Merriment

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By Dana Mahan, an American missionary roaming Africa with an old harmonica in his pocket, worn sandals on his feet, and unmerited favour filling the cup of his life to overflowing …

 

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business
and to work with your hands, just as we told you.
1 Thessalonians 4:11 NIV

 

While I appreciate a good adventure as much as the next guy, this past holiday season somehow came and went without me lacing up my travelling shoes even once. They stayed tucked away in my closet. And me? I mostly stayed tucked away in my house from the beginning to the end of a restful summer filled with splendid meals, stolen naps, and dearly beloved people. Mostly …

For there was the odd occasion when going to the theater, or taking a dip in the pool led us further afield. Our family went out and about in a city that can be likened to a canvas on which the well trained hand of commerce has painted a masterpiece of diversion. Around most corners, and down every other block in Pretoria you can find a park or a market, a cinema or a cafe with its doors flung open wide to the public.

So as we put hearth and home behind us, we made sure to bring along our fancy, hoping to have it tickled pink by this work of capitalistic art. All the while, I wondered how the wholesome fun our consumer promenade into material largesse might square with an assortment of passages from Scripture. For example, the one in which new believers in Thessalonica were encouraged to lead quiet lives?

Mind your own affairs, Paul told them. Work with your hands, he insisted.

Well, I could insist right back by leveraging notions of balance and moderation to excuse our altogether normative consumer choices? We work hard, Brother Paul, can we not also play hard? Surely there’s a season for every purpose under heaven; a time to work and a time to play? There is indeed. Yet, if I hide behind what those passages merely say, I might fail to recognise what they mean. I stand to miss the deeper intent as it rises slowly to the surface.

First it floats forth from the legal code of ancient Israel, where we hear God not so much suggesting, but demanding that His people commemorate Passover. They were to remember the sacred experience that brought about their liberation from Egypt with an annual feast. Then it rises up from their historical record, when we read of David dancing down the streets. He celebrated the Ark of the Covenant, and the promise of sanctity it represented.

Finally, the intent of Scripture shimmers through the gospels as we discover Jesus reclining at a wedding banquet, enjoying the company of sinners and saints alike. But whether floating, rising and shimmering on, these words also reveal a certain character or quality of biblical merriment. It appears to be a means to some greater end, an ancient alternative to the more modern concept of entertainment, which behaves as an end in itself.

Making merry serves a purpose beyond itself. All the singing, dancing and feasting we find from one end of Scripture to the other, acted as signposts – leading people back to the goodness of God. He is, after all, the genuine source of all the hope and excitement and peace they experienced during such special occasions.

Being entertained, on the other hand, leads us nowhere. What happens when we visit the bowling alley and throw shiny balls at unsuspecting pins? What transpires as we stand in front of a video game at the arcade and pump digital villains full of hot lead? Or when we take hold of a golf club at a putting course and set our sights on shallow holes in the ground? For what reason? We might have plenty of fun, but it all finishes where it starts.

The value added to our lives departs just as quickly as it arrives.

What’s more, I find the pleasant emotions stirred up in me during moments like these are more than just fleeting. Eventually they become unintentionally shackled to the narrow times in my schedule set aside for leisure. The lengthy portions of life between sun up and sun down when I work in the garden, for example, do not necessarily lose their significance. Yet they are slowly drained of delight. I no longer notice the beauty of flowers as I turn the soil from which they grow. I fail to find satisfaction in the uniform look of the lawn after I mow it. I even miss the sense of relief when I’ve swept the veranda, just like my wife asked me to, before she had to remind me! No, I grumble instead. I moan about doing what I must, and groan about not doing what I want, even though I should know better.

We all should. If we live out our days in the light of Scripture, we have no excuse for misallocating our happiness.

By taking Paul at his word, we could very well discover that in limiting leisure and marginalising entertainment, our souls will be set free. If we seek to lead a quiet life, attending to our affairs and working with our hands, we might discover more space for God-honouring merriment.

At every turn, as we drive our children back to school for the start of a new term, and in each smile, as we greet our office colleagues at the outset of a new year, I suspect our eyes and our ears will open up widely. We will begin to both witness and then bear witness to the blessings by which we are ceaselessly surrounded, allowing our hearts and our minds to flood with unending joy.

 

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