“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
I’ve been looking through the Beatitudes and how they relate to prayer. Jesus said that the pure in heart are blessed, for they shall “see God.” Have you ever spoken to someone who wasn’t looking at you? They looked past you, or around you, or down at their device, but they didn’t attempt to make or maintain eye contact. It can be disconcerting, and even rude. And yet, there are times when, with our divided hearts, we come into prayer without really looking for, or at, God.
At other times, our hearts cloud our vision, giving us a distorted view of God. We harbor sin or guilt, and we see God as unforgiving or unfair. We are holding on to our own will, and we see God as restrictive or demanding.
The pure in heart see God as He really is– Glorious, Merciful, Wise, and Just. They see evidence of His lovingkindness and faithfulness all around them. They see themselves through His eyes– beloved and forgiven–and they see others through the eyes of Grace.
This is not our natural state. We are NOT pure in heart. We are self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-conscious. King David recognized this profoundly when he was caught in his great sin of adultery and murder. In his own lust and selfishness, he had seduced the wife of another man, and when she became pregnant, David arranged to cover up the first sin–by having the man murdered. David was not a notorious scoundrel. He was even called, “a man after God’s own heart.” But when he was confronted with his guilt, David “saw” himself as he really was– not a victim of circumstance, or a martyr to passion, or a king who was above the law, but a man who had committed evil against others, and against a Holy and Sovereign God.
David’s prayer was in line with his vision. Not only did he see himself as he really was; he saw God as HE really is: Holy and Just, but willing and able to restore David’s purity of heart. David’s God is the same today as He ever was. He longs to make us clean; to restore to us the joy of our salvation (see Psalm 51:12), and give us the power to pursue our purpose and leave our past sins behind.
When we desire to “see God,” we must desire this cleansing and restoration of purity. We can pray without it, but we cannot look at a Holy God with an unclean spirit. All we can do is look elsewhere– talking to the wall or the floor. God still hears us, but he wants to have a real conversation; one full of intimacy and understanding.
So, today, will I make “eye contact” during my prayer time?
I’ve been looking at the Beatitudes lately, and how they relate to prayer. Today I am focusing on “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Does this verse suggest that we should be meek or timid about prayer? Is God offended when we plead with Him or pour out our frustrations about pain or injustice? Doesn’t this contradict the writer of Hebrews, who says that we should “boldly approach the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16)?
God invites us to have a relationship with Him. Good relationships cannot survive in an atmosphere of fear. But they must involve respect. There is a tendency in the Church today to look at prayer as a casual conversation with God, where God is our “pal,” someone we hang out with and chat with like a best friend. But even our close relationship with God as “Father” demands the same kind of respect we should give to an earthly father or an elder. God is not “one of the gang,” or “the man upstairs.” He is God Almighty, and Lord of All Creation.
Like any Good Father, God wants to hear from us– all that is on our minds and hearts. But we must remember who God is– and who we are. We are His children, not His “crew.” In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus began by addressing His Father, and establishing His place– “Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.” (Matthew 6:9 or Luke 11:2) The meek person comes before God gladly, with awe and gratitude, eager to honor Him before all else.
And the second part of the Beatitude is also key in how we pray. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Many times, we focus on the inheritance itself– “the earth.” But what about the act of inheriting? The meek will not conquer the earth. The meek will not purchase the earth. The meek will not gain the earth, or win it, or demand it. Instead, the meek wait patiently for their inheritance. How would our prayers change if we took this to heart? God will give us all that we require– in His time, in His wisdom, for His purpose, and with His delight! The whole earth belongs to God– and He desires to share it with us! There is never a reason NOT to be meek, humble, grateful, or reverent before our Father. There is never a reason to be demanding, rude, dismissive, or grumbling when we pray.
