Happiness

 

lake with ducks wikimedia

Happiness, gratitude, joy: Words that are bubbling through social media, in publications and in books currently on the best selling list. As Christians, how can we be concerned for these, while serving Christ fully?

There is no wrong in being happy, feeling grateful, or looking for joy. The real concern for Christians is that we displace our dependency on and faith in God while seeking these pleasures. While all measures of such positive emotions must be, in some way, a gift from God, we are concerned principally with receiving these graces directly from God, and not from our own selfish pursuits.

I could not avoid Victoria Osteen’s words on happiness and God. Many Christians were shocked, or at least troubled, by them. Here is a quote from the broadcast, purportedly Mrs. Osteen’s words:

“I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.

“So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”

Of course, there is a huge problem in that first sentence. Yes, obeying God, when we are doing it, in an important way, is for God. It is for “our own good” in another way, but certainly not to make us happy, as in having pleasant emotions. Eventually, obedience to God will give us happiness, and more, but first, we must pass through a lot of negative emotions. The fear and uncertainty is to cleanse our spirit of sin and our inevitable loss of God when are main concern is to seek our own happiness. Obedience to God does not change God, or make His life easier; God does not need us in that way. We please God to walk in His way, which is the way that leads to peace, true love, and spiritual maturity. Obedience to God is to further the very real goal we have with Him, to “build His Kingdom” by keeping temptation and sin at bay.

Does God take pleasure in our happiness? The Bible would seem to say that God takes pleasure in our obedience, as we pray, study His word, and follow His commandments. Happiness as in seeking pleasure, in pleasing ourselves, even if it costs others peace, happiness and comfort, is not according to God’s will. That kind of happiness is merely selfishness, a childish desire to meet our whims and petty desires.

There could be a married couple, where the husband has taken money committed to supporting the family, and purchased something that fulfills a desire he has had, something like a sports car, or a cruise. He is incredibly pleased with this, but his wife is appalled. The money had been meant for education, or a new house, or their retirement. The husband is happy; the wife and family can share this new experience and perhaps they will get some pleasure from it. Still, the husband’s immediate happiness and anticipated pleasure has robbed the family of some security, or even thwarted a plan to improve the family’s life overall. A car or a cruise would not be a bad thing in itself. He didn’t buy anything dangerous or illegal. yet the family will suffer longterm for his decision to make himself happy.

Does worship make God happy? Many times, God condemned Israel for their empty ceremonies. Paul admonishes the churches for being more concerned about putting on a show and having a feast than in praying and expressing gratitude to God. The people attending these ceremonies and gatherings may have been very happy in that experience. They may have been even ecstatic, dancing and singing, crying out in unknown languages, overwhelmed by the excitement and attention.

storm clouds wikimedia

I Kings 9: So He said, “Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”…

The wind, earthquake and fire whirling around Elijah were not God. The still small voice that whispered directly in the prophet’s ear was God. Elijah was expecting the quiet voice; the excitement was something else. The noise and shaking were a response to the presence of God, but not God.

Happiness is like that. Pleasure is one thing God uses to drive us closer to Him, to announce His presence. Humans, though, have corrupted that pleasure, and we can find it in things, places and sensations that God would not give to us. The pleasure of sin is short-lived. It will fail us. Seeking pleasure in consumption, in gaining power, or in idleness is sin. It will, in the end, ruin us for God’s ultimate purpose, which is to bring us to Himself.

Even attending church and enjoying what seems innocent and enlightening can separate us from the love of God. If we turn our attention to those who claim to be teaching God but are only teaching about themselves, we will fall into sin. We will share the hubris – destructive pride – of those who misuse God’s name to gain the pleasures of this world.

When I saw Victoria Osteen’s words on God and happiness, my first thought was, “Tell that to the martyrs.” These witnesses of the faith did not serve God by being happy. My guess is that they were often unhappy, as they were imprisoned, hunted, interrogated or tortured, and then killed. There is no real pleasure in that. I believe, too, that those who are martyred for faith often had an incredible, indescribable joy. They received the best gift from God in that, a consolation that they were close to Him, in His presence, as they found courage in the Holy Spirit. They had the peace that passes all understanding even as they were in pain, hungry, wounded and frightened.

