“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” “Put to death … whatever in you is earthly,” “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Maybe you know people who like to spout phrases like these. They don’t get invited to too many parties, do they?
So what do you do with advice like that? Well, we know what most of us usually do. We tune it out. I don’t mean that we go so far as to disagree with it outright. That would involve paying a lot of attention. For most of us, I suspect, it doesn’t even register, at least not for long. If you don’t believe me, just wait till the next time you’re really having fun and try to keep one of these sayings in mind: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” “Put to death … whatever in you is earthly,” “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Tell me how long you can keep that up and still have a good time. Maybe we don’t deny it, but we surely don’t want to be reminded of it all the time.
And no wonder. It just doesn’t fit in with today’s lifestyles. We spend more time looking for new ways to have fun than anybody before us ever did. That’s what Sunday usually means for most of us now—not a day of rest but a day of recreation, and a work day for people we expect to keep their businesses open so we can enjoy ourselves. And here’s something ironic: Ask any retail or restaurant worker and they’ll tell you that the rudest, most demanding customers show up right after church lets out. I don’t think the denomination matters much. Regardless of where we go to church, regardless of how we vote, regardless of who we think can or can’t be ordained or get married, our lifestyles are more preoccupied with “earthly” things than ever before. And it gets harder and harder for us to hear these parts of Scripture. We tune them out.
Now maybe you think I’m longing for an earlier day, but I really can’t be too sorry that we seem to have left behind some pretty gloomy views about this life and this world. As recently as the last century people were writing hymns and gospel songs that almost always referred to life as “a veil of tears,” “this world of woe,” and so on.
Churches sing a lot of hymns by Charles Wesley: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” and others like that. For me those are some of the best hymns we have. But he also wrote some of the worst. Here’s a verse from one of them, and I’m not making any of it up:
Ah lovely appearance of death!
No sight upon earth is so fair;
Not all the gay pageants that breathe
Can with a dead body compare:
With solemn delight I survey
The corpse when the spirit is fled,
In love with the beautiful clay,
And longing to lie in its stead.
I’ll bet you never sang that one! And that’s just as well. I don’t think it’s very healthy or very Biblical. But it’s been a dominant way of viewing this life for most of Christian history: this world and this life are mostly evil, so get through it, and don’t even think of having fun.
I’d tell you that it’s high time we put that attitude to rest, but by now you’ve probably figured out that I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that already. We’re fairly sure that God wants us to enjoy life here and now, and I for one am glad we finally got that part right. But you know it’s possible that we could still be just as one-sided as our great-great-grandparents. Yes, God wants us to enjoy our life, but that’s only part of the truth. It’s not the whole truth.
So what could be wrong with a little fun? The short answer is, “Nothing, so long as you don’t try to make it into anything more than a little fun; nothing, that is, so long as you don’t make a little fun into an idol.” Idolatry doesn’t just mean worshipping statues. It means putting anything else in place of God. That’s why Colossians says that greed is a kind of idolatry. And look again at the man who built all those bigger and better barns. We could get after him, of course, for being selfish when he could have given some of the extra grain away. But there’s a deeper problem that made him such a hoarder—he thought those filled barns would set him free to enjoy life. He thought they could do for him what only God can do. That too is idolatry.
The problem with idolatry, with putting anything else in place of God, isn’t that God is going to zap us. Who’d be left? The problem is that it doesn’t work. We try to turn what we’ve gained into more than it can ever be—something to set us free to enjoy the rest of our lives. Or we look to a moment’s entertainment as if the meaning of our whole life depended on it. And you know that’s not how it works.
What if the guy with the barns had lived another thirty years? Do you think he really would have kicked back to “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry”? No, the next day he would have been out building even bigger barns, promising himself that then he could afford to take it easy. And of course he wouldn’t. It would be the same cycle again and again. We know that, because it’s not just his cycle, is it?
The problem isn’t looking for a little fun, or a little security. The problem is when we’re never satisfied with a little of anything. We keep wanting every worthwhile thing to be worth everything, and as long as we do that we’ll never appreciate anything for its genuine worth.
Here’s a prayer from our Book of Common Prayer that I memorized when I was first becoming an Episcopalian, because it seems to make everything fall into place. And I also take comfort in knowing that it’s over twelve hundred years old. That means somebody back then must have gotten it right:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Loving God in all things and above all things: maybe that sounds like trying to have your cake and eat it too. But if you believe that God has come to us in the flesh in Jesus Christ it makes perfect sense. So when you hear the Colossians talking about heavenly things and earthly things, remember: they don’t have to compete. After all, this is the same writer who turned around and said “Christ is all and in all.” When you hear Jesus warning us against getting greedy, don’t assume that he’s telling us not to take delight in what God’s world has given us. There’s nothing wrong with a little fun, and there’s nothing wrong with providing against a rainy day. Nothing wrong … so long as in them we catch a glimpse of a world filled with the communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ. It’s not whether or not we love the world; it’s how we see the world God calls us to love. It’s a matter of vision.
So go ahead and enjoy yourself whenever you can. Have fun. Make the place where you live a delight to see. But remember who it is who can meet you everywhere. Remember that right in the midst of life is a mysterious presence that can free you to share your enjoyments and all that you have with the world around you. And don’t just remember, look. See yourself, your friends and your whole world embraced and filled with the communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ.