Pastor’s Perspective – February 2020
“The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.”
Matthew 13: 22
I have been worried in recent months.
Most people would acknowledge that my worries might well be appropriate. I have dealt with physical illness, familial tragedies, and financial hardships. Accidents, deaths, hospitalizations, and all while experiencing Impeachment, Middle Eastern war drums, the Chinese coronavirus, and the untimely death of Kobe Bryant. All of this… during an election year.
It’s enough to drive you to drink, as my Roman Catholic ancestors used to say. My Baptist family happily substituted the word distraction into this maxim. Good Baptists would never be driven to drink (for the consumption of alcohol is anathematized). Instead they are driven to distraction.
In my childlike innocence I used to believe that there was a difference, and that the difference was based on solid morality. Drinking was a greater sin, while distraction was the lesser. Think about it this way. Drunk driving is way worse than distracted driving. Right?
In our past morality was considered the province of what you did or did not do. It was a product of the will. Moral people kept their noses clean. Moral people did not cheat on their wives, taxes, or World Series opponents. Immoral people fell into chemical dependency and alcohol abuse. Weak people sinned against God and against their neighbors, but the strong valiantly struggled against the sins of the flesh and maintained a righteous will to do the right thing and live the right life, even if it killed them.
And if you couldn’t live up to the standard, then Jesus would forgive you.
These were the assumptions of Christian evangelism over the past hundred years. It was what we proclaimed to the world (and even if it wasn’t what we actually said, it too often was what the world heard). Salvation was for the ‘lost’ and the ‘sinners.’ The saved had their lives rightly ordered and could avoid the wrong things by avoiding the wrong people and places.
Good Christian men and women didn’t do certain things. We did not go to certain places. We were good and righteous men and women of God. We dressed well, combed our hair, and praised God that we were not like those sinners who drank at the bar, bet on the ponies, or corrupted their bodies with unclean foods or sinful pleasures. We all were wonderful Pharisees.
In today’s world the dangers are more subtle. While impaired driving still accounts for over 25% of driver fatalities, distracted driving is quickly catching up, with more and more people sneaking a harmless glance at a text or incoming email. In a single moment a life can be destroyed, not because we did anything wrong, not because we acted intemperately, not because of willful disobedience or even overtly sinful action. Your life can be changed because of curiosity, worry, and distraction.
Distraction is an ever-present concern in today’s world. When I was a child my father sought to escape the emergency phone calls associated with his profession as a dentist by retreating to campsites in distant places. Our vacations were structured not only to have time with the family, but also to avoid the reach of phone calls that might disrupt these precious moments.
In a culture in which we are connected wherever we are, we are unable to escape the ringing of a phone, the breaking news of an accident in Portland, the advertisements for a new wonder drug, or the allure of a new television show on Netflix or Disney plus. We can no longer escape by leaving the house, because we take our telephone, television and computer with us wherever we go.
Even when we acknowledge the difficulties of distractions, we continue to judge the value of the distractions that pull us away from the presence of God and community. We often consider that watching the news is a more appropriate use of our time than watching Netflix. We ostracize the alcoholic or the drugs addict, while congratulating the person who numbs their hearts by spending hours engaged with social media. Our modern worries, fears, and distractions are only technologically updated delivery systems for the fear, worry, and financial concerns that have always pulled the people of God away from full devotion to Jesus Christ.
Jesus warned us about distractions while teaching during his earthly ministry. When He shared the parable of the sower and the seeds, he shared three ways in which the devil uprooted the word of God in the lives of those who have heard. And while those represented in the first two categories may no longer be a part of the declining 21st Century Church, the thorn-surrounded and distracted congregation is currently struggling to stay alive in a fear-filled world.
Our distractions may well be understandable and even important, but they are still idolatrous. They remove us from the presence of God and slowly allow us to lose hope. This happens when we pay too much attention to partisan politics and seek to solve the problems of human sinfulness and disharmony by human methods and political willpower, instead of directing a hopeless political system to return to our first love in Jesus Christ.
We become separated from God when we allow our fears about global warming to erode into the worship of the Created world and allows our desires to control our own environment to create equally disastrous policies of control and manipulation. We become distracted by entertainment and pleasure while ignoring the plight of those who labor in slavery to mine the metals for our phones and assemble our screens that allow us to avoid the realities of life in exchange for regular and temporary dopamine hits.
We can see the results of this distraction as the too frequently the Church mirrors the partisan rancor of the Godless community. Worry, fear and anger are not compatible with faith, hope and love. You can only reflect one of these Trinitarian ideals in our lives. Those who are becoming estranged from God will discover that their lives are controlled by acquiring, winning, and defeating an enemy (personal or corporate). If you are more concerned with defeating the other side than with sharing the love of God with them, then the thorns have already made inroads into your life. This is how the weeds can choke out the love in otherwise loving people. A distraction can be momentary but left unchecked it can begin to choke the life out of a loving and caring community. When distractions become dangerous, they must be eliminated, plucked if you will, or they can transform us from Godly people into godless vehicles of destruction and harm.
The Church is facing just that choice in the coming years. Your vote won’t change the trajectory. Your carbon footprint won’t change your allegiance to Christ. Your choice of entertainment won’t make you a better citizen. Jesus made sure to tell us that changing the externals will never transform us internally. Only one thing can do that. Follow Jesus. Stay connected to God through the Spirit and by the power of the blood. Renew your focus and devotion.
As we prepare for Lent, we can renew our commitment to what is eternally important by removing the distraction… the weeds… that are destroying the heart and soul of the Church, but this will only be of value to us if we allow the seeds of God’s love to germinate in our lives and bear fruit. That takes time with God. Let us seek to walk with God together in the months ahead.