Westminster_Abbey_C20th_martyrs wikipedia

Joy is not just happiness. Happiness can be as fleeting as eating an ice cream cone on a hot, sunny day. Happiness can be the mere moments we lose our concerns and worry while watching a comedy or reading an exciting book. There is nothing wrong with that kind of happiness, as long as we don’t think that is all the happiness we need. That kind of happiness becomes addictive, and we need more and more to even begin to feel happy in it. True happiness never takes from others, or puts our own pleasure above theirs. Mere pleasurable happiness is not going to lead to joy.

The joy we find in God is not something we can turn on and off. We can’t go shopping for joy. Joy is like stepping into a beautiful lake to swim, at the right time of day, and finding that is the right temperature, the right depth. The same lake may not yield that pleasure of rightness every day; we can even go and merely sit on its shores some days. Yet it is always there, and when the great confluence of grace and heart meet, God and His loving, humble creature, we are bathed in those joyful waters.

Victoria Osteen’s words on happiness may have been careless, spoken more in enthusiasm and a desire to please than in a wickedness to turn us from the way of God. Personally, I ignore anything Joel and Victoria Osteen say. Their way of living and their public presence do not seem, to me, to be the way to God. Their speeches and sermons are empty words. Don’t be deceived, but do not treat them with contempt and hatred. Don’t be envious of their success, as it is merely worldly. All pleasure that is not of God is a millstone around the neck. Praise, fame, admiration, riches and possessions are a puff of smoke in eternity. Many follow these people and have made them rich. But to say that is the reward God has given them is to say that those beloved of God who professed Christ in pain, poverty and death are wrong, and we know this is not truth.

 

Lent and Ash Wednesday

After the Misdeed Jean Beraud

Ash Wednesday is this week; this means beginning the Lenten disciplines. In this world where there is a huge gap between those of us who HAVE and the many, many who HAVE-NOT, fasting is a necessary discipline. First, it teaches us to do without, because in every life there are seasons of having less than we need, whether it is food or love; second, it puts us in solidarity with the poor, who daily suffer a lack of necessities; third, by cutting back what we spend on food, we have more money to share with those whose income does not meet their need. Keep the fast: Vegan and vegetarian meals, substituting beans and legumes for protein, with rice and whole grains and simply prepared vegetables. If fruit is expensive, skip it. Make time to cook and bake for yourself, which means giving up other pursuits like television, computer games and shopping. Go to church and pray regularly, so that your fast is not just self-congratulatory acts. The money you are not spending on groceries and self-indulgences then goes to a charity, or directly to the poor.

  • I am not open to hearing any excuses or exceptions. If you must make them, do not lessen the resolve and dedication of others, so keep them to yourself.
    Carnival Mary Cassatt
  •  Anyone who even brings up Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers will be given a penance. My experience with Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers is that more people come to them than will attend church throughout Lent. No fast, no feast.

The Two Kingdoms

Born in a poor man's house, not a palace

From the beginning of His time on earth, Jesus Christ rejected the power and privileges of this world. The Magi, expecting a king as foretold in the prophecies and by the splendour in the heavens, went to the palace to find Him. He wasn’t there. He was in a poor carpenter’s one-room house.

He never owned a house of His own. He didn’t settle down and raise a family. He was questioned by the authorities concerning all that He did, and He answered in authority, although He was penniless and homeless. He said it Himself: My kingdom is not of this world.

So whose world is this? Not meaning the Earth – for all of Creation is His – but the “world” of power and gain and privilege – which means private law. The world is the world of money and things bought and sold, of profit and anxiety. It is the world of wanting more, of grasping. It is the world of competition. It is Satan’s world for now.

We have to live in this world to some extent. Christ gave us the Commission to go forth, preach, prophesy and baptize. We are the good news, even if some want to shoot the messenger. We can’t live entirely out of the world, unless we are called to a kind of special ministry in that – but even the hermit monk is called to pray for those in the world.

