Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Something to be ambitious about

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord… That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither… Psalm 1:1-3

Psalm 1 is a little gem. If you haven’t read it recently I encourage you to do so. It contains, among other things, a portrait of the “righteous” or godly person.

What makes it so beautiful? Well, it’s very short – just six verses – and very simple. It compares the godly person to a fruit-bearing tree standing beside a stream. That simple comparison conjures up for us the beauty of the countryside on a fine day – it gives a sense of peace, quietness and rich fertility. You can almost smell the country smells, see and hear the cattle grazing.

What I like in particular is that the emphasis is not on what a person achieves, but on what a person is like. It’s about character rather than about success.

We badly need this emphasis today. I’m not saying that what we achieve in our lives is unimportant – of course not. But we live in a world where it sometimes seems as if it’s the only thing that matters.

How much do you earn? How many qualifications do you have? How hard do you work? How successful are you in your particular walk of life? What sort of home do you live in? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you go on holiday?
Without even thinking about it, these are the kind of questions we instinctively ask about people.

Whereas what really matters is – How honest am I? How kind? Do I have a generous spirit? A forgiving heart? Do I care for those in need and trouble? Am I good-natured and happy to enjoy the success of others?

The fact is that it’s people like that who make our world a bearable place to be. Just imagine if everyone was a driven, go-getting type, intent on climbing up that greasy pole of personal ambition and not too bothered whose faces they tread on on the way.

The Bible contains various other passages which you could call companion pieces to Psalm 1. Here are three – they form a trail.

First, Jesus’ “beatitudes” in Matthew 5:3-10.

Jesus honours those who are “poor in spirit” – humble and unpretentious. He honours “the meek”, and those who have an insatiable appetite for “righteousness”. He honours the “merciful” and the “peace-makers”. Above all, to my mind at least, he honours “the pure in heart”.

I find that last little phrase massively challenging, especially when I look into the murky depths of my own heart. Purity of heart implies a single-mindedness about being and doing what is right – about bearing a resemblance to the all-holy and perfect God.

I belong to a small poetry-reading group. We meet every fortnight to share poems on some chosen theme. I can’t remember what the theme was a few weeks weeks ago, but it seemed appropriate to read the Beatitudes (stretching the word “poetry” a touch, perhaps!). It took just a matter of seconds to read those few verses, but when I had finished one of the others in the group simply said, “That’s so beautiful I feel I want to cry.” I think that says it all.

Second, Paul’s great analysis of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Christians of Corinth were high-achievers in spiritual terms, no doubt about that. They had all the “gifts of the Spirit” anyone could want – tongues, healing, prophecy, miracle-working, you name it. But they lacked the one thing that really mattered: a God-like love.

And what is that love like? Well, not surprisingly it bears a strong resemblance to what we’ve just seen in the beatitudes. Patient… kind… refusing to be envious… humble… selfless rather than selfish… calm under provocation… never harbouring grudges… transparently honest.

Paul doesn’t add “like a tree standing beside a stream”, but I think he could have, don’t you?

Third, Paul’s list of “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatian 5:22-23.

These words are so powerful and so radiant that I think it’s best to simply let them speak for themselves: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”

Is that you? Is it me?

Are you looking for something to aim at in your life? My suggestion is this: you really couldn’t do better than start with Psalm 1 and follow the Bible trail I have suggested.

It’s important to read slowly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. But if you do, be warned – you will never be the same person again!

Lord Jesus, make me like that tree planted by streams of water, bearing day by day the fruit of the Spirit. Amen.

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