Monday, 4 January 2016

Priorities: Unless the Lord builds the house...

Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat - for He grants sleep to those He loves. Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver if full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their neighbours in court. Psalm 127

When I consider priorities, I often return to this passage. It is so easy to work increasingly hard, staying up late, rising early, skipping meals, making unhealthy choices in order to reach our goals. Note that the passage does not say that hard work and striving for excellence are wrong - there are many places, particularly the book of Colossians, that talk about working at everything with our whole heart to bring glory to God. The point is not to suggest we all become lazy! But rather, it questions what our priorities are. Over these past two years, I often pray regarding these verses. When I am not homeschooling our growing family, I work as a medical academic, and over the past couple of years the work has been successful and productive. This leads to more work, teleconferences between time zones (often at conveniently late times when the boys are asleep!) and travel. All of these are stimulating and exhilarating, but I need to keep checking on my motives. For example:

Why do I aim for academic excellence? Is it to improve the health of HIV positive individuals across Africa, or is it for my own career stability and success? 

Why do I apply for the grants I apply for? Is it because I think this is a wise and best use of much time and effort, or is it because I am fearful for my academic standing if I do not continue to perform? 

When things go well, do I feel that it is through my own achievements, or do I praise God who guided and opened the opportunity?

When things go less well, do I blame my own shortcomings and feel I must work harder still (labouring in vain) or do I praise God who guides through both openings and closings of doors?

But what also struck me tonight as I read the Psalm was the juxtaposition of the two sections, which are often quoted separately by different groups of people to make different points. That is why I have quoted it in entirety without line breaks above. Immediately after the reminder that we must not labour in vain and that we must keep seeking and serving God at the absolute centre of all we do, is the well known passage about children being a blessing from God. Why are the two together in the Psalm?

I think these can be quite clearly linked when considering today's society. How often have you heard people lament that they cannot 'afford' children, yet live in a lovely suburb, own two cars and enjoy foreign holidays at least once a year? How often have you heard people (particularly women) state that they do not wish to start a family until they reach this or that milestone in their career? Or even sadder, how often do you read reports of the increasing number of women who leave starting a family for so long, that by the time they 'try', they are unable to conceive? We also know many families who state they cannot afford for a parent to stay home with the children (but are in fact paying a fortune in childcare and all that goes with it). I know many women who feel that going part time would be seen as a lesser commitment to their career, and seem to put the opinion of their bosses above the wellbeing of their families. I believe that as we prayerfully consider whether the Lord really does build the house, then we are liberated from selfish motives and misplaced ambitions, and able to make those choices which bring God glory. And children are indeed a blessing, raising children in a godly manner is of far greater value than my academic work, and the Psalm makes clear that God will bless these choices.

Entering 2016, a major prayer is that I ensure that the Lord builds the house. That I can use each God-given opportunity, but that through my work I am able to honour God. Through reaching marginalised and vulnerable populations, that I may demonstrate some of God's amazing justice to the oppressed as described beautifully in the book of Micah. That people know me first as a Christian, a godly wife and mother, and then after that as an academic (successful or otherwise!).

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