Faith: Form and Tradition or Compassion and Justice?

At one point my Bible study group read Isaiah 58, and very shortly thereafter, in a daily lectionary reading, I read Mark 7: 1-13.  Both passages challenge the observance of proper religious practice forms instead of the true worship of the heart that includes justice.  Isaiah speaks of the people’s fasting while at the same time oppressing their workers and fighting with each other.  Mark speaks of the people following the tradition of the elders about washing their hands, yet dishonoring their parents.

Many of us can be critiqued by these passages.  Those who are good at following the traditions and the commandments, which are significant, may fall short in offering mercy, which is basic.   Pope Francis attempted to re-balance the Roman Catholic Church by calling for a year of mercy.  Those who focus on personal salvation and going to heaven, in the joy of that perceived good news, may fail to pay attention to how God calls us to live together as community—in the present, on earth.

Those who focus on faith as a way of life may care deeply about action and right behavior, giving too much attention to the self and forgetting the immanent and transcendent Other, thereby losing a sense of having good news.  Those who are spiritual and not religious may live with virtue but miss the power of story, the transformation that can come from it, and a relationship with the One who guides.

The challenge of these two passages raises in me the dilemma between contemplation and action.  Either extreme can get away from justice and mercy.  In a conflict situation my instinct is to want to try to reach across the divide and develop empathy and compassion for the other, learning from one another and appreciating the positions and concerns of each other.  But is that simply conflict avoidance?

Having chosen action, I sometimes have found myself and others with no grounding in the holy, functioning from judgment, self-righteousness, and superiority rather than from love—even being simply angry, mean, hateful, and insulting.

How helpful to have been given these two passages with the challenge of self-reflection and a search for faith that maintains justice and brings my heart to God!

Queries:

How do these two passages challenge you?

Is your faith self-focused or God-focused?

Prayer:

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.  O my God, in you I trust. . . .Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” (Psalm 25: 1-2a, 4).

For further reflection:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (See Isaiah 58: 1-9).

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines’” (See Mark 7: 6b-7).

Blessed Are the Meek

Following the lectionary on a recent Sunday, I read what are called “The Beatitudes,” the first words of Jesus’ teaching ministry recorded in the gospel of Matthew—a listing of conditions that result in blessedness or in being happy.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” caught my attention.  “Safe are the strong for they will have power over everyone else on earth” seems more like what we think today.  Milquetoast, pushover, weak, passive, unassertive, timid are words usually associated with meek.  These are not words we value or desire to be.  What was Jesus talking about?

In Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus identifies himself as meek and promises that being associated (yoked) with him brings rest and a light burden.  Not weak or timid is this meekness that he claims; Jesus is not a pushover.  Neither is he concerned about worldly status or having power over others.  His meekness is about living in compassion, humility, mutuality, and being grounded in relationship with God.

This meekness offers a different kind of strength.  Some people today call that kind of strength “soft power.”  It is power to persevere.  It is being fully who one is without the burden of trying to please or impress others or of being in charge of everything.  It reminds me of the Civil Rights song, “We shall not be moved.”  It makes me think of the three African-American female mathematicians (Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) whose work was so crucial to NASA in its early years, whose story is told in the movie Hidden Figures. Their position in society did not allow them to challenge openly the racist and sexist conditions under which they worked.  They took what was imposed on them, persevered, and never let their oppression define them.  I would say they were yoked with Jesus and the “meekness” they displayed was the kind that inherits the earth and changes the world.

Blessed is not a matter of having material treasures and prosperity, or having status, or having the required virtues, but a description of what it is to live in God, which often includes suffering.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. . .”  And being blessed is not something that happens after death in an unearthly exalted place called heaven.  “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  The beatitudes are descriptive of what it is like to live in the reign of God—something we can know in part and experience now.

Queries:

Could or would you choose to be meek as Jesus intends it?  With Jesus what would it mean to be meek in the care of the earth?

