13“If only you would prepare your heart and lift up your hands to him in prayer! 14Get rid of your sins, and leave all iniquity behind you. 15Then your face will brighten with innocence. You will be strong and free of fear. 16You will forget your misery; it will be like water flowing away. 17Your life will be brighter than the noonday. Even darkness will be as bright as morning. 18Having hope will give you courage. You will be protected and will rest in safety. 19You will lie down unafraid, and many will look to you for help. 20But the wicked will be blinded. They will have no escape. Their only hope is death.”
Job 11 vv13-20 (Holy Bible, NLT)
‘There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.’, Thomas Merton
2016 saw sweeping, unexpected changes; the world is more uncertain and more frightening it seems. In our disorientation we may keenly want to do something, we may not know what to do? Actually, do we need to ‘do something’? I ask that, I hope, provocatively, what are we as Christians called to the public square to do? Well there is much to ‘do’ and the missional imperative is one of action; yet to some prayer and contemplation is a good place to start and a good place to remain. Does that sound complacent and other worldly? I would submit that time on retreat might be more fruitful than going to the Fabian New Year conference; a visit to a Monastery might be a better place to start than a 52 week subscription to the New Statesmen with Aunt Ethel’s Christmas money. Campaigning is good, even a form of discipleship (potentially), but what if it is an actually an empty act? Or even an act of ‘violence’ as Thomas Merton, the spiritual writer of the last century so starkly warns if we become subsumed by activism and overwork?
Political activity is not a bad thing; in fact it is a positively biblical thing, yet if it is part of an over-active approach to life, sundered from rest and reflection we could be fruitless and burned out. Thus, in this section of the eleventh Chapter of Job we find an instruction that might speak into our modern predicament. We are exhorted to prepare your heart and pray; in fact it is the ‘only’ thing Job is asked to do; although I am stretching the meaning of ‘only’.
We see in this passage the tremendous transformation and altering of perspective that is rooted in a life of prayer. For without this focus the activist may become oppressed by the here and now, the urgent, the needs of the hour and their troubles and lose sight of what is of true, eternal importance.
As 2017 begins let us ‘prepare our hearts and lift up our hands’; let’s not get sucked into political hyper-activity. If you are called into politics, action will flow from prayer. You are political, you won’t be able to help yourself getting worked up, formulating thoughts, giving money to causes, campaigning and chewing the fat over contemporary issues. If that is the ‘rock from which you were hewn’; it will pretty much happen, with some effort or application of course. Some outworking of your political vocation is likely. Of course, others need to be challenged, encouraged and equipped but for those in the political space – to whom I am addressing these thoughts – that is rarely the problem. Yet, if political activity is all we do, we are not in the right rhythm. Pay close attention to these verses in Job and orientate your life on a different track. Attend to your heart and prayer life; align with the Lord’s priorities. Take a radically different view of what it means to be political. To be political is to pray, to be political is to get to know your neighbours, to attend to the local environment, to be political is to spend time with your children. These are some of the most ‘political’ things you can do. To be political is to serve your local church because God’s politics is located in his ‘polis’; everything else is marginal or commentary.
Tony Blair, as Prime Minister was fond of saying ‘Doing nothing is not an option’. Well, actually in some instances doing nothing -for a season – is an option! Let’s camp out a little on that scandalous Thomas Merton quote; describing a certain form of activism as ‘violence’. Really? Yes. It may seem like he was trivialising violence but he warned that activism can reduce our peace. Again, Merton is not criticising activism per se but a certain approach to activism; this is a man who wrote a book entitled ‘Contemplation in a world of Action’. The worst critique of the monastic lifestyle is to see it as passive and other worldly. Slowly, many in the contemporary church are re-discovering the riches that can be gleaned from the monastic life. These forms of church and disciplines and practises will become ever more important in our uncertain future. We face a virtue less capitalism, consumerism that colonises our being, disenchanted secularism, a pagan popular culture and a hyper-busy world. We need to learn to survive, rest and resist.
“We must be still before God. The life around us, in this age, is pre-eminently one of rush and effort. It is the age of the express train and electric telegraph. Years are crowded into months, and weeks into days. This feverish haste threatens the religious life. The stream has already entered our churches, and stirred their quiet pools. Meetings crowd on meetings. The same energetic souls are found at them all, and engaged in many good works beside. But we must beware that …we do not substitute the active for the contemplative, the valley for the mountain top. (…) We must make time to be alone with God. The closet and the shut door are indispensable.(…) Be still, and know that God is within thee and around! In the hush of the soul the unseen becomes visible, and the eternal real. (…) Let no day pass without its season of silent waiting before God.”
Where I live near Bermondsey you can visit the site of its former Abbey, little is left of the structure closed after the destructive dissolution ordered by Henry VIII. Just a street named Abbey Street and a section of the wall in a restaurant remain. This Monastery was inhabited by Cluniac Monks, who came to an area and settled and died there. They were committed to prayer and place, they weren’t mobile. They stayed and prayed.
