Organized Compassion

Jean-François_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2As I mentioned in last week’s post, this year I’m trying to live an extroverted Lent. I”m an introvert, so each year I tend to adopt ‘private’ Lent disciplines: fasting, meditation, prayer, reading, diet discipline etc. etc. But I’m not only called to love God with all my heart; I’m called to love my neighbour as myself as well. And somehow, my Lent disciplines in this area never really amount to very much. So this year I’m trying to journal every day (I know, it’s an introverted thing!) about how I’m connecting with people and living out compassion in a practical way. So far the results are mixed at best, but I’m going to keep at it. Truth be told, my most persistent sins are selfishness and laziness, so I can’t afford to give up!

In that respect, a passage from this morning’s One Year Bible readings brought a smile to my face. It’s found in Leviticus 23, a chapter which is all about the various religious festivals Israel was supposed to observe—sabbaths, Passover, Trumpets, Yom Kippur, Weeks  etc. When the passage gets to the Feast of Weeks (a harvest festival), it describes the various offerings the priest is supposed to present to the Lord, but then comes this lovely little note:

“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23.33 NLT)

This is the only non-liturgical and non-ceremonial note in the chapter, so it stands out. The authors of Leviticus are generally assumed by modern scholars to be the priests of Israel, people who spent their whole lives in liturgy and sacrifice. But here they acknowledge that part of the worship we offer to God is to care for those among us who are in trouble.

Nowadays some people would see this as a bad idea: “We’re just encouraging those folks to be parasites!” Others, who advocate efficiency and belt-tightening, wouldn’t be able to see any further than the impact on their bottom line: “This is going to cut into our profits for the year!”

I like the fact that in this scripture passage, the poor and the foreigners don’t have to pass any kind of test. The authors may be aware that clever people can manipulate the system, but they don’t mention it. It’s not my business to judge people. It’s my business to love them.

I’m reminded of a story about C.S. Lewis. One day he gave some money to a poor beggar, and one of his friends scolded him for it. “He’ll just spend it on drink!” “Yes,” Lewis replied, “but if I’d kept it, I would have spent it on drink!”

I’m not a farmer, so I can’t leave the edges of my field for the gleaners. What’s the equivalent for me? Is it to make sure I always have spare cash in my pocket to give to those who ask? The bottom line is that my generosity needs to cut into my profits. In another passage in one of his books, Lewis says that the only safe rule about giving to the poor is that it needs to impact my lifestyle. There should be things I’d like to do, that I can’t do because of my giving. Until I reach that point, I’m not really being generous.

At this point I’m going to stop writing. Others who I love and admire are a lot further along this path than I am. I’m going to end with what to me have always been the most challenging words Jesus ever spoke, and this morning I’m speaking them to myself: “Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (John 13.17 NLT).

The Fear of the Lord is Life

‘The fear of the Lord is life; he who is full of it will rest untouched by evil.’
(Proverbs 19.23 Revised English Bible).

These days a lot of people react against the phrase ‘the fear of the Lord’—motivated, I guess, by bad memories of fire and brimstone preaching. But I notice that abandoning the fear of the Lord hasn’t helped us abandon fear. We fear the bad opinion of our Facebook friends, and crave their ‘likes’ and comments. We fear the rejection of our friends, and sometimes say and do things that aren’t really true to us, in order to win their approval.

To ‘fear the Lord’ means, first, to recognize that in a relationship between the One who made and sustains everything that exists on the one hand, and little me on the other, God is definitely the senior partner. And secondly, it means that we choose whose good opinion matters most to us. In the long run, what God thinks of me is infinitely more important than anyone else’s opinion. So, to use a phrase I once heard on this subject, ‘We choose to play our life to an audience of one.’

When we do this, the psalmist says, we discover ‘life’. By this he doesn’t mean that we will receive life as a reward in the future. He means that in playing our life to an audience of one, in this life, we discover here and now that this is what life is all about. We discover a sense of freedom and joy that we never thought possible. May this be so for all of us today.