If blessings are not worldly treasures, how do you experience being blessed, if you do?

Prayer:

Gift us with humility, compassion, and courage for just action in unity with You.

For further reference:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”  (See Matthew 11: 28-30.)

“. . . the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace (See Psalm 37: 1-17).

Compassion

Out of curiosity I went one night to a Racists Anonymous meeting.  We were a small group of many colors who had arrived there from different routes.  One had been sensitized to racism by connections with LGBT people and issues; another by discovering his unconscious prejudice against the South and southern people only after he happened to move there.  Being aware of what prejudice feels like and does to one group that is discriminated against can tender one’s heart to how other groups are treated and to one’s own participation in that system of discrimination.

I think attending such a group could help me live a more compassionate life, a call to which is a clear part of Jesus’ message.  He spent time with, touched, and told stories of persons who were outsiders in his day—lepers, tax collectors, Samaritans, women.  Our tendency is to see a particular person and make judgments about that person based on assumptions and fixed ideas about a whole group of people.  Sometimes such notions protect us from foolish mistakes, but other times they close us off from presence and compassion: just what Jesus wants us to know.

True compassion isn’t comfortable.  Jesus teaches that we should first take the wooden beam out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of our neighbor’s eye.  To have compassion is to uncover things in ourselves that we would rather not see, to look within rather than to criticize or blame others.  A lot of unraveling of defenses has to take place in order to be present to others and to care about them.

At the Racists Anonymous meeting I felt the vulnerability, self-giving, deep caring, and humility that go with compassion.  We weren’t taking care of anybody or fixing anyone.  We were trying to listen, learn, and respect.   And we were calling on the only One who can gift us with true compassion.

Queries:

What is my responsibility to my neighbor?  And who is my neighbor?

Where are there hard edges in me?  If I look at them in God’s light, what will I see and hear?

Prayer:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19: 14).

For further reflection:

“Now I know that you [Elijah] are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (See I Kings 17: 8-24, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath).

“Was none of them [the ten lepers] found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  (See Luke 17: 11-19).

Thy Kingdom Come

The world of American politics is very divisive.  People have strong feelings that this party and its supporters are good and the other party is wrong, bad, even frightening.  Politics seems fundamentally about power and being able to have power over others.  In the midst of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions I find myself turning again to the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), this time to Thy kingdom come.

When I was younger I was upset by the appeal Thy kingdom come.  It seemed like a plea for a male-dominated, hierarchical governing system, which didn’t interest me then, nor does it now.  Admittedly if God is a white male with a long, flowing beard, seated in heaven far away, pulling strings and sending down lightning bolts to punish, God’s kingdom won’t have much appeal for many of us.

I now yearn for God’s kingdom because I believe it is a time when there is shalom, a Hebrew word meaning peace and wellbeing for all.  I think of it as Eden renewed, when God’s word is written on our hearts and God is God of us all and we are all God’s people.  It is like a hidden treasure in a field or a pearl of great value that is worth selling all that I have in order to buy.

The prayer asks for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, and for that to happen on earth, I think right here and right now.  So how do we open to that possibility, because it does happen already in moments and in part?

I think we can choose to try to know all of us as God’s beloved children.  There is so much social change happening now and international insecurity of terrible proportions.  How can we comfort and be comforted?  Can we ask what are the fears, needs, dreams, and hurts of those with whom we disagree?  What am I blind to in those whose views I find unacceptable that keeps me from recognizing our common humanity?  I think everyone yearns to be listened to, heard, and respected.  Everyone wants a sense of having a valued place at the table.

Queries:

What do I understand as the kingdom of God?

What do I have to let go in order not to slam and box up those with whom I disagree?  How do I disagree strongly with someone and yet be open to hear that person’s soul?

