Thursday, 14 January 2016

Beautiful minds, beautiful people

Finally, my dear friends, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is admirable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8.

There’s something about lists that appeals to me.

I remember as a boy hearing the shipping forecast on the radio. What did I know about shipping? Nothing. What interest did I have in the sea? None. And yet those strange names had a peculiar power in my mind: Viking… North Utsire… South Utsire… Dogger… Lundy… Fastnet… Rockall… Malin…

I hadn’t the faintest idea where these regions were, but their names conjured up dramatic images of steel-grey skies and mountainous seas, of wheeling gulls and leather-faced fishermen in fragile boats. The power of words!

The Bible contains its share of lists. There are lists of names (genealogies, to give them their technical name) which summon up kings, soldiers – and ordinary people – from long-gone centuries. There are Paul’s wonderfully resonant lists of virtues and vices in Galatians 5 – the “fruit of the Spirit” and “the works of the flesh”. Just reading them is a challenge and an inspiration.

And there is this list from Philippians 4.

Paul is bringing his little letter to an end, and he is keen to leave his readers with a challenge to cultivate a life-style worthy of people who follow Jesus. But he doesn’t do this by saying “Do this” and “Don’t do that”. No. He stirs their minds by throwing out these beautiful words – true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy.

He tells them to “think about these things” – or, as The Message puts it, to “fill your minds and meditate” on these things. Why not pause right now and let these words soak slowly, one by one, into your mind?

Two thoughts occur to me.

First, it’s what goes into our minds that shapes our personalities and comes out in our actions

In other words, if you allow your mind to be filled and shaped by all that is good, wholesome and beautiful, then there is every chance that you will become a good, wholesome and beautiful person. But if you allow your mind to be filled and shaped by things which are ugly and tawdry, well… you don’t need me to finish the sentence.

The air we breathe is full of the coarse, the cheap and the vulgar. In the workplace, in the various forms of the media, in supposedly high places – parliament, higher education, cultural circles – and in lower places too, we are awash with gossip, lies and nastiness of every kind.

Our difficulty is that we are so acclimatised to it that we simply don’t notice it – it’s like an odourless but poisonous gas we don’t realise we are inhaling.

In my early twenties I spent a little time in a very different part of the world where I was pretty much cocooned from many western influences. On my return to England I remember standing on the escalator in the underground, bombarded by sights and sounds I had grown up with but had never really noticed. And thinking: “How tawdry! How gaudy! How crude!” But make no mistake, it took me only a couple of days, sadly, to get fully re-acclimatised.

This leads to the second thing: it is up to us to take responsibility for what we allow into our minds.

We are constantly told to take control of what we put into our bodies – not too much fat, not too much salt, plenty of fruit and veg, we know it well. Feed our bodies with all the wrong things and we are likely to get sick and even invite premature death.

The same applies to the things with which we feed our minds. We would shrink from consciously poisoning our bodies – yet we routinely poison our minds. And Paul here is urging us to take control of this.

And the point is this: this won’t happen by chance; beauty of character doesn’t develop automatically. A firm intention on our part, backed by the determined cultivation of good habits, is essential.

The writer of Psalm 119 asks a very basic question: “How can young people keep their way pure?” And he gives this answer: “By guarding it according to your word” (verse 9).

Well, it’s not for me to improve on the Bible. But can I suggest that, for our purposes, we read that again leaving out the word “young”. Yes! However young or old we are, it is for all of us to seek that purity. And this search begins, though of course it doesn’t end, in the mind.

I think Paul’s beautiful list can help us.

Lord God, thank you for the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the pure in heart”. Spur me on to make that my greatest ambition in life. Amen.

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