We move into the new millennium just as we make any quantum step into the unknown, secure in our knowledge of God’s abiding and encompassing presence. In the midst of the unanswered questions and uncertainties our spirits thrill to hear God’s words, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-13) This is the message we carry with us, the torch we hold aloft, as we step from one century to the next.
Scripture witnesses to the lives of others who have heard these same words, this same promise. In Psalm 40 we find David trapped in a “horrible pit”. Far from bemoaning his fate, the Psalmist waits patiently for God, and ultimately is restored to solid ground. David worships and witnesses to the mercy of God and the blessedness of those who believe as the result of this experience. This Psalm could summarize our total understanding and experience of God. All our creeds and liturgies echo the testimony, if not the words, written so long ago. God’s plan for us, declares the Psalmist, involves true worship, which goes beyond words and thoughts; beyond offerings and sacrifices. It involves the offering of ourselves and our lives, our pledging obedience to God. So that we may never assume we have been left without the sense of Divine direction, David asserts it is already written that we shall obey God’s will. Those same words are whispered in our ears and written on our hearts and minds so that we may be glad to serve God’s purposes. In Jesus we find the perfect example of one who knew and loved to do God’s will. Our dedication to God and to the plan approved by God for our lives are inseparable.
In Jeremiah we read part of a letter to the Jewish captives in Babylon which contains God’s assurance to the captives that they have not been rejected. Instead they discover that God has plans for them, which contain naught but good for the future of these people. If they will but reject the self-centered lives they have known and return to God as penitents they have the surety that God will answer their prayers. For people exiled far from their homes it was this belief, this hope of God’s ultimate plan, which became the buoy which held them above the murky waters of self-pity and despair. Even today the message of the prophets of old speaks to us of God’s prerequisites so that our ears and eyes may understand this hope, and we too will succeed in the face of desperate odds.
To become aware of God’s plan we must understand a little of the nature of God. In God we recognize a source of perfection and beauty that cannot tolerate selfishness and lovelessness. Indeed, it was in Christ’s incarnation that we see just how far God is prepared to go to demonstrate love and forgiveness to humanity. The first lesson God has for each of us is that of love. God seeks to open our ears, eyes, hearts and minds to the sure knowledge that we are lovable and are loved. As we grasp this truth we are freed of the ghosts and demons which have haunted our lives. Depression, repression, self-criticism, self-hate and self-degradation, together with their visible outcomes such as suicide, self-mutilation, drug addiction, alcoholism and promiscuity, lose their grip on our lives. Our fears and anxieties, insecurities and pain, we surrender willingly into God’s hands.
The self-love that God encourages us to embrace has no truck with narcissism. Such people are never satisfied unless the applause of others is constantly ringing in their ears. Their egocentric energy creates daydreams of self-glorification, while losing touch with external circumstances and pursuits. Inferiority complexes owe their beginnings to the verbalized judgements of others. From those whom we regard as figures of authority we accept negative images of ourselves. Our sense of unworthiness pervades our every thought and every action. It is to those who believe themselves to be unworthy that God speaks, calling them “Beloved.”
When we dare to accept God’s word, and tentatively see ourselves as acceptable in God’s sight, we are able to face those areas in our lives which have been discoloured by guilt, shame, hatred or depression and realize that the sinless and perfect God sees beyond these stains and to the real person we have always been. The burden of worthlessness, which we have carried so long, is carefully lifted from our shoulders, and we are able to breathe in the love with which God surrounds us. The fears and terrors which had been our constant companions disappear, and are replaced by peace of mind, a peace which pervades our whole selves.
Learning that we are lovable frees us from judgements we have previously made about others, and we are enabled to love our neighbours. Jesus asked that we love our neighbours as we love ourselves, yet while we were unable to love ourselves, we were unable to love our neighbours. It is from the perfect and loving God we experience mercy rather than judgement and punishment. Just as God is able to forgive our transgression of divine law, we are expected to forgive our neighbour’s transgressions, extending mercy rather than condemnation and punishment. Offering forgiveness and mercy frees us from past ties with those who may have caused us pain. Whether they acknowledge or accept this forgiveness and mercy is not our concern. We have opened a way, as surely as the way was opened for the fleeing Israelites to flee Pharaoh’s approaching army. It is for others to decide if they will set their feet on this way, and journey toward reconciliation and peace. The splinter in our neighbour’s eye is insignificant in comparison with the plank God has just removed from our own eyes.