This can be a very freeing realization. No matter how chaotic, frightening, or painful our situation, God IS in control. Wars rage, disease stalks, famine strikes, yet God has promised to give us access to all of His riches, including a peace that passes understanding and unspeakable joy! They are a guaranteed inheritance from our great Father– His lavish Grace and everlasting Love poured out on us.
I’ve been exploring the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and how I think they relate to prayer. Today, I want to look at the second one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4).
I know a lot of people who are mourning. I know people who have lost loved ones to COVID, to suicide, to cancer, etc. I know those who are mourning the loss of a job or a house. I know those who are mourning the loss of health– either their own or that of a loved one. And I have been a mourner. I know those moments when the grief hits unexpectedly– a song comes on the radio, or a certain photo pops up in my Facebook memories; even the smell of freshly cut grass or the taste of popcorn can remind me of loved ones lost, and bring a tear to my eye.
I also know the mourning that comes from regret– the painful consequences of ill-chosen words or reckless actions– even missed opportunities. Mourning is painful. It is uncomfortable. The world around us is made uncomfortable by our mourning. People spend billions of dollars and spend countless hours trying to avoid mourning; trying to deny, placate, drown, or forget their grief and sadness. We take pills, we binge watch entertaining programs, we run away, we distract, we seek to mask our feelings, suppress them, or eradicate them.
Jesus calls on us to mourn. He wants us to bring all the ugliness of our grief and shame and give it to Him. He will not ask us to cover it up, or hide from it, or “get rid of it.” He will not tell us to “get over it” or “put it behind us.” Instead, He will comfort us. That doesn’t mean we will never again feel grief or shame or sadness in this life. But our mourning will be transformed into Joy. Joy is not the absence of, nor a denial of grief. It is the triumph of life over death; of hope over despair; of purpose over futility. We are not commanded to be “shiny, happy” problem-free people. Nor are we to let mourning and grief overwhelm us or turn us sour and despondent. Instead, we are to share our grief– and to share in the grief of others–just as we can then share in the comfort we have found!
In the same way that the “poor in spirit” can embrace all the riches and glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, those who mourn can receive from God the kind of Peace that “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and the joy the “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) God does not want us to be forever depressed or wallow in our despair–but He also does not want us to pretend that we are invincible, or untouched by sorrow. Jesus wept. Jesus felt sadness and frustration during His earthly ministry. He was tired, He was misunderstood, He was betrayed. He suffered losses. And He grieved over broken relationships and the horrible consequences of Sin in the lives of those around Him.
Those who do NOT mourn– who do not feel sorrow or regret or loss– will never know the healing power of God’s consuming comfort. They will never know the full measure of Grace. They will never cry out for it, never be surprised by the light in the darkness, never feel the joy of being held and cradled by compassion. And they miss out on the true Joy that comes from being comforted and being able to comfort others.
So the question I have to ask myself today is– what have I mourned lately? When was the last time I collapsed under the weight of my own grief or shame, only to find myself upheld and wrapped in the arms of the Lover of my Soul? When was the last time I extended comfort to someone else by mourning with them?
St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.
Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.
He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.
The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”
Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”
“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”
“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”
“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”
“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”
“Why do you keep watching her?”
“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”
“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”
“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Afraid of what?”
“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”
“What do you mean?”
“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”
The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.
“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”
Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”
Near the end of 2020, my mother took a bad fall and broke her hip. Because of COVID, we were not allowed to visit her while she was recuperating. Thankfully, she had her cell phone and was able to make and receive phone calls. My mom is a very independent sort, but she loves to be “in the know” about all that is happening in the neighborhood and among our family members– births, deaths, hospitalizations, relocations, etc.. But, for all her interest in “what’s new,” Mom is completely computer-illiterate. She doesn’t text, she doesn’t have e-mail, and she knows nothing of social media. She relies on her phone and her desk calendar and notepad. Being trapped in a nursing home for six weeks was torture for her, even though she needed to recover and do physical therapy there. I tried to call her every day, and each time, she would ask, “Do you have any news?”
