What does it mean to be a Christian, beliefs, actions, thoughts, words, feelings, emotions, works, faith

What does it mean?

I recently discovered some of the works and thoughts of the Russian writer, novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  He was an Orthodox Christian with a deep faith, a faith which had “a strong emphasis on giving Christian love a social application”. But what I really have treasured have been two quotes that I have found in his writings.

Read More »

compassion, Romans, Matthew, Psalms, Jesus, Christ, Messiah, Paul, countrymen, Christianity, moved to action, Luke, widow, sick, lame, blind, crippled, healed, hungry, practicing presence

Sermon: Compassion

READINGS:

  • Romans 9: 1-15
  • Matthew 14:13-21
  • Psalm 145: 8-9, 14-21

Compassion:

These verses from Matthew & Romans 9 contain a common theme: the compassion of Jesus for the crowd and the compassion of Paul for his Jewish countrymen.  Paul is anguished that his Jewish countrymen cannot see the truth of Christ being the promised Messiah:

9:3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred … to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, …and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, …

He expresses himself as having great sorrow and unceasing anguish for these, his countrymen: how many of us could say we feel like this for our countrymen in Panama?

Where is our Christianity, if we have no compassion? For so many people, life is hard: every story of the gospels shows us Jesus moved to action.

Take a moment with me, to consider the following passages:

  1. Luke 7: 13 – When the Lord saw her (the widow from Nain whose only son had died), he had compassion on her and said to her “Do not weep.”
  2. Matthew 15: 32 – he had compassion on the crowd that came to him with their sick, lame, blind, crippled, mute and healed them. But more so than this, they were hungry and so he ordered the disciples to feed them, all 4,000 of them!
  3. Matthew 9: 35-38 – Jesus was travelling throughout the cities and villages, teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and affliction. And when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
  4. Matthew 20: 29-34: As Jesus left Jericho, a great crowd was following him and 2 blind men were sitting by the roadside, calling out to him. And Jesus stopped and asked “What do you want me to do for you?”, and they said “Let our eyes be opened”. And moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes, and immediately they regained their sight.

Where have we, as Christians, gone wrong? I cannot imagine a Christ without compassion, but I see so-called Christians without compassion! Where has humanity gone wrong?

I want you to consider a 2, 3 or 4 year old child: if you drop something, they will scuttle to help you pick it up. If they see another child crying, they are anguished and want to make it better. They are anxious to help with the cleaning, the dishes and all those household chores. They are compassionate and caring, they notice the emotions and feelings of those around them.

But then, somewhere along the way, they lose that compassionate nature and they start to think only about self – “I want” and I don’t want to share. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature? Why do we stop taking the time to say “what can I do to help this person”?  We’re living in an epidemic of incivility, disengagement, and despair – in politics, in the work place, in our homes, and even in our church.

What Is Compassion?

Compassion: put simply is empathy PLUS action. It is more than just kindness; it is sensitivity to the suffering of others with a commitment to do something about it. It is:

  • the smile we give to a stranger
  • the food we give to the homeless or our oldies in our AAAM missions program
  • giving someone the benefit of the doubt
  • it is listening to understand, rather than listening to answer back
  • it is making all conversations safe – even when we have a difficult conversation or feedback to give

We all need more compassion in our lives: a totally different perspective when it comes to how you perceive yourself and others. We start with compassion towards those we are in contact with every day in our homes, each week day in the office, or once a week in our Church.

Think of this for a moment:
Let’s say you are very worried about your daughter’s health. You took her to the doctor and he decided to take tests in order to rule out a Dengue Fever. Later that day you are in Arrocha, buying some medicines, preoccupied with your daughter and an acquaintance passes you and says hello. You say hello in return but because you are so deep in thought you don’t stop to chat.
Later on you hear the acquaintance felt insulted because you “snubbed” her. Even though it was not your intention to snub this person, and you had a very good reason for your behavior-the acquaintance assumed the worst.

That is, simply, what most of us do. We assume the worst:

They were rude! They were harsh! They were judgmental! Did you hear the tone in their voice? Did you see the way she looked at me? She ignored me! She walked right past me!

Learning to have more compassion involves making the radical shift to assume the best in others.

What would Balboa Union Church look like if every person in this Church were truly compassionate in word & deed, as Christ was?

Where Do We Start?

First – we start with ourselves!

How good are you at being compassionate to yourself? Do you forgive yourself when you make mistakes? Do you love yourself and your body? Do you take time to ask your body how it’s feeling? If you haven’t identified what you are feeling, how are you going to be able to identify what other people are feeling?  How are you feeling right now? Do you have any aches or pains? Are you feeling nervous or uptight anywhere? Is there tightness in your stomach or a tension in your shoulders? Are you carrying any tension into today from the week that was – are you carrying the past with you? Are you brooding or concerned about the future: where are you holding it in your body?

