Saturday, 15 May 2010

Browning on the Precious and Eternal Soul

Ay, note that Potter's wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,--
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
"Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!"

Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
That was, is, and shall be:
Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.

He fixed thee mid this dance
Of plastic circumstance,
This Present, thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest:
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed.

(from Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning)

What a cruel joke it would be if we, able to imagine and hunger for eternal things great and deep, were no more than mosquitos or mushrooms. Don't you, with Browning, cry out in your heart at the outrage of such an idea, that we - knowing and longing for more - are here, by chance, for our short day with no greater meaning than we can manufacture ourselves? Doesn't your intellect swell with indignance at being forced to accept an idea so ill-matched to all that can be known and sensed about the self? There must be no mistake about this. We, into whom God has breathed the breath of his own life, are a thing wonderful and mysterious in our souls. We are eternal.

And, what is more, we are loved.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Does God Really Need Your Money?

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pinta of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
"Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.
You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.
(John 12:1-7)

To our way of thinking, Jesus comes across as a little callous here, doesn't he? Perfume worth a year's wages has just been poured on his feet, and Judas the self-righteous hypocrite is sure this is the Teacher's cue to deliver a sermon about how much good that amount of money could do for the poor. But amazingly, Jesus - the same Jesus who has been adopted as the posterboy for bleeding hearts everywhere - doesn't seem to care how much the poor people get at all. He's not urging his followers to end poverty - he's telling them that the poor are always going to be around. And this is not a typo or a mistranslation. The same story is told by no less than three of the Bible's writers.

Yet readers of the Bible are always being taught to give.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
(Proverbs 25:21)

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
(Luke 6:38)

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:33)

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Mark 10:21)

If their giving is not primarily to satisfy a need, then what is the purpose?

King David knew that what God wanted from him was not his money, but his heart. He knew that the gift was not important; the cost to the giver was. Do we even grasp such a concept?

...Gad went to David and said to him, “Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” So David went up, as the Lord had commanded through Gad. When Araunah looked and saw the king and his men coming toward him, he went out and bowed down before the king with his face to the ground.
Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?”
“To buy your threshing floor,” David answered, “so I can build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped.”
Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take whatever pleases him and offer it up. Here are oxen for the burnt offering, and here are threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood. O king, Araunah gives all this to the king.” Araunah also said to him, “May the Lord your God accept you."
But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
(2Samuel 24:18-24)

Your gift, in God's eyes, is nothing compared to the love that prompts it. Without the love, there is no gift.

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
(1Corinthians 13:3)

Did you hear that? Your money is nothing. It accomplishes nothing. It doesn't change a thing. It's a pebble on a road full of pebbles. Why mess around with such trivialities at all? Why give?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21)

Isn't it rather funny, after all, to think that we can do the Creator a favour; that he could do more with our petty contribution? He, who spoke the worlds into existence, waiting for a handout from you and I?

The Mighty One, God, the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.
He summons the heavens above,
and the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my consecrated ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
for God himself is judge. Selah
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, and I will testify against you:
I am God, your God.
I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices
or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the creatures of the field are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”

(Psalm 50:1-15)

Let us remember that the God who asked his followers to give never mentioned the need of the one who receives from us; again and again he pointed out that the real, crying need of humanity can only be satisfied in receiving from Him. It is not the poor we bless with our alms, nor does God have any lack that we may satisfy: the lack is in us, and we are the ones who are liberated by heartful giving.

God doesn't need your money. Not for missions. Not for churches. Not for the poor. Dare you mock him with your carefully-counted twenties, hundreds, thousands...? He would have you set free in the giving of your heart.