Tag Archives: Compassion

Matters of Heart

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.
2 Chronicles 25:2 (NRSVCE)

In all my years as a follower of Jesus, I’ve observed that we as humans are far more comfortable with flesh than with Spirit. From our earliest years we’re taught to trust what our senses are telling us:

The stove coil is red and it’s radiating heat. Don’t touch it.

The meat smells funny. Don’t eat it.

Something in my knee just popped. Stop running.

I’m feeling light headed and nauseous. Better lie down.

Following Jesus, however, is a faith journey. God’s Message says that faith is “the assurance of what we hope for, evidence of that which we cannot see.” There’s no sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing involved. Quite the opposite. Faith is beyond our physical senses. God continues to say over and over and over again that He judges not on what can be seen, but what is unseen; God looks at the heart.

When God was directing Samuel who he should anoint as king, He told the prophet: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Yet I’ve observed continually that most followers of Jesus, and the institutions we create to organize ourselves, repeatedly revert back to our inherent human instinct to trust our base physical senses. We judge others on what we see in their appearance, what we observe in their behaviors, or we we hear about them from others. Our institutions create rules, both written and unwritten, about a person’s worth and standing before God based on how they look and/or behave. I’ve come to believe that we do this because it comes naturally, it is easy, and it gives us (both individually and as a group) comfort when others conform to the social, religious, and behavioral standards we stipulate and expect.

But that’s not how God operates. He says it quite plainly. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) And, as the Bard so beautifully put it: “There’s the rub.”

Dealing with the unseen motives and intents of the heart, as God does, is messy. It requires discernment, wisdom, grace, and risk.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler describes Judah’s King Amaziah as a person who did the right things, but not from a true heart. His actions were admirable, his behavior conformed to expectation, but his motivations were all in the wrong place. It brings to mind the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom Jesus said:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

“Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.”

The religious people of Jesus day were doing the same things I have observed in religious people of my day. Posturing, appearance, and propriety intended to prove righteousness from what can be physically seen and and audibly heard.

Jesus took a different approach. He gathered a motley crew of followers that included rough, uneducated fishermen, a pair of brothers with anger management issues, a sleazy tax collector, a thief, and a right wing terrorist. He taught them about faith. He exemplified the love he expected of them. He instilled in them compassion. They didn’t come close to measuring up to any kind of acceptable religious standard of their day. But that didn’t matter to God. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

God’s standard is as simple as a Broadway tune: “You gotta have heart!”

This morning I find myself wanting desperately not to be an Amaziah or a Pharisee. Screw religious trappings and the litmus tests of the institutional church.

I want more heart. And I want to find the heart of others, not their conformity to the standards with which I’m personally comfortable.

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

Our Physical Lives Frame Our Spiritual Perspectives

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Matthew 19:16 (NIV)

Late last week I received notice that one our clients was terminating our company’s services. Public records show that their company is facing significant financial losses, so their move is not unusual nor entirely unexpected. The news, however, is never pleasant to receive. This company had been a faithful client. We had done good work and provided good value to them through our ongoing quality assessments. The loss of income from the project will temporarily pinch the budget for Wendy and me, and I confess that our moods around the house have not exactly been buoyant since I received that notice.

On Monday afternoon I had to leave on a scheduled business trip and got the mail just before I headed to the airport. In the mail was a letter from a young girl named Joyce. Joyce is a girl in Africa whom Wendy and I support financially through Compassion International. Joyce is a young girl going to school and hoping some day to be a doctor. In her letter she thanked Wendy and I for our gifts and asked for our prayers as a drought in the region had destroyed the crops that her people depend on for survival both economically and physically. Despite the dire circumstances, Joyce expressed trust in God’s provision. As I finished reading the letter out loud to Wendy, it was obvious to us both that Joyce’s letter was a well-timed dose of needed perspective.

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. In the chapter today a rich man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” I noticed as I read that the man was approaching spiritual matters like an economic transaction. His life was likely dictated by daily transaction. Do this and receive a fee for service. Pay this and receive this in return. He was approaching his spirituality with the same transactional paradigm.

“Let’s make a deal, Jesus. You’ve got eternity on your side and I want a piece of that. You know what? I’ll even be gracious enough to let you start the negotiations and set the price. So tell me what you require. What one thing, what good deed, do I need to do to punch my ticket to heaven? Give a tenth to the church? Be nice to a Roman? Volunteer for my company’s United Way campaign? Give a week to help build a house for a poor family? Pay tuition for a girl in Africa? What’s it gonna be? You just name it. “

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. Life had skewed the man’s perspective to see his relationship with God like everything else in his temporal paradigm. Jesus’ answer cuts immediately to the heart of the matter. Salvation is not a transaction, Jesus tells him, but a liquidation. Jesus Himself provided the example:

Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)

This morning I must confess that I’m humbly mulling over my own skewed perspectives. How easy it is for me to talk about trusting Jesus when I don’t really have to think about where I’m going to lay my head tonight, or whether my family will have enough to eat.