We start with baby steps: practicing compassion each day. First, I want us to take a small step towards compassion for ourselves:

I want you to think about your body scan that you just finished and what you identified: that part of your body that is tense, tight, aching, whatever it was that you felt: and I want you to bless it. Right here, right now. I want you to pray mercy on yourself. I want you to show yourself some compassion – and instead of complaining about that part of your body, “oh, that knot in my neck”, or “that pain in my knee” or “that old injury that always plays up” – put your hands on it, and say “God bless you”.  Pray love to that part of your body that you always complain about! And every time you feel that ache, pain, tension: I want you to use it as your cue to pray for yourself. Remember God’s love for you, and surround that part of your body with love, acceptance and joy: and bless it. I am sure that you have cursed it enough times already – and I imagine that’s not working for you! So, why not try something different for the next 30 days? Whether it be a slipped disk in your back, a recurring pain in your shoulder, a tightening in your jaw, a sore ankle from when you fell over: let it be reminder to you to love yourself, bless yourself and show yourself and your body some compassion!

Then the second step is showing compassion for your neighbor:

It might be just that person you passed in the street: if you are out and about a lot, in your car, I want to suggest that you use red lights, stop signs or just the traffic jams, and allow them to be your “pause”. Every time you stop, take a deep breath, notice how YOU are feeling, remember you are God’s representative in this world, and then breath out a blessing on another person – maybe a pedestrian that is crossing the street, or the person sitting in the car next to yours, or the traffic cop that is directing the traffic. And each time your car stops, take a moment to pause, to breathe in God’s love, and to exhale a blessing on another person: to reach a point where the red light or stop sign becomes your cue to cultivate compassion, and it helps you establish a habit of compassion for your fellow man.

And then, I want you to bring compassion home, to your house – the place that it is most needed! Unfortunately, most of us treat the people that we live with, our families, with a certain level of disdain that we would not give to others! And it takes extra effort to treat them with compassion, because you really know them, flaws and all! Each morning, take a moment to ask yourself what act of kindness you can perform today in your home, however small.  If you really want a challenge – try the 40-day love dare for your spouse or a person that you live with in the same house!

The world needs Christians that actively practice compassion and caring for their fellow man.  Without compassion, our love towards God is meaningless!

Let’s pray:

Spirit of Life,
Thank you for the opportunities to love that present themselves in the turmoil of life!
When the light catches the tears in another’s eyes, in moments without words, let us be present.
Let us seek to make another’s wellbeing the object of our concern.
Give us compassion and humility in our hearts. Let us be kind, gentle, generous, loving, giving and forgiving wherever we may go. Allow us to be as compassionate as the air we breathe. Give us the strength to help our brother, to pick up those who have fallen. We declare and decree that we will follow the example Jesus has set before us, in his Mighty name we pray!
Amen

 

Sermon: Abounding in steadfast love

READINGS:

  • Psalm 145: 8-14
  • Romans 7: 15-25a
  • Matthew 11: 25-30

SLOW TO ANGER AND ABOUNDING IN STEADFAST LOVE

I titled this sermon “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as a reminder of the nature of Christ and the ideal version of every Christian. What would this world look like today, if that were a true description of every person in the world that called themselves a “Christian“? Imagine if every evangelical, every conservative, every progressive, every fundamentalist, every liberal, every Catholic, every 7th Day Adventist could say, in spirit and in truth: “I am slow to anger and abounding, overflowing, exuding steadfast loveI love God and I love my neighbor.” What would the world’s experience of Christians be if we truly followed in Christ’s footsteps?

Did you know that the word “Christian” is used 3 times in the Bible? Three times, in all of the Bible. Twice in Acts and once in 1 Peter.  Christians in this first century after Christ’s death were called such because their behavior, activity, and speech were like Christ. The word Christian means, “follower of Christ” or “belonging to the party of Christ.” One of the better known followers of Christ was the Apostle Paul, who wrote many of the letters that we now have in our Bible. These letters were directed to different communities of faith, and often were in response to specific questions that they raised in their letters. Paul was probably a more prolific writer than the disciples, as he was originally a Pharisee, a well-educated man, with an advantage that they did not have for writing.

