Deserted?

One of my favourite places on earth is the Namib desert.

Over 50 million years old and covering over 80 000 square kilometres, this vast place seems, at first glance, to be completely inhospitable and sterile. But to those with the wisdom to fix their gaze beneath the seductive purple hues of the horizon to the shimmering, shifting sands under their feet, life triumphs in the number of unusual and rare plants and animals who have adapted to survive the harsh conditions.

I was astounded by our guide who wove tales of this living desert from the faintest tracks upon the sand; who stalked a chameleon over 500 metres of rock and scrub; who stood upon a sidewinder in his attempt to locate one for us; who pointed out the tunnels of invisible spiders right beside our feet; who barrelled out of the 4X4 and into the side of a mammoth dune to emerge with a little lizard held tenderly in his enormous hand; who spoke reverently as the sun set of the fog that would creep over the coast at night allowing nature to flourish in a land where rain is so scarce and unpredictable.

As I journey with the Gospel reading this week (Matthew 14:13-21), I am equally astounded that a crowd of over 5000 people would so readily forsake the comfort and convenience of home and community for the solitary, deserted place into which Jesus had withdrawn to pray.

What did they see in Jesus that they would follow him on foot from their towns to a remote place without any certainty about how he would receive them, or concern about what they would feed their families with that day?

Did they see beneath the surface of an inhospitable, sterile place to the possibility of healing and spiritual sustenance?

Were their lives perhaps more inhospitable and sterile than the deserted place to which they flocked in order to find real satisfaction, true abundance?

Just a few chapters before, we read of Jesus speaking to the crowds in parables which confuse his disciples. When they question him on his methods, he responds:

But blessed are your eyes because they see,
and your ears because they hear.
Matthew 13:16 (NIV)

Though we may find ourselves in a deserted place;
though some of our relationships may be on rocky ground;
though our finances may look bleak
or our jobs may be unrewarding
or there may be no job at all;
though we may struggle to get through all we have to do in a day
and fall each night into bed exhausted,
or have no reason to get out of bed each morning
and lose each day to a suffocating depression that no one seems to understand;
though we are barely holding onto hope by our fingertips,
may we have eyes to see the Christ who turned 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast for 5000
and have the courage to follow the One who will not send us away empty-handed.

Life-loving and love-living God

An opening prayer for Sunday services based on Psalm 23 and Matthew 22:1-14. Interspersed with verses from “Be still and know that I am God.”

Leader:
Oh life-loving and love-living God,
You are the Lord of the Dance,
The Provider of the Feast,
The Host who welcomes us with open arms,
The Guide into ways rich with Your goodness and Your grace.

Congregational response:
You call us from our work and busy-ness
to rest quietly a while with You.
You invite us in our scarcity and our loneliness
to eat and drink and rejoice with the family Your love has created.
You journey with us through places of brokenness and despair
to spaces full of light and love and possibility.

Leader:
Be still a while and become aware of the Love with and within you …

(Silence is kept)

Be still and know that I am God,
be still and know that I am God,
be still and know that I am God.

Congregational response:
Oh life-loving and love-living Lord,
Forgive us when we fail to show up,
When we do not respond to Your invitation,
When we cannot hear Your call over all the voices
that we have given place and power to in our lives.
Rescue us from wrong priorities,
Confront us with our self-centeredness and our superficial commitment –
to You,
and to others that we love.
Open our eyes to Your generosity and Your constant, comforting presence, and clothe us anew in goodness, integrity and honesty.

I am the Lord that healeth thee,
I am the Lord that healeth thee,
I am the Lord that healeth thee.

Leader:
Oh life-loving and love-living Spirit,
Settle into the depths of our soul,
the knowledge, the assurance
That our prayers have been heard,
Our sins washed away,
Our capacity for seeing, embracing,
and sharing life and love restored.

Congregational response:
Be the Rod and the Staff that comfort and protect us,
The Oil of gladness that anoints and heals us,
The seal and the symbol of the eternity of days
that we will dwell in the house of the Lord,
Even as we gather in God’s house this day.
Amen.

In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust,
In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust,
In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust.