Sometimes, I had “news” for her; someone had tested positive for COVID, or a new baby had been born. But most days, I had to tell her– “I just called to say I love you, and I’m thinking of you.” And I could “hear” her smile on the other end of the line as she replied, “well, that means a lot. I just love to hear your voice.”
I don’t know why, but it struck me the other day how often we pray about circumstances– we “call” on God because we have “news”– situations that we want to bring to His attention– as if He didn’t already know! We pray because we want to lift up someone who is ill or suffering; we pray because we need to make a confession and ask forgiveness; we pray because we are facing an unknown future, and we desire God’s guidance and wisdom. Other times, we pray because we have a specific praise or thanks to offer. These are all legitimate reasons to reach out to God in prayer, and we certainly SHOULD pray in all circumstances, but how often do we call on God just to say, “I love you and I am thinking of you!” In fact, how often do we take the time to disconnect from social media and all the other distractions of our day to really focus on spending time with God?
Mom is back in a nursing home at the moment…she fell about six weeks ago and broke her leg! She still has no access to the internet, and still doesn’t text, so I call her nearly every day– with or without “news.” And I marvel that God is every bit as eager to hear from me– even me– every day, “just because.” I’m so glad that I still have the ability to talk to Mom; to hear her voice–and yes, even to share the “news.” How much greater my joy that I can talk to my creator; that I don’t have to worry about a busy signal or dropped call; that I can read His words to me any time of day; that His presence–even though I can’t see Him or hear His voice–follows me everywhere. And that He sends special people to call me, or text, or e-mail– “just because.” And no matter how I feel about my circumstances, God is so very glad to hear from me. And you!
This isn’t a hymn, but the music was running through my head as I wrote this. How often to we hear a ballad or a love song, and suddenly realize that God sings love songs over us?! (See Zephaniah 3:17!)
As I write this, the sun is shining and glinting off new-fallen snow. It’s been a mostly pleasant day, and I’m writing this in anticipation of a pleasant weekend. This will post on Monday morning– a brand new week, hopefully filled with new opportunities and adventures. Of course, not every day is like this. Some days are dreary, full of stress and anxiety, and filled with challenges and even tragedies. But I have been thinking about a song I learned in childhood, one that has blessed me over the years and helped me on many a dreary day, as well as on days like today.
“I have a song that Jesus gave me, It was sent from heav’n above; There never was a sweeter melody, ‘Tis a melody of love.
I love the Christ who died on Calv’ry, For He washed my sins away; He put within my heart a melody, And I know it’s there to stay.
In my heart there rings a melody, There rings a melody with heaven’s harmony; In my heart there rings a melody, There rings a melody of love.
‘Twill be my endless theme in glory, With the angels I will sing; ‘Twill be a song with glorious harmony, When the courts of heaven ring.
On days like today, it is easy to sing a happy tune– sunlight, shimmering snow and icicles, viewed from my nice cozy perch by the window–but the joyful song that Jesus brings rings through good days and bad; sorrow and stress; triumphs and failures. It is eternal and filled with the limitless Love of God. It is a song of peace that passes all understanding, and a confidence that sees beyond circumstances.
Sometimes, when life seems devoid of light and peace, it has less to do with our actual circumstances, and more to do with our unwillingness to look up from them. Throughout the Old Testament (and even in the New Testament) people would create songs as part of their worship–some songs celebrated God’s provision and protection; others spoke of His character and His faithfulness. But these songs weren’t just for celebration and services of worship– they were used to remind us in good times and bad, that God’s love never changes. The same God who brings victory and miracles will be with us in times of despair. The same God who sees us in our most desperate hour of need is there with us when we are enjoying a beautiful sunset.
Today, I pray that we would take a few moments, find a song or a Psalm, and just sing a prayer to our maker. It doesn’t have to be a peppy song of praise– it may even be a song of yearning or anguish– but let it be a song that rises above our day and finds the ear of the One who loves us better than anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune; God listens to the heart! Sing the song that Jesus gives to you today. Your heart will be blessed. And it will bless the very heart of your Maker, as well.
