Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Time of Your Life

The most valuable thing we have is time. Its value does not vary. We all have 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 and a quarter days a year. We have no way of knowing exactly how many years we have and we have no sure way to increase the years we will receive. We can't stop the steady disappearance of our days. So it is best to savor and spend each one wisely.

They say time is money and you could argue that time is the true asset that backs our money. Our pay is tied to our hours per week or to the year. So when I buy something I am trading increments of my life for it. The same is true when I devote time to some interest or activity. The worst thing to do is you spend your life on things that will diminish it in quality and probably in length; the best way to spend it is on things that will increase its quality and possibly its length.

This month's sermon suggestion question asks, "With all the TV, computers, etc. to fill our time, what does the Bible say about how much of our time should be spent doing God's work?"

At first it looks like this question has an obvious and easy answer: the Sabbath. The Sabbath has no real parallel elsewhere. Other religions have holy days, of course, but no other religion set aside one day each week for everyone, including slaves, immigrants and even animals, to stop working. The word for Sabbath comes from the Hebrew for "cease, rest." The idea is that, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, we his creatures should likewise cease working every seventh day in his honor. And unlike the way we think of it today, Sabbath observance is not trivial. It is the longest of the Ten Commandments. And so rabbis through the ages tried to work out what was involved in observing it. They identified 39 categories on work it prohibited, including gathering food and fuel, starting a fire, writing, and more, and codified them in the oral law, the expansion of the written law considered by most Jews as just as binding. Though this aspect is not specifically enjoined in Exodus, it became a day of worship and contemplating God's law, the Torah. So it would seem that the Biblical standard for the amount of time spent doing God's work is one day a week.

You may see the problem here. Does spending one day in worship comprise the whole of God's work for us? Is there nothing else he wants us to do? And if it is work, should we be doing it on the day set aside not to work?

If there was one thing Jesus kept getting flack for, it was healing on the Sabbath. Every one of the gospels says Jesus was censured for it by the Pharisees, experts in the law, both written and oral. His defense was 2-pronged. First, he pointed out that the Sabbath prohibition didn't stop people from taking their farm animals to water or rescuing one that had fallen down a pit. Surely rescuing a person who was suffering from a disease was just as good an exception. Second, he claimed that his authority as Son of Man made him lord of the Sabbath. In John's gospel, Jesus says that since his heavenly Father keeps working on the Sabbath, so should he, the Son of God.

Jesus is not saying that the Sabbath isn't special or that it shouldn't be observed, but that good works and acts of compassion were exempt because they, too, are done in imitation of our good God. The corollary is that doing such good works is not something restricted to certain times but something we may be called upon to do whenever it's needed.

There has always been an unacknowledged principle at work among some churchgoers that they could live anyway they wished the other six days as long as they showed up on Sunday to get their sins forgiven. One needn't be a theologian or ethicist to see the flaw in that kind of thinking. But it does reveal the way people come to think whenever a day is declared holy. We think we must behave utterly differently on that day. But the word "holy" means "set aside." The Sabbath has a designated purpose. It is a day to pull our minds out of the workaday world and focus on God. It's not like we are free to ignore him the rest of the time. Mother's Day is a special day to honor those who brought us into the world and/or raised us. But I hope it isn't the only time you treat your mother nicely and thank her for all she's done for you.

So while the Sabbath is a weekly reminder to set aside time to think about, communicate and commune with God, it doesn't mean we are "off the hook" the rest of the time. For one thing, we live in a world of hurt and so everyday there are works of compassion that can be performed. For another, we are the body of Christ and supposed to act as he did, which is to live everyday for God and do his will always.

