August 6th, 2015
New ideas have a shimmering quality to them. Their first presentation to us may resonate with such clarity and beauty that we are moved to embrace them.
But then as we move deeper into the nature of those ideas, and what they require of us, we discover a complexity we hadn’t bargained for. And so we find our initial enthusiasm for the idea was more infatuation than appreciation, more what it did for us than the intrinsic worth of the idea itself. Like marriage, or parenting, or starting a business, initial impressions must give way to deeper insights. There’s a necessary disillusionment we have to undergo–not so that we give up on what we were first moved by, but so that we take hold of what those first thoughts only introduced us to.
Last Sunday we let Acts 6 make the case for the church’s call to an organized mercy effort. In doing so we also let it give more detail about the idea we’ve been simmering on for a good long while: the Mercy Cohort (MC). (If you weren’t here Sunday you can listen to the sermon here, and download a copy of the MC brochure here.) And given both the early church’s affirmation of the apostles’ decision to create the first Mercy Cohort (and our own enthusiastic explanation for how that tradition will soon continue among us), you could’ve left Sunday with a perception of mercy ministry that requires still more nuance in order to rescue that perception from certain illusions.
There are at least two things worth saying about mercy ministry that should help refine our sense of it–and from two sources you might not otherwise think had anything to say about it to us.
The Aspen Institute is a worldwide non-profit organization with a board comprised of authors, artists, CEOs, and other dignitaries whose focus is on humanitarian efforts.
As you’d expect, many of the individuals, organizations, and corporations who collaborate with the Institute represent some of the wealthiest sectors of the world. Last week New York Times columnist, Anand Giridharadas, spoke at an Aspen gathering, but in a way that inevitably ruffled the feathers of many of those in attendance. Giridharadas took issue with the unwritten but indisputable approach many of Aspen’s partners take in their apparently humanitarian efforts. They may be generous with their means, but they do little to solve the underlying problems that prompt their giving. Worse still, the means by which they accrue the resources that enable them to be generous may in
fact be what perpetuates the travails of those to whom they are “generous.” Giridharadas summarizes this awkward contradiction by citing Aspen partners as those who may do “more good,” but who aren’t doing “less harm.” You can read the whole address here.
Now while neither CtK nor its nascent Mercy Cohort will ever operate on the scale Aspen does; and while I’m not worried we’d operate in the self-serving fashion Giridharadas warns of, the principle to be avoided is still present. It is possible to extend a kind of “generosity” that in fact does little to rescue the recipient from what gave rise to their need for it. Unless mercy takes into consideration the fullness of the need, the “more good” it does may actually prolong the problem, and thus fail to do “less harm.”
The other aspect of mercy ministry that needs to be considered is the underlying motivations for it. The Canadian philosopher and sociologist Charles Taylor, whom we’ve turned to before, warns of what can happen if we are motivated toward mercy because of the satisfaction it brings us. As Tim Keller paraphrased Taylor in a recent talk he gave in England,
If you try to find satisfaction through helping people, you will come to despise them, because people are hard to help, they don’t always want to be helped. You’ll end up either becoming terribly paternalistic or despising the people you are supposed to be helping. (HT: Hugh Comer via OICCU)
In other words while there can certainly be joy attached to doing good by someone (it’s better to give than receive, right?), to make that joy be what most anchors you in the work of mercy is to set yourself up for deep disillusionment. The good of mercy is in the act itself more than whether it yields the fulness of what it intends.
The challenges associated with mercy ministry notwithstanding, we’ve invited you to prayerfully consider applying to serve on the MC which will take applications until August 23rd. The brief training for qualified applicants will begin in early September. It’s here that we’ve found it necessary to make one point of clarification.
We realize that, while we unpacked the broad contours of what the MC will do, you still might be unclear as to what the task of mercy on this team will require. That’s why we’d like to clarify that people won’t be required to make a commitment to serving on the MC until after they’ve completed the training in September. The training will have essentially four objectives
- Establish a definition, a basis, and a motivation for mercy
- Explore mercy in principle and practice
- Identify keys to seeing mercy begin to take root in a church culture
- Imagine initial steps for mercy maturing in the life of CtK
We believe that by the end of the training interested applicants will have a clearer grasp of the purposes and priorities of the MC. It’s only then that we would ask those who complete the training to make a decision about whether to commit to serving. All we ask is that those who wish to go through the training first make application.