Protect your reserves

If you have ever had the misfortune to run out of petrol, you know all too well the anxiety and frustration of the foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 – as well as the embarrassment of having to admit your mistake and ask for assistance.

Although this passage is often used for a sermon on getting ourselves ready, or being prepared, for the coming of God’s kingdom, the more subversive message it contains is this: God wants you to protect your reserves.

The reality is that we should never find ourselves running on empty; or worse, running out entirely.  Our petrol tanks are designed to hold a small reserve which, when activated, triggers a warning light which says that we need, as a matter of urgency, to get to a fuel station to replenish our tank.

And yet still it happens that we sometimes find ourselves running out: whether we have underestimated the distance we have to travel or the traffic we have to travel in, or overestimated the capacity of our reserve, or simply haven’t prioritized filling up, or maybe, even, are hoping that prayer will get us through to pay day so that we can afford to fill our tank, many of us can find ourselves in this awkward, embarrassing, stressful situation.

We certainly hope that if it ever happens to us, the person we reach out to for help will be kind and sympathetic and immediately available.  So the response of the wise women to the foolish ones in verse 9 offends our nature and our understanding of what it is to be a good and kind Christian person:

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”

No.

It’s a word that we seldom use, and when we do, often feel guilty for having in our vocabulary.  We’re happy to teach our children to say “No” to junk food, “NO” to drugs, and “NO NO NO!” to sex before marriage but when we are asked to something for someone else so often we automatically respond with “Yes.”

Which is why we so often feel at the end of the day that we have nothing of ourselves left to give.

Yet, like the wise virgins, God longs for us to protect our reserve tank and I would propose three principles for doing just that:

1. Say “no” to the unimportant things, the distractions in life, the little crises that take away from your long term hopes and dreams.  The Afrikaans assignment that your boss wants you to look over for his child which really doesn’t fall under your job description, or would lead to you working late to get your actual, pressing work done.  The person who constantly calls you in tears asking for time togetether but bails at the last minute because something better has come their way.  Even the colleague whose car broke down and who just assumes you’re available to help because they’re “on your way” – adding 40 minutes to your commute in the traffic and creating chaos in your household routine.  Know what’s important, what you MUST fit into your life and schedule – things like family and relaxation and taking care of your health – and evaluate what else you can do once those needs have been accounted for and satisfied.

2. When you say “yes” to something important, be 100% present.  In addition to struggling to say “no,” so often we try to manage our many “yeses” by doing a number of things simultaneously.  We call it “multitasking” and smugly inform people around us that managing to do many things at the same time makes us efficient utilisers of our time and resources. In reality, we are simply dividing our attention and not doing what we have committed to as well as we could because 2 tasks can get at most 50% of our time and effort; 3, 33%; 4, 25%.  You get the point.  Rather, if you’ve committed to a family dinner leave the cellphone at home (or use that much-neglected “off” button).  If you’re at work late, don’t feel guilty about what’s going on at home (assuming you’ve consulted with your partner, of course) but invest your time and attention into getting the task at hand done well.  If you’re at church stop thinking about what you need to do for lunch and be present in body, mind, and soul.

3. Prioritise God.  We know that when our warning light is on because our petrol gauge is near to empty, we need to be disciplined enough to refuel or we will find ourselves in trouble.  Our lives are like that too.  Sunday worship is not enough to tap into the abundant, overflowing, never-ending energy and power and love of God.  We need to set aside time and space in which to refuel – whether that means soaking ourselves in Scripture, enjoying vigorous religious debate over coffee with friends, or sitting in on a worship practice so that our hearts can be uplifted by song.  We need to prioritise God – not when we’ve run out and we’re requesting assistance – but every day; in multiple moments we need to open ourselves up to the fact that God is with us and longs to fill us and to bless us.

The wise women in the story were wise not because they had stocked up on oil for their lamps, but because they protected their reserve.  They prioritised that which was important – being present to fulfill their purpose of meeting the bridegroom. And, in order to protect that priority, they said a very necessary “no” the the foolish women who had run out and who ultimately missed out on the dancing and the laughing and the celebration and the belonging of the wedding feast.

Protect your reserve tank.  Prioritise God. Be 100% present in the things that you have committed to.  And learn to say “no” to that in your life which is unnecessary.