We aren’t to fall in love with the world. We are not to accept its standards. We still live in the other Kingdom, even if we move through this present one.

This is a terrible tension in which to live. The world is beguiling. Pleasure is its promise, even though it doesn’t really deliver it. Holding that tension can destroy Christians if they wander too far from the Way of Christ.

I’m going to try to put this in words that aren’t too Christiany. The world is a harsh, terrible place. The marketplace is a a monster looking for victims. It is not a place for Christians, because we have to keep our hearts open, honest and loving. We can’t toughen up or we will miss the opportunities God sends us to help others.

This is not our kingdom, either.

I live in this tension every day. I can’t ever put off being who I am. I can’t imagine it anymore. Leave the house in jeans and my hair down, with no protection on my head? I would feel as if I were thrown into the Coliseum. I can’t go shopping all day in the mall, buying with a credit card. I would know I was out of place, and I don’t have a credit card and never will again. And what is it I need there? Ninety-eight percent of everything in the shops is trash. It is useless, it is wasteful. It will be replaced by something else in a few weeks. I can list the things I believe I will need in the next year, and none of it would be purchased in a mall. The mall, online shopping, catalogs and big box stores exist to sell worldly people things of this world.

Politicians, even though they may claim to have our interests at heart, are of this world. They owe favours to the people with money, and they have to pay them back or they won’t have campaign money next time around. Politics and government support people who want to make lots of money, who charge outrageous amounts to the taxpayer for roads, hospitals, transportation, communication and even the food we eat drugs we use. These people like luxury, like to have pots of money set aside. Money is how they keep score.

All right, I don’t get that. I have no use for huge, expensive houses or power boats or planes, or even for fine wine and food. I can’t tell the difference between the $15 VQA from Niagara and the $100 chateau-bottled vintage. I like sausage and kraut. I’m not tempted in that direction.

But if I were…as I was when I was young…I still hope I would know that it is not the life for Christians. I don’t have the right to more than my own fair share of the earth’s resources, no matter how much money I have. I don’t have the right to make a huge profit off the needs and wants of others. I have the right to a fair exchange of goods of value – so I’d better be able to do something useful. God has put me in the world for a reason, and it is to preach Christ, crucified – and risen.

So I do believe in being separated from the world, as much as I can with a good conscience. I show my separateness by the way I dress, in clothes that are not only modest but distinct. Plain is deliberately historic; it is deliberately unornamented. These tie us to Christians of the past, and make us recognizable as such in our culture. As global homogenization continues, we are noticably different. We choose a way of life that is in reference to the ways of our ancestors (always a prophetic cry to Israel in the scriptures – to return to the ways of the fathers) and is one of less impact on the environment. We buy much less; we provide for ourselves as much as we can.

As a Christian, it is not just a matter of looking different and acting different. (Teenages have been doing that for generations.) If we dress Plain and live simply just because we are fascinated by the Amish, the novelty will wear off and we will tire of the game. I practice Plain life because it is my calling, my discipline and my sacrifice to God.

It is my calling, my vocation. I am called to live out my faith in a particular way, and Plain is part of that. It is my discipline because it keeps me faithful and mindful of the way of Jesus Christ. It is my sacrifice to God because I have given up the things of the world that pleased me most. My prayerful goal is to strip off the layers of worldiness from my personality and my soul, to be outwardly what God has told me inwardly.

How is this life in the Kingdom of God lived? It’s the simple way of living, the deliberate modesty and covering. It is daily prayer and Bible study. It is refusing to do things that other people take for granted – recreational shopping, enhancing one’s appearance, going to casinos. It is also something deeper than that. I mentioned credit cards; I am opposed to borrowing money for high interest rates. This just impoverishes people and drives up the real cost of goods. We have to pay taxes and buy car insurance, but I won’t buy life insurance. We will accept charitable help when we must, because stubborn pride and starving to death can go hand in hand. We will be collecting the disability insurance Nicholas had through his Canadian pension; he paid into it for many years and there really isn’t anway to opt of it if one is working in Canada.

