Vain ThingsFr. Barnabas Powell
Christ is risen!
T.S. Eliot, one of the 20th century’s major poets, said: “And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence: seeking every one after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness.”
It strikes me as significant that an author would write something like that. And, in my heart of hearts, it strikes me as painfully accurate, especially during an election season that presses the thoughtful to places of despair. But our hearts are deluded if we allow moments of vanity to steal our hope!
Look at our lesson today in Acts 4:23-31:
IN THOSE DAYS, when the apostles were released they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’- for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
Look at how the Lord’s followers react to the circumstances of their persecution and their release from the hands of the religious authorities of their day. They rehearse God’s foundational Creation; the futility and foolishness of whole peoples making wrong choices based on their vanity; and the centrality of the Living Jesus in their midst through the Presence of the Holy Spirit that empowers them to see past the vanity of their present situation to the faithful fulfillment of the Mission given them by Christ. In other words, they refuse to fall into the delusion of “vain things.”
The word “vain” has the dual meaning of an overinflated view of one’s self or abilities or accomplishments AND actions producing no results and being useless. Of course one delusion creates the reality of the other. If we fail to embrace humility and a sober assessment of both our strengths and weaknesses without falling into the “vain” trap of being either too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves, we will have actions and plans and efforts that produce no results and are useless.
But, notice, when the disciples exchange their focus from themselves to the Lord and His calling on their lives, the “place in which they were gathered was shaken” and the disciples were empowered and energized to go and do as they had been commanded! They asked not for relief from the persecution, but boldness to continue the ministry of Jesus in their lives as well. They didn’t expect the world around them to stop treating them badly or unfairly; they only desired to escape the vanity of a life lived only for itself and keep their focus on their mission. Because they knew that forgetting their mission was the fastest way to succumb to the vanity of their age!
Today, are you gripped by “vain things?” Do you find your life troubled by a lack of focus or even an awareness of your calling and mission in life? The answer is to remove the focus of your life from yourself, your circumstances and your “abilities” and focus rather on Another; on Him Who fills up your life with meaning and insight and sober honesty. This is the wisdom of the disciplines of the Church to help you exchange vain things for a life of meaning and virtue. This is what we mean when we say “Be Orthodox on Purpose.”
P.S. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to get your notes. Here’s a note I received from Canada just a few days ago: “Love and Happy Birthday wishes from the small group of Saint Nicholas mission Parish in Canada. We enjoy your sermons that complete our reader service on Sundays. God bless you fr. Barnabas and the work you do. Nά ζήσης πάτερ Βαρνάβα καί Χρόνια πολλά” Your support makes all this possible by God’s grace!