If you have any questions about this ministry, feel free to email us.
Every so often it’s necessary to remind ourselves about what we’re doing and why. Nearly two years ago we began laying out a vision for CtK. That vision would center on the idea of being “faithfully present“–to God, to one another, and to our world(s).
Many of you with us now were not around back in the fall of 2013. And while you’ve heard us reference it occasionally, or during our new member class, we’ve felt the time has come to reacquaint us all with what faithful presence means and implies for our life together.
So for the next three weeks we’ll look at texts in the book of Acts that we believe get at the heart of each of the three dimensions of faithful presence. This week we look at the captivating story of Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10, perhaps the most beautiful episode of storytelling in the whole of Luke’s account. While the passage’s focus is on the startling realization that the Gentiles are as central to God’s intentions as ethnic Israel, I think both protagonists of the chapter have something to share about what it means to be present to God.
C.S. Lewis might help prepare you for Sunday by outlining what makes Christian belief unique among other beliefs. It has something to do with the union of our awe of things with our grasp of being accountable to something larger than ourselves.
Finally, we’re gathering for prayer together Sunday night, this time at the Vandermeer’s. We pray together every second Sunday of the month.
My wife had a tooth pulled last week which “afforded” her no small experience of pain in the aftermath. It just so happened that I was that same week reading some more in Thomas Merton’s biography, The Seven Storey Mountain, (with which we ended a sermon a couple weeks back), which includes a moment in his adolescence when an abscessed tooth nearly took his life–back when a simple infection like that could be mortal.
During that precarious moment Merton came face to face with a deeper sense of reality, and here wonders aloud how prayers were at work to do him good even as darkness was overtaking him:
But I now lay on this bed, full of gangrene, and my soul was rotten with the corruption of my sins. And I did not even care whether I died or lived.
“The worst thing that can happen to anyone in this life is to lose all sense of these realities. The worst thing that had ever happened to me was this consummation of my sins in abominable coldness and indifference, even in the presence of death.
What is more, there was nothing I could do for myself. There was absolutely no means, no natural means within reach, for getting out of the state. Only God could help me. Who prayed for me? One day I shall know. But in the economy of God’s love, it is through the prayers of other men that these graces are given. It was through the prayers of someone who loved God that I was one day, to be delivered out of that hell where I was already confined without knowing it.
Whether you can’t get through the day without extended times of prayer, or you feel essentially dead to praying, Merton supplies us renewed basis for giving ourselves to prayer.
We’re going to let the encounter between Cornelius and Peter structure our time of prayer, but as always, there are no bounds to what we might pray for. As Kevin DeYoung put it recently:
What does God want you to pray for? In a word: everything. Tell him about your hurts. Tell him about your joys. Ask him where the car keys are. Ask him for the conversion of your children. Ask him for health. Ask him for holiness. He is a loving Father. Ask him.
My kids (as far as I can tell) never wonder if I’m lacing their oatmeal with arsenic. They don’t fear that when I walk them to the park I’m secretly selling them off to Ishmaelite traders. My kids, at least at their young ages, don’t doubt that I love them. They grab my hand when crossing the road because it makes them feel safe. There is implicit trust that I will protect them, defend them and take care of them. This should be our posture in prayer.
The great danger we have, living in such an affluent society, is the evil of self-reliance. How tempted we are to think that we are in control, that we are gifted enough, hardworking enough, and rich enough to tackle any problem. But the reality is that God can frustrate the best laid plans of mice and Americans. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
So plan to join us Sunday night, 6-8p. We’ll pray that we might practice the presence of God, and in so doing ask him anything–because He is our father.
Who’s in need of prayer in CtK, and beyond? Where can you submit your requests for prayer? We compile those here on our space on The City.