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 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

Insights 5 – Significance




Audio

One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for significance. We all need to know at a deep, heart level that our lives are important, meaningful and relevant. From a Christian perspective, every person is significant, but to some extent, we all have cause at times to doubt it. The tenets of our faith though, are clear. God gave us life deliberately. He brought us into being and cares about us throughout our lives and even after we die. For this reason and I suggest, this reason alone, we have significance, not only to God but to the rest of the creation in which he has placed us and especially to one another. Furthermore, every bit of the creation is significant. The sun, the stars, the earth and the seas, every mineral and chemical, every plant and animal was brought into being deliberately and has a role in sustaining the life of the planet. With this in mind, the dramatic loss of habitats and species that has taken place in recent decades should be of real concern to us. When the earth loses a species, the contribution which that species offers, is also lost and other species that depend on it are threatened. All this though is a bit irrelevant to the topic of this reflection. The critical thing is to affirm that you and I are significant because God has determined that we exist.

All this though cannot be understood from an atheist perspective. Significance for the atheist is not absolute. They have no way of explaining our arrival on this planet other than by chance or accident. Under this understanding we can only be significant through our actions during our time on this planet, and that is where it all becomes rather subjective. The criteria that determine significance, vary according to opinion. It also becomes relative. Some will be judged more significant than others depending on how much they meet the criteria used.

This rather atheistic perspective seems to have crept into mainstream culture and as a result, we all fall into the trap of doubting our significance. The consequence of that is that we spend our lives trying to justify our worth and our place in the world. In essence we must grasp by faith, that we are significant because of who we are and not because of what we do, what we achieve or the status and fame we might hold. Each person is significant because they are unique. They are the only ones who can be to the world what God intended them to be, which leads me to think about purpose. God has not only given us life but has also made a world in which we have purpose. We contribute to the wider world by both being and doing. We must not though use that contribution to give us significance. If we do we will in pride, seek the roles that we deem more noble, relevant or spectacular and which give us greater worldly status. That can take us away from the contribution that we are already making and possibly cause us to miss the calling of God to something for which we are more suited.

The many issues around significance and purpose have been brought into sharper focus by the pandemic, exposing the criteria on which we have based our significance, and threatening the fulfilment of our sense of purpose. I’ll return to purpose later but I’d first like to think about some of the ways in which the pandemic has tampered with our sense of significance.

In my last reflection I spoke of inequality of wealth and material poverty. There is no doubt that the pandemic has increased the gap between rich and poor. This is fuelled by attaching significance to success, achievement, wealth, power and fame. The very fact that we know what the initials VIP stand for, tell us that we live in a world where there is a hierarchy of significance. The roles of the VIP reveal to us the various criteria by which we judge levels of importance as does our tendency to measure importance and significance in material terms. When the sum that we earn reflects our sense of significance it is easy to see how superiority and inferiority complexes come into being.

The labels we use and attach importance to have also come to the fore during the pandemic. There is pride in being a provider and humility in being dependent. We must learn to embrace both, without it impacting on our sense of worth and remember that the seemingly dependent often contribute more to the lives of the providers than the other way round.

During the pandemic, frontline workers are providing a selfless and courageous service to the nation and should be rightly recognised for doing so but the word hero is probably overused. In contrast, I question how people might feel about being regarded as extremely vulnerable and told to stay at home and shield at all costs. Neither position should influence our sense of significance but it inevitably will. It is helpful then I think for us all to remember that each person is making sacrifices and to take care with the labels we use both positive and negative.

Our sense of significance is also impacted by relationships. People name drop for a reason. There is nothing new about trying to gain importance vicariously. Friendships are also hugely important to our sense of significance. Having friends gives us the reassurance that we are not only loved but also lovable. The very nature of friendship though has been distorted by the pandemic. When isolated we no longer have the affirmation of friends. It is important for us all to keep in touch with one another but we also need to draw again on God to remember that it is primarily our relationship with him that gives us significance.

I’d like now to read some verses from Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.

Pause to reflect on those verses and consider what they might be saying to us about how being created, known and loved by God assures us that we are important to him and meant for existence in his world.

The pandemic has hit hard, the livelihoods of many people. Those that have lost jobs have not only lost their means of income but may have also lost a sense of purpose. The furlough scheme whilst enabling organisations to retain jobs and provide employees with an income is also frustrating to many because they are not permitted to work for their living. Yet in spite of this, many people have found purpose in new ventures. For some the pandemic has been the release from a particular occupational rut and others have found a renewed sense of purpose in serving their communities voluntarily.

