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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‘Therefore we will not fear’

This morning in my devotions I read Psalm 46 and came across these words:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble in its tumult (Psalm 46:2-3).

I don’t know what potentially cataclysmic military or political event the writer of Psalm 46 was referring to here, but I’m betting that it wasn’t an earthquake so severe that it caused the mountains to collapse into the heart of the sea. Maybe it was a foreign invasion that threatened Jerusalem; maybe it was the death of a righteous king and his replacement by his useless son. Whatever it was, the writer saw it as what we would call today an ‘earth-shaking’ event (although the earth is not literally shaken).

Some people (of a particular political stripe) would see the election of the NDP as the Government of Alberta, or the Liberals as the Government of Canada, as such an event. Many people would see the potential nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President of the United States – and even more, his election to that high office – as such an event. In ancient time, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. was seen in those terms – causing St. Augustine to write his famous book ‘The City of God’ – and so was the Fall of Jerusalem to Roman armies in A.D. 66-70.

The point the writer is making – the point the writer is praying to God in this psalm – is that though elections go badly (as we would say today), though kings and governments fall, though society goes to hell in a hand basket, it’s still true that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…’ (vv.1-2a).

What is our true fortress? Is it the walls of Jerusalem (built on a mountain that might crumble one day)? Is it our military might or political systems? Is it the election of a government we approve of? Is it our financial security or our excellent health-care system? No – when push comes to shove, none of these can guarantee our safety. Our cities may fall, our governments may do asinine things, and one day (violently or peacefully) all of us will die. And so we cry out with the psalmist,

The LORD of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge (v.7, v,.11).

Lord of hosts, help us today to ‘Be still, and know that you are God’ (v.10). We know that the more we wait on you and seek your face, the more we will be reassured in the face of disaster. So help us to put our trust in you today, and know that you alone are God. Amen.

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible

‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible’. People who know me well – and especially those who have done me the honour of coming to me for spiritual guidance – have gotten used to hearing me say this.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the person who’s never done much running in their life, but suddenly decides they’re going to run a marathon – next month! I’m talking about the person who hasn’t done much praying, hears a sermon about having a daily prayer time that includes a story about Martin Luther saying “I’m so busy I can’t get by on less than four hours’ prayer a day”, and immediately decides “That’s what I’ll do – four hours a day!”  I’m thinking about the person with serious weight issues who decides they’re going to lose fifty pounds in the next two months, running five miles a day, eating a radically reduced diet and so on.

Well, we know what’s going to happen nine times out of ten: they’ll fall far short of their unrealistic goals, and when they fall, instead of revising their goals downward to something more achievable, they’ll be so discouraged that they give up altogether. In this way the perfect has become the enemy of the possible.

Goals should challenge us, yes, but they should be achievable. Baby steps make all the difference. Doctors have been telling us for years that it’s better to lose weight slowly than fast. And when you’re starting a journey of daily prayer for the first time, it’s better to pray for ten minutes and find it meaningful than to shoot for an hour and find it excruciating.

There’s an old saying I heard years ago that goes like this: “How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite”. One step at a time. Easy does it. Gradual change is usually more lasting in the long run. So set goals, yes, but don’t make the perfect the enemy of the possible. After all, the change we actually achieve is the important thing, not the change we wish we’d achieved.

Expecting surprises

In yesterday’s reading in ‘New Daylight‘, our Bible passage was John 11:38-44, which is a portion of the story of how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead:

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (NIV 2011 translation)

In her comment on this passage in ‘New Daylight’, Veronica Zundel points out that, although Lazarus’ sister Martha was a woman of faith, she was nevertheless fairly sure she knew what would happen when that tomb was opened: there would be a stench! Common sense told her so; they lived in a hot Mediterranean country, and Lazarus had been dead four days.

How often I am like Lazarus! I’m a person of faith, but I protect myself from disappointment by not expecting too much. There have been times when I have been more expectant, but (like many people) I’ve often experienced the disappointment of not having my prayers answered (or at least, not in a way I wanted or recognized). If you live with this for long enough, eventually it becomes emotionally safer not to expect anything.

Except that then you don’t take risks. Then you live your Christian life on the assumption that it’s all up to you. And maybe you even stop praying altogether, except as a sort of Christian stress-reduction technique. Yes, I feel better after I pray, but do my prayers actually have any effect on the circumstances?

The subject of unanswered prayer is a big one, and I’m not likely to solve it in a short blog post this morning. I do want to come back to this issue of knowing what we’re going to find when we open the grave, though. Veronica says (and this really struck me) that a good definition of faith could be ‘expecting surprises from God’. And I think that’s exactly right.

I’ve seen people come to faith in Christ, at least in part because of words of witness I had spoken to them. What a beautiful surprise! Often I wasn’t expecting anything like that, but God did the unexpected, and it was lovely. Those experiences have made it easier for me to step out in faith and speak words of witness to other people, because, in that one area of my life, I have come to expect God to do the unexpected.

So, God, what you have done in one area of my life, would you please do in others too? Maybe I’m not at the ‘raising Lazarus from the dead’ stage yet, but it would be nice to walk through life with a little more hopefulness, looking forward to the next time when you will surprise me!