To love one’s neighbour as oneself is the most positive defense against prejudice, judgement and hatred. If as individuals and as nations we practiced this commandment on every level of our interaction with one another there would be no wars. In fact there would be no discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, disability, sexuality or education. A proper living wage would be available to all, and all would find work suitable to their own abilities and limitations which would benefit others. Homelessness, hunger, poverty and disease would belong to the past and have no place in the present. The environment would be protected, threatened species would again flourish and the earth’s resources would be shared – that is, if we loved our neighbour as ourselves.
As human beings we all need love – that ability to relate to some special person or group – a relationship which brings in its wake a sense that we are of value to others. Genesis speaks out God’s realization that humanity could not exist or develop as individual units. We are social creatures, created to interact with some form of society, just as we are created for a life of communion with our Creator. Our personalities, emotions and social values all develop within our interaction with each other. Starved of contact with others, we shrivel and die emotionally and socially. From our earliest days we ingested not only food but also attitudes, ideals, values and speech patterns, all learned by imitating those around us. Because we are basically more inclined toward comfort than discomfort, we select to retain and use those gestures, words and attitudes which provide pleasurable feedback. In our relationships with each other and with God we develop appropriate and acceptable behaviour and responses.
Being God’s Beloved also frees us of the restrictions of conformity. No longer are we in fear of what pressures may be applied as we choose to follow God’s plan rather than accept the limitations and expectations of the society to which we belong. Time, space and God’s love have no beginning and no end, so why would we choose to be restricted within the limits determined by finite humanity? This is not meant to encourage anarchy, but to demonstrate that as God’s beloved, we are in a position to see beyond the gaze of a society which has its own interests foremost. This is but a small part of God’s plan for us, that we do see with unlimited vision, and respond with limitless love to the needs of all of our neighbours.
The concept of a plan suggests a carefully detailed scheme or method for achieving an end result. So far we have only discussed God’s desire to plant within us seeds of self-love and love for our neighbours. This hardly demonstrates either God’s intention for us, or detailed and planned undertaking. And yet, without love we are unable to walk even one step on the path God would lay out before our eyes. For love lifts our burdens, removes the scales from our eyes and unblocks our ears. Without love we can claim no connectedness with our merciful and gracious God. Love allows us to maintain within our lives the transparency of Christ. There are no side-ways glances, nor hidden agendas, for love speaks forth in truth. Truth can be a most uncomfortable bed-fellow for those who harbour resentment, jealousy, envy or self-centeredness. During his earthly life Jesus spoke the truth, and like his cousin John before him, the truth cost his life. Regardless of the individual cost we may be asked to bear, love demands that our word cannot be shaken, nor our opinion bought, for our allegiance is to the God who created us. When we speak, the light of the living Christ must shine through our words and our personalities. Outraged Justice cries to us every moment of our lives to address the inequities in our society, and as the Beloved of God we must answer those cries.
Perhaps we have forgotten that heroes are but ordinary people who have stood their ground and responded in crisis situations with extraordinary courage and love. The miner who pulls his mate out of the way of a tunnel cave-in, the rescue worker who drags accident victims from burning vehicles, and the lifesavers who risk their own lives to rescue inexperienced body surfers all deserve their reward. We may not be called on to emulate Father Damien and his work among the lepers, Mother Teresa working with the sick, homeless and outcast in India, Joan of Arc martyred for refusing to deny the heavenly voices which guided her, or resistance fighters during the wars this generation has witnessed. Instead we may be among those whose love tempers their patience when dealing with difficult customers or demanding patients, with restoring dignity to those who have been neglected or abused, or with performing the myriad of tasks daily living involves. Who can measure the difference made by a dedicated teacher in the lives of children with learning difficulties? Who can gauge the impact of a wildlife caregiver whose days revolve around the nurture of distressed and injured animals? And who can determine the effect a loving home environment may have on the lives of those who pass through its doors? No, not all true heroes are acclaimed, but their impact or influence is imprinted on the lives of all they have served lovingly. It is enough that we recognize in God’s plan for us the command to serve our neighbour with selfless love.
One indicator of the development of our maturity is our urge to give to others – a marked contrast to the selfishness of youth and of arrested development. We realize that no person is truly free until all people – regardless of geography, age and economic factors – are free. Jesus who claimed to be the Truth, promised that we will be set free by his truth. Though at times we may ask the question posed by Pilate, “What is truth?” we will never need to have freedom defined.
Freedom for some is experienced in hours of leisure, for some it involves the right to make one’s own decisions, and to take the responsibility for those decisions. Others find freedom as they escape from abusive, demeaning or violent situations. Those who have found their debts met by another’s generosity have known another type of freedom – freedom from debt and from worry. For those who have been imprisoned in a physical institution, or by addictive habits or by the effects of sin, freedom is experienced as the total release from all which has held them in thrall. Paul and Silas experienced freedom when their chains were shaken apart and the prison doors opened during an earthquake, yet Paul constantly referred to himself as being in chains while preaching a Gospel which could never be contained by chains. He considered himself to be subject to Christ, almost suggesting the practice of piercing the ears of slaves – a custom referred to in Psalm 40 and which was still practiced during the Roman Empire.
