Wisdom for the World I

Wisdom for the World I

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 31, 2000

Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2: 1-12

“After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the East. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’”

Matthew 2:1-2.

The three wise men symbolize the revelation of Christ to the world and represent the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation, the appearance of light in the darkness, and this festival expresses our conviction that the truth revealed in Christ is neither a merely private experience, nor a culturally confined phenomenon, but a universal claim and opportunity. First the Jews, in the form not of scholars and but of shepherds, then the foreigners, scholars and wise men, come to worship him. Immediately, therefore, we know that Jesus is for the world, or rather for the universe, since even the stars get into the act, not to mention the angels. Locals and foreigners, astral bodies and heavenly beings acknowledge him as Lord. The Gospels put the event of Jesus’ birth in the broadest framework imaginable, and so must we.

That has never been an easy thing to do, and is perhaps harder in these times of globalization than it has ever been. Now we know the whole world and we know the ambiguous nature of the impact of Christianity on the world, and consequently many believe that Christian mission is at best a mistake and at worst an insult to other religions and a destroyer of good and beneficent cultures. Christian mission, on this view, is an expression of a deep arrogance that formed Western culture, from the first days of old Yahweh, the grumpy God of Moses, through the bloody victim of Calvary, to the ferocious prophet of Mecca. In the name of this one God we Westerners have trashed the cultures of the world.

So goes one rather fashionable line of criticism, and were we to heed it we would not celebrate Epiphany. Instead we would admit that Jesus is not God incarnate for the whole human race, but rather a Jewish prophet of love and the end of the world, whom we happen for reasons of history and taste to prefer to Allah, or Yahweh, or Sidhharta, or Kali, etc. They are all good and marvelous in their own ways and in their own cultures, and should not be criticized. Jesus is the tribal prophet of the Christians, one group among many, who should have better taste than to imply, let alone actively promote, the idea that all the world should worship Jesus, and would be better of if it did. In short, we should ignore the primary message of the story, that the wise men were foreigners who came a very long way to worship Jesus, and focus our interpretation on the incidental detail that they gave him gifts. The point for us then becomes that we, like them, should give gifts to each other; an altogether unexceptionable teaching. No one could possibly be crucified for such an uplifting message. I want, however, to suggest that the point of the story is not the gifts but the givers, not the gold, frankincense, and myrrh but the foreign scholars and seekers themselves. The important thing the wise men gave was their worship and themselves.

In this they represent you and me. They came to Jesus from an alien culture, let us assume with the tradition that it was Persian by ethnicity and Zoroastrian by religion, and acknowledged him as Lord. We and all the nations come to him in the same way, bringing the gifts of our alien cultures and our special capacities. They came from the far East we come from the far West; they seemed strange on their camels and their accents were unfamiliar; we are strange in our SUV’s, and our accents are just as odd; but for all of us Jesus is the star by which to set our spiritual and course.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “All the world would be Christian, were not Christians so unlike their Christ.” This telling epigram is the motto of a new book on the history of the London Missionary Society, On the Missionary Trail, by Tom Hiney (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000). I was immediately interested because as a schoolboy I had been taught that the LMS had been a very bad influence in South African history, indeed one of their pestiferous missionaries had actually married a black woman, and they had always interfered in the relationship between master and slave. Eventually their crowd back in England had influenced Parliament enough so as first to outlaw the trade in slaves and then to abolish slavery in the empire altogether. As a young contrarian I surmised that if the LMS was so irksome to the writers of our textbooks they must have been doing something right and interesting.

The LMS is the oldest English Protestant Mission society, founded in 1792 by private, lay Christians, most of them Congregationalists who had experienced evangelical conversions, that is, had been “born again.” They felt called to spread this evangelical form of Christianity around the world. They were not the first Christians to launch missions to the heathen, the Roman Catholic Jesuits were centuries ahead of them and much more numerous than they ever became, but they were the first Protestants to try to carry this explicitly life-transforming version of the Gospel around the world. The book in question is based on the diary of a two-man inspection team that in 1821 visited the 30 or so stations in Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, China, India, Madagascar, and the Cape of Good Hope. The trip took more than five years, and one of the inspectors died of exhaustion in Madagascar.

