to God while the ecclesia, such as it existed, was connected to Sodom. Lot’s wife, too, could not resist the temptation to look back. We deride her for her double-mindedness. But she had prospective sons-in-law back in Sodom, neighbours and perhaps ecclesial members to ponder upon, and a comfortable home to leave behind. The temptation would be immense to look back. She was distracted by all these considerations; Lot was focused on God’s urgent message.

The cares of this life are probably some of the biggest causes for losing our first love or never developing it in the first place. Economic uncertainty, mortgage payments, career choices, education expenses and a multitude of other considerations fill our days (and too often our nights as well). They leave us drained and anxious. Give time to these cares, act upon them, and then deliberately put them to one side. “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matt 6:32). Give Him first place in your life and they will take a less elevated position. Be less concerned about success and more preoccupied with significance. “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it” (Prov 10:22 niv). But how do our young people catch this wave? Everywhere the world screams that they be transformed by the renewing of their body image. How can we turn around this overwhelming cultural pressure and be a called out people?8 Begin with the home.

Good habits in the home

Our homes are often the outward expression of our spirituality and the best place for its development. Nothing can be feigned for very long at home. So what goals ought we to have for our home lives? This may be a question that we rarely address, if at all. Home just happens, or it doesn’t happen – it is rarely made the subject of goals. Yet the Proverbs extol discipline in a believer’s life. This is truer at home than anywhere else (although we often feel the opposite is true – home being seen as a place to just relax)!

What culture ought to permeate the home? Begin with good habits. Nothing is achieved without some sort of order or system. Positive habits teach borders and limitations. An example: family Bible reading is a good habit that does more than simply educate family members in the things of God. It is a gathering of the family, a leaving aside of the mundane (or exciting) things of this life, an act of worship, and a great circuit breaker of conflict (sometimes conflict is lessened when family Bible reading is regularly done – it changes the mood in a home). And it helps prevent the home becoming a motel full of strangers who are all ‘homesick when they are home’. Similarly, a family meal, where everyone is present and the television is silent, is a wonderful relationship builder and reinforcer of the idea of family. Likewise, saying “please” and “thank you” begins as a habit with children but develops into a learned expression of gratitude. Delegating chores and insisting that they be performed (and rewarding those who comply) is a wonderful educative process – and another example of order maintained by good habits. When practised regularly, these positive habits can be strangely comforting. It is the opposite of restlessness. It implies order, responsibility, certainty and reward.

One way to make good habits a profitable and engaging activity is for each member of the family to have a part in an all-of-family activity. The family could grow its own food, with each member responsible for some part of the work. All this may sound out of place in a world that emphasises individualism and freedom. But this same world has a tragic history of rivalry, loneliness and fear.

Sharing is another habit that ought to be part of our family life. It needs to be keenly demonstrated and mandated in every family relationship and activity. Hugs, a listening ear and a word of encouragement are important in the development of family bonds. But maybe within the family we could share more of our skills. God gives us abilities. Why not share them with our children? A father sharing his skill in the workshop or explaining some piece of technology or aspect of astronomy, renders value far beyond the intrinsic worth of the skill orpiece of knowledge. Skill sharing puts the parent in a position of guide, instructor, mentor, giver and leader. He or she becomes relevant, interesting and authoritative. And this transforms into a feeling of security, acceptance and growth to a young mind.

All of these things also create unity. Unity is what families are all about. It begins with a man and a woman sharing the oneness of marriage. For these two people, difficulties are halved and joys are doubled. Why not extend that oneness to every family member? It is the same goal that Christ had for his children, “that they may be one as we are” one (John 17:11). Sharing triumphs and tragedy creates oneness and builds strength and purpose. Extend this idea to a larger group of families, the ecclesia, and meeting attendance becomes a vibrant, delightful experience for everybody. And with unity comes connectedness. How many people in the meeting feel estranged because they feel overlooked, confused, devalued or disconnected? Meet other people where they are at. Reach out to them and invite them into your conversation, your home and, if necessary, your family.

The most powerful habit is that of loving each other. This may at first seem strange to categorise love as a ritual. But love is a command (John 13:34) and the home is the best place to practise it. Consider the Apostle Peter’s warning: “Husbands … (give) honour unto the wife … that your prayers be not hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Some have argued that this is simply stating the obvious: prayer is difficult when there is tension between husband and wife. But if this be Peter’s intended meaning why does he single out the marriage relationship? His argument would equally apply to any close relationship. Peter’s meaning is clear – God listens to the prayers of the man who has first demonstrated his single-minded devotion to his wife. He doesn’t listen to the man who ignores his wife’s needs, or worse, treats her with contempt. Nor does He listen to the man who selfishly vents his anger and makes life unbearable to others in the household. A calm, quiet spirit draws people closer; anger alienates. Love, more than anything else, is the mark of spiritual maturity and of our claims to be brothers and sisters of Christ. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

Denial and rationalisation

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest who first perceived the existence of the half-dead man quickly changed to the other side of the road and passed by. He practised denial. By refusing to see the man and by quickly escaping, the problem could be dismissed with the briefest of conscience difficulties. The Levite at least saw the man, but then chose to go to the other side of the road and continue his journey. Maybe he reasoned that the fellow was beyond help, or that if he delayed the robbers would beset him as well, or that the fellow was receiving just punishment for his foolishness. Whatever the reason, he speedily rationalised the problem away and was soon off on his all important journey. The Samaritan “had compassion” on the man. He could have denied the problem or rationalised it away (Samaritans have no dealings with Jews, being enemies of each other), or acted in a token manner only. Instead he loved his neighbour as himself and acted thoroughly and thoughtfully, denying himself.