Nevertheless, we find that Paul still struggled with some basic spiritual issues.  I want to take a moment, and read for you Romans 7, verses 15-25a from the Bible version “The Message”, because it seems to me that this version is very practical and easy to understand:

ROMANS 7:15-25 THE MESSAGE (MSG)

14-16 I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

17-20 But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

21-23 It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

24 I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

25 The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

When Paul wrote Romans, he was already 20 years into his ministry! This was no longer a young, zealous man, battling with temptations of his youth.  This was a man that had lived through trials and tribulations, who had spent most of his adult life as a missionary.  And yet, he writes to us “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not.”

What hope is there for you and me if Paul cannot get it together? Paul had many advantages over you and me: as a Pharisee he knew the 621 rules for righteousness and was well- versed in keeping them. But, just like each one of us, Paul had an ego. I imagine his ego also responded to pride, self-centeredness and selfishness!

God's grace: free & unmerited favor
God’s grace: free & unmerited favor

Paul comes back to GRACE as the solution for his battle! Knowing the law and doing his best to keep the law was not enough. Without grace, Paul was just as lost as the next person. In verse 25 of Romans 7, Paul says “Christ can and does”: it is not I, but Christ that lives in me that allows me to live out a holy life.

Last week, I used the example of the worm inside the apple, an egg laid inside the apple blossom that hatches inside the apple when it is maturing. Sin can be like that in our lives: we are growing and maturing and suddenly find that a bad habit or attitude has been growing and maturing inside of us as well.

Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.

God is looking on the inside: Your Heart!
God is looking on the inside: Your Heart!

Right now, I am at my heaviest weight ever! Even at eight and a half months pregnant, I weighed less than I do now! The weight was distributed differently then, and I felt much healthier than I do right now! And six months after my daughter was born, I was at my perfect weight! Then life happened! I excuse myself with the sleepless nights, the busy lifestyle, and the responsibilities that I have chosen to assume. The unfortunate reality is that I dislike, okay… it’s a little stronger than dislike… I despise getting up at 5.30 in the morning to do exercise!

I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good (get fit and eat healthy), sin (food, laziness, lack of motivation) is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands (having my ideal weight and feeling healthy), but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge (and there I am, sitting down with a cheesecake!).

Everyone has an excuse and a scapegoat! This past week, I blamed it on Betsy for showing up with a gluten-free cheesecake. But the reality is that I have a sugar-tooth, and suffer from insulin resistance. I can either choose to take medications and live a healthy lifestyle, making diet choices that take me back to optimal health; or I can cheat and double the medication and not do the exercise and diet; or I can do nothing at all as I have been doing for the past 12 to 18 months! Last week, I decided to do 21 days of getting up at 5.30 and doing a 30-minute workout and stretching!

Doing right is a titanic struggle and an uphill struggle; doing wrong is a short step or a minor slip. The Chinese says, “Doing right requires ten years, doing bad requires just one minute.” The previous Chinese generation says, “Kids take three days to learn bad, three years to learn good.” Some have modified to say kids take three minutes or even there seconds to learn bad.

In truth, practice what you preach is easier said than done. The good you intend to do ends up not just merely bad, faulty or short, but evil (vv 19, 21) – sin’s Murphy’s Law equivalent: If anything can go wrong, it will. Not only wrong, but wicked and wasted.

For me, the solution to this issue lies in keeping my eyes focused on what I what I want my life to look like. Each morning when I arrive in the office, I look at my vision board: it reminds me of the different areas of my life and what I would like my life to look like if I were living to my fullest. There’s a heading “my best body” – showing healthy food, running, resting, stretching, and fitness! And I have been ignoring that section of the board since January!

Spiritually, there’s also a vision: plugged into the power of prayer! Paul says in Romans 7: 25 that the answer lies in that Christ can and does: Paul thanks God for being patient with him. As David says in Psalm 145, verse 8:

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This grace allows us to say:

“Thank you that even though I’m a mess, you still love me and you are still striving with me and you want to make me something more today that I was yesterday.”

We are loved by God and God is willing to take us just as we are! With Christ within us, God works from the inside out to transform us. We are forgiven from the inside out! If God has forgiven us, we can forgive ourselves.

Keep this small image in mind:

How did you learn to walk? Have you ever seen a little one learning to walk. They don’t get up and just start walking the first time they try. They crawl for awhile. They pull themselves up and take one step and fall back – up again and fall forward. Soon they are taking a couple of steps before they fall. And they walk, and they fall, and they pull themselves back up again, and they totter and they fall.

Life as a Christian, with each new step of the way, is a new learning. As you overcome one challenge, there will always be something new. Paul reminds us to “work through our salvation”, because it is a constant process of growth. We are free from the penalty of sin, but we need Christ in us to be free from the power of sin.

But we remember and we meditate on Psalm 145, verse 8:

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

And if Christ is in us, then each of us should be able to look in the mirror and say: “I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” Imagine a world in which that were the description of each of us!