The LMS was strongly opposed by the Church of England, the English East India Company, and the whaling interests in England and New England. The Church of England at that time, described by one historian as preaching virtue and prudence rather than salvation and judgment, made the strikingly familiar argument that it is wrong to interfere in other people’s cultures. The East India Company did not want interference in its exploitation of native peoples, and the whalers simply objected to the fact that after the missionaries arrived the women on the tropical islands were less pliant than before, and this affected morale. They were also tea-total and that made for an even duller time ashore.

The story of the LMS missions is heroic and pathetic at the same time. On the one hand they gave the world great names, like David Livingston, a missionary explorer of Africa who was a hero of my boyhood dreams, and is buried alongside kings and generals in Westminster Abbey, chiefly because of his relentless exposure of the Arab slave trade in East Africa in the late 19th century, what he called “the open sore of Africa,” until Britain led the world in extirpating that trade and closing that wound. On the other hand, the missions broke the spirits of missionaries and corrupted the lives of the tribes. How shall we judge them today?

Many who have never believed anything deeply enough to consider persuading others of it, and many who consider such persuasion presumptuous or simply in bad taste, take the position of the Church of England in 1792, that such missions should not be undertaken, and that they were a mistake then, as their history proves. I am not among those who think I can judge them. I honor the faith of those missionaries and I listen to their stories with respect. Here are some of them.

After the LMS stated work in Tahiti and the surrounding Society Islands the practice of infanticide stopped, and soon the islands rang with the sound of children laughing, especially girl children, of which there were few when the missionaries arrived. The evidence of suttee, the burning of widows on the pyres of their husbands, collected surreptitiously by the missionaries in India, influenced the British Parliament to compel the English East India Company to allow the missionaries into their territories, where the Raj eventually outlawed the practice. In Hawaii, human sacrifices to the shark gods stopped. On all the islands the incidence of venereal disease, introduced by the whalers, decreased as the Christian practice of monogamous, exclusive marriage caught on, and missionary medicine made a difference.

Now let me tell you of a more recent and less interested account, in case you think that all these success stories are missionary propaganda. Two years ago at Emory University I heard an anthropologist report on work in Papua-New Guinea on the subject of witch hunting. His tribe believed that nobody died by chance, but only by the evil will of a witch. So when a death took place a witch hunter was summoned to read the signs and smell out the witch, who was then put to death. The anthropologist played tape recordings of the chants sung by the witch hunters and the dirges intoned over the dead. This research was conducted in the early eighties. He went back in 1996 to see if things had changed. He found that the village had been physically transformed and witch hunting had stopped. The songs they now sang were, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” and “Amazing Grace” because, yes, the village was now 90% Christian. After the presentation a professor of cultural studies stood up and said that it was a sad and terrible thing to hear how this wonderful traditional culture had been destroyed by the Christians. At coffee afterwards, with my usual tact, I asked her if she favored the murder of witches, or merely hated Christianity. I won’t tell you how that conversation progressed but it drew quite an audience.

I don’t suggest that the evidence I have cited so briefly justifies these kinds of mission beyond question. The proper way to mediate Christ to the world is an ongoing challenge to us Christians, especially those of us who think the Gospel is also about salvation and judgment and not only about virtue and prudence. We can give up the miraculous core of the Gospel, namely its claim to be the power of God for salvation from death, judgment and hell, and settle for a prudential endorsement of the best sentiments and convictions of the best people. I, however, cannot give up the miraculous core, and so I am left with the challenge of Epiphany, to mediate to the whole world the fullness of Christ, who is both savior from sin and death and moral teacher, both incarnate God and prudential guide. What’s the best way to do that in our time and in this place?

I shall return to this subject next week to take up a proposed answer to this general question gien by Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in SF. Lerner makes some interesting suggestions for the mediation of spirituality to our world of work and leisure, and I would like to evaluate them with you. The challenge remains; how shall we present Christ, whom we believe to be the essence of true spirituality, to a post-modern, global, new world, and to the much larger old world of tribal hatreds, witch hunting, and war that goes on and on without much change?

Amen

 

 

It’s Christmas again…and again…and again

It’s Christmas again…and again…and again

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 24, 2000

Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-14

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of good will”

Luke 2:14

When I gave the Church office the title of this sermon, Carolyn asked me if there is not something of the spirit of “Bah Humbug!” about it. I assured her that there is not, but on further reflection, I have to confess that there is. I intend the title positively, to mean that Christ comes again and again to us, not just at Christmas, but whenever we will allow him, and that the spirit of goodwill and generosity that marks a good Christmas opens the door for him to enter our lives at any time of the year. I think of the service event called “Christmas in April” in which our church participates from time to time, and I offer the title in that spirit and wish that to be the chief message of this brief sermon.

