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).

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Control

If you ever thought you were in control of what happens around you, a bathroom remodel project will put an end to that illusion.  The people working on the project at my house are excellent craftsmen and very fine people.  But life doesn’t follow orders from a contractor.  Competent sub-contractors are in demand; I seldom know who is showing up or when they’ll be here—even if they tell me a time.  Planning the rest of my life takes on the same maybe or maybe-not quality.

Trying to be in control simply brings upset and anxiety.  Life works much better by going with the flow and being curious about what will happen.  It can be that the time when people do arrive is actually more advantageous than when they said they would come.

Yesterday at the Contemplative Practices group our song leader introduced us to a new chant, sung in Spanish, based on words from St. Teresa of AvilaNada te turbe, nada te espante.  Quien a Dios tiene nada le falta.  Solo Dios basta.  It presents the opposite of trying to be in control.  Essentially the song says that whoever rests and trusts in God will not be made anxious or upset, and will lack for nothing because God is all that is needed.

I know there are too many people who go to bed hungry, who don’t have money to pay the month’s rent or the electricity bill, who can’t afford medical care, who are running for their lives and have no home.  To be true, Teresa’s words have to be about something more fundamental than basic needs or even survival.  I think she means that God, as the source of Life—its creator and sustainer and redeemer– reaches toward us in Love, in a way that changes everything.  If we can know and receive that Life and Love, we can endure with a kind of peace whatever comes our way.  God alone, and only God, is enough.  We have to have nothing more.

The chant puts my situation in perspective.

Queries:

How does trying to be in control create barriers to God in your life?

How true are Teresa’s words in your experience?

Prayer:

YHWH, the name of God, is unpronounceable.  It is more like the sound of a breath. By breathing in and sounding YH (or Yah), then breathing out and sounding WH (or Weh), you can invite God’s presence and indicate your intent to be open to God.  Repeat the breathing, slow and easy, moving the lips very slightly for as long as you wish to meditate.  You can also do this breathing prayer in moments of tension or upset to turn the situation over to God and allow yourself to be calmed.

For further reflection:

“I am the vine you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5).

“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (See Psalm 30).

Wrestling

What is it like to be an academically successful college student wondering if you will be deported before you graduate, sent back to a country you left when you were so young you can’t remember it?   What is it like to be a parent of children you sense won’t have now the chance for success that you had when you were growing up?  Or a parent of children who still suffer the deck-being-stacked-against-them that you lived with years ago?  What about those who study the oceans, fish, and coral reefs, and who are already counting the destruction that is happening?  What about feeling ill but not knowing why, having tests and waiting for the results, fearing the news that might be coming?

Serious worry, fear, anger, hurt—how does one live in these times?  How does one avoid reacting in ways that hurt oneself and maybe others?  Where is hope?

This kind of time may be one in which to wrestle with God, being deeply and rawly engaged—to cry out, complain, be angry.  Faithful wrestling can uncover theological misunderstandings and superficial ideas that may be broken open to allow a stronger and more vibrant faith to emerge.  A quick look at the Psalms will let you know that in your complaint you are in good company:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  “Why must I walk around mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” “How long, O Lord?”

As a chaplain in oncology there were times when situations were just too hard to bear.  I remember on such occasions finding a place by myself and having a talk with God.  Sometimes I wrote, sometimes I was able to be in my thoughts and feelings at the core, and to give voice to the pain.  (You could say I raged at God.)  I stayed with those feelings until I felt heard and I was finished.  (There certainly was no formula.) And then there came some measure of peace, some comfort or guidance.  Often the situation didn’t change but I did.  Certainly these have been times of spiritual growth.  I learned a lot about prayer and who God is, and I found greater trust.  Most importantly, I was enabled to live the next day, in the love of the Beloved.

Queries:

Think about a time when you felt frightened, angry, or in pain.  How do you handle such times?

Where is God in hard times?  Does Jesus enter your picture?

Prayer:

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for you, for the living God” (Psalm 42: 1-2a).

For further reflection:

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (See Exodus 32: 22-32.)

[Jesus said,] “I am deeply grieved, even to death . . . And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed . . . (See Matthew 26: 36-46).

Praise and Thanksgiving

There is a morning devotional that begins, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51: 15), to which the response comes, “Thank you, God.”  The practice made me think about the difference between praise and thanksgiving.

When I asked a friend about the difference, her immediate reply was a felt sense or body awareness:  “With praise, my hands are raised, my head is up, and my mouth is open.  With thanksgiving, my head is bowed and my hands are in a prayer position at my heart.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful practice.  A woman I know begins the day with her partner—sipping a cup of coffee, eating a bowl of oatmeal, and naming things for which they are grateful.  I have benefited from ending my day looking back over it to see the things for which I am thankful.  Often they are things that I would have forgotten about without that reflection time.  And I’m convinced that reflecting like that before I go to sleep makes me more likely to wake up cheerful the next day.

Giving thanks makes us aware that all that comes our way is not of our own making.  There is someone or something bigger.  Praise lets us focus on that source of goodness and grace.  Praise involves acknowledging and rejoicing in what underlies all things.  It arises out of faith and trust, not comprehension.  Praise takes us out of ourselves and into oneness.  For me, praise can be helpful even when I am doubting or discouraged, because it takes me into something beyond myself.  When we praise God, we find our true proportion.

Queries:

How do you understand thanksgiving and praise?  If one is harder or less comfortable than the other, what is the difference for you?

How do you want to express thankfulness or praise at this time?