For many, this Christmas will be bittersweet– we have suffered greatly; some of us are still reeling from loss and grief. Others are living with fear and confusion about the future. In many ways, our situation is not so different from that first Christmas in Bethlehem. We feel “taxed” by events and circumstances. The world seems dark and dreary and cold. More than ever, we need to listen for the song of the Angels– for “good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
And, maybe more than ever in our lifetime, we need to be like the shepherds–eager to seek out the gift of the newborn Savior; Eager to embrace the wonder of Emmanuel; eager to share the hope we find at the manger. Hallelujah! Unto US a child is given; unto US a son is born! (Isaiah 9:6)
I’ve been writing a lot about Advent and Christmas lately, rather than focusing on Pursuing Prayer. But they are part of the same whole. I pursue a life of prayer precisely because Jesus came in the flesh and lived and died and rose again. I believe in the power of prayer because Jesus modeled how to pray– even as He faced betrayal and death. I believe in the gift of prayer because Jesus prayed for me long before I was ever born (see John 17). I pursue prayer with confidence because Jesus keeps His promises.
The story of “The Little Drummer Boy” is nowhere in the Bible. It is very unlikely that such an event ever took place. Yet it has become a classic Christmas song. I think it is easy for us to identify with the singer– a poor boy who wants to honor the Baby Jesus, but has no gift to offer. What he does have– a drum and the ability to play it– he offers gladly. He asks permission of Mary and she nods her consent. But the highlight of the song is when the Baby Jesus smiles His approval.
At Christmas, we welcome a Christmas card-picture perfect stylized Baby Jesus, who smiles, never cries, charms all the animals of the stable, and merits the singing of angels choirs among the heavens. But we have a tendency to leave Him in the manger, where He can be a tiny miracle; a gift from God, bringing hope of peace on earth, and teaching us to give gifts and celebrate life.
Somewhere along the way, our picture of Jesus tends to change. The adult Jesus is kind, wise, compassionate, and even passionate– but He is a man of sorrows. This is not “wrong” theology– the Bible describes Him as a man of sorrows; one who was despised and rejected by His own people, and condemned to die by those He came to save (see Isaiah 53). But we don’t tend to think of Jesus smiling, His eyes crinkled in a grin, dimples appearing as He delights in sharing time with us. Yet this is also Biblical (see Zephaniah 3:17).
What an amazing image– Jesus, a radiant smile on His face as He listens to our prayers; a grin of delight as we speak words of encouragement to our family members and joyful greetings to those we meet throughout the day! Jesus smiling as we take out the garbage (without grumbling!); Jesus laughing along with us as we share treasured memories (or make new ones) with our kids; Jesus listening to our confession and responding with a warm smile of forgiveness and compassion; Jesus smiling as we sing along (maybe even a little off-tune) with one of our favorite songs on the radio, or tap our fingers on the steering wheel, or bob our head along with the rhythm, oblivious to onlookers!
We pray to the very Lord of the Universe– but He is not a stern and joyless God. Jesus wept while He was on earth (John 11:35)–but He also laughed, and ate, and hugged, and sang, and ran, and danced for joy! And He is no less joyful in Heaven as He watches over us. He delights in our smallest triumphs. He cheers us on in our battles every bit as enthusiastically as a fan cheering on his favorite sportsperson. And when we stumble, He is there with the kind of smile that welcomes us to get up and fall into His arms.
There is only one thing we must do to experience His radiant and glorious smile– “Come!”
It’s not actually midwinter just now. In fact, “winter” won’t officially begin for another few days. But it has been bleak around here.
