Zeal

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6 v 9)

I don’t think about zeal much, to be honest. It’s a strange word, one you might only come across in an exercise like this one, or playing scrabble. It’s also because when I do think about it, I imagine thrusting pamphlets at strangers, knocking on doors, or preaching on street corners. I imagine selling or giving away all my stuff to live with those who have nothing. And all I do is imagine, because that’s not my life. And I feel inadequate. So I then stop thinking about it. But here it is, the last word in my alphabet series. I must relate zeal to my unremarkable life.

As an adolescent, I carefully avoided all the qualities that even hinted at zeal, to construct a persona that was a bit disengaged, distant and faintly disparaging. I think I did this for at least two reasons. First, I thought it wasn’t cool to get too excited about anything, and second, I was afraid of failing.

Zeal energises; its opposite, apathy, drains. Apathy walks when zeal runs, hangs back where zeal gets stuck in. Zeal promotes and encourages what apathy ridicules or dismisses. Zeal gets up and makes things happen; apathy lies on the sofa eating chips. Zeal is enthusiasm, commitment, energy.  Apathy is… You can probably fill in your own words by now. You see where I’m going.

But there is enormous power in bursting a bubble. Collapsing an idea or plan with a few well-chosen words can make you seem stronger, more worldly-wise. More grownup. It also makes your target appear childish, diminished and foolish and camouflages your own performance anxiety. What a great weapon for the insecure.

I still indulge in apathy at times. Old habits are hard to break.

On holiday I once picked up a book by Dale Carnegie, of How To Make Friends And Influence People fame (famous in my house at least after my Dad got it in the 80s as a gift and was highly offended). The book was about enthusiasm. I read it from cover to cover during one of those first-night-on-holiday insomnia attacks. What interested me most was that the word itself means full of God. Being enthusiastic, he says, is about being full of God. Maybe that’s why it seems a bit other-worldly at times to get all fired-up. Maybe that’s why, when people speak of bringing someone ‘back down to earth’, they’re actually just puncturing their zeal.

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. (Rom 12 v 11)

Zeal is enthusiasm and energy with a focus. It needs a subject, a cause, an ideal. And the focus of my zeal should be clear by now. I may not be standing on street corners but in my own way my zeal is represented in this blog, which aims to try to describe and introduce God – father, son and holy spirit – to whoever is interested to meet Him.

Zeal does not come easily to me. I still tend to climb back on the couch. I still spend whole days, even weeks, there. I battle against what I naturally incline to do (very little, usually) and what I really want to do as the self I want to respect and become. I can get discouraged after a couch day, or week, but zeal reminds me that every moment on my feet, every word written, is a seed planted.

Years

28. Not the years of my life. I have a few more than that under my belt. I mean 28 years since I became a Christian. Yes I was young then, but truth be told I came to it out of desperation, not a desire to please my parents.

About ten years ago I met up with an old school friend who had become a Christian before I did, on a church camp I had invited her to. We hadn’t seen each other since leaving school and our lives had taken us to different countries to live and work. She asked me if I was still a Christian, and commented that she’d more or less messed up too badly to carry on with it. Or words to that effect. In my usual slow-off-the-mark way I didn’t answer, but felt desolate for her. I didn’t know how to say to her, as the night got progressively more rowdy, that she couldn’t fall beyond God’s reach. I hope for another chance one day.

Years and years of trying to formulate a brand of Christianity which would involve the least involvement and make commitment easier for the uncommitted should have disqualified me from the family of God years ago. And yet he  still hangs in there with me, reminding me in thousands of ways that he is faithful, even if I seem to bend with every new opinion I hear until I find my way back to truth. He sends me friends to direct and counsel, friends to comfort and encourage, friends to rub off my rough edges and challenge my complacency. In scripture, sermons, chance conversations and odd (and sometimes I do mean odd!) encounters he gives me continuous reminders of his love, affection and commitment no matter the state of my heart, my theology or my relationships.

The passage of time is a difficult process to accept for all of us. We long to mature but don’t want to grow older, let alone old. But to some I am ancient already, to those born this century I am practically a relic. There is no way to control this process or make it less humbling. Hair falls out and doesn’t grow again. Weight is harder to shift. I simply cannot eat two helpings of dessert. Ever. Again. (Strictly speaking).

But the flip side is that I know some things now. I have personal history and experience to draw on. My opinions carry weight. People assume I know what I’m talking about. They have confidence in me, treat me like a grownup, essentially. This was not always so. The heart remains a child, someone once said, and it is certainly true of mine. The same vulnerabilities I had as a child remind me to stay humble, focused and not too self-absorbed. From my teenage tears and all points between then and now, God has been with me. My constant companion. My provider. My witness. My source and my destination.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And earth has nothing I desire besides you

My flesh and heart may fail

But God is the strength of my heart

And my portion forever  (Ps 73 v 25 – 26)

x

X is for the unknowable, the unguessable. That which is beyond our reach. God, in his purest form, is beyond our comprehension. What we know or think we know is what he has chosen to share, to make available to our minds and our spirits in a form that we can perceive. X is for the mystery, the apparent contradictions. The whys and the why nots. X is for the unknowns of the future and the unknowns of the past.

The emotions we feel during the transition from one year to another point to this aspect of God. We know what has been but not what will be. In the last twelve months we have all experienced changes welcome and unwelcome, had to let go of some things or people, had to hold on to others. In ignorance of the next twelve months, we hope. We trust.

I have no more control over the events of the coming year than I do over God. He doesn’t do things the way I think he should, usually. Or as quickly as I would like. Sometimes he doesn’t act at all when I think he should; I have friends with deep, strong faith whose lives seem to be full of tragedy and challenge. I would like God to bring those difficulties to an end, but he hasn’t, not yet. I don’t understand why those same people also express greater joy in their connection with God than others who don’t have their problems.

The prophet Isaiah sums this up neatly in the Old Testament: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55 v 8 – 9)

I believe that I will always have questions, genuine questions that I simply won’t be able package a neat theological answer for. My faith does not rely on being able to box everything up neatly with a bible reference, but on being able to communicate with God, even if it’s a serious of questions occasionally bordering on doubt or defiance. God knows what I’m thinking anyway, so it’s pointless to pretend at those times when my desire to understand is frustrated and I want to pack up my toys and go home, so to speak. To reject God altogether because he doesn’t meet my expectations. I know that he is bigger than my doubts, my fears and my ideas about what should be. I know that he responds to honest words, however un-religious they sound. Generally speaking, my least religious words are the most honest.

And his responses are often surprising.