Prayer:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

For further reference: 

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (See Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Do what you can to be peace and to do justice, but never expect or demand perfection on this earth. It usually leads to a false moral outrage, a negative identity, intolerance, paranoia, and self-serving crusades against “the contaminating element,” instead of “becoming a new creation” ourselves (Galatians 6:15)—Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, July 27, 2016.

Sinners

I was reading Mark 2:13-17, the pre-selected passage in my morning devotional.  Jesus is walking along, sees Levi who is a tax collector for the Roman government (therefore a traitor to his people, the Jews, who are oppressed by Rome and their taxation), and invites Levi to follow him.  Levi does, and Jesus joins him for dinner, along with “many tax collectors and sinners.”  The seriously religious people of his day (they really cared about following the Torah) are very critical of his behavior.  Jesus explains that he is there for those in need and not for those who have it all together.  Suddenly I found myself glad to call myself a “sinner.”

But I don’t like the word “sin” or “sinner”!  They have often been used by people who see themselves positively while naming some other group as terrible, to be avoided and excluded.  The words make me think about being bad through and through and experiencing low self-esteem and life-denying shame—nothing to be glad about.

Yet as I listened and found myself in the Mark story, seeing myself as sinner felt strangely liberating.  I didn’t have to be better than others, to hold myself above the “fallen.”  I felt free simply to be human, to be me with the strengths and weaknesses that come with the package.  Knowing myself as sinner allows me to let go of the childhood sibling-rivalry-induced need to be at least as good as anybody else—to follow all the rules just right.  In this story of Jesus, as a sinner I know I am loved for who I am, not for what I can accomplish, how virtuous I am, or how well I can be on the “right side.”

It is okay to need a physician.  In truth, all of us do, but we don’t always know that.  I am one with all others.  Humility, compassion, care arise.  As I get older and experience diminishments, I needn’t fear.  Those losses can be opportunities for grace—provided that I know with Jesus I am a sinner, a beloved child of God.

Queries:

In what way might you need to be healed?

Who are the people you would criticize Jesus for eating with?

Prayer:

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

For further reflection:

“When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly . . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (See Romans 5: 1-8).

“‘If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her’” (See John 8: 3-11).

Hurting

My husband Ralph took our grandsons John and Andrew skiing in Colorado over their spring break.  Andrew had been before and is an accomplished skier.  Ralph had taken John skiing years ago at a small ski area in West Virginia, but never in Colorado, so Ralph started him out in a beginners’ class in the resort’s ski school.  The necessary precautions were taken, but when John, following the instructor’s directions, started to ski down the mountain, he didn’t make it.  Instead he picked up speed and lost control, got his ski stuck in the snow, fell hard, and broke his leg quite badly.  The skiing was finished, and a trip to the Denver Children’s Hospital began the new challenges.

In Davidson a 49-year-old mother of four children had a business of pet-sitting and dog-walking.  At an intersection on Main Street that had a new crosswalk and pedestrian-crossing light, she got a walk-light and headed across the street with two dogs in tow.  At the same time a big garbage truck, with a green light, turned the very sharp left onto Main.  Neither the woman nor the driver of the truck saw each other until it was too late.  The woman and one of the dogs were killed.  The driver was taken away in handcuffs.  Word came quickly that no speeding and no alcohol were involved, and that the driver was a respected employee.

Both situations hurt to the core of my being.  I would like to lash out, be angry, and blame someone—as if that could change the situation.   With John, while I was home alone worrying about them, I spent one night imagining John’s trip down the mountain and trying to make the accident not happen—as I do when I have a scary dream and wake enough to try to imagine something different happening in the dream that will overcome the scariness.  Of course that didn’t change anything, and with both situations I am simply left with grief and a big hurt in my heart and my belly.

Where is comfort—for me and for those even more intimately involved?  Speaking for others seems cheap and wrong.  For me, I can do something to reach out and express care in some way.  I can share the hurting with others.  Holding it together makes the hurt a little lighter or less unbearable.  And I can cry out to God, hold it in the Light, lift it to the heart of Jesus, be still in the Presence.

