I am perturbed. I don’t know about you, but it does seem to me that one of the highest forms of praise we give people in our our day is that of being practical. And most practical people are busy people since practical people loathe the thought of anyone thinking of them as lazy! To be named as practical is high praise indeed!
Conversely, the impractical (by whatever criteria one is using – no doubt a practically minded one), are dismissed as worthless on the one hand, and irrelevant on the other. Consider how you have often (every time?) felt the need to activate some form of personal-activism when someone catches you unawares reading a book and relaxing! Well, Gralefrit says, “What a pile of tosh!”
The onslaught of our Corporation and media driven global village world relentlessly favours what it terms ‘practical’. Get up and go; look busy, be busy; don’t be idle; an over-full diary; a work hard, play hard attitude; and so on.
This is not to say Christian spirituality is not intensely focused on a physical, practical world. We do work, we do practical things as spiritual people, and no true spiritual life can be separated from these things, I mean, even Jesus was a practical carpenter for heaven’s sake! But. And what a big but it is….
Under this pile of activity, there is still a mass of confusion. Millions of people who think they are being practical are not. They are living frantically busy lives with no thought for thought and no time for time nor for prayer as centering on the inner life of the Holy Spirit’s activity. In this sense, most people then are living totally impractical lives, while all the while convinced they are no nonsense, straight forward, take-it-or-leave-it, I am what I am, what you see is what you get – people!
Have you ever heard the phrase: “He’s so heavenly minded he’s of no earthly use.”? This is the golden rule and governing document of the practical brigade. It is a dismissive put-down designed to trump anything but a practical person’s version of what practical actually is. This is what I mean by the practical joke. Well, it makes me laugh!
I’ve argued through preaching (and down the pub), that the church is drowning in such a sea of practical activism that the heavenly minded person is sidelined, marginalised to such a degree that they resemble the marginalised Old Testament prophet or the absurdly irrelevant vicar of many a period drama on TV.
And because I’ve argued this, I’ve tried to turn this ugly practical coin over, by insisting we as a spiritual body of God’s own people, start remembering that activism can be spiritual, but most often the way we go about it, isn’t. That practicality is necessary and useful, but should never be the default for a faulty spirituality.
Therefore, if most people who think they are being practical are in fact being impractical, it goes without saying that people (and of course I do often put my sorry self in this category), are living badly. It always saddens me when people are heard to say at the door of a church, “Ah well, back to the real world!” I want to scream in their face, with all the fire and righteous indignation I can muster, along with as much spittle as possible, “NOOOOOO! The worship of God, under the Word of God, with the people of God, united by the Spirit of God IS the most practical, real thing this world has!” What causes a Christian to actually believe the lie that the Church is not the real world? This kind of practical-ism is profound evidence of a terrible unbelief.
If we fully and finally succumb to the practical, then we effectively abandon what it means to live in biblical hope. If the impractical are ridiculed because they don’t conform to a self-appointed practical world, then hope, that impractical stuff of biblical promise, is surely likewise to be dismissed as wildly impractical, hopelessly inefficient and so heavenly minded it is of no earthly use! But to live in hope when things are hope-less, is to believe God. It is to see the future of what God has promised when all about you are losing their practical heads. To have the impractical hope that God gives, is to commit to actions that connect with God’s promises.
Thus hope isn’t pious escapism for the religiously retarded, it is ultimate practicality that subverts the chaotic pseudo-practicality that most people live with. Hope is living with God’s word, and God’s word will always subvert what we thought was practical. That’s why Paul writes in Colossians 3:1-2, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
Among many other things, this surely means we need people who are so heavenly minded they are by definition, of supreme earthly use. The Bible subverts our thinking and cultural assumptions. To be biblically practical, we must first and foremost be worldly impractical. We must be heavenly minded.
And being heavenly minded is to live in hope. It is easier to live in despair. That’s why so much of the world does. To live in despair is to take no risks. It is to live unthinkingly, lazily, with reputation in tact, going with the flow, being cynical and living cynically, hanging out only with those you like and agree with. To live in hope, to set your mind on Christ, is to go against the stream – and it is extremely practical and gloriously impractical too.
So we have to get practical. Really practical. And what is this most practical thing we can do? To hear what God says and to respond to it in hopeful and faithful ways. You will often look like a fool. You will often be viewed as irrelevant, outlandish, other-worldly, useless (Onesimus), but what these things seem in the world, God is seen by those with eyes to see, at work, in people and the world. What seems useless is really very useful indeed.
Faith, hope and love. The most practical things in this world, and God’s hilarious practical joke on the practical jokers!