When I sat down to write this message to you all, I realised that this would be the last piece of work that I would do that day. When the job was done I was looking forward to settling down in an armchair with my crochet and joining Leslie in watching some TV drama that we will have recorded at an earlier date. That's our way of unwinding at the end of a busy day!
But as I thought about that, I realised how much more time I've actually spent sitting in an armchair during recent months. For me, there seems to have been a marked reduction in evening meetings during this last year of pandemic and the fact that I've not been driving for several hours each day around the District has generally meant that I've been able to sign off work at an earlier time each evening. So, there's been more time in an armchair for reading, for watching television, for craft and yes, for worship!
Like me, you may have heard many conversations during these times about the impact of lockdown on people's health. For some, the additional time at home has meant more time for exercise and so they feel they have become fitter during the last year. For others the greater time sat at a desk at home rather than walking or cycling to work or the anxiety caused by this period has led to additional nibbling or comfort eating and the resulting weight gain. For some, the enforced time at home with limited contact beyond those they live with has provided time for deepening family relationships and learning new skills. For others, the isolation and loneliness experienced has been hard and, in some cases, really damaging to their wellbeing.
Our experiences of this last year will be many and varied but within the constraints of your own particular context, I wonder whether you are generally the kind of person who is energised by exercise or comfy in your armchair? Are you committed to action or comfortable to know what's good and right but not necessarily doing anything about it?
In Matthew's gospel, chapter 22, we find an account of one of many occasions when a group of Pharisees confront Jesus with some questions. The Pharisees, of course, were a group of religious leaders who were incredibly knowledgeable about the law and fastidious and pious about their keeping of it.
However, the facts and knowledge which the Pharisees lived by in a legalistic manner didn't appear to have reached their hearts and their hands. So, whilst they were perfectly capable of sitting around and debating the rules and regulations of their religion, once they got up from the debate, there was little evidence that their knowledge had any impact upon the way they lived their lives in relation to others. The theologian Soren Kierkegaard called this an "armchair" approach to life.
Facts and knowledge are very important but they are even more useful when they become embedded in our hearts and minds and make a difference to the way we live. Sometimes the facts and the rules can become so important to us that they cloud our view. They become valuable for their own sake and can actually get in the way of us responding and living in the way that Jesus encourages in this encounter with the Pharisees.
We've perhaps seen something of that during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are many people who are well aware of what the rules and guidelines of lockdown are and are perhaps even quick to remind others of how they should behave. But, sometimes when push comes to shove, those rules are not sufficiently embedded within their own hearts and minds for them to fulfil them in a way that shows they understand them to be part of our love and care for one another.
In the first part of this passage, Jesus draws on his knowledge of the law to answer the question being asked about which is the greatest commandment. He reminds his questioners that there is nothing more important than loving God and loving our neighbour. That truth was already known but not always put into action.
We may wonder why Jesus responds with two commandments rather than just one, but this seems to be all part of encouraging the Pharisees to move on from their simple awareness of the need to love God to a personal practice of loving God by loving others that they might not otherwise love. Putting what we say we believe into action, takes us from a comfortable armchair faith to a more stretching exercise of our faith.
The things we believe and the things we say we believe are of no use at all unless we live differently as a result of them. We will never convince anyone of what we know or believe unless it is seen in our actions.
During lockdown I have definitely spent more time in my armchair than I used to, simply because I've had more time at home, but I have also had more time to exercise and now run three times every week. So, in some ways lockdown for me has been beneficial, a blessing for which I am incredibly grateful as I acknowledge the immense hardship that it has brought to so many.
But as I conclude these thoughts this week, I want to ask you if, in terms of your faith, you are comfortable just sitting in your armchair where you can think about and ponder on your faith and pray. Those are valuable things to do and of themselves are an important foundation for our lives. But are you also getting up out of the chair and exercising that faith so that God's love is expressed as you show love to your neighbours? For some of us that will mean physically removing ourselves from the chair in order to do something practical. For others of us, for whom sitting in the chair is part of how life is for us at the moment, there will still be things that we can do from that place in order to exercise our faith and make a difference to someone else.
It's my prayer that all of us will enjoy some comfortable moments in our armchairs during these dark winter evenings, but that we might also get our feet moving, literally or metaphorically and put into action what we believe as we share our stories and engage in mission that transforms the lives of others "in such a time as this."
Gill Newton, District Chair