Bishop David on Giving
St John the Evangelist was on his death bed, surrounded by his devoted disciples. ‘Master,’ the pleaded, ‘Give us a word before you die.’
‘Beloved,’ John croaked, ‘Let us love one another, for God is love.’
‘But you’ve said that already,’ they complained.
‘There is nothing more to be said,’ John gasped with his final breath.
‘You shall love the Lord your God, lock, stock and barrel, and your neighbour as yourself,’ Jesus declared. ‘And after that, no one dared ask him any more questions.’ An enviable reputation which folk like Teresa May would bust a gut for. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself: after that, what more could be said?
Except I don’t think we are very good at loving ourselves. My experience of walking alongside thousands of people over the years is that folk tend to be very hard on themselves, judge themselves very harshly, and feel they are simply unworthy of being loved. In part the blame lies with Christianity, always lecturing us that we are miserable sinners. In part it’s a cocktail of guilt peddled by the world, that we have been very naughty, have broken it and we jolly well ought to fix it. Whatever it is, be it climate change, or nuclear proliferation, or pollution, or simply the latest food fads. I am made to feel bad about driving a diesel, bad about eating meat, bad about eating eggs, on and off, bad about heating my home, bad about leaving Europe, bad about staying in Europe, bad about being a priest, very bad about being a bishop. You are almost made to feel bad about being good.
Whereas Jesus commands you to love yourself. Who are you to defy Jesus, to ignore his explicit command? Take yourself off to a quiet place and indulge yourself, take a long, hard look at your life. Run the film of your life, all the glorious moments, and no life is devoid of glory, as well as all the knocks and wounds which you have managed not just to survive, but to rise above. As well as all the knocks and wounds you’ve dealt out: be gentle with yourself, think on all the stresses and tensions you were coping with, which made you snap. Hear Jesus throughout, saying ‘Love yourself.’ In all those situations, so personal to you, think of Jesus beside you, loving you so much. Christ loves you so much he can’t take his eyes off you.
I recall visiting a very gracious lady who was paralysed with gloom and remorse about the way she had treated her late father-in-law, who had lived with her and her husband in his declining years. She hadn’t beaten him up or anything, she just regretted the times when her patience had snapped and she had told him off. I got her to describe an average day with dad, and to be honest he sounded like the most miserable, curmudgeonly git ever created. ‘Dorothy,’ I blurted out, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself. You deserve a medal. I’d have throttled him after half an hour.’ She burst out laughing, but it was a moment of liberation, a moment when she laughed and loved herself rather than hating herself.
She made a massive career-change and went on to be a matron of an old people’s home, and was the kindest most patient matron you could ever find. She even kept an eye on my dad in his final years when we were far away in Cardiff. When you dare to obey Christ’s command and love yourself, and what’s more feel you are loved and cherished by Christ, then that love overflows.
And letting it flow clears the way for more love to flood in. Dam love up and it goes sour, just like God’s gracious gift of manna went sour in the wilderness when the Israelites hoarded it. Be generous, be profligate in loving your neighbour, so you can be freed up to love yourself. Giving is a tangible mark of that. ‘There will always be someone in need,’ our reading from Deuteronomy stressed. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus declared. The poor need us
to open our hands. But more than that, we need them, to break our hearts, break through our walls of self-protection and make us generous.
Are you a Gollum or a Jesus? In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, originally the most beautiful of creatures, comes across the One Ring and makes it his own, his precious, hiding away, wasting away in the dark and dank, paranoid, killing anyone he suspects is out to steal his treasure. Jesus, although he had everything, clung to nothing, became as lowly as a servant, emptied himself of all but love and was bathed in eternal light. How sour the name of Gollum sounds. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds! Sweet or sour, the choice is yours. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself, and let love flow.
Laura was a eight year old dancer, fawning upon Pharaoh as he performed a pastiche of Elvis Presley in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, staged by our primary school. Laura got more than carried away with her Sha-waddy-waddy dance and all eyes in the theatre were on her rather than on a by-now distinctly piqued Pharaoh. If history teaches us anything, Pharaohs are best not to be piqued!
The audience laughed, at first gales of laughter of the liberal tolerant sort, ‘What a card this Down’s Syndrome child is!’ Laura’s parents had bravely opted to have her educated mainstream. But then the mood changed to one of total amazement, that any child was capable of giving herself so utterly, in such a lock, stock and barrel way. Here was no less than a latter-day David, who had danced with sheer joy before the Lord when his army had finally taken Jerusalem, even doing cartwheels before his band of adoring maidens, doubly excited because underwear had yet to be invented. His wife Michal had despised him for putting his heart and soul, mind and strength into his gyrations.
No one in our audience despised Laura; quite the contrary, the theatre was as one, everyone deeply moved as they witnessed such energy, such giving in totality, which simultaneously thrilled and shamed us, we who mete out our enthusiasm in ounces when God measures it in tons.
Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself, and let love flow.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.