What Is Your Life Aimed At?
I’ve had a lot of time to think over the last three months of sabbatical. It’s been an extraordinary opportunity to read, write, pray, rest, dream, plan, and of course walk!
David and I ended up walking more than 550km in May, as we journeyed from Lindisfarne where St Aidan established a monastery and a mission to the people of Northumbria, to Iona – the monastic community that had been his home, and that had sent him on this mission.
We spent two nights on Lindisfarne at the beginning, and two on Iona at the end, and during the 25 days in between we walked and talked and thought a lot, about all sorts of things – our work, our families, our future, the future of the church, the future of the planet. And often the question Why? would come up: Why do we do what we do? What really matters, and what’s secondary or a distraction or temptation? What are our lives aimed at and why?
By the time we finally reached Iona we were very open to the spirituality that it’s become famous for since a community was formed there to rebuild the abbey and renew its ministry in the 1930s. It’s a spirituality of action, justice-making, peace-seeking, and radical commitment to Christ. We joined in their twice-daily worship services in the beautiful restored Benedictine abbey, and shared prayers for the earth, for refugees, for political leaders, for church unity, for the sick and the impoverished, for those who are pushed to the margins or excluded…..
Many people come to Iona expecting it to be a spiritual place in the sense of being quiet and removed from ordinary life and gently heavenly – and it is. But it’s also and more importantly rooted in the pain and struggles of this world, and it follows Jesus’ call for us to be good news for our world; to be working on the kingdom of God project. It’s firmly and doggedly engaged in this world, not offering an escape out of it. And it’s always asking, What is your life aimed at?
This is what Jesus is asking his followers to consider, when he tells the parable of the rich man who amassed more and more material goods, but became spiritually poorer and poorer. And notice that he tells that parable after being asked to intervene in a quarrel between two brothers over their inheritance. He refuses to take on the role of a judge, doling out instructions or judgments, and instead he wants people to think deeply for themselves about their attitude towards wealth, ownership, and so on. It’s typical Jesus: no easy answer, but a challenge for us to quiz ourselves with.
So let’s look at the parable. In many ways the rich man seems very prudent. He’s had some bumper harvests, so he builds more and bigger barns to store it all in. Remember the Old Testament story of Joseph, when he was a slave in Egypt but had become a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh? When Egypt had some good years for harvest, Joseph recommended they store it for the future, when bad years would come. And it ends up saving his own family from starvation.
But here’s the difference: the rich man is storing it all for himself. There’s no notion in the parable that he’s going to share it. He says to his soul/to himself, “You’ve got loads stored up. Now relax, eat, drink and be merry.” It’s a party of one. Jesus concludes the story by saying that this man is materially rich but is not “rich toward God” – in other words, he’s spiritually bankrupt.
So what does it mean to be rich toward God?
We need to start by asking ourselves some questions about what motivates us, why we do what we do as we go through life, what our lives are aimed at.
There are basic human needs, of course – for food, shelter, security.
Then there are emotional needs – for love, friendship, community.
And there are spiritual needs – for peace of mind, openness of heart, the ability to give and forgive, and the need for a sense of meaning in life.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable is stuck in the basic need for his own comfort and wellbeing. His aim in life is just focused on the small circle of his own existence. Or let’s imagine he has a family that he shares his good fortune with, and he’s left a few million in the bank for his kids. In other words, he’s content to be part of the one per cent along with his family perhaps, but he has no desire to share in God’s work of bringing food to the hungry.
He’s spiritually broke. He isn’t living in the kingdom of heaven, the realm of shalom.
St Paul in his letter to the Colossians writes about what it means to live in Christ: that it’s about setting aside greed, malice, selfishness, and living a new life where we’re at one with each other and the old barriers and distinctions break down. Living in Christ is about sharing that divine work of shalom, carrying forward Jesus’ gospel of justice and compassion and inclusion. And we do this not by words but by actions, by how we live our lives in relation to others and to the needs around us. We live in Christ when we see Christ in all things and all people, and when we aim our lives at that grand perspective, not the small circle of us and those closest to us.
That is the spirituality and practice of the Iona community. It’s not a place of misty Celtic romanticized fluff, it’s a living, working Christian community that affirms “a faith that takes us beyond the safe place into action, into vulnerability, and into the streets.” [From An Affirmation of Faith, in Services for Justice and Peace, Iona Abbey Worship Book, p104-5.]
Every week the Iona community gathers in the abbey for a Service of Justice and Peace.
It reminds us to ask ourselves what our lives are aimed at, how wide our circle of concern is, and how engaged we allow ourselves to be with joining in God’s great work of shalom. I’d like to end with a prayer from one of those services:
God of new beginnings,
you long for us to live in love and justice
with our neighbours,
with friends and strangers,
with people everywhere.
You call us to be just and loving
in our working,
in our shopping,
in our caring
and through our prayers.
Jesus, you were a storyteller,
you talked about money, wages and taxes,
you told stories about integrity and forgiveness,
you helped people who were in trouble,
you listened to people who were sad.
You call us to live as you did –
to listen to each other,
to be forgiving,
and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
Holy Spirit, we are discovering what you ask of us.
You are wild and wise and you speak the truth.
You challenge and comfort us,
you breathe life into us,
you shout in the streets and you whisper in our ears.
You remind us what Jesus taught and practiced,
you take us to task,
you tell us to turn around;
you call us to walk in Love’s way.
God’s love in community,
in all our living
help us to say yes to you.
[Prayer of Commitment, Iona Abbey Worship Book, p106]