I have the greatest of sympathy with couples preparing for their marriage these days. But considering the sheer amount of advance planning, the attention and effort that goes into it all (not to mention the cost) I do sometimes wonder, “Whatever they will have to talk about after the ceremony?” since this ‘project’ has absorbed so much of their time and attention for so very long?
Now, I know I’m not alone in making this observation; many of us who are a bit longer in the tooth say this kind of thing with varying degrees of kindness, largely because we are perhaps more aware of the truth in the old slogan…. “A wedding is a day a marriage is a lifetime” … and yes, we can’t help feeling that so many couples are just missing the point. But part of the reason for this miss-placed emphasis I think, is that preparations for a ceremony are measurable. You feel as though something is happening and you can get hold of a ceremony or an event. And there’s an outcome which you can clearly see; even if it’s only a good old knees up!
After all, it’s far easier to turn your attention to these sorts of things than the ‘intangibles’ of the future….. of a relationship…. and the degree of trust you’re going to need. Because all of that stuff is much harder to get hold of and if truth be told, it’s actually a bit scary. Far easier, again… to go for what we think we can control; until a Pandemic comes along.
And we see the same kind of thing operating in the sphere of Education. The time was when those who guided this vitally important part of our common life were at least guided by a sense that they were enabling the formation of what we might call a ’rounded human being’. In times past the focus was on the person, the formation of character and indeed virtue. But (with the exception of those teachers who still think in terms of vocation) we rarely, if ever hear anything like this proposed as the purpose of education nowadays.
I know I’m crudely generalising but if you’ll bear with me, the impression I get is that if there are any guiding principles at all they are again, driven by what’s measurable: in short; by statistics. It’s summed up in the way educationalists (I think that’s what they’re called these days!) are inclined to ask, “What has been the ‘value’ added to this pupil in their time at school?”. Which is why in my less charitable moments I wonder if we’ve allowed the tidy-minded to take over the asylum!
But I’m not this morning wanting to get into a rant about either of these matters; marriage or education. I simply want to use them as illustrations of this tendency, this instinct to take a short cut; to go for what is measurable and within our comprehension and control. And I’m not wanting to point the finger of blame either; as I’ve tried to say, in a sense it’s understandable. Because the examples I’ve given of Marriage and the nurture of the young are challenging things aren’t they; and their complexity frightens us?
But although I may be swimming against the tide somewhat, the answer isn’t to take the short cut; to capitulate to the tidy-minded. No, we have to learn to live with it and to explore it. And it might help, I would suggest if we learnt to be a little more reverential and to regard these as ‘holy’ spaces: where something bigger is going on.
And if like me, you feel like resisting what feels like a ‘dumbing down’ of two of life’s most important spheres it’s not just because of the way we were brought up or because we’re temperamentally a bit reactionary or conservative. No, it’s because deep down, we know that these things call for more respect. And we as people of faith recognise this because we have a history; we learnt a long time ago that you cannot measure or control everything; and certainly not God.
A long time ago when our forebears stood at the foot a mountain waiting for Moses (Exodus 32.1-14). They got impatient and decided they preferred a God who was far more manageable and agreeable to our way of looking at things. And as we heard in this morning’s reading, in Aaron they even found the kind of dynamic leader who would give them what they wanted; clarity, certainty and a good old party. But that turned out badly. So, down the generations we have carried this memory; this fundamental lesson in faith that you cannot shape God into an image of your own liking; or an idol who accedes to your own preferences and tastes. No, you have to learn to live with the element of mystery…
And this isn’t rocket science. I mean we live every day, don’t we, with the realisation that other people (not least our loved ones!) simply cannot be summed up in statistical or any other ‘measurable’ or predictable terms…..can they? No matter how prone we are to say “That’s typical of you that is!” or “That’s what you always say!” No, if you’re wise you realise that you’re on holy ground… and if you’re really attentive you will always be surprised.
So basically, THIS is the kind of insight that we want to feed into the discussion about Marriage and indeed Education…. We can’t be living with this dumbing down; this ‘reductionism’. But we can’t offer this different vision and challenge to others without getting our own house in order…. Without continually returning to the folly … the short-cut we tried to take in the story of the dynamic Aaron and his Golden Calf.
And in this we’re helped by the Parables of our Lord. You see, one of the reasons why the first disciples struggled to keep pace with Jesus was because of his capacity to resist small and tidy-mindedness. He constantly draws us into this larger perspective which he calls it the Kingdom of God…. Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (Mark 4.26-27)
Notice: “He does not know how!” How’s that for a Church growth strategy? Nothing controllable or measurable here. Yes, we seek to be faithful. We speak and teach and try to live in the light of this reign of God…. so that others might join in; but we are not the prime movers. Which for some of us is a bit unnerving. But it puts all our efforts in perspective…I mean, there’s a huge amount of grace and freedom here…. not least the freedom to sleep at night! As the Lord points out… His Kingdom is like sowing a seed. Once sown it grows by itself…. So, faith means entering into a sphere that is not in under control.
Again, you sow and then even go to sleep… Fruit comes even if you don’t give it another thought. You don’t for example, keep anxiously digging a plant up to see how it’s doing…… Which is why there’s no point obsessing about whether you’re making what we might call ‘spiritual progress’. It’s not OUR work but the work of the Spirit in and through us that matters. So, in the same way, introducing others into friendship with Christ is not a push-button or mechanised process either; and you can’t create ‘Church by Numbers’ either, as if from some kind of template.
I mean, I’m not a horticulturalist but even I can tell the difference between natural and ‘forced’ flowers. We talk rather glibly, it seems to me about ‘growth’. My concern is that we rarely dare to ask, “What do we think we’re actually growing?” All too often it seems that our enthusiasm and our fear get the better of us. How hard it can be to realise that our actual calling might be to get out of the Lord’s way. That tagging along with Jesus; going the way of faith involves living with mystery and no little insecurity. It requires courage, patience and perseverance….. and I would add ‘a certain reverence’….
Reverence for what the Lord is growing within us and those of our family and friends. But as John Henry Newman says “The Lord God knows what he’s about”. Or as I often say to couples regarding their marriage: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”.