Queries:

How have you or others you know handled the grief and hurt of a terrible situation you can’t change?

What spiritual resources give you comfort?

Prayer:

Divine Mercy, we long for your presence and healing touch.

For further reflection:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases”. . . (See Lamentations 3: 16-26).

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Losses

The recent death of the husband of my eldest cousin brought its own sadness and also, since I have a large family, the awareness that this loss is just the beginning of a long string of losses. In addition, being of a certain age, I am experiencing losses or diminishments routinely. Where is comfort or healing?

Admittedly my first response is protest. I don’t like it! I don’t want to lose what is dear to me! This protest can feel like screaming into the wind, throwing snowballs into a vacuum of nothingness. The facts don’t change. Yet protest, if deeply felt and directed to God, can bring healing, when we are surprisingly met by a loving presence in the midst of the anger, hurt, and fear. I remember as a little girl being so upset by something, crying my heartbreak, and sitting in front of my mother who would quietly stroke my cheek until I calmed. We can get closed in a box of hurt and pain, but Presence and Love open a door into new and ongoing life.

We also experience that Presence and Love through family and friends who stand by our side in times of loss. Anything that recognizes, accepts, and shares my loss matters. I remember years ago when friends went to the trouble to drive over an hour to attend the memorial service for my father-in-law. We were touched and comforted in that place where death and resurrection coexist. I also remember being comforted by cards that were sent me when my mother died—reading and re-reading them, even just seeing the stack of them.

Most amazing are the gifts that come through the pain of losses and diminishments. Only after my mother died did I come to know the depth of her love for me. I can say the lack of earlier awareness is sad. And also I can rejoice that I can spend the rest of my life knowing and living in the fullness of her love. In addition, I can have compassion for those who don’t yet know how much I love them—and compassion for me in not knowing how to let them know. Here is grace and wisdom. As Richard Rohr said, “grace is found at the depths and in the death of everything.” The only way to lose is “to swim on the surface of things, where we never see, find, or desire God or love.”

Queries:

What losses or diminishments have you encountered or do you fear?

How does your faith support you in the midst of losses?

Prayer:

“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God” (Psalm 62:5). You may want to put your feelings about losses in the form of a psalm. Do not hesitate to protest.

For further reference:

“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever” (See Psalm 44: 20-26).

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

“Sin”–A Four-Letter Word?

“I don’t drink and I don’t chew, and I don’t go out with girls that do.” A ditty that my father repeated jokingly, it presents sin as bad things an individual does and implies there is a catalogue of such sins. Furthermore, if you do them you are bad, and if you don’t do them, you are good. Such a view quickly escalates into the assumption that certain people are bad, especially certain kinds of people. And it sets the stage for debilitating shame and guilt, or unjust self-righteousness.

The true meaning of sin is missing the mark, being turned away from God’s ways rather than cooperating with God’s order and justice—a stance of a community or corporate body as much as of an individual. To sin is not to be a bad person; to sin is not about being unlovable or unloved by God. To sin is to be out of the flow of what is life-giving. Sin is a force within us and beyond us. Turning to God in repentance and surrender saps its power.

I heard an auto mechanic talk about the expense of medical insurance for his family under the Affordable Care Act. He said he had to have the insurance because of his wife’s many health issues. In order to solve his problem, he joked, “I could divorce her.” Then he added more seriously, “but that wouldn’t be a God-thing.” I wonder if the notion of sin is more of a deterrent to hurtful choices than thinking of some behavior as simply wrong or bad.

What if we regarded sin not as a code of wrong behaviors but as those ways that create in us a lack of compassion, that let us take care of me to the neglect and harm of others; those ways that put us individually and collectively out of the Garden of Eden, that push away the kingdom of God where there is peace and wellbeing for all? Might using the word sin to name such ways make an even more powerful statement of the damage they do and encourage us to repent?