But I cannot forget how often during the years that I have preached at Christmas, the little town of Bethlehem has been embroiled in war. Again this year it is at war; it is part of what the journalists call the “triangle of fire” because so many people are being shot to death in that vicinity. It is a cruel irony that the birthplace of Jesus, whom we call “prince of peace” and whose birth the angels proclaimed as a moment of divine glory and human reconciliation, should be a place of war, murder and insurrection, where people go and come in fear and where vengeance possesses the minds of many. I reflect on this irony every Christmas, because there is always war, murder and insurrection going on at this time of the year, as at all other times, and you my patient congregation wish that I could be more “upbeat.”

Sorry! I ask again for your indulgence this year, because I cannot avoid feeling this irony as a challenge to faith. If Jesus is the prince of peace whose birth brings divine glory and human reconciliation, why does that glory and reconciliation not appear at least in the place where he was born? Why is that place so constantly an example not of peace but of war, not of reconciliation but of vengeance, not of divine glory but of human shame? Could it be that the Gospel has got it wrong, and that Jesus is, like all the other founders of religions, a source of disagreement, cruelty, strife and bloodshed. Could it be that religion as such is a cause of war?

Well, we cannot pursue that question now but it is always on my mind, and I would be happy to discuss it with you whenever we have the time. Today I want simply to point out that the angels make peace on earth conditional on the goodwill of men and women. There are two translations of the Greek of Luke 2:14; one says “…peace on earth and goodwill to men and women,” making the birth of Jesus an expression of the divine benevolence; another says, “…peace on earth to men and women of goodwill.” My reading of the Greek supports the latter translation, and although I feel the force of the former translation, namely that God expresses his good and saving will in the birth of Jesus, I believe that the real meaning of the text is that God’s peace comes only to those of goodwill. ” No goodwill, no peace.”

This translation does not imply that God’s will towards us is not good; on the contrary, God’s good will to us is proclaimed in this very same text, in the offer of peace. God offers us his peace, and we might receive it, if we are willing to take God seriously, if we are willing to change our wills from bad to good. We must actively and intentionally receive the gift of God’s peace if there is to be peace among us on earth, but because so many of us prefer vengeance to reconciliation, prefer our self-centered will to the God-centered will that the Bible calls good, there will be no peace on earth. The fiery triangle around Bethlehem is profoundly significant; in my mind it is an intensification of the contest between the divine good will and the human bad will, to reconciliation on the one hand and to vengeance on the other. In the light of this fire we see that the battle is between the two wills, the will to life and the will to death. Bethlehem proclaims the either /or of the Gospel; either good will and peace or evil will and war.

Why does God not intervene and stop the violence? He does, he does! Christmas is the most joyous festival of the Christian year, more joyous even than Easter – it is after all the presupposition of Easter. It is most joyous because God intervenes and enters humanity in a new and powerful way. God’s goodwill is now deep in the flesh and bone of every human being, a great re-creative potential, a spring of good will ready to bubble up as peace, love and joy. Christmas celebrates the great divine intervention, so let’s pay attention to it. How does it happen?

God’s great intervention in our human violence and vengeance takes the form of the humble birth of a baby boy, and that fact tells us all we need to know about the good will that is able to receive the divine reconciliation and peace. Meditate on this fact this Christmas and again and again and again during the year. It is infinitely rich so I can barely begin to spread the banquet of its many levels today. Let this be beginning enough for now: the power of God in the face of violence is the humble love of his coming as a baby. This is a great and mysterious paradox, an irony more profound than the irony of violence in the birthplace of the prince of peace.

So if you want peace, practice humble love, and if you want humble love, call upon God in Christ, because without his divine presence in you there is no genuine possibility of such love. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of good will.” Let us be of good will this Christmas, and again and again and again.

Amen.

 

Timing is Everything

Timing is Everything

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 10, 2000

Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3: 1-6

“In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.