We will not sue other Christians – and I’ve never had an opportunity to bring a suit against anyone else. We are admonished in scripture to take our case before the bodyof Christ and not to the civil courts. The legal system is of this world; it sets people in adversity against each other. I could have sued the church when my employment was unjustly terminated, according to a lawyer we consulted. I chose not to, for more than one reason, but primarily because it is not Biblical. I could not see any possibility of reconciliation with the church if I brought a lawsuit. We are still not completely reconciled; I pray for it everyday. I have asked for forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is not resolved yet, after five years. But we are also admonished to be patient in our petitions.

We did not sue the hospital where Nicholas was so badly injured. There was a communications error and a mistake made, but it was not negligence or maliciousness that caused the accident. Suing the hospital would have helped us a lot financially, but it would have brought harm to our neigbours who support that hospital with their taxes. The hospital did a lot to make up for what happened; individual staff members were kind and generous, as were people of the community. They did what they could. I did not want to gain by injuring them.

Yes, people think we are crazy. They think we are religious fanatics. They think we must have guilty consciences and are trying to make up to God for it. But we are reconciled in Christ; we are forgiven and made whole. Nothing crazy about that!

A serious Christian, my husband Nicholas

Plain Life, Plainly

Plain chores

It looks like we are seeing the leading edge of a Plain revival. The twentieth century left many people stranded spiritually; we moved from an all-encompassing Modern philosophy to a Post-Modern zeitgeist. The Moderns are still in control of most institutions, but those of us outside the mainstream of those same institutions are, from a Post-Modern perspective, looking to the past and lost tradition for a way to follow into the very uncertain future.

What is Modern and Post-Modern? In my context, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a move in academia, society and politics to a philosophy of Progress and optimism based on human achievement, is the beginning of the Modern era. (Most academics would agree, I think.) Post-Modern (don`t be afraid of this term) is based on experience and philosophy of the twentieth century, when the senseless destruction and chaos of the world wars and other conflicts brought into question the legitimacy of Progress. Its seeds were sown in the Enlightenment itself and in the social protests of the nineteenth century. Widespread genocide and ecological destruction reinforced this philosophy amongst academics and influential thinkers. Post-Modernism asks:

How can we believe what we were taught when those beliefs brought so much destruction –

How can chaos and violent anarchy be Progress –

This is the meta-question that has led many of us to find another way. We want a way that follows the teachings of Christ without the excesses of culture that we now reject, such as materialism and consumerism. The cultural churches – the mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican institutions – seem to be still enmeshed in the dominant, destructive culture. So in the late twentieth century, other ways of faithful living have been explored, rejuvenated and reworked, such as the New Monasticism and the Plain movement.

I can`t speak to the New Monasticism; while we live in an informal community, it is not ordered in any way except that we are all Anglicans and the centre of our week is Sunday attendance and participation at worship. Nicholas and I are very Plain but have accommodated ourselves to the way of living here in the rectory. We have electricity, a vehicle, an internet connection and television. The house is old and not particularly up to date. But we are unable to garden since that would mean the removal of old trees much valued by the neighbourhood, and recycling is not as efficient as I could wish it. I make my own clothes, do some canning and we interact with other Plain people when we have the opportunity. We are trying to maintain our Plain philosophy in a more worldly church community. I don`t see that we have any influence on them at all.

It is what it is; this is a transition stage for us, and with some matters becoming realized, we should be able to move on to a more suitable place for small scale farming and a self-sufficient life.

I think this is where many of us Plainers are headed. While not Anabaptist in profession, we are looking for suitable places to adopt some of the best of Anabaptist and traditional Quaker ways. (I will acknowledge that not all Plain followers are necessarily traditionally Christian; we need to make room for Quakers and others who are more liberal in their theologies.) I hope that as a movement we do not fall into the sectarian errors we have seen in the past. (Formal shunning and the ban, for instance, are inappropriate. We can avoid close association with those whose influence on us is deleterious, but we cannot withdraw from our witness.)