Part of God’s plan for us is that we walk freely – free of sin and guilt, freed of the nightmares of our past, and freed of all influences which could impact on our ability to experience ourselves as Beloved of God. Walking freely, we are released from fear, the pernicious cancer which saps our energy and destroys our dreams – despoiling them with fiendish vampires of self-doubt. Reasoned fear protects us from fearful and hostile forces which we need to avoid or conquer during our lives. Rational fear sets our alarm bells chiming when sterile procedures are to be followed, when nuclear material could cause life-threatening contamination or when natural disasters occur. It is unreasoned, irrational or neurotic fear that cripples us. Sometimes people in authority attempt to control their work-force or their families by deliberately contrived fear-inspiring suggestions. In our society, the transparency God’s Beloved should exhibit can cause those who are hiding behind masks of convention or convenience to experience real fear or terror. Those proclaiming unconditional and unqualified love are perceived as a threat by people who peddle fear.
Psychosomatic medicine has uncovered the extent to which dis-ease in our bodies is directly related to the fears we experience. From our childhood we often bring memories of failures and mistakes, which we should have outgrown, but which cripple our present potential as we replay them repeatedly. In God’s plan we find there are oases of healing where painful and bitter memories may be washed from our minds, to allow healing to take place. Our churches have much pain and dis-ease to answer for, because in previous generations the fear of God’s retribution was used to determine moral and theological boundaries. Yet, despite pronouncements such as these, within our lives hope continued to grow and blossom. For hope may sometimes provide the strength which allows us to move forward when all around the darkness of despair surrounds us. Hope is part of God’s plan for all humanity – the flickering light which continues to illuminate Christ’s hand lovingly outstretched toward us.
Even Job, with misfortune on every side, would not let go of hope, and he affirmed his confidence in God thus: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” It is often good to remember how in the tale of Pandora when all the ills that beset humanity had escaped, naught but hope remained in the chest. Hope is our anchor with its roots as securely fixed as were the horns on the altar. We may join Paul as he speaks of hope in words which reflect the dynamic potency the Gospel presents: “Truly, if our hope in Christ were limited to this life only we should, of all people, be the most to be pitied! But the glorious fact is that Christ did rise from the dead.” Hope indeed! It is on our belief in the resurrection of Christ that our whole faith is built, and we greet each day knowing we are God’s Beloved. The Christian hope responds to God’s summons to us, to God’s plan for us and in our belief that we are co-creators of God’s dominion here on earth, a dominion of peace, harmony and love.
The text – “I know the plans I have for you,” which provided the start for this journey of exploration – has led us to examine the effects of God’s plan in our lives. Love, truth, forgiveness and hope all are a part of this plan, yet God’s plan involves far more than these gifts. As God’s prime desire is that we are holy, God has for each of us those resources which will enable us, as holy people, to perform the tasks which lie ahead. These gifts are detailed in a variety of New Testament readings. Mentioned in Romans 5 are steadfastness, approvedness, hope and unashamedness. In 1 Timothy 6 we find listed righteousness, godliness, faithfulness, love, patience and meekness. 2 Timothy 3 speaks of teaching, conduct, faith, long-suffering, love, patience, persecutions and sufferings. 2 Peter 1 promises faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, patience, godliness, brotherly-kindness and love. Our final reference is Galatians 5 which speaks of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.
Love in our lives is marked by the following Christ-like qualities: concern for the poor, integrity in personal and business transactions, upholding the sanctity of God’s name, prompt and full payment of wages for those we employ, and of our own debts, responsibility of care for those who are less privileged, respect for the equality of all people, integrity in our speech, open communication and willingness to bless. These qualities are all detailed in Leviticus 19: 9 – 18, proof enough of an unchangeable God who wills that we are loving in all our thoughts and actions. Though we have spent time examining many facets of love, perhaps we could take a moment to examine three of the above. Integrity in our speech demands that we do not carry tales about others, tales which can ruin reputations or cause bloodshed – (character assassination or gossip). Open communication requires we discuss interpersonal problems, even if ultimately we agree to disagree with one other, rather than having misunderstandings or differences building walls of resentment between each other. Willingness to bless invites us to witness that Christ and our neighbour are central in our lives, rather than ourselves. Christian living is marked by many acts of kindness.
