One of my former parishioners warned me about Clearwater before I moved here to take this assignment at All Saints. A few weeks ago I experienced proof of the legitimacy of the warning. My former parishioner had been involved in a traffic collision at the intersection of State Road 580 and Countryside Boulevard. A few weeks ago I was waiting at the same intersection when I witnessed a collision identical to the one that had injured the fellow who gave me the warning.
I was waiting for the traffic signal to allow me to turn left. The signal turned green, and the two cars ahead of me began to move into the intersection. Just as the first car had entered the intersection fully a driver traveling west on SR 580 realized too late that his traffic light had turned red. He tried to perform an emergency stop, but was struck from behind by another driver traveling west on SR 580. The first inattentive driver was knocked completely through to the other side of SR 580; the second inattentive driver came to rest in the middle of the intersection. It was like watching the Eight Ball sunk in a corner pocket on a Billiards table.
I was intrigued by the reaction of the second driver. Having failed to notice a traffic light that had been red for approximately 30 seconds, and then striking the car ahead that was squealing to a halt with tires smoking, the second driver appeared entirely surprised that the day’s journey had come to an unexpected standstill. The look on the driver’s face was one of complete amazement and stupefaction.
My mind was filled with questions. How could these two drivers be so inattentive? Are the laws of physics really so complicated and nuanced that colliding with another car seems advisable? What was so important that it distracted those drivers from doing the basic things necessary to preserve their lives and health? What makes a person so self-destructive as to ignore traffic conditions? And, given the fact that both of them were so self-destructive: How had they survived this long into adulthood?
Then, a really disturbing question entered my mind. I wondered to myself, “How could I be so inattentive to what I was doing?” The circumstances that led those two drivers to be in need of shopping for health care and new cars should be entirely unimportant to me. Instead, my attention ought to be directed toward my own life. In this case, my attention should have been directed to avoiding being judgmental or condemnatory.
The Letter to the Ephesians says, “Watch carefully then how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) I’m certain there are people who will read this, and take it as affirmation of their pejorative opinion of the world. However, when the author of the Letter wrote, “the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16), he wasn’t issuing a condemnation of God’s creation. The author said, “Be careful about how you live. Be wise rather than foolish. Make the most of the opportunities for holiness that God gives you because there are too many opportunities to sin.”
The author of the Letter was warning his readers not to get caught up in the human tendency toward self-destructive behavior. It would be a great relief if we could blame our sinful behavior on someone or something else. If we could excuse ourselves from all culpability by blaming the world around us, or ‘evil days,’ we could live in self-satisfied bliss. However, the statement, “the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16), is a direct reference to the human tendency to do what leads one away from God. The blame for our sins and failings is ours, and ours alone.
It’s very easy to pass judgment on another person. It’s easy to ask, “What were they thinking?” or “How could someone do something like that?” The ease with which we pass judgment on others allows us to hold ourselves to a lesser standard. How often do we ask “What am I thinking?” or “How could I do something like that?” Our days might be much less evil if we devoted time on a daily basis to examining how we direct our actions and thoughts.
All of us know what to avoid. If asked, we can respond without great mental effort that we should avoid being judgmental, malicious, callous and dissolute. All of us are well aware of the kinds of behavior that can lead us away from God, but knowing isn’t enough. Our knowledge has to be put to practical use; we have to practice what has been preached to us. Furthermore, putting our beliefs into practice is not a matter of wishing to do so; it requires regular evaluation.
The Letter to the Ephesians tells us, “Watch carefully then how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise.” (Ephesians 5:15) At this moment, where is your attention focused? Is your mind wandering in the direction of God, or elsewhere? How often throughout your day do you evaluate how you are spending your energies and attention?
It’s easy to be critical of the behavior of others, but the primary place where our critical attention is needed is our own lives. The Scriptures remind us that there are a few questions that ought to be our daily companions: “What am I thinking?” “What am I doing?” “Is this present activity a wise use of the opportunities God has given me?” “Am I using this day wisely, or am I falling into foolishness?”
Repeated evaluation, throughout the day, will help to direct our thoughts and actions always toward pleasing God. When such evaluation is practiced habitually, our tendency toward selfish behavior can become a clear warning sign that we have become inattentive to what’s happening in our spiritual life. The Scriptures direct us to keep our lives always moving toward God, and to avoid obstacles to growth in faith. “Watch carefully then how you live.” (Ephesians 5:15)