Have mercy, Lord.

Judgement Discomfort

inspirational judgement“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”
Ezekiel 9:4 (NIV)

Ezekiel’s vision takes a decidedly brutal turn in today’s chapter. Yesterday, God asked Ezekiel to see all of the detestable and idolatrous practices that were being carried out in and around God’s temple. In today’s chapter, God renders judgement.

Chapters like today’s are hard to read and to think about. It’s not exactly like one of those sappy inspirational quotes that litter Facebook and Pinterest. We don’t like thinking about judgement. It doesn’t feel good. We want justice for others who we deem evil, but we want compassion for ourselves and those we know and care about. We want God to punish those who hurt us, but want him to forgive us for hurting others (if we even acknowledge that we do).

I have found that human beings are often given to black and white thinking when talking about God and judgement. I hear people dismiss God’s judgment in the Old Testament as wholesale callousness, but even in today’s chapter there is mercy shown to those who detested the idolatry that was happening. Likewise, I sometimes hear people say that they admire Jesus’ teachings about love, but the truth is that for all of His teaching on compassion and forgiveness, Jesus also spoke plainly and often about eternal judgement and punishment.

I was reminded this morning of Thomas Jefferson who created his own version of the New Testament by eliminating all the parts he didn’t like (mostly the miracles, supernatural, and such). As much as I would like to chide him for it, the truth is that I find that even we who claim to be the most ardent of Jesus followers do more than a little mental editing of our own. Truth, I’ve discovered along life’s journey, isn’t easy and it’s often uncomfortable.

Today, I’m not feeling particularly inspired by the text. Sobered is a more apt description. I want both justice and mercy in this world, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that I only want it doled out in ways that fit comfortably inside my finite box of reason and understanding (and benefit me). In my gut, I sense that I can’t have it both ways and that’s a sobering thought. I’ve also found, however, that a little sober thinking now and then leads to wise decisions and positive changes.

Will the Real Scrooge Please Stand Up?

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...
Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Is not your wickedness great?
Are not your sins endless?”
Job 22:5 (NIV)

Along my life’s journey I have bumped into a few individuals who seem convinced that they hold the office of Special Prosecutor of the Almighty. Their mission, it appears, is to charge me (and others, to be sure) with my many sins and shortcomings. Job’s so-called friend, Eliphaz, now reveals himself to be one of these junior prosecutors.

In today’s chapter, Eli’s argument takes a decidedly prosecutorial bent. Not only is Eli convinced that Job is suffering for his many sins, he is now going to write an indictment and list the specific sins that surely must have precipitated such divine retribution as Job is clearly suffering. With Special Prosecutor Eliphaz, justice works in reverse. He first looks upon what he deems to be divine punishment and then decides what laws must have been broken to deserve such a sentence. Eliphaz comes up with quite a list. In fact, as I read it on this chilly December morning it sounds a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge:

“You demanded security from your relatives for no reason;
    you stripped people of their clothing, leaving them naked.
You gave no water to the weary
    and you withheld food from the hungry,
though you were a powerful man, owning land—
    an honored man, living on it.
And you sent widows away empty-handed
    and broke the strength of the fatherless.”

Bah. Humbug. It seems to me that Eliphaz reveals himself to be the one being miserly with wisdom, love and compassion.

Here are three problems I have with individuals like Eliphaz who wish to indict me of all my sins and shortcomings:

  1. Believe me, it is not necessary for anyone to convince me of my failures. I know them all too well.
  2. At least half (probably more) of the things you charge me with are simply not true.
  3. You don’t know nearly half of the things of which I am truly guilty.

Jesus was pretty adamant that “special prosecutor” was not part of the job description for those who wish to follow him. Love is at the top of the list. Forgiveness is up there too, along with compassion and kindness. We’re supposed to lift up those who are down, not stand over them and convince them why they fell.

Needed: A Good Samaritan in a Hell-Fire and Brimstone World

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Sam...
An illustration of the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Such is the fate God allots the wicked,
the heritage appointed for them by God.”
Job 20:29 (NIV)

Zophar now responds to job, and there is a subtle yet major twist to the rhetoric. Up to this point, the three amigos have been making the case that, in this life, the righteous are blessed and the wicked suffer. Job continues to argue that he has done nothing to deserve the calamities he is suffering.