What are the lessons our Master wants us to understand from this parable? Beware of our tendency to deny or rationalise away our responsibilities, particularly with relationships involving neighbours, and especially with those involving family members. Relationships involve giving. Act decisively (anything less tends to result in slipping back). Relationships are too precious to be neglected, hoping that somehow, someday, they will just correct themselves. They don’t. No amount of denial or rationalisation can fix a leaking tap.

A simple and contemporary example may suffice: two-thirds of the world’s children are desperately poor. If any one of these children were our child we would want him or her to be rescued. “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord” (Prov 19:17). Yet so little is done. Our children should experience that the family is engaged in charitable giving as a central part of the family culture (done discreetly, of course). This may involve time and money. It is good that children learn that giving is part of their individual responsibilities and that it is just as important as saving. And it is fun! It has been well said: “If you cannot feed a thousand hungry people, then feed just one.”

So too with spiritual food. Are two-thirds of our youth spiritually starving and therefore vulnerable to every tasty morsel offered by outsiders? Then feed them – one by one, one to one, and with food that answers their need. Formal classes or answering polemical issues have their place, but mostly the food that young people crave is bothpersonal and unbounded. Why am I here? How can I know God? Why doesn’t God intervene in this wretched world? These are the questions that, if not answered, cultivate restlessness. Honest, heartfelt answers to these questions given humbly and straightforwardly (preferably by parents to their children) are needed if our children are to begin the road to salvation.

Salvation is an individual thing

The example of Lot teaches one salutary lesson: salvation is an individual thing. When we stand before Christ we stand alone. For some people this may be the first time that they have ever stood alone. Their lives may have been so relentlessly defined by what other people are doing or expecting of them that they may never have known the importance and necessity of cultivating a private relationship with God. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt 6:6 niv). A principle-driven life is oftentimes a lonely life. It follows the narrow way with its uphill climb and its twisting, uneven surface. It avoids the broad way with its excitement, speed and abundance of society. It eschews passivity and non-commitment, believing them to be cowardice adorned with respectability. It realises that courage is sometimes needed and that losing everything for Christ is better than gaining a mess of pottage that satisfies only for a day. Decisiveness is therefore a necessary part of character. And it begins with a conviction that God exists and is a Rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. It has been well said, ‘You cannot jump a puddle in two steps.’

God’s ways are slow

Consider the speed of modern life and contrast it with the speed of God’s dealings with His creation, including His spiritual creation. We emphasise speed, immediacy and efficiency. By contrast, God takes His time and often takes the long way home. Plants grow … s l o w l y. The impatient farmer will do no good by harvesting before the grain has matured. The seasons return on a yearly cycle. Children take decades to reach adulthood. God is in no hurry. And His ways are, from our perspective, wasteful. Commanding that fields remain fallow every seventh year and not reaping the corners of fields seem strange to our efficiency-obsessed mind-set.

So, too, with God’s spiritual creation. Moses spent 40 years in Midian training to become a leader. The children of Israel cried to God for at least 80 years under the harsh Egyptian yoke before deliverance came. The saints eagerly await Christ’s return and have done so for nearly 2000 years.

What does all this mean?

Maybe slowness ought to be accepted as part of the natural rhythm of our lives. It gives time for reflection, love, appreciation, gratitude and gentle growth – towards our heavenly Father initially, but also towards other people. Could our fast pace be a symptom of an underlying greed, or a need to always be stimulated or satiated? How do we enforce slowness in a world that demands speed? Begin by reducing our range of activities (a moment’s thought will often reveal that many activities are superfluous anyway) and focus on the activities that ought to be retained. And begin early with our children. Make each of our children a special harvest in Christ. Quiet patience is what God wants from us. “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:26).

The conclusion of the matter

Clutter is our enemy. It distracts, wearies and overwhelms. It takes away from nurturing others and giving them time. Clutter can take many forms: worries, cares of this life, fascination with gadgetry, peer acceptance, obsessions, idolatry, competitiveness. “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole … man” (Eccl 12:13) is a wonderfully short, simple, and unadorned conclusion to a vast philosophical discourse.

What shall we do next?

Make time for God. Make relationships personal and meaningful. Eschew success that is achieved without significance. If anything distracts, it is better that we enter into life without all the gadgetry, noise and show of today’s world than to miss out on tomorrow’s world. Your children will then see a real life in Christ – in you. It will become stark, clear and overwhelmingly attractive. The fruit that results may, with God’s abundant blessing, be 30- fold, 60-fold or even 100-fold.

“Let us lay aside every weight … and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).