Sermon: Giving Generously

Lectionary:

Mark 12: 38-44

LEARNING TO GIVE GENEROUSLY

President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

In the spiritual realm we might say to every Christian: “Ask not what God can give to you, but what you can give to God.”

I was recently rather taken aback with a University of Chicago study, which showed that secular children gave more generously than their religious counterparts (Nonreligious children are more generous), asking myself “what are we teaching our children in Church and at home?”.

The new research, done with children in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States), included 510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children. The study focused on one facet of moral behavior: altruism, or the willingness to give someone else a benefit that also comes with a personal cost.

The test revolved around that ubiquitous childhood currency, stickers. Children ages 5 to 12 met individually with adults who let them choose 10 of their favorite stickers. The children were then told that the adults didn’t have time to distribute the rest of their stickers to other kids in a fictive class. But each child was told they could put some of their 10 stickers in an envelope to be shared with other kids, who were described as being from the same school and ethnic group. The scientists used the number of stickers left in the envelope as a measure of altruism.

The children from nonreligious households left 4.1 stickers on average, a statistically significant difference from Christian children (3.3) and Muslim ones (3.2). Also, the more religious the household, based on a survey of parents, the less altruistic the child. In older children, the split was most stark, with religious youth increasingly unlikely to share.

The most stunning finding, for me, was that some of it was based on “who will know” – i.e. whether or not anyone would know which child gave how much.  The secular children were found to be more consistent in their acts – irrespective of whether someone would know or not that they were the one that gave – they would do good whether or not someone is watching.  As Christians, have we really taught our children to act and behave in a particular way because they think they are being watched, because they think they have to, because it makes them look good and others see them in a good light?

There’s a saying I saw on Facebook:  expectingsomething

If you’re helping someone and expecting something in return, you’re doing business, not kindness.

 

Our reading today from Mark shows a stark contrast between those who simply do good for the perceived benefit that they will receive and those who quietly go about doing good in the background.  Jesus was harsh against the scribes, as teachers of the religious law – because they should know better!

Jesus talks about the practices of the teachers of the law. These were the professional interpreters of the religious laws. They were responsible for copying, editing and studying the sacred texts and explaining them to the people. They were learned men, some of the few in society who could read and write. Having these skills gave them power over others.  They paraded about in flowing robes and were waiting to receive respectful greetings as they walked about.  They looked for the seats of honor and to be seated at the head tables in banquets.  They pretended to be pious by making long prayers in public, because they were paid  by the length of the prayers: they learned the art of making long prayers, because longer the prayer, the more money they received.

Jesus gives quite a damning indictment of the actions and words of the teachers of the law. In fact it’s probably one of the sternest remarks that Jesus ever gave. What would Jesus criticize of the pastors and teachers of today?  We may not wear long flowing robes, or prayer shawls, but I wonder if, in the church we are at times like the teachers, with a religion of show, a religion is is about the outward appearance and not living out the faith in daily life.

And yet, all the while, a poor widow caught Jesus’ eye, for her two pennies – giving everything she had to live on, and putting her trust and faith completely in God to supply her needs.   Keep in mind, that the word poor used in Jesus’ time meant pauper, destitute, in deep poverty.  No doubt her poor dress and appearance showed her desperate plight.  What she gave was a real sacrifice! What the others gave was not a sacrifice! It did not cost them nor hurt them – they gave only what they could spare!

How many times are we giving God the crumbs of the leftovers?  How many times do you find yourself talking from a place of scarcity?  I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money, there aren’t enough hours in the day, I’m out of energy, I’m too tired? What about your important relationships? Are they getting the best of you, or just the rest of you?  I would really like to, but I just can’t fit it in…

The law of the harvest, the law of sowing and reaping is seen in our giving and in our failure to give. Where are you sowing your time and energy?  If  Jesus spent a day watching you, what would he say about how you are spending your time, your talents and your material wealth?

2 Corinthians 9, verses 10-11 reminds us:

For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you. Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous…

Giving is an evidence of God’s providence – We are able to give because we believe that God provides.

Before this, 2 Corinthians 9, verses 6 to 8 stated:

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.

Our generosity is measured not by what others give but what you are capable and willing to give. So if you want to know if you are generous, then evaluate your capability and willingness to give. And this doesn’t just apply to your money – it applies to your time and your talents, to how you are investing every asset (material or otherwise) in your life.

This passage teaches us how much God really wants from us. This goes beyond money. The main example in this passage is money, but it extends into all aspects of our life. This relates to time, abilities, responsibilities, and money.