Zophar now expands the rhetoric and introduces the theme of death into the mix:

Though the pride of the godless person reaches to the heavens
    and his head touches the clouds,
he will perish forever, like his own dung;
    those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’
Like a dream he flies away, no more to be found,
    banished like a vision of the night.
The eye that saw him will not see him again;
    his place will look on him no more.
His children must make amends to the poor;
    his own hands must give back his wealth.
The youthful vigor that fills his bones
    will lie with him in the dust.

Their appeals are clearly not working, and the self-righteous trio are hell-bent on satiating their judgmental blood-lust. Zophar decides on escalate things to another level. It’s time to pull out the big guns. He brings out a little hell-fire and brimstone from the rhetorical arsenal to convince Job to repent before he dies and returns to the dust and remembered no more.

http://www.cbsnews.com/common/video/cbsnews_video.swf

I remember seeing a story on CBS Sunday Morning several weeks ago (the show is part of the Sunday morning ritual for Wendy and me) exploring our concepts of heaven and hell. They interviewed an old hellfire and brimstone preacher and included a clip of his fear inducing rants from the pulpit. It seems to me he must be a spiritual descendant of Zophar. I sometimes have a hard time reconciling the appeal to fear with the example of Jesus who said He didn’t come to condemn, but to save. At the same time, even Jesus was known to utter a stern warning now and then, and I have come to realize along the journey that God uses all sorts of messengers and messages to reach the ears of His lost children.

Today, I am thinking about Zophar and his friends, who seem more concerned with proving themselves right than about loving, comforting, and easing Job’s pain. It’s as if their spiritual world view carries more importance than a simple act of kindness. They seem like the good religious folks who passed by the mugging victim in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It wasn’t the righteous, religious folks who acted in accordance with the heart of God, but the unrighteous, on-his-way-to-hell-in-a-handbasket bloke from the other side of the tracks in Samaria who simply acted with compassion and kindness.

Job needs a Samaritan. So do a lot of other hurting people. That’s who I want to be.

Job’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

art by William Blake
art by William Blake

One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

Last night Wendy and I attended a special healing service at our church. The theme of the service was healing our losses. It was about facing those griefs that have us mired on life’s road, about processing them so we can spiritually move forward. There was a large crowd on hand, and a good portion of the night was spent in quiet worship. There were stations set up around the perimeter of the room for people to receive communion, prayer, holy water, or to symbolically surrender their losses. Wendy and I have both had our share of losses in life, and it was good to meditate, reflect, and have some personal conversations with God about those things.

What struck me most last night, however, was the tremendous compassion I felt for others. I was surprised how many people I knew. I was also surprised at the pieces of their stories I knew. The abused who became an abuser and whose life fell completely apart. The person who lost a spouse. The  person whose marriage ended in terrible pain and whose life is out of control. The person with incurable disease that is wreaking havoc on the home front. On, and on, and on. My heart broke for friends and acquaintances. My own whining and petty complaints were silenced in relation to the pain I saw realized in the lives of others.

Job seemed an appropriate book to start this morning. I was struck by Job’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. We all fear getting “the call” telling us tragedy has struck, but Job gets four of them in rapid fire succession. Assets gone, employees gone, business gone, children gone. We all have our share of pain in this journey, but I imagine that precious few of us know the sheer terror of losing everything we own, and nearly everyone we hold dear in a matter of minutes.

Psalm 112 is a psalm that I’ve internalized as a foundational text for my life journey. It describes the kind of person I desire to be, and I found myself reciting it over and over in my heart last night at the service. It came to me again this morning as I read of Job’s unforeseen calamity:

“He has no fear of bad news,
His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.
His heart is secure, he will have no fear.
In the end he will look in triumph at his foes.”

I am going to have my share of tragedy in this journey. It’s inevitable. Worrying about it, fearing its arrival, and being anxious about what dark tidings the future may bring do nothing to make this day worthwhile. In fact, I’ve come to realize that the unholy trinity of worry, fear, and anxiety serve only to suck the life out of me and keep me from living this day fully and abundantly.

Today, I’m thinking and praying about those who are suffering tragedies and losses in life that I can scarcely imagine. At the same time, I’m trusting God with today, tomorrow, and each day of my journey so that I can be free to live this day fully. I will have my own share of grief and loss along the way, but I will also have God’s grace and provision in the moment(s) that I need them.