What’s the worth?

Good Work of Praise
Strange Lord, who would rule your creation through the crucified Son of a carpenter, make us workers in your kingdom. We want to work, but so often our work turns out to be nothing but busyness. We think that if we are busy we must be doing something that you can use. At least being busy hides our boredom. Yet we know you would not have us busy, having given us the good work ofprayer. Help us, in our busyness, learn to pray”so that all our work, all that is our lives, may glorify you. In a world that for so many seems devoid of purpose, we praise you for giving us the good work of praise. Hallelujah and Amen.
– Stanley Hauerwas Prayers plainly spoken. (1999)

Recently, I joined a group of friends for a retreat of a few days at the Jamberoo Abbey. Much of the time was spend in quiet, or by joining the Benedictine sisters in their prayer of the Daily Office. My only regret is that the Abbey is 210 kms from my home-too far for frequent visits.

Sister Hilda blessed us with a challenging yet encouraging talk on the first two beatitudes Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5.3-4). Hilda said that the kind of poverty spoken of here is an nearly absolute poverty, from which normally there be little hope of rescue-a poverty akin to that of children in some places who eke out a living by picking over the city rubbish dump.

We were invited to consider how we are similarly poor-in spirit.

“Purposelessness” was what I wrote in my notebook. But perhaps what really meant was “worthlessness”. I have done rather a lot over the years, in my employment and in my church and Christian life. No doubt I have served many and helped and encouraged some. Yet I deeply question the value to me or anyone else of doing more of the same.

In theĀ Church Times (22 May 09) Giles Fraser reflected on his departure from his present parish to take up a new post.

Soon I shall be a name on a list of vicars past. One day, all will be distant memory. New vicars will come and go . . . Has anything lasting been achieved? I built a new building. But one day that will be demolished for another. In the great scheme of things, it is as passing as a well-struck five iron.

One of my favourite verses from scripture is 1 Timothy 6.16, where we are told that God alone is immortal. It is worth spelling out. The only thing that will last for ever is God-not Giles Fraser, not Putney Church, not even the planet itself.

Folk religion commonly imagines the soul continuing after death, with scant reference to the existence of the Almighty. It is as if the immortality of the human soul is something that happens by itself, under its own steam. No: without God, we are food for daffodils and nothing else besides.

This means that the desire for some sort of solid and permanent achievement over time is utterly impossible without the author of life itself. Achievement is little more than a soon-to-be-forgotten name on a board. The only thing we have is God, and it is only by indexing our existence to that reality, only by participating in the divine life, that we find the permanence that we so often crave.

It is counter-intuitive, but the firmest foundations for life are to be discovered in activities that do not have a look of concrete-and-steel solidity: acts of loving kindness and the life of prayer. “Solid joys and lasting treasure None but Sion’s children know.”