John Wimber says:

Show me where you spend your time, money and energy, and I’ll tell you what you worship.

If someone wrote your biography on the basis of your checkbook and your appointment diary, what might it say about you, your loyalties, your focus, and about whom you serve?

This morning I pray that when Jesus looks at us as we give – not just this morning but always – I pray that he will find cheerful, extravagant givers, who have discovered that God is able to make all grace abound to us, so that in all things at all times, we will have all that we need, abounding in every good work. Abounding in time, abounding in energy, abounding in patience and grace, abounding in love, and abounding in generosity.

Sermon: United in Heart & Mind

This morning’s reading from the book of Acts described a very simple, and yet Oh so difficult, aspect of early Christian life that we’ve lost:

All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. (Acts 4:32)

This morning’s Psalm is equally clear:

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133)

We are a community rooted in relationship. One big happy family, right?

“To dwell above with saints we love, oh that will be glory!

To dwell below with saints we know…well… that’s a different story.”

Jesus modelled community with His disciples: they lived out their faith in connection with one another. They shared a common purpose, united around their Teacher. The disciples didn’t always get along. There was some bickering and competitiveness. Jesus had to remind them that they were brothers, not rivals. Together they transformed the world. If it is not visible that we care about one another, it is doubtful whether we love one another.

The earliest Christians had a major challenge, to break down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, and to welcome men and women alike. Paul describes this obstacle as a wall that needs to come down. To do so meant stepping out of one’s comfort zone. When we become members of God’s family, we tend to look for a church filled with people like us.

The Protestant Reformation emphasized the priesthood of all believers. Pastors provide spiritual leadership, but we are all priests, with access to God, called to ministry, and set apart for service. What the church offers is unique—the unity of the Spirit.

“The church is not an organization but an organism; it’s … a body, not a business.”  (James Montgomery Boice)

How easy is it really to live in unity?  How many of you here have brothers or sisters or both? Did loving your brothers & sisters mean that you always lived in unity and harmony?  Did you have the rule that I can hit my brother/sister, but no one from the outside can?  Or how many of you are married?  Do you ever disagree as a couple?

So, if you can’t do it with one other person or a small group of family members, how are we supposed to do this as a growing church body?

While we trust Christ to give us strength to live spirit-filled lives, this doesn’t stop us from being human.  Our personalities do not change. If we were quiet, analytical, unemotional before becoming a Christian, we’re not going to suddenly become touchy-feely extroverts. We are who we are. Our Creator God made each and every one of us, and God appreciates the diversity within His family. We may not think alike, but we should work together. We need to unconditionally accept one another and treat each other with dignity and respect. The fact that we are all unique is an advantage.

For many of us, we are waiting for the Spirit to fill us with that love that we are supposed to have for others… how long are we supposed to wait? and what are we supposed to do until it arrives?

How are you supposed to love your neighbour when they are SO difficult?  What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit of God and have Jesus’ love flow through us?

How many of you can relate with the following description of the Christian life?

  • Do you think we act as though God only works today in the ways we personally have experienced God in our past and therefore we limit what God wants to do through us right now?
  • Well, yes, we believe in our heads that God does wonderful things because we’ve read it in the Bible, or we’ve heard of His Spirit working in other people’s lives and places around the world, but … if you haven’t experienced it, can you believe in your heart that it will happen here at our church or with us?
  • If we haven’t experienced a miraculous healing, we don’t expect much of God now even though we pray for it.
  • If we haven’t seen God change or transform people in a long time, we just assume people will continue to trickle in to the church if at all and maybe find faith.
  • If our experience of church in the past is not even close to the love and fellowship the first Christians experienced, we think all churches are this way.

Or perhaps we don’t want it to be that way because we are afraid it might require us to change our ways or priorities.

 

No where in the Bible will you find “love your neighbour, if they deserve it”, or “pray for those who persecute you, so that they all shrivel up and die”.  I can remember a time when I used to pray “give them 10 times whatever they give me”… unfortunately, that prayer wasn’t Biblical.   We are told in the Bible, simply, to love others.  Irrespective of what they have said, what they have done, whether or not they deserve it!

God says to love your enemies and do good to them that hurt you and pray for those people that spitefully use you. We ought to love everybody- whether they are in God’s family or not. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, where they’ve been or what they’ve done in the past or what color they are.

It seems like it’s the nature of human beings to be self-centered. We like to have things our way, and when they don’t go our way we get upset. We like to have our opinion and share it, and when people disagree with us we like to argue.