A Remote Place

‘But the talk about Jesus spread ever wider, so that great crowds kept gathering to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.’ (Luke 5.15-16 REB)

There have been many times in my life when I’ve been guilty of being far too impressed with the first sentence above, and completely neglectful of the second.

I imagine Jesus going out to the remote place. No Bible, no liturgy, no retreat centre, no one else with him—just the presence of God and whatever scriptures he had memorized (including probably a lot of psalms). This was such a vital feature of his ministry, a refreshment for his spirit, a deepening of his sense of fellowship with God.

Lord, thanks for the opportunities we have to love our neighbours, and give us strength to grasp them with both hands. But also, help us not to neglect the call of the ‘remote place’. Without you we can do nothing, so help us make the time we need to draw closer to you. Amen.

Trust in Him

‘For God alone I wait silently;
my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock of deliverance,
my strong tower, so that I am unshaken.
On God my safety and my honour depend,
God who is my rock of refuge and my shelter.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts before him;
God is our shelter.’ (Psalm 62.5-8 REB)

I love the balance between silence and speaking in these verses. ‘For God alone my soul waits silently; my hope comes from him’ (v.5). ‘Trust in him at all times, you people’ pour out your hearts before him; God is our shelter’ (v.8). Pouring out our hearts to God—a torrent of words describing to God exactly how we feel—seems to be the exact opposite of waiting in silence for him. But in reality, both are essential features of a healthy prayer life.

What unites them is trust. ‘Trust in him at all times, you people.’ The psalmist has experienced God as a refuge and a rock of deliverance. Past experience leads him too continue to trust that God—‘God alone’—is his shelter.

God our refuge, help us to trust in you, to wait on you in silence, and to pour out our hearts to you. Thank you that you are our rock of refuge and our shelter. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 28:16-29:40, Luke 3:23-38, Psalm 62, and Proverbs 11:18-19)

Wisdom

‘The child (Jesus) grew big and strong and full of wisdom; and God’s favour was upon him.’ (Luke 2.36 REB)

‘As Jesus grew he advanced in wisdom and in favour with God and men.’ (Luke 2.52 REB)

As I get older, I find that wisdom is a gift I prize more and more highly. Wisdom means knowing how to live and what to do in all the situations life throws at us. Heavenly wisdom is informed and shaped by faith in God and God’s will for us. Several Old Testament texts tell us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (fear, not in the sense of terror, but in the sense of a proper awe and reverence for God as our Creator).

Lord Jesus, as you were guided by your Father, so guide us today in the way of wisdom. Amen.

Morning, Noon and Night

‘But I appeal to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noonday
I make my complaint and groan.’
(Psalm 55.16-17 REB)

The Book of Acts talks about Peter and John going to the Temple to pray ‘at the hour of prayer’. We know that set times for corporate prayer were a feature of Jewish faith, and of course this carried over into Christianity. In monasticism the Daily Offices evolved, and in Anglicanism this expressed itself in daily Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong); other hours like Compline and Noon Prayer are also often observed.

So its tempting to make the jump from this psalm to the custom of ‘hours of prayer’, and make the case that they are a good and biblical thing. I don’t want to deny that, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In Psalm 55 the psalmist has been expressing his sense of betrayal at the trouble he’s in, much of it caused by someone he thought was a friend. In verses 16-17 he’s using a poetic form to express the idea that he never stops praying – ‘morning, noon, and night’, as we might say today. He may well join in the regular hours of prayer, but his prayers spill over into the rest of the day as well.

I’m good at observing set times of prayer. I’ve been keeping a morning ‘quiet time’ for decades and it has been a real means of grace for me. But I’m not so good at remembering to pray at other times. This psalm reminds us that whether it’s complaining about our troubles or expressing our thanks and praise, our prayers are always welcome to God. We don’t have to wait for a set time or a holy place. Morning and noon and night we can raise our voices to God in prayer.

God, thank you for this privilege you’ve given us. Help us not to be shy about taking advantage of it. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 16:41 – 18:32, Mark 16:1-20, Psalm 55, and Proverbs 11:7)

Godforsakenness

’At three Jesus cried aloud, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15.34 REB)

All humans experience godforsakenness at some point or other in their lives. Even—and perhaps especially—people of faith experience this. Where was God in my hour of need? Why didn’t he rescue me? Why did he abandon me? In recent history an entire people—the Jews—experienced this. The Holocaust caused a revolution in Jewish thought. What did it mean to be God’s people when God so obviously refused to rescue them from the gas chambers?

