Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Jan 19, 2020
When calamity strikes, where do we turn? Family and/or friends most certainly. Social media more & more. And, strangely enough, God seems to be mentioned in social media more than ever: OMG (Oh My God). They seem to pray a lot these days!
The psalmist was going through a horrible time. He described it as being stuck in a desolate pit and a miry bog. While living in what the psalmist describes elsewhere as hell, Psalm 40 begins, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” It takes a superhuman to wait patiently when in distress. Perhaps the translator of our version of the Bible was trying to soften the psalmist’s desperation, because the original Hebrew actually reads “I hoped urgently.” A Spanish translation that is closer to the original meaning reads, “Yo esperaba impacientemente al Señor”—I waited impatiently for the Lord.
God hears our cries of desperation that are sometimes beyond words; sometimes no more than initials. It’s there, in the pit of anxiety or deep loss, that God already is. It’s so hard to hear God’s voice and sense God’s presence in those difficult times. And that’s why God takes on the human flesh of others to love us, listen deeply and simply be with us.
Just as the poem Footprints tells us, it is often only in hindsight that we see where God has actually carried us. What, then, is our response? When we’re beginning to heal, gather our energy and find our feet under us again, there are two things that we often we miss as we are finally able to get on with our life. The psalmist describes them. The first is to rededicate oneself in following God’s ways. Are we grateful for how God has touched and healed our lives? Does this gratitude nudge us to a rededication of our life to God’s path of justice and peace? Psalm 40:7-8 reads, “Here I am, ready to do what is written…I delight to do your will, O My God.” (It actually says OMG in verse 8)
The second thing that the psalmist notes is to tell others about how God has helped us through challenging times. We usually jump over this and just forge ahead with normal. But when we do this, we deprive others of good news. We don’t seem to hold back our complaints, but we do seem to hold back our good news—maybe because we are reticent to boast. Fair enough, but what happens to our world when we only complain of bad news and the good news is never heard? Psalm 40: 9-10 read, “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; I did not restrain my lips, as you will know. I have not kept your goodness hidden in my heart, but have spoken of your faithfulness and your saving help. I have not concealed your steadfast love.”
I’m touching on something that’s a bit uncomfortable for the United Church. It’s called evangelism. The word “evangel” means good news. When we tell others about how we have found God’s strength, healing and love, we are evangelists—bearers of good news.
As we know, good news seems scarce in the world these days, but there are gems of compassion and wisdom out there. A month ago, there was an article in the Free Press that talked about how we create happy societies. The Buddhist nation of Bhutan was the first to determine policy based on the happiness of its citizens. In 1972, the King of Bhutan declared that gross national happiness was a better measure of progress than the gross national product. Bhutan then became the first in the world to determine national policy based on the happiness of its citizens.
It took decades for other countries to follow suit, but they are slowly doing so. In 2010, the UK developed a national well-being program—which they might want to revisit these days! Last May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced the first “well-being budget”, which focussed on improving the well-being of its most vulnerable citizens.
The World Happiness Report suggests that there are six keys for national happiness: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. Guess which countries usually come out on top? Scandinavian—and currently Finland is the top. Canada comes in 9th in the world—not too bad.
But the author of this article then writes that we need more than simply setting goals for personal and national happiness. We also have to learn how to be happy within the inevitable insecure and fragile circumstances that will envelope all of us at one time or another. We need to learn how to respond in difficult situations with humour and humility; curiosity and compassion.
This is where faith comes into the picture. Our Christian faith gives us the tools of prayer, meditation, compassion, service and solidarity that can help us and others. Our faith leads us down two paths. The first is to help create the conditions for happiness. We do this best in our community ministries, where we help individuals find food, housing, counselling and support to get their feet back under them. The second path is to develop spiritual attributes that will help us find peace even in the midst of unfavourable conditions. Last fall in our spiritual attributes study, we had a session on joy. We talked about how we can access a deep joy that is not dependent on circumstances.
This is good news that few in our society know how to access. But we don’t advertise this very well. We’re rather poor evangelists.
Some of the thriving churches I visited excelled in what they call public theology. This is a contemporary way of saying evangelism. Hillhurst in Calgary makes a point of getting their messages of hope into the media and the public eye. They unabashedly promote their progressive Christian faith and their programs. Why? Not just to get more people in their building, but because they really believe that our progressive, Christian message will help to change people for the better and they want to get that message out.
Recently, I read that positive messages from community and national leaders have a measurable effect on the level of violence in a country. When the messages are ones of intolerance and fear, violence against minorities rises. But when the messages are ones of compassion and support for diversity, violence decreases. I was surprised to read that something as simple as a brief message of hope can actually make a difference.
A couple of weeks ago, you may have seen in the paper a letter I sent about the prayers that one of our congregants offered for the Jewish community in New York that had been attacked. It was a very simple thing to do and only took minutes to write, but I have been amazed at the response. Our Council has received emails of gratitude and just last week, I received a card that a Jewish person mailed to me. I’ll read to you part of it:
“Being Jewish in a Christian world sometimes has its challenges. Having studied the holocaust, I am aware of the bravery of some Christians who jeopardized their lives and their families to save Jews. I thank you once again for your expression of sympathy and understanding [of] our plight, and wish more people thought like yourself.”
Now—to be clear, I didn’t jeopardize anything. I took no risks to write this letter. I simply noted a prayer that one of you offered in our service. But it demonstrates the power of little things that we can offer and the need to tell others about what we believe. I can’t imagine the constant fear that some minorities face because of regular acts of violence directed against them. But when we speak publicly about our solidarity, it gives comfort and hope to those living in fear. It lets them know that they are not alone and that there are some others who will publically stand up for them. Even more, these messages have a tangible effect of defusing fear and actually decreasing violence in our community.
We do have a responsibility, as Christians, to be evangelists—to spread Christ’s message of compassion and solidarity and to talk about our own stories of healing and hope. And let’s never tire of doing the little things—for even our paltry offerings matter. Our world desperately needs to hear this good news, in both big and small packages, and they will all make a difference.
 Sam Wren-Lewis, “How do we create happy societies?” The Winnipeg Free Press A7 Sat. Dec. 14, 2019.