The great irony, of course, is that one of the tools we use to be a Plain community is the internet. Most of us express some concern and even dismay that this is the best we can do, but I doubt if we can give it up without losing community. I would prefer a more traditional form of communication myself. Scott Savage tried this with Plain magazine, but the funding fell short and he could never exceed a certain circulation number due to the printing technologies he used.  (I have still not written to Scott as I had planned. He`s been through some rough stuff in the last few years, and I don`t want my concern and curiosity to sound as if I am criticizing him for choices he made.) I envision something more like the Amish Budget, a newsletter with many columns written from many locations, giving the local news and views. But publications are supported by advertising, and no one wants to advertise in a publication for people who reject consumerism; we are not a very good market.

I`m not at all sure we can define ourselves yet. We are Plain, but we have so many expressions of that. We don`t have an ordnung and won`t, since we don`t fall under but one authority as a group, and that is Christ. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, day by day, question by question, leading by leading. We are drawing on the Anabaptists who have been the living encyclopedia for Plain life, and the traditions of Quakers, monastics and other groups who chose to be isolated from the Modern world. I would prefer that we do not quarrel amongst ourselves – I had enough of that sojourning with the Orthodox and their many cries of `You are not canonical!` (If you have been part of an Orthodox community you know what I mean. The Paedalion is both beacon and cudgel.) This is a weakness in the Anglican church, which will ignore the dissenters until they get tired of the yelping and throw the pups out. (Puritans, Quakers, Methodists and now the Biblical Conservatives, whatever they are going to call themselves.) The Quaker meetings are, in their erudite and polite way, at odds internally all too often.

Let`s keep it simple and courteous. Let`s speak Plain English (not Plain speech, except amongst ourselves) and give the St. Francis sermon – preach with our lives, using words only when necessary.

Witness

as Plain as can be

The Witness of Plain life is not for everyone. It is a rocky road to walk, and it is a narrow way. The Holy Spirit has called a few of us out of our old lives into this New Life, and though it is a path trod by others, we are not a throng.

I think some people – women particularly – are in love with this expression of faith because they have encountered it in romantic situations. They read novels set among the Amish, they have visited Old Order communities, or they have admired a much younger Harrison Ford in the movie “Witness.” While this is an introduction to the Plain Life, it is not the whole of it.

Plain Life has its roots in Anabaptism, a separatist movement at the time of the Reformation. (You can look up the history on-line; I’m not going to go over old ground here.) The core doctrines of Anabaptism are believers’ baptism (hence adult baptism or rebaptism), pacifism and nonresistance to violence, and the two kingdoms (God’s Kingdom of the faithful and Satan’s kingdom of this world.) The physical sacraments of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) were retained from the old church.

So it’s not just a matter of costume. The early Quakers adopted much of Anabaptist practice, and moved away from the physical sacraments to a spiritual understanding of sacramentality. The simple form of dress was a bit of cross-pollination, it seems. While Quakers learned much from Menno Simons, the Amish and Mennonites who emigrated to North America adopted Quaker standards and styles of Plain dress.

What is common to Plain people from these traditions is pacifism and nonresistance. This goes beyond refusing to answer an assault with like kind, but spreads out into a life of peace, including exemption from military service or the punishment for refusing to serve. Quakers and Anabaptists have often suffered because of their pacifism. For the Anabaptists, martyrdom is always preferable to violence.

One cannot be Anabaptist or Quaker and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive. Traditional Quakers will not support an established military; Anabaptists believe that established government is of this world, not God’s kingdom, and the two are by necessity separate.  Their political philosophy is one of self-governance and mutal support within the community, a benign anarchy under Christ. (We are the body; He is the head and sole leader. Bishops, ministers and deacons serve in prayer and humility, not in power and control. That’s the ideal, at least.)

This is one of the reasons that Plain Life is difficult. It represents more than five hundred years of living a way that the world doesn’t understand and that Satan doesn’t want the world to understand. It is a heavy legacy to carry.

I find myself struggling with it daily. I have to ask myself often if I am following the Way of Christ, or if am I following my own notions. I am convicted that Plain Life is the Way to which we are called, my husband and myself, but I also have to ask if decisions I make are based on the Way or on legalism, on following Jesus our Saviour or on compromise with the world. Unceasing prayer is the only solution to the inner conflict, a constant sense of the leading of the Spirit.

