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).

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).

Hang in There

There were three of us in the group. One had been married almost 60 years, another 36, and another (me) 48. We all agreed that marriage is full of challenges. Life deals the marriage blows that are hard and the couple’s approaches differ. What is good for one partner is not good for the other. What one does may totally irritate, or even undermine, the other. Our opinions about important things clash. We three also agreed that we are glad we have hung in there even with all of the trials and frustrations.

Struggling through the hard spots, wrestling with tough issues rather than ignoring them or allowing them to escalate out of control, and accepting one’s own and the other’s flaws and limitations—even getting help—are not fun. They are, however, the building blocks of an intimacy and love much more wonderful than the romantic notions I began with as a teenager. It is in those places where the hard edges of my personality could be ground smoother, where the need for God and awareness of God’s saving grace became clearer, and where my heart could be tendered.

There are times, though, when divorce is the right thing. I don’t want to deny that truth. Knowing when to give up and when not to is serious discernment. I just want the chance to say that in many situations there are very good reasons to hang in there, use those hurting times as an opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually, and reap the benefits long term.

The same can be true for hanging in with other relationships and communities—a church, a school, a job. I have even found it useful to hang in there with the Bible. There are things that upset me earlier that, after much wrestling and study, I have found new, more informed, and faithful ways of understanding. And I’ve learned that I have to leave some things hanging, knowing I don’t understand them yet but the day may come. That humility is a rich benefit of hanging in.

Queries:

Midlife is a time when challenges can hit particularly hard. What helps with discerning the difference between (a)what needs to be changed and can be changed if addressed and worked on, and what can’t be changed but can be accepted, and (b)what is in fact the true breaking point?

What would you say about the value (or mistake) of hanging in there?

Prayer:

“Give us strength for this day and love for each other.” Pray for those with whom you have important relationships. “Help us to change the things we can change, to accept the things we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

For further reflection:

“that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and depth of insight. . .” (See Philippians 1: 9-11).

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. . .” (See Ezekiel 36: 26-28).

Praise

It had been raining day after day. Still early, we had already had one downpour and lots of showers. When I noticed a slight lightening up of the clouds, I headed out for a walk on the nearby greenway. Immediately my eye was caught by the autumn leaf colors. The yellow, orange, red, and mahogany of sweet gum leaves. The green maple leaves with paint blotches of red. Even the leaves on the ground—yellow, glistening as if sunlight, in comparison with the gold and brown leaves around them. My heart responded—oh my God!

There were birds everywhere. I imagined that they were as happy to be out stretching their wings as I was. They were flying from one branch to another, flitting or hopping among low-lying bushes, twitting and chirping and squeaking. Oh my God! I had to stop and take it in, simply be in the presence.

The night before, we had gone to a potluck at our Quaker meeting. A friend had brought a freshly baked whipped cream pound cake, and blueberry compote to go on top of each slice. Of course I had a piece. The first bite—oh my God!

There are many kinds of experiences that call us to praise our Creator and Sustainer. Maybe it is waking up to the new morning with the one you have loved for a long time. Maybe it is music exquisitely played. Maybe it is being with a group of friends, feeling at one with one another, caring and sharing. Maybe it is that a loved one recovered from a serious illness.

The Psalms express well that praise that arises from the depths of our souls: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name (Psalm 103).” To praise God is not for God’s benefit. It is for us. To praise reminds us of where we fit in things, lifts up humility with no sense of humiliation, and reminds us who we are and Whose we are.

Queries:

Does praise of God come easily to your heart and lips, or are there questions and qualms that block the praise?

Is there value in praising God regularly even if the external circumstances that most likely call it forth are not there?

Prayer:

“Wow!” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

For further reflection:

“I will hold you above everything that exists—my God, my Holy Protector, awed by your name always, in gladness as well as sorrow” (See Psalm 145 as translated by Hebrew scholar and poet Pamela Greenberg).

“Praise the Creator from the sky, praise the Eternal from the heights, let all the angels sing out in praise!” (See Psalm 148).

For the ultimate in praise, see Psalm 150. For this psalm I prefer the New Revised Standard Version.