Compassion and justice, God’s two strong arms

two-strong-armsOne of the noblest sentiments in the American pledge of allegiance is the final line intended to describe the United States of America: “…with liberty and justice for all.” As a people, we Americans have strived to live up to that ideal yet have often fallen short.

Psalm 146:6-7a says nothing of liberty, but it does address justice:

God: the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, God: who is faithful forever, who gives justice to people who are oppressed, who gives bread to people are starving! (CEB, italics added)

The passage continues (vv. 7b-9), providing a seven-fold description of divine justice.  Our just God…

  • frees prisoners
  • gives sight to the blind
  • lifts up those who are stooped
  • loves the righteous
  • protects immigrants
  • helps orphans and widows
  • frustrates the wicked

The church’s mission in the world rests on a simple premise:

Find out what God is concerned about then join God in that concern.

The common denominator for five of the seven groups of people on the list is powerlessness. What can those who are incarcerated give us? Not much. Or how about the destitute woman who has lost her husband, or the child left alone after the death of their parents? As for immigrants, they are sometimes in the most precarious position of all. Yet it is not the rich and famous who receive the LORD’s special favor. Rather, it is those who seemingly have little to offer in return – the last, the lost, and the least – who have captured the loving heart of our Father. In a world that coldly pushes them to the margins as unimportant, God draws them in, wrapping them up in loving arms, whispering comfort. His compassion is naturally accompanied by the stubborn pursuit of justice on their behalf.

The parable is told of a farmer whose land was adjacent to a river. One day when tending his field by the river bank, he saw a woman flailing in the water. The farmer quickly called his family and together they fished her out of the water to safety. An hour later, the scenario repeated itself, except this time it was a man in peril. The rescues continued all afternoon, until they had saved half a dozen from the river. The farmer’s daughter finally spoke up. “Dad,” she asked, “I’m glad we’ve been able to rescue these people from drowning. But I wonder: Shouldn’t we go up river and see who has been pushing them in?”

Psalm 146:6-7 carves out a place for both the exercise of compassion and the pursuit of justice. God feeds the hungry and gives justice to the oppressed.

Mercy and advocacy are the two strong arms that rescue and empower those most vulnerable.*

If God is concerned about prisoners, immigrants, widows, orphans, the blind and those crushed by life’s burdens, then how can the church – the People of God – not also be concerned?

Yet there are two more groups of people on the list, namely, the righteous and the wicked. If we as God’s people are to be like God, then we must do as God does. And what does God do? The LORD loves the righteous (v.8) but frustrates the wicked (v.9). Here is where the church can set an example for society. Do we praise our children when they do virtuous things or do we ignore them, thereby discouraging that behavior in the future? Similarly, do we disapprove of those among us whose self-centeredness makes them callous, even wicked, or do we elevate them? It pays to study what God does then follow God’s example. To do the opposite is to invite disaster.

We serve an amazing God! The LORD models how we can walk a different path, one of heartfelt concern for the powerless. Psalm 146 reminds us that this concern entails both compassion and the pursuit of justice, Gods two strong arms. In times that risk frustrating the righteous and rewarding the wicked, let’s reverse the order. Let’s love God’s way, resisting the urge to marginalize the powerless. Instead, let us enfold the last, the lost, and the least.

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*Note: I am indebted to former Nazarene Education Commissioner, Dr Jerry Lambert, who spoke of evangelism and education as the “two strong arms of the Body of Christ.” I have adapted that imagery for this essay.

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Image credit: Estudos Gospelmais

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Church of darkness or church of light?

squeers
Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

hathaway
Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
uncle
Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator
  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

Fasting, justice, and Sabbath rest: reflections on Isaiah 58:6-14

manaclesLet’s play a word association game. When you hear the word “fasting,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Since I can’t read your mind, I’ll have to be content to let you know what images came to me. I envisioned a desert monk, someone like John the Baptist, austere, skinny, and prophetic. Another image is Ash Wednesday, a sober time when we give up something for Lent.

I must confess that upon hearing the word “fasting,” the first thing that popped into my thoughts was definitely not “justice.” Yet the prophet Isaiah insisted that the two concepts are intertwined. If fasting is abstaining, then there are practices from which we must refrain. Isaiah explains:

Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? (Isaiah 58:6-7, CEB)

Isaiah calls us to “fast” (abstain) from any enterprise that enslaves people, “untying the ropes of a yoke” (v.6).  For example, millions around the world are enslaved to cigarette smoking. If we are involved in the production of tobacco, are we not implicated in that bondage? Likewise, to “set free the mistreated,” using Isaiah’s colorful phrase, will mean abstaining from our own involvement, however indirect, in the mistreatment of others. Perhaps this will mean that we think twice about spending our dollars at businesses that could pay their workers a livable wage but stubbornly refuse to do so.

At the end of the chapter, Isaiah speaks of keeping the Sabbath (58:13-14). When God first spoke of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), he clearly underscored the principle of rest. This is a fast from all work. When serving as a missionary in Haiti, often we had no power from the local municipality. Our solution was to install a large generator that could give light to all the buildings on campus. I was assigned to maintain the generator, changing the oil and the filters as needed. Most importantly, however, was the instruction regarding how many hours uninterrupted the generator could run. It was important not to run it for too long without having several hours idle or else the generator would wear out.

If we understand that about a machine, why do we miss the lesson when it comes to ourselves? God made us and understands that sometimes we must fast from work in order to rest. Recreation – what as children we called “play” – is not just for children. We literally must be “re-created” by finding time free from toil, to unstring the tightly strung bow, to kick back and do nothing useful. Yet in our 24/7 world, even the people of God grossly neglect the Sabbath principle. Have we sacrificed our health on the altar of corporate profits?

Holiness is not just personal; holiness is social. Profession of saving and sanctifying faith can be easily undermined by our wicked practices. Fasting from food is not sufficient if at the same time we refuse to abstain from practices that undercut our witness.

But if we feed the poor and clothe the naked (v. 7, 10), then Isaiah affirms that what we say with our words will be seconded by our actions. And guess what? People will notice!

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the LORD’s glory will be our rear guard. Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, ‘I am here (8-9a).

When reading Isaiah 58, I’m forced to reflect on my own life first of all. Renewal always begins with the person in the mirror. Will you join me in this prayer?

“Help me, LORD, in this sin-sick world, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Show me where my words and actions do not match up, that what I do might open doors for sharing the love of Christ with others and not impede the advance of Your Kingdom. In Jesus’ name I pray, AMEN.”

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Image credit: Cornell Library Guides