Prayer:

“Praise and thanksgiving let everyone sing.  To our Creator for every good thing.  Alleluia, joyfully sing.”

For further reflection:

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  (See Psalm 96.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (See Psalm 146.)

Easter

When I was a child Easter was about getting a new dress, a hat to match, patent leather shoes, and white gloves.  We celebrated the resurrection, had lots of people in church and many people who joined the church that day.  We hid Easter eggs with our cousins in our grandparents’ yard, so we were happiest when the day was sunny and the grass was bright green and growing.  As Protestants it was the empty cross that we lifted up.  We paid little attention to the days that had come before.

Now it’s the whole story of these last days of Jesus that inspires me.  Jesus’ struggle with what is coming, his choice to go to Jerusalem anyway, the betrayal of him and his arrest, the trial, the question of whether he had done anything wrong, the brutality, and the screaming of the people demanding that he be crucified—these events resonate with our times and our stories.  I hear the pain and protests of those who claim black lives matter; and I hear the hidden struggles, suffering, and unfairness that so many people endure.

To live through the story each Easter season is to be reminded that we do not suffer alone, that God understands, cares, and loves us in the midst of our own suffering, no matter how great or how small, no matter how deserved or undeserved it is.  The story of the resurrection offers hope when there seems to be no reason to hope.

The challenge is to be present in this Easter story with eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that is open.  It is all too easy to be skeptical and dismissive instead.

Queries:

What stumbling blocks or particular joys do you experience with Easter?

When life seems unfair and you can’t fix things, where do you find hope?

Prayer:

Sitting quietly in a comfortable chair with feet on the floor, imagine yourself in one of the scenarios that are part of the passion narrative.  Where are you in relation to Jesus?  What do you see, hear, smell?  How do you feel?  What do you say?  What do you learn?

For further reference:

Read any of the gospel passion narratives—Matthew 26-28; Mark 14:27–16:8; Luke 22:39-24:53; John 18-21.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (See I Corinthians 1: 18-31.)

Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

On the front of a church in Manley Beach, Australia, we saw a banner titled “Jesus Is ___.” Below the title were blocks containing many different responses to this question. Some answers were obviously from people who know and cherish Jesus; others were from people who don’t know much about him or who find him irrelevant.

Who Jesus is has been a question for a long time. John, the Jew who baptized persons for repentance before Jesus began his ministry, was in prison and heard about Jesus. The gospels of Matthew and Luke report that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems to me all four of the gospels are trying to help us grasp who Jesus is. Early church councils wrestled with who Jesus was and/or is. Today there are scholars engaged in the “quest for the historical Jesus.”

When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth to teach and to heal, the people were astounded by his teaching. Yet they didn’t ask who he was because they assumed they already knew. He fit in a certain box—a carpenter, son of Mary, brother of James and others, a local boy. Instead they questioned the wisdom and power they heard and saw with him; they were offended and could not receive what he gave others.

A Russian man I met, who read the gospels when reading the Bible was illegal, found new life and a Christianity he chose even in the face of life-threatening risk. I know others who have found in Jesus meaning and purpose in life and hope in the face of death, when previously life had seemed like nothing more than a thin candle melting into nothingness, just waiting to be blown out.

What seems important is to ask the question—without a shallow formula or boxed-up assumptions.

Queries:

Who do you say Jesus is?

What assumptions might you have (or have had) about who he is that block his power in your life?

Prayer:

By continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer at the edge of your awareness over a prolonged period, who Jesus is may settle in you in a nonverbal way—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The shorter version is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

For further reflection:

[Jesus asked his disciples,] “who do you say that I am?” (See Mark 8: 27-33).

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (See John 1: 1-18).

The Bible

I don’t want to read the Bible as a book of rules, or of science or history as we now understand those disciplines. I want to read it because it is a book of Life and a book about Love.

I cherish the Bible because it makes me part of a much larger story—not confined to my family heritage, to this culture, this country, or this time. Having heard, read, studied, and prayed the Bible for years, it is part of me and I am part of its story. It guides, comforts, teaches, and challenges me and keeps my life from being just about me. It reminds me that I am loved always and forever. It gives meaning and purpose.  A Vietnam veteran told my husband’s history class that he got through his service in the war by reading a pocket New Testament that he carried.

The Bible is a book for those who are open to faith. Well-educated intellectuals (“the wise”) may read it and scoff while those who have had less privilege (“little children”) understand it well and find comfort and hope. It makes me think outside my box. For example, in a world that sets up so many boundaries and divisions, I read “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

Admittedly I can also read passages that upset or mystify me. Sometimes I dig deeper and search for a way to make sense of the passage. Sometimes I let those go for a time. There may be another context when those passages will open up for me. I once read a single Psalm daily for a week. Almost every day something different in the Psalm caught my attention and spoke to me.

I don’t know what the key is that unlocks the Bible’s treasures for someone. But if one does want to be opened to the Bible, I feel sure a way will be provided.

Queries:

Why do you read, or not read, the Bible?

How has the Bible impacted you, or how could you be open to what it has to offer?

Prayer:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119: 105).

For further reflection:

About scripture St. Augustine writes: “What you do not understand, treat with reverence and be patient, and what you do understand, cherish and keep.” See St. Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, trans. Thomas Comerford Lawler (NY: Newman Press, 1952), 70.

“I don’t read Scripture to learn doctrine. I don’t read it to find answers to every question. I read it to find God.” Carole Spencer, 1999, quoted in Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001), 118.