On my phone I have a lot of apps (or programs). Some I use a lot, others I wouldn’t notice if they were deleted. I was probably looking for something to do a particular task, and tried out a few (free) alternatives. Those I liked I used. The others got ignored. But often I don’t delete them straight way, unless I need space or it annoys me.
One of those unused ones sends me a little ‘motivational quote’ most days. I generally delete it without even looking at it. But during the week one did catch my attention. It said…
Life is like a camera. You focus on what is important.
At first I thought oh, that sounds good. But later, as I walked round Tesco, I started thinking about it and began to wonder if it was actually true.
For a start, whoever made that quote has not seen much of my photography. Today cameras on phones can take 20 pictures of the same thing and even help you decide which is the best. But I remember taking film to snappy snaps, being really excited when I got it back, then finding I’d cut heads off, took photos of the ground, got blurry snaps, covered the lens with my thumb… You might wonder if I was focussing on anything, let alone what was important.
But do we really focus on what’s important? I can spend lots of time on the most mundane, banal, trivial things. That day in the supermarket I passed a newspaper which invited me to turn to page 3 to discover details of a celebrity’s ‘oh-so-complicated love life.’ I caught myself reaching out to flick over the page to find out, before I thought ‘Andrew, why do you even care?’
Then there is a whole internet phenomenon called click bait. If you’ve ever found yourself clicking on a link which claims that what the cast of Grange Hill look like now is amazing or 36 things you didn’t know about Only Fools and Horses, you’ve fallen victim to it. These sites and their advertisers rely on us spending lots of time on trivia.
Have a quick scan of the magazine shelves and you’ll see all sorts of celebrity tittle tattle, look through the TV schedules and you’ll find such meaningful stuff like ‘world’s most embarrassing cheese sandwiches’ (not a real program, or please God, I hope it’s not!). To be fair, a man who series links Bargain Hunt shouldn’t be too critical of other people’s choices.
Lest I be accused of being snobbish, a friend of mine found himself wondering why he’d wasted half an hour listening to a Radio 4 programme about the history of the corridor. Or I heard a few minutes of one this week about the story of the colour black. Someone is going to tell that was brilliant…. Yesterday Radio 5 Live devoted more time to talking about the Liverpool v Man Utd game than the players spent playing it!
If none of those examples convince you, just consider how long I spent pondering this quote to come up with all those examples. And my only excuse was it was giving me a sermon intro.
But there’s another, more serious way in which I wonder if we really do focus on the important. It’s the age-old battle of the urgent and the important. Often we get them confused. We might even think they’re the same thing. But they’re not.
Urgent tasks are the demands we place on ourselves, that others place upon us, or we even just perceive they are placing upon us. Important tasks are those which are ultimately valuable. Those moments where we look back and think I wish I’d spent more time doing… In life we are constantly trying to balance them. A lot of urgent things are good, or even necessary. But it is all too easy to instead get distracted or consumed by the urgent. By whatever happens to be screaming loudest for our attention at that moment. And along the way we can lose sight of what is really important to us.
So as I reflected on the quote on the phone I found myself wondering if the quote should read
Life is like a camera. You should focus on what is important.
But actually one I think is even better is…
Life is like a camera. What you focus on is important.
For to borrow another quote, I came across in preparing for today…
You’re not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.
Where you allow your mind to focus will eventually shape your behaviour and who you become.
That message is running through both the passages from Paul’s letters, which we shared together this morning. Both passages are quite similar, with calls to rejoice, be prayerful, be thankful. Both talk about God’s peace and link it with being discerning about where we allow our minds to focus their attention. Both include calls to remember God’s faithfulness.
I want to steer us towards the idea of thankfulness. We’re continuing in this series about seasons or phases in the spiritual life through the 12 words in the circles on the screen. In recent weeks the word we have focussed on is Thanks.
Towards the end of the sermon a couple of weeks back, I suggested spending some time each day thinking of one or two things for which you are thankful. Modern research suggests that doing this can bring us emotional, spiritual, even physical benefits.
Of course that research is not without its critics. If you type ‘gratitude’ lists into Google, one of the first suggestions Google will make about what you’re looking for is ‘gratitude lists are BS.’ I won’t explain the letters BS, except to tell you the B stands for Bull. You’re adults, you can figure out the rest.
One article I came across suggested instead that ingratitude lists saved them from depression. It presented the idea I gave you as escapist nonsense. It’s trying to divert our attention to these things, by having happy thoughts. Meanwhile none of our problems get sorted, cos you’re too busy having happy thoughts. Instead we should name stuff that makes us angry, sad, frustrated.
Now, there is a sense in which the writer had a point. If the purpose of the gratitude list was just to hide from everything bad, nothing would get solved. As we’ll see later I think there is a place for naming those things which trouble us. Although I wouldn’t call it an ingratitude list, to be fair.