Joy which finds its roots in God does not depend on external circumstances, for these are constantly in a state of flux, whereas we are the Beloved of a constant God. Joy often co-exists with sorrow. In times of deep and joyous communion we remain aware of the plight of other people, other nations, even sometimes of the Church. Amazement and joy mark our response to the news that our sins have been forgiven and that we indeed are free, yet oft-times that joy seems to disappear from our lives.
Peace, the Shalom of the Jewish nation in Scripture, can be found to have a meaning which also includes salvation or reconciliation to God and heaven. In the midst of times of trouble, grief and pain, and when the only certainty in life is that God does love us, it is this deep inward peace which brings us through all of life’s circumstances to claim the victor’s crown. Peace is not a gift given once and for always, instead as a buried treasure it must be sought and claimed, or like a flickering light it will vanish. Peace allows us freedom from anxiety or worry, and freedom from contention. No longer are we involved in disputes with others. With peace in our hearts there is no room for jealousy or envy, which causes festering spiritual sores which drain our energy. Pride and self-ambition, together with the disregard which they often display toward others, have no room when peace is present.
Patience replaces irritability, annoyance, discontentment or dissatisfaction. Patience is a learned gift that must be practiced in each circumstance. Often we dispute God’s timing or God’s appreciation of what we consider urgent, yet we do so without having the mind and wisdom of God. We need to learn patience during those times of testing in our lives. We also need to practice patience when dealing with others.
Kindness and Goodness – in many ways these gifts seem to be the one, for the kindness of Christ is inexorably linked with the goodness of Christ. In like manner Meekness and Gentleness are joined hand to hand. Self-control, I believe, finds its roots in Faithfulness, for those who remain faithful to God and to the tasks to which they have been appointed will invariably acquire self-control during their journey.
Together and individually the Gifts of the Spirit promise a bounty beyond human expectations and hopes. Here we have God reaching into our individual lives and offering those gifts which will assist us most in our lives as servants of the Living Christ. Beyond these gifts we are also invited to participate in the blessings which arise from the shared Eucharist. Nowadays there is a realization that not all can attend worship services, and so each week we have on Australian TV a priest who co-celebrates the mass with those folk who have tuned into this particular program. We need to realize that even should we be alone, breaking the bread and offering thanks over the wine, we are part of a community of Christians spread across the globe, who have been celebrating communion for close on two thousand years. The same blessings we would expect to receive as a communicant in a cathedral seating hundreds are ours to be claimed as we take of the bread and the wine, consecrated to God’s purposes.
“I have a plan for you.” God’s voice rings anew in our ears. The God who knew us from our formation in our mothers, wombs waits for us to take time to hear of this marvelous plan for our lives. Even if it is in the final years of our life we actually pause and listen to what God has for us, the plan will not fail. Of course it would have been better if we had paused in our twenties, or even our thirties, so that together we could have watched miracles happen in the lives of others and in the healing of this planet. But God does understand and accept that we may become tardy in our response. And even tardiness that lasts a lifetime does not cause God’s love for us to diminish or cease. Just as we are unique individuals with unique fingerprints, so the work God has for us is unique. No one else can take our place. No one else has the unique characteristics which are needed in the plan God has for our lives.
According to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 God’s plan for each of us is that we be holy. How do we achieve God’s first desire – that we be holy? Just what does it mean to be holy? To be holy means to put the things (and wishes) of God foremost in our lives. We become consecrated people, those set apart for God’s service, in the same manner that Hannah brought the child Samuel to the High Priest and dedicated his life to Yahweh’s service. Placed in the clear and discerning light of God’s purity our hidden sins are revealed. Those desires we would not voice in God’s presence are uncovered, acquisitions of stationery from our places of work, perhaps a petrol allowance for travel which is not work-related strictly, our lustful fantasies or the white lies we have told are all exposed as unworthy for those who serve God. Holy people do not remove themselves from the hurly-burly encountered in every-day living; indeed Jesus said that we are to be in the world, but not totally absorbed by the things of the world. Instead, holy people are those who bring love, healing, forgiveness and peace into whatever situation God has them serving. Holy people know that after this life we will be in total communion with God every second of eternity. Holy people lift those who have fallen in conflict and carry them to places of safety. They are those people who spend themselves and their resources bringing healing and hope to others who are desolate. They are those who follow God’s plan to bring love in its myriad of manifestations to the world.
This article is based on the following passages: Psalm 40: 5-7; Isaiah 64: 4; Jeremiah 29: 11-13; 1 Thessalonians 4: 7; 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8, 13; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25; 1 Corinthians 12: 7-11.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.