“Are you still watching?” Yes, Netflix, I am. I am still watching. Please spare me your pointed criticism of how I’ve chosen to spend my evening.
As Lent rolled around this year, I didn’t really even have to think about what I should give up. It had a flashing red arrow pointing at it. I continually feel uninspired (un-in-spirit-ed?) to set aside time each day to do the daily offices and to pray in a thoroughly concerted fashion. There is the ongoing conversation throughout my day which often goes along these lines: thanks so much God (for the food, the opportunity, the parking spot). What should I do, Lord? I’m sorry, Lord. And the loudest one – HELP, Lord! But when it comes time to sit down in the morning, and read scripture, I often end of up pressing snooze or checking my email so there is only time to rush madly out the door. In the evening, there is far more time, but there is always one more episode available.
What’s the solution? Get rid of the distractions, obviously. So, with some regret, I deleted Facebook from my phone and cut out the Netflix from my evening schedule. I uploaded a Lenten devotional and got queued up to get more godly.
Failed a lot.
It’s not that I’ve been secretly binging on cooking shows and crime drama, it’s that cutting out a major distraction didn’t actually change my desire to spend time with God or automatically increase my discipline to carry through on my plans. And it seems that once again, I am hovering on the edge of the lesson that I am continually relearning. I cannot force God to change me only within the very specific constraints that I am willing allow and I cannot, with all my effort or strategy, change these elements of myself. I’m going to say it again, maybe for you, but most certainly for me, there is no coercing the grace of God, and there is no earning his blessings.
For the next eight weeks, our sermons and our blogs here at St. Peter’s Fireside will look at the Beatitudes. I have loved the Beatitudes since my Dad gave me thirty bucks to memorize the Sermon on the Mount when I was in grade seven. (Our congregation has been encouraged to do the same, although without the monetary inducement. There is a particular joy and intimacy in words that have somehow taken up residence inside of us.)
If a person only takes a cursory glance, the Beatitudes look great. Who doesn’t love blessings? I am continually reminding myself to number them more closely; “count your blessings, name them one by one/ Count your blessings, see what God has done.” And while this is certainly not my favourite hymn (my bizarrely diverse mental hymnbook sometimes lingers strangely at the turn of the last century), its continual loop in my head is not a bad thing. When I consciously practice gratitude for blessings large and small, I find myself more open to work of the Holy Spirit.
And yet when we look a little more closely, we see a picture of a shockingly upside-down kingdom. The blessed seem to be in circumstances that don’t necessarily match our definition of good fortune. They certainly don’t seem to be on top, and in a few cases, their situations seem downright unpleasant. It’s one of these strange reversals, the Blessed are the poor in spirit, that I think is at the heart of my Lenten upheaval.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? And how does it result in possession of the Kingdom of God? Poverty of Spirit is somehow so antithetical to our common understanding of how we value ourselves. I struggle with this. Am I valuable because of my actions, my gifts and my talents? Or am I valuable because I am created by God and dearly loved by him? The first sense of value fluctuates with various successes and failures. I had a great day at work – I feel rich in worth! I neglected to do my devotions as I meant to, I feel lacking in worth. It’s all dependent on me.
In “Rock of Ages” (the hymn, not the musical) Toplady writes, “Not the labour of my hands/Can fulfill Thy law’s demands… Nothing in my hands I bring,/Simply to Thy cross I cling.” This is a pretty clear definition of what it means to be poor in spirit; it is an utter dependence on God for joy, worth and salvation, understanding that there is nothing we can do to earn his grace. That is why the poor in spirit are blessed. They belong to the kingdom whose king is Christ, who came to bind up and remake all that is broken, both outside in the structures of the world and inside the broken-hearted. This is what leads to and results from a poverty of spirit, growing increasingly able to see the beauty, love and glory of God.
C.S. Lewis writes that we “[approach] God most nearly when [we are] in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help?” My imperfect Lenten observance is a good picture of the purpose of this season and why I need to recognize and truly understand my own spiritual poverty. The more I come understand this, the more I come to understand the vast love and holiness of God.
And that means that I am blessed.
Over the next few weeks, St. Peter’s Fireside is exploring the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, both in our sermons and these articles.