We want to be separate from the ways of the world, but we also want to be a Witness, for as John Donne wrote several centuries ago, “No man is an island.” We are interdependent with Christians who are not Plain, as well as with nonbelievers. Keeping in the middle of the road isn’t easy when there are so many distractions around us, and they are so beguiling. But what good is our witness if we will compromise and abandon the principles of our faith on mere whims?

It’s always a balancing act between faithful living and moving through the world.

9/11 Again; Time to Move On

Okay, call me un-American. Call me a liberal. Call me names if you must. But it is time to move on.

I wasn’t in New York or even in the United States when the World Trade Center was targeted by terrorists. I was in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. I lived in the States, but was studying across the border. Soon after I moved to Canada permanently, partly because politics in the Untied States was beginning to threaten Constitutional freedom. I had a good job offer, and I took it, and I have never returned for more than a few days at a time. I do not intend to live in the United States again.

So if someone wanted to tell me to get out of the USA if I don’t love it like my own dear mother, well, too late. I left.

Tragedy falls to everyone. Everyone. No one is exempt. Sometimes it is a manmade tragedy – the use of commercial jetliners as bombs against national symbols of power and prosperity – and sometimes it is the inexplicable nature of things – hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, epidemics. We will all suffer loss, if we are not the victims.

The tragedy nine years ago is now tied by political opportunists to conservative Christianity and Christianity in general. (Not regarding conservative Christians like myself who are pacificists, believing that is the Way that Jesus Christ taught us by dying a painful, bloody death as a falsely-accused criminal for our salvation.) 9/11 is rapidly becoming an ethnic schism in the United States, taking its place with other hotspots of ethnic violence. “Remember, do not forget,” is the key phrase. “Hate those who did this. Keep the hate alive by making a moment of tragedy into a national warcry.”

Armenians and Turks; Serbians and Bosnians; Palestinians and Israelis. There are a thousand other ethnic conflicts fueled by “Never Forget” rhetoric. Atrocties, injustices, ugly human vitriol are the continuing result.

Time to move on; forgive, forget. God has forgiven your sins simply because you asked Him to do so, and He has put them far from you, as if they were drowned in the deepest ocean. He forgets. He always forgives. Weep over those who were lost, but weep more for the tortured souls who would take a human life to make a political point.

Jesus said, as he suffered agonies on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they have done.”

Can Americans say the same thing?

What’s with the Sin, All the Time?

Christians talk about sin a lot. Google or tag surf the word “Sin”. Lots to read.

That’s a frequent criticism of the church. “What’s with the sin! You talk about sin all the time!”

We do, and we always have. The Philokalia, a collection of spiritual readings intended for Orthodox monks, has pages of lists of sins. I was raised in a Calvinist Baptist Church where the constant theme was “Avoid sinning.”  And we were told how to avoid sinning, mostly by staying away from the opposite sex. My logical little mind soon realized that staying away from the opposite sex did nothing to check gossip, lying, and envy among teenaged girls. Also, staying away completely from the opposite sex meant that the reason we stayed “pure’ – marriage – wasn’t going to happen. I knew a number of elderly spinsters in that Baptist Church.

Sexual immorality, of course, is the Big Sin for most evangelicals and fundamentalists. They see it (in a theological sense) as misplaced love, love that is owed to God and expressed in the basic relationship of a man and a woman loving each other and loving God together. Sex then becomes a mystery of the divine order rather than a physical human need. At that theological level, to misuse sex is the same as dishonouring a sacrament. (Please note that what I mean here by “sacrament” is theologically technical – not the sacraments of the church, but an action and a physicality that are sacred.)

The modern problem with emphasizing sexuality is that it becomes the focus of the definition of sin. It is so interesting! Prurience itself is a sin, when to hear about sex while being shocked by it becomes stimulating. Of course, sin is much more than sexual immorality.

Sin is anything that separates us from our love for God. Sin is always an idolatry of the self. We are more interested in pleasing ourselves than in pleasing God.