Imagine getting all the Christians of Panama City (or just the Balboa, Albrook & Clayton area) together for worship, eating together, day after day after day. Sounds great doesn’t it, well maybe for about the first day or two, until people start complaining; why do all the Catholics want to keep sitting, standing, and kneeling all the time? Could someone tone the Pentecostals down? they’re so excited they’ve been singing for the last hour straight, and that babble of them speaking in tongues is just too much! Would the Baptists PLEASE quit talking about getting everyone saved? and then there are others complaining about the members of Balboa Union Church because they suggested setting up a committee to look into the complaints and report back in a month…

Being of one heart and mind is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit unites us, and draws us closer together. The Spirit is not divided. He leads us in the same direction.  When people are filled with God’s Spirit, God does a work in our heart where our self-centeredness and pride is replaced with love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our focus is shifted away from ourselves, and onto God and what his Spirit is leading us to do.

 

Recently I missed giving Sunday school because I was spending the weekend as staff at a coaching seminar.  I’ve done this seminar before, and it blew my mind in the way it challenged me to view all of my relationships and reactions. It called into question how I viewed love and relationships.

Don’t get me wrong – I did this coaching a year ago, and I still struggle every single day to apply what I learned in the “real world” of relationships… but it changed my view of each relationship I have… whether marriage, parent, child, friend, co-worker or any other.

How many of you think that marriage is 50/50? What if I told you that the secret to a happy marriage is 100/0?  100% on your part, and expecting absolutely nothing in return?  I’ll be honest with you – I’m having a REALLY hard time getting my head around this one?

What do you mean I can’t expect ANYTHING in return from my husband? It doesn’t matter how he acts… it doesn’t matter what he says… it doesn’t matter if he gets upset…  But if I fail to communicate, if I fail to listen, if I fail to be affectionate, if I fail to show him love… it’s 100% on me.

This is Christian love – and that’s why it’s so hard!  It’s about giving 100% without expecting anything in return… Irrespective of how you feel… Irrespective of what your day in the office was like… irrespective of that car that cut you off… irrespective of the business deal that didn’t work out the way you wanted it…

Unity in the Church is about each and every one of us putting aside our egos, our ideas, our self-centeredness, our need to feel praised and valued, our need to hear what a great job I’m doing, our need to receive the praise and recognition… and work together in harmony & unity.

Unity is about stop waiting to “feel” the love and choose to “BE” the love you are expecting to see in the Church!  When we decide to make it happen, then it will happen!

A virtuous woman

The Virtuous Woman

Lectionary Readings:

  1. Proverbs 31: 10-31

We’ve all heard: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”, usually used in reference to mothers.  But we all know that this same woman has a powerful, persuasive influence on her life partner, on her sisters and cousins, her neighbours and friends.

You may have also heard:

“Behind every successful man stands a proud, although sometimes quite surprised, woman”.

Today I want to talk to you about that woman who is not surprised by the success of those she loves and supports.  She’s not even surprised by her own success and achievements, because she’s planned, executed, cried, suffered sweat and tears, and when things go right for her, she says a little prayer to thank her Creator God for the helping hand.

A couple of years ago, as a member of a professional women’s club, I was asked “who was my role model?”

My answer then, as it still would be today, is the Proverbs 31 “super-woman”.

This super-woman is one of the reasons that I am a member of Balboa Union Church:  I recall mentioning, many years ago, that I my goal was to become “The Virtuous Woman” of Proverbs 31, to which I received the reply that this reference in the Bible was not to be read literally, but figuratively – it didn’t really refer to women, it referred to the Church as the Bride of Christ.

That comment taught me an important lesson – don’t be quick to jump up and point out to someone else which Scriptures they should read literally or figuratively.  Who am I to decide what others should read literally versus figuratively in the Bible?  Did I get that special Bible where the footnotes clearly state what God intended to be literal and what was supposed to only be read figuratively?  I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be read as a model for the Church – of course it should – but I also think it has many lessons to teach us about how to love and respect the women around us.

I accept that many women today, in and out of Churches, are taught that their only true role and fulfilment will come from being a wife and mother.  While others are taught that their happiness will only come from their career and personal success.  We have so many “issues” when it comes to self-fulfilment.

How come men don’t have these issues?  Have you ever heard a man wondering whether he should focus on his life as husband and father or on his career?  Should he give more time to the Church or his charity or will that interfere with his relationship with his kids?

I wonder, does this go hand-in-hand with the prayer in Old Testament times?

“I thank you God that I am not a slave, a gentile or a woman.”

I’d like to save, for another day, any reference to Paul’s teachings on the role of women, and focus our attention this morning on the beautiful and poetic passage in Proverbs 31.  But I will clarify that when we look at Paul’s letters (all his letters, not just one passage or one verse standing alone), we get a much different picture of the Godly women than that provided in traditional Christian teaching.  But that’s another discussion for another day.