Luke 3:1-2

 

Last Friday I got up very early to attend a breakfast lecture by a celebrity speaker brought from the East Coast by a mega-church in this area. I should have stayed in bed. However, things are seldom a total loss so let me pass on the one thing of value I got from the presentation. It is a joke. The speaker said that as the years passed for him the term “Happy Hour” came more and more to mean a nap. We have all noticed how our relationship to time changes as life advances; what for a child is half a lifetime is for an adult a brief interlude, and the older we get the faster time seems to fly. As the date December 12th draws near, time becomes more and more the essential arbiter in our current political controversy. One journalist quoted Vince Lombardi the football coach, “We didn’t lose we just ran out of time.” In football it is called “running out the clock.” What shall we call it in politics?

Luke’s gospel is unique in the attention it pays to the precise historical time of the events of the life of Jesus. The other gospels write as if these important events took place in eternity, at any time and at no time. This for two reasons; some thought that the time of Jesus was the final period of the world in which the date no longer mattered (Mark and Matthew), or that it was the presence of eternity (John), others thought that it was for individuals or Jews only and not for the world as a whole. In both cases the calendar is irrelevant. Not so for Luke. He wrote the first history of Christianity, beginning with John the Baptist, centered on Jesus, and continuing in the acts of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. (We should always read the gospel of Luke and the book of the Acts of the Apostles together as two installments of the same history, the history of God’s determinative dealing with the world through Jesus Christ and his apostles). Today we reflect on time and history, two great Christian themes made central to our faith by the magisterial writings of Augustine of Hippo.

Luke is the only writer in the New Testament to follow the custom of secular Greek historical writers, like Thuycidides the historian of the Peloponessian War, and date his narrative by referring to contemporaneous events of note. The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar was from 19th August 28 AD to 18 August 29 AD. Sometime in that year John came upon the scene, and then Jesus. Talk about a marvelous year! 28-29AD is the year of our deliverance. Currently the Roman Church is celebrating the year 2000 as a holy year and millions of pilgrims have gone to Rome in observance. They celebrate the year 2000 as the anniversary of Christ’s birth. We should celebrate 2028-9when it comes with equal fervor.

Let me make two points concerning Luke’s dating the Jesus events with reference to the events of world history. The first point is simply and insistently that the life and birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are events, not stories, not illustrations of ideas; they happened in the real world in real time, not in the mind as ideas, symbols or fantasies, but as events that took up time and space in the ordinary world. In the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar something of vital significance happened and it happened as Luke’s gospel says it happened. It is neither fiction nor theory but event.

What is the difference between fiction and theory on the one hand and event on the other? Fiction and theory take place entirely in the mind, while event takes place in the world. Fiction and theory are always more or less under our control while events are not. We imagine fiction and act on theory, but we react to events. We are in control in the realm of fiction and theory; God is in control in the realm of events. One of the painful distortions made by my early morning celebrity lecturer was his claim that we are able to choose our future, that we are not the prisoners of our past, but are utterly free to create our own world. That is surely nonsense; the freedom we have to choose our lives is mostly the freedom to choose how to react to the things that happen to us. We live in an interaction between what we choose and what happens, between what we want and what our history allows. Sayings like, “If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade,” are trite but they are true. Christ happens in the realm not of ideas or theories but of events. Christ encounters us not as an idea or an ideal but as a person, and that encounter is an event in our history not an idea in our heads. He still meets us today in the history of our lives. Has he met you lately? Ever?

The second point Luke makes when he relates the event of Jesus to world history is that this event impacts the whole world. It impacts Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate and Herod, and Philip, and Lysanias, and Annas and Caiphas, and George W Bush and Al Gore, and Cisco Systems and Intel. There has been a strong tendency in modern times to limit the significance of Christ and of the Christian faith to the realm of the private and the personal. Faith for many of us is a private and subjective activity but for Luke it is an event in the history of nations, of politics and of culture. I know this is difficult to believe, but it is the fullness of our faith. Whether we believe it or not, whether we understand it or not, God in Christ has caused something pivotal to happen in this world that has changed the nature of things forever, and has changed me too, whether I acknowledge it or not. For that reason we are confident and expect to find the traces of this event wherever and whenever we go. All of time is changed by it, all my life is changed by it. Faith in Christ is the way to make that universal event happen in my particular life.

“Timing is everything,” is a slogan of the stand-up comic. Timing is everything in telling jokes and in real life, which is no joke. Jesus we believe came at the right time, in the fullness of God’s time, not too soon and not to late. You remember one theme of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” was whether Jesus should not have waited until the development of modern media before coming; he could then have communicated so much more effectively. On the whole, however, it is hard to imagine how he could have been more effective, given that a year of occasional teaching echoes down the millennia and changes lives by the millions. No I don’t think we can improve upon the plan; Jesus came in God’s time and God’s time is always the right time.

