In the middle of the night, scrabbling around sleepily for a piece of paper and a pen (writers do that sort of thing), in the drawer next to my bed I found a tiny red book that I’d forgotten about. I started it about 6 years ago, jotting down some things I heard that just ‘stuck’ and I didn’t want to lose.
I left the notebook out and as I flicked through it this morning, I found a simple phrase from 24th May 2015 which has held me captive ever since ‘submission is a universal Christian obligation.‘ It made me smile because that phrase changed my life. I remember hearing it so very clearly and I promise you, my jaw did truly drop. I don’t think I will ever forget it. I hadn’t known until that moment that jaw-dropping was a real thing! I actually mentioned that phrase in a face-time conversation on Friday. It’s become a part of my internal world.
Our pastor does a lot of careful studying before a sermon, and praying and thinking and all that stuff, so that by the time he speaks to us he brings clarity and simplicity to even the deepest truths. That day I learnt that submission is a way of life, not just an act, not a doing, not just a thing a wife offers to her husband or a husband offers to his wife. It’s a universal obligation. If we all do it…. if we all do it… oh, man! Think, if we all do that! I know that here and now the phrase won’t mean as much to you as it did to me back then, when it came as a building block in the sermon, but it bears repeating.
We are all to submit. The command is universal. That means we are all servants of each other. No exceptions. There is none raised high, and none laid low. I wish I could give you that sermon, I wish, I wish, but I can only … here… hang on…… I’ve just scrabbled around and found my sermon notes going back to 2015 and here you go…
‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.‘ Ephesians 5:21,
It excites me all over again to read ‘No matter where you go, this word and command is for all of us. None of the other commands (love, live in the light etc) are possible (attainable) if we don’t first live a submissive life.‘ That makes me long to live that way, thrilled at the idea of it.
And of course, the submissive life was defined further in the sermon- the submissive life is one surrendered to God. Our greatest priority and our greatest joy is submitting to God. It’s good submitting to Billy Bloggs, and as an act of obedience it has its own quiet reward, but submitting to God! Submitting, as the verse says ‘out of reverence for Christ’. That’s a whole other ball-game and it brings huge sweeping joy and laughter and delight because submission isn’t servility, Uriah Heep bowing and scraping. It’s a strong and peaceful way of life. It’s a joyful life choice. We decide to submit to God and to one another – freely – not in slavery.
Sometimes our pastor’s definitions are taken from other speakers and writers, but sometimes these aphorisms (concise statements, sharp observations containing truth) are his. These are the ones I get worked up about because they shouldn’t be lost. I love words, communication and learning and I hate the thought of these carefully distilled concepts not being written down, to be treasured and explored by people in the future. What a waste! I can chew on these simple truths for days, weeks, months. How wonderful if others could do the same. He’s spent hours crafting them – what a waste if they’re lost! And you know, biased as I am, I believe that the written word is even more powerful than the spoken word – because it can be visited and re-visited.
Books. That’s the answer.
BUT here’s the thing – there are so many millions of how-to books that you’d think the world doesn’t need any more. We have how-to be happy/content/thin/successful/beautiful/funny/fit and even how-to pray. Enough already! But when I look back and see my life shaped by good teaching, oh, man! I so long for these words to be wondered at. I want jaws all over the world to drop. Our sermons used to be recorded on cd’s, and then went online, but the online platform makes them available for only two years, so their life is short. Maybe now, on youtube, they’ll last longer, be heard way into the future, but there are so many things to look at, to listen to, to be distracted by, will they still be lost? There’s no other form of teaching as sturdy and long lasting and focussed as a book.
Are my horrible scrawled notes, the only record we have of that wonderful sermon five years ago? What a waste! Of course some patient and wiser soul will email me now and tell me that God will use the spoken word, that those who need to hear will hear. Yeah, yeah. I know. Of course. And the pastoral role is to the people who hear, the people of the community, and God’s work is done pastorally. Yes! I get it. I still reckon there should be a written record. So shoot me.
Hey – yesterday, or the day before (lockdown… all the days blur into one long yawn) I was asked ‘Is Covid from the devil or is it God’s judgment?’ When I’d stopped laughing at the idea that anyone would ever ask me anything theological, this was my answer: I don’t trust my judgment and neither should you, but we know where to find the answer. Here are some thoughts from a much greater authority than me or any other human being:
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:16&17
‘All things were created’ and the ‘all’ includes Covid as a virus. The world is full of viral life, teeming with it, and with bacteria too. They are created life forms, just like the elephant, the flea, the amoeba and everything in-between. But it was man who created the disease/pandemic. It was man who, by his greed and corrupt systems, created a poverty ridden underclass, ignorant of hygiene and desperate for food, any food. Man caused the pandemic but God has allowed it. There will be lessons for us in it.
‘I form the light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.’ Isaiah 45:7
That’s hard to fathom, but just as I’m wondering about justice in any of this, a verse later we read:
Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker,
those who are nothing but potsherds
among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter,
“What are you making?”
Does your work say,
“The potter has no hands”?
That brings me right back to a place of calm surrender. He’s right! I’m a potsherd (a shard of pottery, a broken vessel) That’s me! These verses and loads of others tell us that God is sovereign and nothing happens unless he allows it. And they put us in our place. And how. But then just as things look a bit bleak, I think of:
Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
For the Lord is good and his love endures for ever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. Psalm 100:5
And the lessons we learn in Covid will be good ones because:
we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
God is love. 1 John 4:8
Hang on… one more… just before I go….
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
Now , that’s what I call jaw-dropping!
(and it’s written in proper booky book, so it’s lasted 2000 years and reached even us)