In this weekly column, local pastors have been asked to write about how the church should address poverty in our community and worldwide. You can learn more about poverty in Hall County at gainesvilletimes.com/poverty.
Recently, I have been working on a sermon for a special service at which a great friend will be installed as the rector of St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church in Marietta.
The texts for that service come from the Book of Deuteronomy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” (Deuteronomy. 15:7).
It is a remarkably challenging text for me, because I continue to struggle with God’s call to give. In my own life, I recognize the Gospel’s call to give to those in need, to welcome the stranger, to care for the poor and the sick, but I immediately put an asterisk there to place my own guidelines on God’s command. I am the one who seems to come up with the loop holes for compassion, qualifiers that make me more comfortable.
I see us doing this in our nation all the time as well — saying we uphold Christian values while simultaneously raising qualifiers that lessen the demand of Christ’s call on our lives.
Such an effort to self-soothe is nothing new for a community; this pressure toward a self-focused posture is the reason why the prophets and Jesus continue to call our attention to compassion over and over in the texts. We want to take the edge off while Jesus keeps coming at us!
I have been thinking about this tension a great deal lately: the tension between the call to open our hands and the impulse to grasp for control.
I would dare say that this tension lies at the heart of our spiritual practice. There is within us a deep yearning to release and relax into God’s presence, and there is something akin to a gravity that pulls us back toward a self-focused fixation.
In the contemplative tradition, it is why practices of prayer such as Centering Prayer, Christian meditation, icons, rosaries and other embodiments are so vitally important.
This contemplative core lies within the heart of all great faiths. We need something to remind us, to call us out of ourselves.
Last August, I had a chance to visit with Fr. Thomas Keating, a Roman Catholic, Cistercian or Trappist monk, one of the key founders of the Centering Prayer practice within the contemplative tradition.
At 94 years old now, he shared with us his understanding of God’s call on our lives. He told us that we are called to participate with God in God’s very own life.
In this deep sharing, when our hearts are opened to God’s presence and we are filled with an awareness of God’s being within all of life — within ourselves and within all who we meet — this sense of separateness falls away.
“That’s a lot to live up to,” I jokingly told him. He laughed and said, “You don’t have to live up to anything, because the secret of the Christian life is to lose yourself — to lose yourself in God.”
Open your hands, the text says. Stop grasping. Stop putting qualifiers on God’s call to compassion because you want to make yourself feel more comfortable.
I need to be reminded of this when I encounter not only those struggling in our community with poverty, addiction, hunger and alienation but also those who are struggling with a relentless drive to accomplish, to succeed, to constantly grasp for power and control.
We live in a world where we are taught that power and control and ego rule, yet the prophets and Jesus, the mystics and sages continue to stand there, calling us to yield. This is not an easy lesson to learn, and we will fight it like a 4-year-old resisting sleep! But, like it or not, it is the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.