Jesus started everyday with prayer. It was the practice of the day for Jews to pray at both sunrise and sunset, and maybe also at noon. We don't know precisely what Jesus prayed but based on what we know of first century Judaism, he probably said the Shema ("Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.") and possibly the 18 Benedictions, a Jewish prayer that includes references to the resurrection of the dead and the sending of the Messianic King. So we really ought to pray in the same vein. Episcopalians can use the brief devotional forms in the Book of Common Prayer, or if you can make the time, read the Daily Office which is in the first section of the Prayer Book. There is a table in the back that gives you the Scripture readings for the Daily Office and will take you through the entire Bible in 2 years. For petitions, use the prayer list in the church bulletin, or the one online in the Grapevine, our Diocesan newsletter. You can also craft your own prayer time using the many prayers in the back of the Prayer Book. Or pray spontaneously. It's not something we do much in the Anglican Communion but we should encourage all forms of prayer. (Do me a favor, though. Avoid prayers to Lord Wejus. You know, the ones that go, "Lord, Wejus' come to you in prayer and, Lord, Wejus' ask that you…etc." God hears even inarticulate prayer but unless you're under duress, try to speak to him the way you would anyone else.)

Besides prayer, reading the Bible is essential. Studying it is important as well. There are lots of books and guides that will help you study a book or a topic. There are good commentaries as well. For the New Testament, I like Barclay's Daily Study Bible series for a great mix of information on the language, the culture and the application of what is learned. Bishop and scholar N. T. Wright has a great series on the New Testament with titles like "Matthew for Everyone" or "Paul for Everyone."

Or you can D.I.Y. One simple method is to read a portion and ask yourself what is the main thrust of the passage. Is there anything new to learn about God in it? Anything new to you about human beings? Anything you are commanded to do or to avoid? Anything you should pray for or about?

Oh, and about that first thing in the morning habit. It's an excellent way to start but if you're pressed for time, there are several free daily Bible podcasts you can listen to as you brush your teeth or dress or drive to work. Or if you really aren't a morning person and can't think for several hours, remember what a Bible teacher of mine with the same problem said to me: the Jewish day begins at sunset. Do it when it will benefit you the most.

Once you're primed for the day, do your job conscientiously. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "Serve enthusiastically, as if to the Lord and not to men and women." There is no indication in the Bible that God wants everyone to abandon their job and hand out tracts on street corners. But if what you are doing is contributing to the good of society and serving people's needs, it doesn't matter if you are a social worker or a checkout clerk at Winn Dixie. You can do God's will by doing your work well. God is ultimately your boss and he wants you where you are, making sure the kids get driven safely to school on the bus, or your coworkers get their paychecks on time, or your customers have their problems solved.

And occasionally, you will see opportunities to be of more help. You will be dealing with a stressed-out coworker, or a frustrated client or a customer who's been badly used by your own company. Do the right thing, the most loving thing, and you will be witnessing to the power of God's love.

What if you are ill or handicapped or otherwise sidelined from the mainstream of life? The blind poet Milton wondered what he could do for God and concluded "they also serve who only stand and wait." (Did he not realize his poems, like "Paradise Lost," would live on and inspire generations to come?)

There is always the need to pray for others. And today, with the internet and the phone, anyone can reach out and help. Actor Dick York had to quit the hit show Bewitched because of severe back pain and addiction. He beat the addiction and then battled emphysema. He founded a charity called Acting For Life to help the homeless and others in need. With a cannula in his nose, delivering oxygen, he spent hours on the phone with politicians and business men, garnering support and donations for others.

Are we working for God 24/7, then? Yes, if only in the sense of being on call, ready to spring into action should the need arise. Like a cop or a doctor, we're never really off-duty. That doesn't mean we can't have time to ourselves because this is the God of the Sabbath, the one who commands us to rest and who creates pleasures galore for us to enjoy. But we should never put pleasures before people who really need us. And we should avoid all illicit pleasures that do not glorify God but defame him and harm ourselves and others. We've all seen what happens when Christians feel they done enough good and deserve time off for bad behavior.

Do not worry if what you do is not explicitly Christian. My patient's mother knows this is my other job but she considers me a godsend when I simply make sure he eats, or naps, or takes his medicine. Every book I read to him, every bit on non-food I pull out of his mouth, every diaper I change is a blessing. When I entertain him on Saturdays so she can catch up on some of the sleep he's cost her, it's an answer to prayer. Being a blessing to others is serving God.

Let me conclude with a saying of St. Francis: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."

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