Christianity teaches that in Jesus, God has come to live among us and shared our human life. No need to get into the intricacies of Trinitarian theology here; it’s enough to remember that Jesus had lived his entire human life in close relationship to the one he called ‘my Father’. But now, in his moment of greatest need, that comforting presence seems to have been withdrawn. He was abandoned, not only by his friends, but by God himself. He died alone.

Hebrews 4.15-16 says of Jesus, ‘Ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, only without sinning. Let us therefore boldly approach the throne of grace, in order that we may receive mercy and find grace to give us timely help.’ Even our experience of godforsakenness is something he has shared. He knows how it feels. So I can never say, “He’s God, so he wouldn’t understand.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 15:17 – 16:40, Mark 15:1-47, Psalm 54, and Proverbs 11:5-6)

Desertion

‘Then the disciples all abandoned Jesus and ran away.’ (Mark 14.50 REB)

The Bible is not a book of heroes. It’s a book of ordinary, scared, fallible, imperfect human beings who are touched by God and yet still struggle with our human propensity to mess things up.

Lord, you know that I am not a hero. There have been times when I’ve stepped up to the plate and owned up to my faith in the company of others. But there have also been times when I’ve deserted you. Sometimes when the going got tough and a challenging word needed to be spoken, or a difficult deed done, I’ve preferred to run away, or just keep quiet.

Forgive me, Lord Jesus, for the times I’ve deserted you. Teach me the faithfulness and courage I need so I can follow you in the way of the cross. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 11:24 – 13:33, Mark 14:22-52, Psalm 52, and Proverbs 11:1-30

Pure and Steadfast

‘God, create a pure heart for me,
and give me a new and steadfast spirit.’
(Psalm 51.10 REB)

The traditional translation is ‘a clean heart’ and ‘a right spirit’. Put beside the REB, ‘purity of heart’ means wanting the right thing – the will of God. The medieval theologians taught us that sin is often disordered love – we love the wrong things and in the wrong way. A pure heart prays truly and sincerely ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’, and makes that its deepest desire.

I can do this at times, but I easily give up, so the prayer is also for ‘a new and steadfast spirit’. God’s steadfast love is utterly reliable. Mine is not, but the Holy Spirit can strengthen it.

God, create a pure heart for me, and give me a new and steadfast spirit. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 10:1 – 11:23, Mark 14:1-21, Psalm 51, and Proverbs 10:31-32)

The Way Up is Down

‘So they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus had gone indoors, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were silent, because on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a child, set him in front of them, and put his arm round him. “Whoever receives a child like this in my name,” he said, “receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9.33-37 Revised English Bible)

In recent years there have been literally hundreds of books published about church leadership. Many of them say that the proper role of a pastor is not actually to be a servant, but to be a leader. You need to let others do the serving, while you cast a vision, inspire them, equip them etc. etc.

I find it interesting that Jesus led by example, and the example he gave was not just teaching and vision casting, but included huge helpings of serving others. He never seems to have thought that he should get out of the healing business himself so he could organize the healing roster and start new classes for healers. No, he chose a few disciples, let them watch him heal the sick, and then invited them to follow his example.

Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” (v.35) When Jesus was looking for leaders, he looked for those who had the potential to be good servants (Even though their hearts were sometimes seduced by the leadership bug too). Looking at the political chaos in many parts of the world today, it strikes me that Jesus was onto something. The world is plagued by leaders who only want to be leaders—to build their own empires and line their own pockets. To Jesus, in contrast, the way up is down. He’s looking for people who are competing with each other to get to the back of the line. I need to hear that this morning.

Lord Jesus, deliver me from the love of power and prestige and help me follow you in the way of loving service. Amen.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Leviticus 22:17 – 23:44, Mark 9:30 – 10:12, Psalm 44:1-8, and Proverbs 10:19)