The thing that seems to be emerging here for me is the importance of being adaptable. I have often thought that Christians often limit God by looking for the one thing in life that they believe he is calling them to. I think God has any number of options open to us. All he wants is for us to be as true to ourselves as we can possibly be in the context in which we find ourselves. God is imaginative and made in his image, wants us to be so too. In terms of what we do, I think he often leaves us to decide. I think he enjoys seeing us try certain things out even if it turns out we are not suited to them at all. We do after all learn valuable lessons about ourselves from such ventures.

In a broken world, human beings are at times inevitably going to find their purpose, seemingly blocked and it is important that we do not lose heart when that happens. When the world takes away what we feel is our God-given role and purpose it is easy to become dejected and even bitter. We lapse into a blame culture. The way forward though is through faith. If God wants us to do a particular thing he will make that possible. If it does not become possible, assume that at least for a while, God is ok with you doing something different. My return to from church ministry to physiotherapy for a couple of years is an example. I believe that God has called me to a priestly ministry but I had to recognise that I could still do that in a different context.

The apostle Paul is an even better example. He is called to be an evangelist but circumstances have dictated that he is imprisoned. Not a great place for an evangelist and church planter. Yet Paul in his letter to the Philippians is able to say ‘Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear (Philippians 1:12-14). When we think about it, if Paul not been imprisoned he may well have not written the letters that had significant pastoral benefit to the churches of his day and brought many to faith in Jesus in the centuries that followed.

Some final thoughts from a parable

Read Matthew 20:1-16

This parable says much about significance and purpose, particularly in the context of where Matthew places it in his gospel. In chapter 19 Jesus highlights the significance of little children and the place they have in the kingdom of heaven. That is in contrast to the following passage about a wealthy young man who cannot embrace the freedom of God’s kingdom because he is unable to let go of his wealth and presumably the status and privilege that go with it. We then come to this parable of the workers in the vineyard. I’ll return to it shortly but the passages that follow it are relevant here too. Jesus first predicts his death before dealing with a request from the mother of James and John, that her sons occupy the most important positions in the kingdom of heaven. The chapter closes with a story about the healing of two blind men in which we should take note of the reaction of the crowd. We’re then into chapter 21 and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem one week before his crucifixion. It is worth reading through the whole of this section to see what Matthew is getting at regarding the significance.

So now back to the parable. It’s important to recognise that the landowner in the story has determined an agreed and fair wage with the workers that were hired first. One denarius was apparently the accepted rate of pay for a day’s work in that time and place. It is these first workers then, that have the guaranteed income. To the other workers the landowner agrees to pay ‘whatever is right’ at which point those listening to Jesus’ story will naturally assume that it will be less than one denarius. As it turns out the right pay is also one denarius. Presumably anything less would not have been right. At this point, I’m thinking about employees with zero hours contracts. Is this a way in which employers get the most work for least cost and what does that say for the security of workers who have no other employment options?

In the parable though, the crucial statement regarding significance in this conversation is that of the workers who were hired first. Verse 12 tells us that they grumble, ‘these who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ The phrase ‘you have made them equal to us’ is the relevant one. These workers then were assuming some sort of superiority over those that were hired last. In their eyes they were not equal. Maybe we should go back in the story a bit to think through why this might be. There the landowner asks the question of those that were taken on in the final hour, ‘why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?’. The workers answer, ‘because no-one has hired us.’ This takes me back to school days and how teams were formed for football and other such sports. Two captains were chosen by the teacher (usually the best players) and they would then choose in turn from the rest of us those that they wanted in their team. It did nothing for your sense of worth to be chosen last. In football I navigated this problem by learning the art of goalkeeping. I was one of the first to be chosen for football, not because I was particularly good but because nobody else wanted to play in goal. The selection of workers in Jesus’ day seems to have been made in a similar way. Potential workers gathered in the market-place and employers came and picked their team for the day. Presumably, most employers went early to get the best team.

The workers that are left have a double whammy on their sense of significance. First, that they are regarded as less able and second that they are unable to make a decent living for themselves and their families. These are in the world’s view, least important yet in the kingdom of heaven they are first in God’s eyes. That is not that they are more significant. The last workers received no more pay than the first ones, but these are the ones who know that they have no alternative way to reach the kingdom of heaven other than through the generosity of God. Those who think they can get into the kingdom through their own merits will be last.

Conclusion

This pandemic has undoubtedly shaken societies all across the globe. It has drawn attention to our vulnerability and revealed the weakness of certain things in which we previously put our faith. It has caused many of us to doubt ourselves and doubt our purpose in life. Even for those of us that have retained our jobs, central aspects of those roles have been lost or altered, often to the extent to which we become anxious about whether or not we are fulfilling God’s calling in our lives. In this we need not worry. God will make it clear to us if we need to take a different direction. It is important that we recognise that God gives us purpose, but the nature and context of that purpose is always subject to change. We must always know though, that we are all equally significant in the eyes of God and we should be able, like the Psalmist to pray ‘I thank you that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.




Insights_5.mp3