Sometimes passages like we shared this morning can make us feel like that’s what’s going on. In some of our home groups recently, we’ve talked about how rarely we make space for lament within public worship and why that might be. Is a whole part of our life we cut off from worship and what does that say? We have prayers which talk of leaving our troubles at the door, or laying them aside as we come into worship. And I find myself thinking ‘really? Is that the best we can offer?’ Is God only interested in us if we feel or can put ourselves in a good place, in a happy mood. It reminds me of me being in a grump as a child and my mum saying visitors wouldn’t want to see my grumpy face. Leave your trouble there, just don’t forget to pick it up as you go?
A faith that forces you to live in denial is no good to anyone.
Without a bit of context we can read Paul’s words and think that’s the direction he is taking us. If we’re not feeling happy and thankful we can hear these words urging us to rejoice and feel like we’re being beaten up. They might feel quite naïve or trite.
You couldn’t say that about Paul. His life was rarely straightforward. One of his most loved bits of writing is Romans 8, when he talks about a lot of things that can’t separate us from the love of God. Things like trouble, hardship, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger or death. When Paul listed those things he was using examples from his own life. On another occasion he spoke about some of the things he endured in his ministry. He had been lashed and flogged numerous times, stoned, shipwrecked several times, lived in danger from just about every group in every situation, often going hungry, thirsty, tired and sleepless…
Even as he writes Philippians he is on trial for his life, and it’s unlikely to end well. As we’ll see shortly, one of the images he uses is taken directly from that experience. If you read the rest of Philippians you’ll see he’s writing to a bunch of people who are facing all sorts of trouble. Paul he doesn’t hide from any of it. At one point he even talks of destructive elements in the church reducing him to tears.
There is another little bit of background to what is going on here. One of the big schools of thought, in the Greek speaking world were Paul was writing and working, was the Stoics. They encouraged people to train themselves to believe that material things just didn’t matter. They used words like contentment to describe the goal of life. Live on a higher plane. Detach yourself from everything. Whatever life throws at you, treat it like it doesn’t really matter. You have it within yourself to master this, if you just dig deep.
And one of the ways in which they encouraged people to do this was by focussing on the virtues. One writer, who was influenced by the Stoics was a Roman called Cicero, who lived about a century before Paul. It’s interesting what he wrote, because it has echoes of what Paul says here.
The good of the mind is virtue: therefore the happy life is necessarily bound up with virtue. Consequently all that is lovely, honourable, of good report… is full of joys.
We still talk about being stoical. It’s still a popular philosophy, although we might not recognise it as such. We’ve even set it to music. ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.’ You’ll hear people say ‘if it’s going to happen, there’s nothing you can do about it: it’s fate.’
That was primarily the Stoic’s reason for saying don’t worry. You can’t beat fate so why let it bother you?
Paul borrows some stoic slogans in the Philippians reading. Paul never rejected stuff, just cos it didn’t originate with the scriptures or Jesus. He happily borrowed ideas, as did the other early Christians. It’s true that there were many ideas, values and behaviours which weren’t consistent with Paul’s message. His letters are full of examples of this. He urged those who entered a relationship with Jesus to leave such things behind.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t find any good in their cultures. In a sense he is saying to them ‘if it helps you to think of what you had learned before you became a Christian, think about the best aspects of that life, and let it help you.’
But Paul doesn’t adopt ideas uncritically. There are a couple of big differences to how Paul approaches these ideas.
One involved us, the other involves God.
He doesn’t promise them that they will be spared hard times or pressure-packed lives. Nor does he minimise any of the concerns. But they don’t just have to blindly accept it. For they’re not in the hands of an impersonal fate.
No, they’re invited to bring them to a God who loves them and cares for them, who is active in the world, and cares about the things they care about.
Paul doesn’t put limits on their prayers. There is nothing too great that it’s beyond God. Yet there is nothing too small for his fatherly care. So they don’t have to live in denial. He doesn’t tell them to live like it doesn’t matter.
But that doesn’t mean the Stoics had nothing to offer. And Paul does say ‘think about how you think.’ He does encourage them to filter things through a different lens. Paul effectively writes ‘I know what I’m saying. I’ve thought of everything that can happen and I still come to the same conclusion – rejoice!’
It’s important that we have words like these against the backdrop we have them. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, it is possible to forget about the good things that come into our life, to take them for granted. But even if we might forget to be thankful in the good times, it is still easier to associate thanksgiving those seasons.
However life is messy and complex. We don’t always get our way. Can we be thankful in those times? Can we be thankful in all circumstances. Paul says we can. He tells us he’s learnt through experience to do it.
Paul doesn’t encourage either the Philippians or the Thessalonians to live in denial, just thinking happy, happy thoughts. Yes he tells them both to be thankful. But he tells the Philippians to ask God for what they need, and tells the Thessalonians to pray at all times. They are invited to name all their sources of struggle and sorrow. They’re invited to bring what might have been described as their ingratitude lists to God in prayer. They don’t have to treat these things like they don’t matter. They do matter and there is no need to hide them from God. The Lord is near and ready to listen.