And isn’t it easy to excuse it, even as Christians? “It’s not vanity, I’m just trying to look nice for my husband.” “It’s not greed, I just think it’s okay for Christians to have nice things.” “It’s not envy, it’s just that she really doesn’t deserve that.” “It’s not pride, I just think I did a good job and should have some recognition.”

So the Church has talked about sin a lot, in order to alert us to its dangers. If I don’t tell you about the jagged rocks under the water ahead, your boat will probably hit them. Forewarned, you can steer around, or turn back if you must.

We can’t avoid sin in this world. It is a fallen world. Christ waits to restore it in the last days, with the saints in heaven asking, “How long, O Lord? How long?” We wait, but we wait amongst our own fallenness and the accumulated sin. We see it everyday – in broken lives, in hurt people, in hearts that may never mend from the injury done them in the name of human love. We see a polluted and damaged creation. Like cleaning up the tar balls on beaches after this latest oil spill, we can only mop up on the surface. The real damage goes much deeper. The real damage of an environmental disaster goes beyond ruined beaches, dead wildlife, and a crippled ecology. It goes down into our hearts, where luxury, greed, and desire pollute and corrupt us.

Our world is based on lies, the child of the father of lies. We are told daily that we need to look and act young, that we should be spending money on things and experiences, that the past is a dead and ugly thing. All of this leads to sins of the heart.

Why do we want to be young as we grow older? Is not grey hair the wisdom and glory of age? We must have been brainwashed, to think that being young is a good thing. Although I remember the carefree days, I also remember the overweening self-esteem that led me into some bad situations. I got in well over my head at times. I’m glad that’s all past.

Vanity is encouraged by those who want us to buy their products. Fifty-plus-year-old women don’t have lustrous dark hair, at least not many of them. Telling us that we need to look young (to get partners) is just a way to sell us a poisonous product to turn our hair a different colour. Make-up is the same thing, as well as face creams, foundation garments and figure-enhancing clothes. If you look like the middle-aged grandmother that you are, who is going to want to be your partner? Look, I figure that while I am married in middle-age, my husband is also middle-aged, and I dont’ need to look elsewhere or win anyone else’s admiration. If I wasn’t married, I don’t think I would look for a new partner. If God sent someone my way, he’d better be interested in a  grey-haired, Plain-dressed grandmother or keep on moving.

Vanity is a waste of money and time. Get used to yourself. Start young, and avoid the silly products, the waste of money and all the anxiety around dressing and looking like an advertisement.

Greed is subtle. We measure success in this world by money and possessions – the most fleeting of things. Beyond meeting our basic needs, why are we concerned about having ornaments and luxuries? So we can impress others? Be more concerned with the state of your heart before the Lord than with the state of your goods before the world! Keep possessions to a minimum, be easy to move if the Lord calls you elsewhere. You are only a pilgrim here.

We are brought up to be competitive, on the theory that good-natured competition encourages excellence. But it more likely encourages working for praise, and that leads to envy. We can’t seem to rejoice in another’s blessings without wondering why we didn’t get the preferment. Competition, along with the anxiety generated in us by an inundation of advertising meant to weaken our self-confidence, ruins our joy. Someone else can get the prize, or get the preferment, or get the promotion: The Lord has work for you that may not include any of those things. Be happy in the work of the Lord!

And when we do get the envied prize, the coveted preferment, the gainful promotion, then we are proud. We won! We are better! Have you ever noticed that the only personal trait in Jesus that is described to us is His sinlessness? It isn’t His skill in His trade, His athleticism, His rugged good looks. None of the usual traits that lead to fame are there. It is His willingness to do the work of the Father. Certainly, we must strive to be competent at our work, for we owe that to God who gives us our talents. But to desire and then gloat in worldly success because of them displaces them from heaven and drops them in the muck.

While we know we will not achieve sinlessness here in this world – for we are drawn into it not only by our own desires, but by the ways of the world that we cannot change – The Lord desires to forgive our sins and lead us in righteousness. All we need to do is walk in His light.