As Alasdair Macintyre indicates at the close of his signature work ‘After Virtue’ we may be in the midst now of a new ‘dark ages’ and it was a figure such as Benedict who started movements which overcame the last dark ages. It is time to take Monasticism more seriously. As much as I would love the Monasteries to be re-built, I am alluding to a Monasticism of the mind and heart. It was that 20th Century giant Bonhoeffer who prophetically pointed to the essential vitality of a life formed by new monastic practises.
‘The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism..a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people to do this…’
Silence and solitude don’t happen naturally in our culture. Yet, they are an essential spiritual discipline. Let’s pray and be contemplative and not be involved in 47 ways to change the world via the click of a mouse or a blog that is only re-iterating what 12 other people have said anyway. Let’s also listen rather than foist our opinion on others as a mark of our politics. A false binary such as the 52% v 48% outcome of the EU referendum should cause us to actively listen to those with whom we disagree. Listening should proceed talking and action. Prayer should precede and follow our listening. The discipline of silence can be a fruitful posture.
‘More spiritual progress can be made in one short moment of speechless silence in the awesome presence of God than in years of mere study,’ wrote A.W. Tozer.
The verses in Job 11 focus on getting our heart and devotion right and lifting up our hands in prayer. The point about the heart is fundamental. Our heart, the seat of our being, needs to be orientated to a holy goal, a ‘telos’ or it will find another goal. James KA Smith points out we are ‘affective beings’, lovers more than cognitive rationalists. Our heart is centred on what we love.
‘Because our hearts are orientated primarily by desire, by what we love, and because these desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practises in which we participate, it is the rituals and practises of the mall – the mall and market – that shape our imaginations and how we orientate ourselves to the world’
‘…liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love’
Good habits of the heart of worship, prayer and solitude are to be encouraged and cultivated. The alternative is that secular liturgies will act to shape our desires be it the market, media or sporting passions. We will find a liturgy, the question is which one will it be? Our lives will orientate around practises and towards an ultimate love, which one will it be? Let us prepare our hearts.
These couple of verses in Job admonish us to pray, to repent and contain promises; visible manifestations of transformation are granted to the one who prays and repents. Verse 14 stresses repentance. We must be serious about leaving behind the past and its sin; we must be accountable and in the arena of public life ‘walk the walk’. This is not about moral, legalistic perfectionism, it is about integrity. It is quite rightly about narrowing the gap between policy and lifestyle. We will fall short of this, yet we must hold it up as a value and discipline. To pray is to repent, to turn from our normal activity and confess our weakness and brokenness and orientate towards God. This is not some legalistic turning over 37,000 sins we may have committed in 36 hours but to be aligned with God. It is an essential part of prayer; for to pray is to change. Definitions of the root of repentance allude to a complete change of heart and mind.
In praying we will know release, from circumstances of misery and a transformed perspective. We see in verses 15-19 a new perspective. This is a critical link between our prayer life and our politics, for without this, we slip into the mode of the world and are oppressed by drudgery. For if we are involved in politics we will be surrounded in imminent concerns and to an extent these will grip us. We need a space to be ‘ungripped’; not to be bound to the temporal concerns that can overwhelm us and to pray and ‘forget our misery’ as the writer promises in Job.
Verse 16 promises ‘You will forget your misery’; you don’t need to be bound to the imminent ie local government cuts, the economy, the state of the Labour Party, Brexit, Syria, Iraq and the election of Donald Trump. These are all things we should care about rightly so, but without an encounter with God in prayer and devotion these things can cripple us. Looking to this section of scripture, transformation is promised. The misery will not last, it will be forgotten. The heart has been prepared and hands have been lifted up in prayer.
I am encouraged and intrigued by this final promise; ‘many will look to you for help’ we see that there will be an external not just a personal blessing in this path of formation. This is where the politics come in. Too often, I run around seeking the counsel and presence of other; well, we all need good advice, but must we always hurry to others? To this meeting or that think tank? Let’s hurry to the presence of God; the ‘secret place’ of prayer and on some occasions let others look for us. For, in this unsettled world perhaps a community of prayer that dwells in the ‘political world’ can be a place where others seek counsel and advice. When people come to us for help, we can be better equipped to help if rooted in the secret place. So, we are about being practical, as were the Monks and Monasteries, yet it all comes from an intentional spirituality.
There is a final encouragement and warning, this path of prayer and promise is clearly not just a ‘nice to have’ it is the only path, as the alternative for the wicked there is destruction. The wicked face grim prospects. Prayerlessness and restlessness equal destruction.
My concern is not to call people to passivity or to de-value the worthwhile, critical involvement of Christians in political activity but to offer a corrective to activity and engagement without prayer and reflection. Our action will bear fruit if it attends to the heart beat of the Father. Jesus, only did what the Father ordained.
‘So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” John 5v19
As the New Year is upon us, whatever we are resolved to do, let’s be devoted to God and lift up our hands. Be prepared to find silence and solitude and ask what is the Father doing? You may be surprised.