A Longing for Lovingkindness   


Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd         March 17, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9; Ps 63:1-8


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

What do you long for? Some long for a new car, others long for a relaxing vacation, all of us long for the coming of spring. Now, what are the deeper longings of your heart? What lies underneath our more superficial desires?

Isaiah asks why his people work so hard to spend money on things that don’t really satisfy the deeper longings of our hearts. He calls everyone who thirsts and is hungry to come to a banquet that is free for all and can feed the soul. This is prophecy of restoration of the nation. It lays a blueprint for a healthy reality of enough for all.

Now that’s something to long for. Enough food for the hungry of the world. Enough clean water and healthy food for our reserves in Canada. Enough meaningful activities and support for youth and children living in poverty and experiencing racism on a daily basis.

Isaiah suggests that God’s covenant of love with King David will ensure that he will govern in such a way that all the nations will be inspired and live together peaceably with enough for all. In light of last week’s terrorist attacks at the mosques in New Zealand, I long more than ever for this kind of peace and justice for all, this acceptance of the richness of our diversity. Why is it so hard to obtain? I sent letters to our Muslim friends on behalf of Westworth last week, assuring them of our prayers and resolve to do all that we can to lessen the hate and the violence.

This vision of peace is based on God’s covenant of love. The Hebrew word for it is “chesed”.  It has also been translated as steadfast love or lovingkindness.  It includes acts of compassion for the benefit of someone else without considering “what’s in it for me.” It reminds me of random acts of kindness.

Last Christmas, Nancy & I were looking at the toothless grin of our neighbour’s string of lights that had at least 13 burnt-out bulbs. Our neighbour is a struggling musician who loves living with old, retro things, including an ancient string of bulbs he found somewhere. One by one, the bulbs began to burn out until a light bulb of inspiration appeared above our heads. We would sneak over one night, steal a bulb and try to find a match for it. We even pulled our binoculars out so that we could calculate the time between everyone’s smoking breaks on the front porch. I then dashed over with ladder in hand, climbed up, took the bulb, ran back over snow banks with ladder and closed our front door just before someone came out of theirs. We commented that, in trying to commit a random act of kindness, in one fell swoop I had become a voyeur, a trespasser and robber. I was able to find a few packs of vintage light bulbs that matched and we planned our next escapade. This time, we needed at least 15 minutes. A few nights later, we found our opportunity, and back we went, quickly changing bulbs and leaving a gift bag signed by the Dundurn Elves with more spare bulbs. We just made it back home with ladder in hand before someone came out again. We then watched as delighted smiles spread across faces as they came out and looked up.

It can be such fun to commit random acts of kindness. But chesed means much more than this. It expresses God’s eager and ardent desire for us, as well as our longing for God. And what does it mean to long for God, as our psalm describes? For me, a longing for God means a longing for a love that is so deep that it can encompass the whole world.

And it is anything but random. The word “chesed” is rooted in the meaning of an obligation of loving covenant. Acts of lovingkindness for strangers are not built into my DNA. I think of acts of kindness only on occasion, only when I have a little bit more energy or time. They are extra and random. But to practice “chesed” means to begin to incorporate it into our very being. It means to make it part of our obligation, our routine, our regular way of living. It means to make a covenant with God to include chesed in our daily thoughts and prayers and actions. It’s not an option—it’s a Jewish obligation and as our ancestors in the faith, Jews are teaching us that it needs to be our Christian obligation.

So what does a chesed obligation look like? It might mean to begin to train our powers of observation to notice need when we pass by and discern how we might attend to it. It may mean to overcome our fear of intrusion by simply asking someone who is having physically difficult negotiating an obstacle if we can help. I remember that when I was in a wheelchair and had great difficulty negotiating doors, most people simply walked by. I decided that when I could walk again, I would risk the possibility of offending someone by asking if they would like some help.

A chesed obligation might mean regular donations to some place that is trying to change structures of injustice so that more people will have enough. It might mean challenging someone when they tell a racist joke.

It might mean a concerted effort to learn more about the people we most dislike or fear. I had a passionate conversation last week with a friend about finding the third way. We are both disillusioned with oppositional thinking that entrenches people into left-wing and right-wing camps that refuse to listen to the other side. Perhaps a covenant of chesed will help us promise not to become entrenched in any camp, but to try with all our might to find a third way between the angry voices of hate and blame.

Last week I was asked to speak at a human rights conference on a panel with Shahina Siddiqui, a Muslim, and Rabbi Kliel Rose. We were each tasked with the identification of sources of hate within our own religious traditions. I identified oppositional thinking that says, “If we disagree, one of us must be wrong and it isn’t me.” There is no room for multiple truths in oppositional thinking—even though our world is largely constructed of multiple truths. Some Christians have held to doctrines of exclusive salvation and supercessionist superiority that have justified the crusades, forced conversions, pogroms and the Holocaust. In so doing, we have forgotten our Christian and Jewish roots.

Jesus taught love—chesed—even for our enemies. He condemned the religion of the sword. The Good Samaritan story is an example of chesed for someone of a different race and religion. The religious leaders walked right by the wounded man—they seemed to practice chesed like random acts of kindness and that day did not opportune randomness. It was not imprinted in their religious DNA. But then, the despised Samaritan walked by. The Samaritans were considered outsiders because of their faith, and yet Jesus said it was this foreigner of a different faith whose very bones bore the obligation of chesed. Chesed offers a third way that crosses the divide of difference with compassion and lovingkindness.

Maya Angelou wrote, “My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humour to lighten the burden of your tender heart.” Let this be our Lenten longing for ourselves and for the world.