I suffer from seasonal depression. In spite of the joy I know I should feel during this season; in spite of all the reasons I have to BE joyful, I have been in a funk. I’ve been physically ill, but even more, I’ve been mentally drained and emotionally overwhelmed for over a week. I’ve missed posting a couple of days recently, because I feel hypocritical writing about Christmas.
But I choose to write tonight about the enduring power of prayer. There are people praying for me, not because I’ve said anything about my condition, but because they are faithful in praying for people, and I happen to be one of them. The clouds are beginning to lift and I’m finding it easier to feel what I already know– that God is in control; that He cares; that He has a purpose beyond the sadness. It’s why I’m so passionate about praying and keeping a prayer log or prayer journal. I am one of those who pray for others, and I am one of those who are being prayed for–we lift each other up, even when–especially when–we don’t fully understand why.
Some may ask, “How can you say that prayer works if you are depressed? Doesn’t that just prove that prayer isn’t working?” Some people mock the power of prayer in the face of “bad” circumstances. The recent school shooting in my home state of Michigan, or the recent spate of tornadoes in Kentucky and other states are prime examples. Sincere people of faith are being mocked for saying that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the people who are suffering. Mockers say that thoughts and prayers are meaningless–otherwise, prayers should have prevented the events in question from ever happening. In the aftermath, only actions are of value.
In the face of disaster, distress, or depression, prayers may seem small and even meaningless. Most prayers don’t pack the power of a tornado, nor elicit such an immediate and dramatic response. My depression didn’t suddenly disappear the moment someone began praying for me; those whose homes and lives have been turned upside-down in the past days and weeks didn’t wake up this morning to find that it was just a bad dream. And prayer should be accompanied by thoughtful and compassionate action. But prayer heals– and healing takes time. God chooses to use the prayers of others to seep into our lives; to fortify us and draw us together. Actions may change the circumstances, but prayer changes the person. Prayer reaches beyond the circumstances and the limitations of our human nature.
So today, I will pray. Through the “funk,” through the pain, through the confusion and chaos of a troubled world, I will choose to pray. For those individuals listed in my journal; for those whose needs are posted online or made known to me some other way; for those whose names and faces come to mind throughout the day. Because it is God’s way. Because others are faithfully doing the same. Because, in the end, it brings joy and peace. Even when–especially when– things seem so bleak.
We’re coming up to Thanksgiving in the U.S. next week. Many families will sit down to sumptuous meals–turkey with dressing/stuffing (depending on what region you live in), pumpkin pies, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, rolls or muffins, salads, mac and cheese, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and more. Some will settle in front of big screen televisions to watch American football, and parades crowded with giant balloons and marching bands. Some will have modest gatherings with family and friends.
And the following day– Black Friday– they will rush to malls and giant box stores to take advantage of the spectacular sales. People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, all with the satisfaction that they might have spent a lot more if they had not braved the crowds and the 4 a.m. opening times (some will begin shopping on Thanksgiving Day for the “head start.” Others will stay comfortably and safely indoors and spend their money shopping on-line).
All of this costs money, of course. But for many Americans, it is not a real pinch to celebrate Thanksgiving. And we will say “Thanks,” and count our many blessings. We will also give. Charities and organizations are already taking donations. We can give $10 at the store to help buy meals for the hungry. We can buy small gifts to be sent overseas or to be given to the children of those in prison, or those who are homeless. We can buy coats (or hats or mittens, etc.) for those who have none. These efforts cost some money, too.
But how much of these efforts comes from true “thankfulness” and how much from other sources– pride or guilt or a sense of duty? For what am I truly grateful at Thanksgiving? Thankful that I have so much? Thankful that I have the power to help others? Thankful that I have the day off to go shopping?
It is easy for some of us to be thankful and generous–in our own eyes. I can give with the click of a button, and money I barely know I have is taken from my bank account and deposited in the account of a charity I may know very little about. I never have to see the people who are helped, and I never have to see what they have suffered or how my gift makes a difference. In fact, I don’t really have to see whether my gift even arrives where I imagine or does what the charity has promised. Some organizations are more transparent than others, and more reputable or honest than others, but I can feel good just by giving. In some cases, I can “make a difference” without any cost at all– just “like” a certain site, or fill out a survey. I can “give” without even giving!