Proverbs 31 introduces us to a woman that is fit to be a queen.  Even if she had the bad fortune, like Kate, to be caught sunbathing topless, in the company of her husband, in a private home in France, with her photos spread over the front of the French press, she would still be able to hold her head high and rise above it.  Her character cannot be called into question.

The introduction to Proverbs 31 tells us that these are the words that King Lemuel’s mother taught him, when she cautions him:

“Give not your strength to women; or your ways to those who destroy kings.”

And yet, in verses 10 to 31 of Proverbs 31, his mother literally gives him the A to Z (of the Hebrew alphabet) of what to look for in his queen.

10. A virtuous woman, who can find? For her price is far above rubies.

The entire book of Proverbs is about wisdom and wise living.  And throughout it, wisdom is referred to as “she”.  In Proverbs 3 we read:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding; For the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour.

And She was with God from the beginning:

The Lord by Wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; by His knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.[1]

I would venture as far as saying that the Proverbs 31 woman is the one that has all of the words of Proverbs chapters 1 to 30 engraved on her heart and lives them out each day.  She can be contrasted with those women mentioned in:

Proverbs 21:9 & 19

Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.

And Proverbs 11:22

As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman without discretion.

Proverbs is full of warnings about those with a loose tongue, who don’t know how to hold their temper and the dangers of speaking more than you listen.

The Proverbs 31 lady is gracious, retaining honour for herself and her family.[2]  She builds her home; her wise words are a tree of life.

So, who is the Proverbs 31 woman?

  • She is an elegant and wise woman;
  • She’s a wife;
  • She’s a mother;
  • She’s a home-maker;
  • She’s a business owner and investor;
  • She’s a volunteer, helping the poor, sick and needy; and
  • She’s a woman of God.

I want us to look at each one of these facets of the Virtuous Woman, starting with:

What does it mean to be “virtuous”, elegant & wise?

The definitions provided go a little like this:

  • Characterised by or possessing virtue or moral excellence;
  • Admirable, exemplary, praise-worthy, honest;
  • a person of strength of character

Apparently, even in the era in which King Lemuel lived, this was rare!

Of course, Proverbs 20, verse 6 reminds us:

Most men will proclaim to others their own kindness: but a faithful man, who can find?

So, for every virtuous woman that is hard to find, it’s equally hard to find a man that is faithful, honourable, loyal and true.  That man that is described throughout Proverbs is just as rare a gem as she is.

Proverbs 31: 22 tells us that she is dressed in fine linen and purple.  Linen in those times came from Egypt and the most valuable of all, purple garments, were brought from Tyre and Sidon – today she would be wearing Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Prada, Christian Dior, Givenchy.

But, perhaps more importantly, she is clothed in strength and dignity; with preparation and providence, so that she can laugh at the days to come.[3]  She is not concerned with what the future holds, as she knows that she has prepared for this.

This is the woman that you can count on as a friend for advice: she not only has the experience and discretion to not gossip, but more than anything she is judicious and knowledgeable.

She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.[4]

Even when she is giving instructions, she is kind.

The virtuous woman: as a wife

Verse 11 tells us that her husband’s heart trusts in her, and she greatly enriches his life.  She intentionally goes out of her way to do him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

  • Not just the days that she feels like it.
  • Not just those days when he’s sweet and attentive.
  • Not just the days when she had a good day in the office and the kids are behaving themselves.

Every day she makes an effort to make his life better.

Because of her, rather than in spite of her, her husband is respected as an elder of the city, a man who plays an important role in the planning and decision making in the community in which they live.  This man has been able to entrust to her the management of the home.  He is confident that she has his back.

She has given her husband reason to praise her, saying:

Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.

This woman is not surprised by her husband’s success – when things go well for him, she knows that he deserves it and that she has stood there with him all the way.

The virtuous woman: as a mother

Her family has the choicest goods that they can afford, because she is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.  Many woman think that it’s impossible to live up to the standard set by Proverbs 31, without even realising – they are already doing it.

How often, ladies, do you find yourself going to more than one shop, just to pick up that special bottle or brand of food that you can’t get where you ordinarily shop?  Yes, I can buy 90% of what I need at Riba Smith, but there are things in Organica or Deli Gourmet that are part of the stock of my pantry – those special items that my husband loves to find for a mid-night snack. The corvina from the fish market to make ceviche, even if it means a special trip just for that.  As mother’s, you are all making those extra sacrifices to get the best things for your children or grandchildren.