An essential, I mean absolutely essential, part of his coming were those who recognized and accepted him. There were those who accepted him after his work, on the basis of his life, death and resurrection, and they are primarily the apostles and secondarily each one of us. We are his disciples too and as such we are part of the event of his coming. But there are also those who acknowledged and accepted him before his self-disclosure to the world, and they were Mary his mother who was told by an angel, and John the Baptist who knew him through prophecy. The word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness in that marvelous year of AD 29, and the prophet Isaiah confirmed that word, and John embarked on a mission to prepare people to receive him. John and Mary are the dominant figures of Advent; they knew him beforehand and they prepare us to receive him, they warn us to be ready so that when the time comes we may acknowledge and accept him into our lives.

The fact that Christ’s coming is an event of world history means that it is far, far greater in its breadth and depth than anything we can comprehend. Too often we try to make of the incarnation of God only a personal experience, as if the limits of my religious experience were the limits of God’s saving presence in the world, as if heaven and earth were not full of his glory. Christ is in each one of us, because he is incarnated in humanity as such. When we say he comes to us we really mean that he who is always already there with us causes his presence to be known in special ways and at special times. May this advent be a special time for you, when the God incarnate in the history of the world makes his presence known in the history of your life, in its trials and challenges and in its joy and gifts. May this time be a right time for you, and may you discover the life and joy hidden in the midst of your days, the God made flesh in you.

 

Amen.

 

 

What’s it all for?

What’s it all for?

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 3, 2000

Scripture: 1Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:25-36

“…to establish your hearts blameless in holiness before God and our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1Thessalonians 3:13

On this first Sunday in Advent we begin again the journey of memory and faith through the events and teachings of our religion. Many of us have made this journey many times; its special moments are the special moments of our lives, its high and low points determining the ups and downs of our moods. We are joyous at Christmas, introspective during Lent, sad on Good Friday and triumphant at Easter. Our sense of the time of our lives is controlled in deep ways by this Christian journey through time, and so it is difficult to step back and ask, “What is the destination? What’s it all for?”

It’s a good thing we do not ask such questions often but rather just get on with life. You remember the advice of Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it is equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining. So most of us wisely just get on with living. This wisdom is well stated in the epigram, “Life is what happens while we are making plans,” which means “Trust the process rather than stand aside too long thinking of ways to control it.” So there is a lot to be said for the practical approach to life, not least that it is a good example of the life of faith in the sense of trusting God in the process and receiving His gifts humbly and gratefully as we encounter them unplanned along the way. Nevertheless, as we begin the annual journey again it might be helpful to step back and check whether we are still headed in the right direction, to ask, “Where are we going, and what’s all the effort for?” in the hope that a periodic check up will keep us on course. What then is the purpose of the Christian life?

Today I want to focus Paul’s answer in our text. The purpose of the Christian life is “…to establish your hearts blameless in holiness before God and our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The purpose of the Christian journey is to make us fit to stand before God himself, and the name for that state of fitness is holiness. So the more precise question must be “What is holiness?” I know that holiness is not a familiar term to us, sounding more like some thing from the 19th century, but its meaning is clear. It is the goal of Christian living, the answer to the question why we struggle to live this way.

In order to answer that question we must look at the context in which Paul uses the word. It is a context that those of us who still remember what is now called “fire and brimstone” religion readily recognize, the end of the world, the second coming of Christ, and the judgment. Our gospel passage reminds us of this theme; signs in heaven, distress among nations, confusion like the roaring of the sea, people faint with fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world. This is a typical outburst of what I call disasterizing; and there is always grist for the mills of disaster. Look at our current situation; in about a month some of us – pushed by the media, which thrive on disaster – have gone from euphoria at the solid success of our economy, the stability of our institutions, and our unparalleled status in the world, to “fear and foreboding.” Let me say that I for one do not believe that a falling market and a contested election are, – and this is one of the few contexts in which this phrase can be used literally – the end of the world. The “end of the world” context in early Christianity meant that the purpose of the Christian life is to prepare for the judgment, prepare to stand before Christ the judge. That form of religion is simple and straight forward; because of our sins we are bound for hell; because of His love God provides a savior, whom we must accept and obey. If we do that, God the Holy Spirit will confirm our hearts in holiness and we shall be acquitted in the final judgment and go to heaven. This is the traditional version of the initial Advent theme, the return of Christ to judge the world and the need to prepare for that. The logic is that as we prepare for his first coming in humility at Christmas so we prepare also for his second coming in glory at the end of the world. These are not insignificant themes and I do not wish to appear to dismiss them by focusing, as we do now, on another dimension.

