At the Sports Centre where I used to belong, the first week of January was always the peak time for new membership. After several weeks of overeating and drinking, January 1st – with its spur to new year’s resolutions – saw dozens of people lining up to work off this guilt by pounding the running machines.
Well, this is the first week of Lent, and in several ways many of us feel a renewed impetus to do something about our flabby spirituality. And there are plenty of opportunities to do just this. Some time ago the Boston Globe Magazine had an article about an unprecedented burgeoning of spirituality in this country – a real boom! Boeing and Xerox are among the growing number of Fortune 500 companies that have hired consultants to cultivate the spiritual energies of their work force.
The choice of religious experience now facing the consumer is phenomenal. Every kind of religious/spiritual experience is represented on the internet, with over 80,000 sites for spirituality offered by Google. Why this boom? Analyzers believe that it is a genuine increase in spiritual yearning among Americans; a reaction to blind ambition, workaholism and consumerism. But it is also because its marketers of products and services have capitalized on that yearning.
The renowned church historian Martin Marty writes, “There is a spiritual hunger today, but that spirituality is being detached from its traditional moorings in religious communities. It is more a salad bar religion: mix and match, pick and choose.” He says that while mere materialism is not satisfying people are not about to give it up. They want religion but most people do not want the discipline, expectations, and commitments that go with it. They want what Marty calls “secular spirituality” – religion with all the parts you don’t like taken out!
Theologian Marcus Borg writes that this approach can produce a spirituality mainly associated with the needs and satisfaction of the individual. The importance of the self is the dominant force in the spirituality boom. He writes that a spiritual director can be the religious equivalent of your personal trainer at the gym. Always a certain level of spiritual awareness becomes a kind of consumer item. “I’ve got what I want materially – a BMW or whatever – and spirituality too!”
“Why do you spend money for that which is not bread? And your labor for that which does not satisfy? Incline your ear and come to me: listen so that you may live.”
Powerful words of the prophet Isaiah from chapter 55. He will have none of this designer, “pick and choose” religious life. Isaiah’s life was shattered and transformed when in an extraordinary vision he saw the LORD God Almighty sitting on a throne with Seraph in attendance, crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole world is full of his glory.” And Isaiah in fear and trembling in the presence of the Holy One can only fall down and say, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”
The LORD God Almighty , Yahweh, Creator of the heavens and earth will not be coaxed down like some dumb idiot, to be part of a designer religion to make us feel better, and fulfilled. God will not be the object of our controlling ego, nor the substance of a spiritual wash out to get us through another day.
The pages of the Bible tell us quite the opposite. That it is God who came looking for us. Our longings, our yearnings, our emptiness, our jaded palettes and boredom with more and more are a response to the call of God. “You called,” wrote St. Augustine, “You cried, you shattered my deafness. You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness. You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath and I pant for you. I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me and now I burn for longing for your peace.”
God so loves us – and the world – that he comes looking for us, like the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go find the one who has gone astray. And this is grace: God’s gift of himself to us: and it has nothing to do with our efforts, nothing to do with pumping iron or spiritual gymnastics. As John tells us, “We love because he first loved us.” God longs to restore us to relationship with him, but that is only the beginning.
When God broke into Isaiah’s life and called him into a relationship with him, he had a purpose! The LORD God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.” God first calls us to know and love him but then he calls us to mission. He chooses us and commissions us. St. John, in chapter 15 of his gospel, writes, “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” We are called, we are chosen – to bear fruit!
In our reading today for Isaiah 55 we hear this famous image: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God’s purpose is to produce fruit. God calls us, chooses us, restarts his relationship with us, not just to make us feel good or be fulfilled, but in order to bear fruit, fruit that will last. “Just as the rain is sent to go deep into the earth, to nourish it and to bring forth fruit, so God’s word is sent to us to penetrate our mind and hearts and souls, and produce fruit. And we read, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
And so it seems to me that Lent is a very appropriate time for each of us to ask ourselves, “What fruit am I bearing in my life? How is God working out his purposes in my life? How do I cooperate with God in this? And how am I blocking or thwarting God’s purposes?
When we stop to consider our spiritual lives, and take stock, as we traditionally do in Lent, it is better, I think, not to focus on ourselves but on God. Who is God for you? What image do you have when you think of God?
If we focus too much on ourselves and our needs, we can sometimes domesticate God – and even create a god in our own image, someone to comfort and console us. Perhaps Lent is a time to let God be God. Perhaps a chance for a little iconoclasm – to smash my too small image of God. So, dare to ask in your prayers that God be God – but only if you mean it, only if you are prepared for the consequences! When Isaiah encountered the living God, he fell down on his face. “I am lost, a man of unclean lips!”
Ask God to be God. Ask God to work out his purpose in your life – but be prepared for the consequences! They could turn your life upside down. For if you want to know what God is truly like, turn to the image of the crucified Christ on the wall behind the altar. Who would ever choose a God who reveals his power in weakness? Who would ever choose a God whose glory is most perfectly revealed in a broken, bleeding man, dying on a cross. But “you did not choose me; I chose you.”
The God whose name is LOVE chooses you and me. And calls us now, on this day in Lent, to so live our lives that they may bear fruit – fruit that will last.
Keep the cross before your eyes when you come to receive the bread and wine. Take the risk of letting God be God in your life – and offer your life anew to be used in God’s service. “Here am I, Lord, send me!”
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