Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 30th: Love is an action word

I was a paperboy when I was a teenager. I worked out of a newsagent’s shop in Southminster, Essex. I was the relief boy, so I had to know everyone else’s paper route; if someone called in sick, it was my job to deliver their papers. Otherwise, I helped Ian, my boss, in the store.

One day when I went to work I discovered that there had been an IRA bombing in London the night before; several people had been killed, and the newspapers were all full of it. Ian looked at me and said, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian, because you Christians are supposed to love everyone, and there’s no way I could love anyone who could do a thing like that”.

At the time I couldn’t think of an answer, but I know how I would answer now. I’d say, “I agree with you – if love is a feeling; there’s no way I could sit around and work up a good feeling for terrorists. But in the Bible, love is an action word, not a feeling word. Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet because he loved them (feeling); he washed their feet as a way of loving them (action). And if one of those terrorists was thirsty, I could make them a cup of tea. I might not enjoy it, but I could do it”.

That’s what it means to love our enemies. Love is an action word. So is forgiveness. Many people say, “You don’t know how badly he hurt me; I can never forgive him”. Once again, they’re talking about their feelings; they’re saying “I can’t make the hurt go away”. But forgiveness is not about changing the way we feel; it’s about changing the way we act. It’s about voluntarily giving up the right to exact revenge. “I will not vent my rage on you by trying to hurt you back. Instead, I will find a good thing I can do for you, and do it. Today, tomorrow, and the next day – for as long as it takes”.

Listen to Paul:

‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay”, says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:17a, 19-21, NIV 2011).

Paul’s definition of love and forgiveness is boringly prosaic: give them a plate of food and a cup of tea. Worry about the feeling later. Do what God has told you to do (the action) and leave the feeling in God’s hands. Healing is his business; faith, expressing itself in obedience, is ours.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday March 29th: Love Your Enemies

When I first started getting interested in the Anabaptist tradition of Christian spirituality, I thought loving your enemies was a peripheral practice, but now I see that I was wrong. Loving your enemies is not peripheral: it’s right at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel story is a story of a God who loves his enemies.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).

This is what God is like. He doesn’t check to see whether we’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he lets the sun shine down on us. He doesn’t investigate whether we love him or hate him before he sends us rain. God pours his love out on everyone, whether they love him or not.  That’s why he came among us in Jesus and gave his life for us on the Cross. As Paul says:

‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

‘Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!‘ (Romans 5:6-10, italics mine).

This is the heart of the Gospel. This is what is happening on Good Friday. In order for reconciliation to take place, someone must decide not to strike back. Someone must say, “Rather than take the revenge which is my due, I will choose to absorb the evil – even though I don’t feel like doing it – and respond with love instead”. On the Cross, God says, “That will be me. That’s what I will do”. We reject him and vilify him and crucify him, and his response is “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. We can kill him, but we can’t kill his love for us.

“Be perfect”, in the original language, meant something like “be complete”; Luke renders it “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful”. Jesus’ meaning is “As your heavenly Father’s love is complete, leaving no one out (not even his enemies), so you are to imitate him and love your enemies too”.

Tomorrow we’ll think a little more about what this might mean for us.

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 16th: ‘Jesus is Coming: Look Busy!’

One of my favourite coffee mugs (not that I own it myself, but I’ve seen it) is this one that 885025_10152158410965400_1541528251_osays ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’

Here’s my thought for the day. Jesus is not impressed with busyness; Jesus is impressed with love.

This is a hard lesson for us to learn, because we’re formed by a culture that idolizes workaholics. And this culture is creeping insidiously into the church, so that we’re all being brainwashed into thinking that the more activities a church puts on, the higher its level of spirituality must be. If you don’t have that stressed and exhausted look on your face, you can’t possibly be doing everything God wants you to do, right?

Years ago, in a letter to a child, C.S. Lewis gave some wise advice that I’ve tried to remember. I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be exact. Lewis told his young correspondent to remember that there were really only three kinds of things she had to do: (1) Things that must be done, (2) things that should be done, and (3) things she enjoyed doing. ‘Things that must be done’ include brushing your teeth, doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, cleaning the house and so on. ‘Things that should be done’ mean the ordinary rules of Christian morality. ‘Things that you enjoy doing’ – well, over to you!

Busyness is not godliness. Busyness might just be nothing more than busyness. I’m convinced that my Christian life works best when I do a few things and do them well, rather than scattering my energy like buckshot in a hundred different directions. Remember: Jesus is not impressed by busyness; Jesus is impressed by love.

Love is Action

Random Discipleship thought for today:

Jesus tells us the the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We modern Christians often get confused about what this means, because to us, ‘love’ primarily describes a feeling. But in the Bible, love is not a feeling.

Yes, of course, there is a feeling that we call ‘love’, but the most important kind of love is not a feeling but a decision, an action. To pick up your tool belt and help build a Habitat for Humanity house is love. To give money to World Vision is love. To spend time with an emotionally needy friend when you’d rather be doing anything else is love. To tell someone the truth when you suspect they’re going to throw it back in your face is love. To take your spouse a cup of coffee in bed is love. To choose to stay with the person you promised you would stay with rather than the new young thing you feel attracted to is love. To give up some of your dreams so that you can be there for your kids is love. To forgive your enemies whether you feel like it or not, because Jesus told you to do so, is love.

And so the list goes on. These are not things that we do because we love someone. These actions are loving someone. Love is action.

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In Love and Marriage, Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

I was struck by this article in Psychology Today. It seems maybe traditional-type folks weren’t so very wrong after all.

In most areas of life, having more experience is good. Want to be great in your chosen field? Sustained experience is essential. Want to be great at a sport? There’s no substitute for practice. And anyone who runs a business can tell you that their best employees are those who have been on the job long enough to have learned how to handle the normal well and the unexpected with wisdom.

While more experience is often beneficial in life, the story looks different when it comes to some types of experience before marriage. In our Before “I Do” report, we surveyed a national longitudinal sample of young adults about their love lives prior to marriage to examine factors associated with future marital quality. We found that having more sexual and cohabiting partners before marriage is associated with lower relationship quality once married. In particular, having only ever lived with or had sex with one’s spouse was associated with higher marital quality. Our findings are consistent with other studies showing that cohabiting with more partners before marriage is associated with greater likelihood of divorce[i] and that a higher number of sexual partners before marriage is associated with lower marital quality and greater likelihood of divorce.[ii]

Read the whole thing here. It’s well worth it.