Queries:

What have you been taught about sin, and how has that been helpful or hurtful? If hurtful, is there a way that word could be reclaimed and serve a positive function?

How does sin operate to divide us and to diminish our compassion?

Prayer:

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” Pray the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps you will want to put it in your own words.

For further reflection:

“I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . .” (See Romans 7: 14-25a).

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Mercy

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Year of Mercy. To grant mercy for people who make mistakes and are repentant or “worthy” of mercy is fine. But what about those people or groups who are doing terrible things, or who might include some who would oppress or do great harm—or even have values different from mine? Don’t we need to judge them, or wouldn’t we rather pass judgment? James 2: 13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” a statement that seems backwards.

J was arrested for selling cocaine. Mary knew too many young men whose lives had been ruined by cocaine. She could easily judge J. She was clear that what he had been doing was wrong. Yet, he was in fact a young man she had known from the time he was a baby. She had been his youth group leader at church. She knew his father abused his mother and had beaten her so badly that she had been blinded, and she knew that his mother had only recently died. She felt compelled to offer mercy.

She lined up his pastor and got letters of reference to take to his hearing, and together she and the pastor went to court and waited all the time it took for J’s case to come before the judge. Convinced by the support that had been presented, the judge, pointedly holding the young man accountable for what he did with this new chance, released him into their care.

Mercy is not the same as passivity or accepting anything and everything. It is a standing with, recognizing one’s own need for mercy, rather than feeling or acting superior and standing on top of. Mercy has costs. It isn’t about safety and security. Mercy recognized for what it is and received has the effect of yeast added to a measure of flour and liquid. Mercy transforms hearts. It comes from Love.

Queries:

What about your life would make you want to receive mercy rather than judgment?

What do you need to leave behind in order for your life to be more mercy-full?

Prayer:

Breathe in mercy. With the outward breath, let go.   An alternative prayer is the one routinely used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church–“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”

For further reference:

See James 2: 1-13, a passage that warns against showing partiality for one group over another and ends with the call for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).

Freedom to Change

I have certain religious and political/social justice ideas that I value. I can be caught trying to change other people to get them to agree with my point of view. I don’t think those efforts ever work.

Recently I had two experiences that resulted in openings. After the Charleston shootings I was talking with a white friend about racism. I caught myself trying to change him.   What I got was resistance and defensiveness. I was frustrated because if white people can’t talk about racism, how can blacks and whites make any progress in racial equality. So I backed off the arguing and somehow I invited his story. What he shared opened my eyes and changed me. No longer was I the one with superior ideas. We became equals. At that point, unexpectedly and freely, he suggested he could change.

On another occasion I was working on a committee trying to develop a statement about how a person becomes a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Friends in the yearly meeting had different ideas. One point of view was that a person becomes a member at birth if one’s parents are members. That understanding was very important to a number of Friends because it gave them such a deep feeling of long-term belonging and being valued. One such person helped us express the idea correctly. Although her “birthright” membership is in a meeting in another yearly meeting where she hasn’t lived for many years, our effort to include what mattered to her left her feeling very affirmed and valued by a yearly meeting to which she didn’t belong officially. Suddenly and unexpectedly she found herself re-thinking her feelings about her membership. A new decision became a possibility.

From these examples I see that we are not changed by arguments but rather by having our persons respected and our hearts touched. The power of God joins us soul to soul as one.

—————-

Queries:

What is your experience of being in the midst of strongly-held different points of view?

What helps you be open to change? To feel free to change? To know that you are God’s beloved?

—————

Prayer:

Pray with Psalm 131, put it in your own words, until you can feel what it would feel like to be “calmed and quieted like a weaned child with its mother . . .”

————-

For further reflection:

“Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came I to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by the Life.”   –Robert Barclay, Apology, Proposition 11, section 7

“Beloved, let us love one another . . .” (See I John 4:7, 12-13).