There is a third coming of Christ, which is of more immediate significance than the past and the future advents, namely the present, and that brings us to the question, “What is holiness for us in our particular present?” The traditional definition of holiness emphasizes separation from the ordinary human world and total consecration to God, and there is truth in that if we emphasize the positive element of consecration to God rather than the negative element of separation from the world. The beatitude on purity of heart captures the essence of holiness. The pure in heart shall see God because they desire God above and before all other things and persons. Holiness in essence is this desire for God, and the greater that desire the greater the holiness.

Paul’s context tells us much about this nature of holiness as desire. The passage begins with his exuberant celebration of their love for him demonstrated by their sending him gifts of support. He loves them in return and longs to see them. He desires them as they desire him, and this mutual desire is the experience out of which the talk of holiness arises. Holiness is integrally related to the love between the apostle and his church, and to the love among the members themselves. Holiness is perfection in love and the goal of the Christian life is this perfection. Therefore, let us cultivate and celebrate our love for one another more and more, and thus make this church a holy place.

Now let’s step away slightly from the text and think about other contexts for holiness. I have mentioned the holiness of love for one another in our community, within the family of God in this place. We might label that Communal Holiness, and continue to cultivate it in our life together. There are, however, two other labels that might help us to fill out the picture of holiness, Social holiness and personal holiness.

Social Holiness wants the structures and dynamics of our economics and politics to be just and true. It applies love at the level of society and at that level love is justice. We don’t have to feel loving towards everyone but we must do all we can to see that no one is treated unfairly, that no one is taken advantage of, misused or unjustly exploited. When we vote conscientiously, choosing the candidate we believe best serves these just desires, we practice social holiness. When we help the poor and disadvantaged in acts of generosity and compassion to others simply because they are the image of God and they are in need, we are socially holy.

Personal holiness, in turn, wants the structures and dynamics of our personal life to be just and true. There is a rich spiritual literature on personal holiness, whose constant theme is growth and transformation. We are like pilgrims on a journey; we are like plants that grow. John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress was until WW1 the most read book in England, after the Bible. More soldiers took it with them to the battlefields than any other book, excepting the Bible. It is an allegory of personal spiritual growth written by a Congregationalist as he sat in an English prison. It influenced our culture more deeply than we can know; some argue that the very idea and form of the English novel, which most of us take for granted, emerged from the spiritual diaries of the Puritans, texts in which they recorded the personal details of their spiritual journeys. Thus the development of character in the novel is the secular counterpart of the development of the soul in the spiritual diary.

I want to conclude by giving you a somewhat different, and you might find it surprising coming from me, account of the disciplines of personal holiness than you would find in Bunyan. Bunyan emphasizes the future; pilgrim is on his way to the promised land and fights against the things of this world that hamper and delay him. The few principles I want to mention emphasize not the future but the present and I think that they balance Pilgrim quite well. They come from the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nat Hahn. I believe that they are true and therefore of Christ, who is after all the universal light that enlightens everyone (John 1: 9). The general theme is what he calls “mindfulness” and we might call “paying attention.” If you pay attention to the things before you, you will discover the Holy Spirit in everything. The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of Truth who is everywhere and fills all things.” Be mindful of things and He will reveal to you their divine perfection. Be reverent before life – I preached on that in my Thanksgiving sermon; be generous; be sexually responsible; be aware of what you consume, of food or culture; and practice “deep listening and loving speech.”

We have no time to analyze these principles, nevertheless I think they are clear. For us Christians they are conditioned and controlled by the living Christ who as Holy Spirit reveals and enables these good things, and brings them to birth and maturity in us. Mindfulness of the present and of the things before us is present personal holiness; but in the end all is conditioned by the nearness of Christ. He is coming again, in great humility on December 25th, in great power any day. So be alert, watch and pray, for prayer is the gateway to holiness, the portal to the mindfulness of things in the present, to the memories of the past, and to the joyous anticipation of the future, all transformed by the Spirit of Christ.
Amen.