In recent years, however, I have been surprised by those who have tried to make me feel bad about giving. They are not angry because I have not given, or have given very little, or given to dishonest charities. No. One lady was outraged that I should give to an organization that sends toys, hygiene items, and school supplies to needy children in countries around the world. What caused her outrage? Three things–the toys were “too American”–the instructions were printed in English, or they were “frivolous” toys like jump ropes and “matchbox” sized cars and trucks. Also, some of the boxes and wrapping were printed with cartoon-like children, which she felt were “racist” in their depiction. Finally, the spokesperson for the organization had been portrayed by the media as narrow-minded and “hateful” toward the issue of gay marriage. Her solution: she was never going to give to such an organization. She was urging people to give to groups that were providing livestock, instead. Here, she felt, was a useful gift. Chickens, goats, cows–these were gifts that would truly make a difference. And such gifts can and do make a difference– in rural areas, where there is space and enough grass or other food to sustain such animals. Her gift will have little impact on a child living in Nairobi, or Tegucigalpa, or Kosovo. I am glad she has the means and the desire to give and to help. And the organizations who provide such gifts are worthy–I mean no disrespect to any of them. But giving should be a joyous outpouring of love and thankfulness, of compassion and humility. If that means helping a rural community get milk and meat, that’s wonderful. If it means sending a stuffed animal, some silly socks, and some soap and washcloths to Lebanon, that’s great, too. Even if I don’t like the wrapping paper…
My point is that a lot of our “giving” has become more about virtue signaling than joyously sharing with others to meet their needs. It costs a lot more in money to send a goat to Peru. But it may cost a lot more in time and energy to spend a day serving meals at a homeless shelter, or volunteer to rebuild in a community hit by a tornado or hurricane. And even though there may be a monetary cost to some of our gifts, in some ways, our “giving” costs us nothing. Not just little or nothing in dollars and cents, but little in emotion or thought or effort. There is nothing personal, or heartfelt, or sacrificial about some of our giving.
And if that is true of our giving to strangers, what does that say about what we “give” to our families, our neighbors, and to God?
During the reign of King David, there are many instances of celebration and thanksgiving. But there are also stories of heartbreak, loss, and repentance. In one of these incidents, King David angered God by taking a census. His conscience caused him to ask God’s forgiveness and ask what could be done to take away the guilt. God sent the prophet Gad to give David three choices, but David left it in God’s hands. God sent a vicious plague that swept toward Jerusalem. When the angel of death reached the threshing floor of a man named Araunah the Jebusite, God told him to stop. David could actually see where God had stopped the plague, and immediately went to buy the threshing floor, so he could build an alter and sacrifice to the Lord in repentance and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy.
King David had plenty of money. He also had authority, and the respect of his people. Araunah offered to give David not only the field, but the oxen to make the sacrifice. As the king, David could have taken the land and oxen– he could even have demanded them of Araunah. But David paid for it all, saying that he would not give to God that which had cost him nothing.
In this season of giving, it can be tempting to measure the value of our gift by the monetary cost, or by the value WE receive from giving. But true giving should involve a willing and joyful sacrifice of our pride and our time. Sometimes, this may mean NOT giving a toy or a goat–it may mean giving an apology, or a second chance, or being willing to give up a turkey dinner or a shopping trip, in order to visit a shut-in, or spend some much needed time on our knees.
Having said that, there are plenty of things we can give that cost us “nothing”–smiles, a warm welcome, a listening ear, reaching out for reconciliation, and most of all, a heart-felt “Thank You.” Sometimes, these gestures cost us nothing– sometimes, they are a sacrifice. But they are gifts that really make a difference.