Living in important times

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims
. – Patrick Kavanagh

There can be no doubt that ours is an age of tumult and upheaval, of movement, change, and discontentment. We are living lives which, to borrow from Charles Taylor, are simultaneously buffered but are also incredibly porous to the messages of a world which clicks and beeps its concerns incessantly. In the past two decades we have witnessed militant Islam encroach into the consciousness of those in the global West, we have ridden the intellectually populous wave of the New Atheism, we have become hyper-connected to a wider world, we are witnessing the redefinition of humanity’s most basic relationships and the rearrangements of the building blocks of human identity and personhood, all the while watching a tsunami of nationalism and racism surging towards the shore of civil discourse. These certainly feel like important times, an epoch of change which will sit thickly in the binding of future history books.

All of this could, however, obscure the truly important lives which we are called to live, and the truly vital world with which we ought to be engaging. When Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh came to write his poem ‘Epic’, his focus was not on the centres of power but the centre of the parish, on the everyday, the immediate, the local. The importance of the times in which he lived were not reflected by the headlines but by the happenings around him and his contemporaries which were tangible and touchable. This is an important ironic point, in that the convulsions of partition, a civil war, and the new constitutional reality of the Republic of Ireland were ultimately reflected in the neighbourhood, not in concepts of nationhood.

This sentiment is an important corrective to how we have come to live our lives, and were we to grasp Kavanagh’s wisdom we might just relate to our world in a more healthy and a more helpful way. To see the importance of our times, of our community, of the people nearest to us could be transformative of our whole outlook and consciousness. Here are a few suggestions of how we might live in our own important times:

These are important times among our families and friends: the basic unit of our life is the family in which God has placed us, this is not a listing beneath the headline act of other priorities, or a mere springboard from which we might launch ourselves into the wider world. Domestic concerns for those who live in family groups, and fraternal concerns for those who don’t but enjoy deep friendships, are areas which easily become part of the field depth which we overlook in order to focus on ‘higher things’. As Christians, these are our primary spheres, and the concerns of loved ones and friends, their need of our encouragement, rebuke, discipleship and support are fundamental to their health and ours, to our mutual spiritual growth and that of every function of the body of Christ.

This should give us serious pause, and perhaps cause us to reorder our priorities. We are constantly tempted to tend to the demands of distant servers and synthetic networks, to be answerable to people to whom we owe no ultimate account, all at the risk of ignoring our immediate responsibilities and pleasures. If we spend more time campaigning for unborn life online than we do in discipling our children, if we resist the redefinition of marriage on Twitter while damaging the condition of our own marriage at home, if we are awash with friend and followers and likes, but have pushed back face to face engagement with those who mean the most to us, then we have sacrificed the vital on the altar of the important concerns of our wider world. This may be a position from which we need to repent.

These are important times among our wider community: God has placed us among families and among friends, but he has also located us in the communities of which we are a part. Our neighbourhood is not incidental, the local work of committees and councils, the rigour of being a responsible citizen, the uphill struggle to live peaceably with all are not inconveniences but part of our calling by virtue of divine providence. The shadowy figure of loneliness and hopelessness haunts the hearts and homes of countless people around us, the tick of the retirement gift clock chips the air in the silent sitting rooms of the elderly and housebound, the demands of feeds and falls and pickups harasses the mind of young parents scraping by, and addiction stalks the consciences and hearts of countless people within our community. What a tragedy if we confined our lives in such a way never to touch the world that surrounds us, what a shame it would be to us as Christians if we tapped out our various virtues via wireless, while abandoning our vocation to be salt and light, to be neighbour and friend, to be those with open hearts to the hopeless and forlorn.

It may be that our wider world is more content to sign online petitions than to sign up as volunteers, to throw milkshakes rather than cast their vote, to berate politicians while leaving committees empty, to engage in the casual cultural Pharisaism which binds burdens on the backs of strangers which can’t be borne by those who forge them, but this should not be our path as believers. The lives around us are far too precious, their souls far too dear, their needs much too acute, and our culpability much too pronounced, for us to content ourselves with ignoring such important times.

These are important times in the local church: the local church is how God does his work. That is the beginning, middle and end of Christian discipleship and mission. The New Testament is clear that the local gatherings of believers are the means by which God does his work of building the kingdom. Being a member of a biblical church, fulfilling the commitments which that entails, joyfully joining our voices with brothers and sisters from the same vicinity is a powerful and persuasive tool in God’s hand, for his glory.

Our problem is that we can disbelieve that this is where our significance lies. We can laud conferences, we can follow speakers, we can rant and rage and write ourselves hoarse on Twitter, we can delineate the finer points of theological themes among our virtual peers, but if we are not taking our place and employing our gifts in the local church we are resolutely wasting our time.

This goes for pastors as well. We can win the esteem of complete strangers, we can have our thoughts retweeted a thousand times, we can connect with the big names, we can swagger through a world which cannot see anything of our heart, and all the while make derelict our duty of care to the souls whom God has placed in our charge. We can leap on to the hurtling band wagon of whatever social issue is raging through our social world, we can protest, project, and pontificate, but if we are not gripped by the sheer weight and wonder of teaching the people directly connected to us, then we are little more than charlatans. The instruction and discipleship of members of our local church is weight much greater and a responsibility much grander than many of us can comfortably accommodate. The preparation and proclamation of sermons which fade into the ether audibly, but settle in the hearts of God’s people effectually is a privilege and burden which could imperil our health. These are important times, this Sunday counts in terms of who you teach and how you teach, your prayers for the souls of the saints and the unsaved are of increíble moment, the time spent sharing and caring with those in need among God’s people is a deep and powerful investment. Nothing you do in your online life, in your wider circles can compare with this.

We are living in important times. This is no doubt true nationally and globally, but it is also abidingly true in our local sphere. We need to lift up our eyes on to the harvest field which surrounds us to see where our energies should be directed and where our responsibility lies.

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