The virtuous woman: as a home-maker

This woman is disciplined and organised: when she has to, she gets up while it’s still dark to make sure she has enough time to plan the day, providing food for her family and organising the chores.  She is energetic when it comes to things that need to be done:  she sets about it vigorously, with strength for the task at hand.  We are also told that she watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

You may say – I don’t have maids and a “household” to watch over – but I am sure that all women (and possibly most men) can relate to the saying: “A man may work from dawn to dusk, but a woman’s work is never done”.  There is a huge difference between resting or taking a break and being idle.  Idleness refers to avoiding work, being lazy, moving without purpose.

Proverbs 18: 9 says that Idleness is akin to extravagance and wastefulness:

He that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.

and Proverbs 19:15 warns that slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.  And so, the virtuous woman is always making sure that her house is always getting proper maintenance, so that she is not wasting resources, having to throw something away for lack of proper care.

In fact, if they fall on hard times, she’s not concerned, because she has planned for this.  Proverbs 31: 21 tells us:

When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

They are not just clothed for the weather, but they are richly clothed.

The virtuous woman: career woman, business owner, investor and financial wizard

How many of us can really say that we work joyfully?  Proverbs 31: 13 tells us that she works with “eager hands”, having selected the finest wool and flax to work with.

This woman leads by example – whether it be weaving, working at a check-out counter, being a teacher, or working in an office at a computer –this woman brings all of her energy to her work and even if she’s not a leader in a managerial sense, she is a leader by the example she sets to other in her work ethic and the effort she makes to fulfil the tasks at hand.

This woman is industrious: she makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.  When we look at the economy that they lived in, the merchants referred to the exporters – she was supplying Colon Free Trade Zone with merchandise for export.  We can only imagine the quality of the workmanship to be acceptable for export.

Proverbs 31 also tells us that this wonder-woman is enterprising and prudent with money: she considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.  Perhaps you’re thinking she should have asked her husband before she spent the money – but let me refer you back to verse 11:

Her husband’s heart trusts in her and he lacks nothing of value.

As women of virtue, we need to know how to save and set money aside for special projects: whether that be the fund for family Christmas presents each year, the money set aside for that special surprise for a child’s graduation, or that special get-away as a couple.  It’s not frivolous spending on the credit-card, or any cause for concern by her spouse or children – the virtuous woman has learned to do wonders with the purse-strings, making sure that she even has enough for those special projects and future plans.

This woman is a good steward, she makes sure that her trading and activity is profitable, even if it means that her lamp doesn’t go out at night.  This verse 18 reminds me of two people:

1-     My mum – who I would often find up at 3.00 a.m., working on a patchwork quilt or some other project that she had underway, because even if she didn’t have enough money to go out and buy gifts, she could always make them;  and

2-    A lawyer friend – who often is awake at 2.00 a.m., answering emails to clients, because she, like me, has her own firm and it’s up to her to make sure that things get done.

There are many women in this modern world that are doing “their stuff” at 2.00 a.m., so that during the day they have time to dedicate to their children or their family’s needs.  These are the modern-day superwomen of Proverbs 31!

The virtuous woman: helping the needy

Somehow, she still finds the time, in the midst of all of this, to open her arms to the poor and extend her hands to the needy.  The surplus, the planning, and profit, while they may go first to her make sure her family and household was well looked after, there was enough to share with those in need.  And she is welcoming and gracious to the needy.  Not seeing this as a burden.

The virtuous woman: woman of God

Proverbs 31 ends by reminding us:

Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

It would not be possible to do and be all these things, unless this woman of strength had inner peace and Spirit to guide her.  How else do you find the strength to face the challenges of each day and to speak words of wisdom with kindness?

Of course, we all realise, by the time we get to the end of Proverbs 31 that her children have already grown up and had children of their own:  they’re back to the stage where “Mum knows everything”.  Obviously, if they call her “blessed” they are no longer teenagers or in their early twenties! Yes, this is the woman that we aspire to be, but we are all diamonds in the rough – and the years are the polishers that God uses to cut away the rough edges to make us shine brilliantly.

I invite you all to look around and congratulate the virtuous women of this congregation: the little ones, with all their lives ahead of them; the teenagers – with their struggles of fitting in; the single ones and married ones; the mothers and mothers-in-waiting; and, most importantly, the grand-mothers.  Every one of the women here today fulfils at least one of the verses that I have spoken of, even if she finds the group of them together, the balance to be given between the different hats that she wears every day, sometimes overwhelming.  Each of these women is working, one day at a time, towards that goal of being the noblest of them all.


[1] Proverbs 3 19-20.

[2] Proverbs 11:16

[3] Proverbs 31: 25

[4] Proverbs 31:26