We can struggle with this sometimes…
When things are going well we can slip into thinking that prayer is unnecessary.
When things are going badly and answers don’t seem to be quick in coming, we can start to think prayer is ineffective.
Then there are times when we are weighed down and it feels like prayer is impossible.
But Paul urges them to pray in all circumstances. Whether we feel it’s unnecessary, ineffective, impossible.
Hang on in there. Don’t give up.
But we’re also invited to come with thanksgiving. One of the problems we might have with this text is that we misread it. Paul does not tell us to thank God for all circumstances. He says thank God IN it. There’s a difference. Paul is not asking anyone to be a masochist.
But even in the midst of trouble there can be things for which to give thanks. We might look back on a time when our past and recognise how God helped us back then. And as we ponder what God can do, and we might be encouraged to believe he can and will do it again.
Or it might be those moments of grace we experience even in the midst of trial and sorrow. That friend who dropped by with the card and flowers. That person who phoned to say they were thinking of you. That book, film or TV programme you enjoyed when you weren’t able to do anything else. It might just be the fact that you got up and made it here today. It might be ‘yesterday was hell, but I’m still here.’ Thank you. They might feel like very little things. It might even be hard to explain to someone else why it matters. But they are part of the fuller picture.
It might be the lesson you learned in the midst of it. We often say if I knew then what I know now… but most of the time the only reason we know what we know now, is because of decisions we made when we didn’t know back then.
Petition and thanks. We need both. Life will be messy and tough, and in Jesus we discover a God who invites us to bring all of that to him. Who has lived human life and gets it!
Petition will be the focus of quite a few of the seasons or words we explore going forward. A real living faith does not have to live in denial. Indeed a real, living faith requires that we acknowledge those aspects of life. But acknowledge them with the reality that we face them not in the hands of an impersonal fate, but in the hands of a loving God who has asked us to cast all our cares onto him, for he cares for you.
But at the same time our lives are peppered with moments of grace. Some big and obvious, others we might have to dig a little deeper. But they’re there. And we need to acknowledge them too. If we don’t all we notice are the negatives. And then it’s all too easy to slide into bitterness and despair.
And Paul says if we do both, brings needs and thanks, the peace of God which passes all understanding will guards our hearts and minds. The image he uses is lifted from his own experience, and that of the Philippians. It’s a military term, for standing guard. Perhaps Paul looked up at the soldier standing guard over him. Philippi was a garrison town, perhaps he encouraged them to think of the sentry of guard at the town, stopping hostile invasion. God’s peace does go beyond our understanding. Sometimes we wonder how we find strength and resources when we’re at our lowest. But if we bring our prayers and concerns and take notice of the moments of grace, in time we will see God’s peace is like a peace-keeping force, taking possession of our hearts, keeping it safe from attacks outside.
We still need to play our part though. God can offer us peace, And that hinges on where we allow our mind to focus.
Life is like a camera. What we focus on is important.
We’re encouraged to bring our petitions to God, but all too often we take them straight back from him. We don’t leave them with him. Sir Thomas More once said ‘occupy your minds with good thoughts, or the enemy will fill them with bad ones: unoccupied they cannot be.’ We are surrounded by media, conversations and events which vie for our attention and lead us the other way. Cares and concerns scream for our attention. The urgent distracts us from the important. It requires effort to overcome that. But as Martin Luther once said ‘you can’t stop a bird flying overhead, but you can stop it nesting in your hair.’
And so he urges us to turn our thoughts to the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. To test everything. To cling to what is good, and let go of what is destructive, damaging and harmful to us. Yes, make space to acknowledge the struggles. But also take time to notice the grace.
What you focus on is important. It will shape you.
Is it easy? No.
Is it instant? No
It does take time. Paul says he has learned to be content in good or bad times, in plenty or on shortage. The word for learned was a technical term for secrets or special knowledge in the religious world of his day. It wasn’t obvious and it took time, but over time, by mixing prayers with thanksgiving, he found that God brought him strength. Sometimes you won’t even notice it happening. Then somewhere along the way, you catch a glimpse of how you are somehow that peace is making a difference to how you are approaching life. Not all the time, maybe, but certainly you are going in the right direction.
As I touch this down, I have to confess up that I rushed past the quote with which I opened too quickly and didn’t read the whole thing…
Life is like a camera. Focus on what’s important. Capture the good times. Develop from the negatives. And if things don’t work out, take another shot.
Capture the good times. Seek out and notice the moments of grace, for even in the hard times, they will be there.
Develop from the negatives. You don’t have to deny them. But we can bring them to God, who is more powerful than we can imagine and in whose hands the trials and struggles of life need not speak the final word.
We can trust him with him, and allow his peace to pervade our lives, because he is the one who is able to take even the worst of us, and create a whole new shot.