Wise and Intelligent?

I find it interesting that so many of the people Jesus spent time with, cared about, and lifted up have characteristics that are ones I don’t want to have.

Having spent many years in school, I certainly prefer to be considered intelligent.  And now that I have reached a certain age, I find it somewhat comforting despite the diminishments of aging to be aware of an increase in wisdom.  But, after a period of teaching disciples and the crowds, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things [what Jesus is trying to teach the people] from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11: 25).  Being wise and intelligent may not be the best avenue for being open to the life-giving Word.

Jesus upset the religious establishment of his day by spending time with “sinners and tax collectors.”  When challenged about this behavior, Jesus replied that he had been sent to care for those who were sick, not for those who were well; for sinners not for the righteous (See Matthew 9: 9-13; Mark 2: 15-17; Luke 5: 27-32).  But I prefer to be healthy and righteous.

When I was a child playing competitive games on the playground at school, I loved being one of the first children chosen for a team.  Those who were chosen last suffered.  With Jesus, status doesn’t come in being first.  “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20: 26b-27).

Sometimes we need to have our perspectives challenged and turned upside down.  Jesus is ready to do that.

Queries:

How have you known about being on the bottom side of life?

Where, if anywhere, does Jesus fit in your life?

Prayer:

Choose one of the biblical references above.  Read it, and select a word or phrase or image to chew on.  Let the passage be prayed in you.  Listen for the word given you.

For further reflection:

“Nathanael said to [Philip], ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’” (See John 1: 43-51).

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

Easter Week

When I was a child, our church celebrated Easter Sunday, the triumphant day of resurrection.  Perhaps there was a Maundy Thursday service of some kind, but if so, nothing was memorable.  We focused on expressing new life in Christ and giving glory to God (to put it most positively) by showing up on Easter morning in new clothes.

As an adult I find it much more wonderful to celebrate, or walk through, the whole of Passion Week.  In what happens to Jesus there is so much that speaks to our human condition.  How many of us have experienced betrayal by someone who was a close part of our circle, maybe even a spouse or a parent or a sibling—betrayal in terrible proportions, or even in relatively small things?  I think of the wife whose husband has an affair with her best friend.  Any betrayal is devastating.

What about having friends disappear when you most need them?  I think of a breast cancer patient who told me that her mother was no longer talking with her.  Or the one whose husband walked out not long after the diagnosis.  To be abandoned by friends is bad enough.  To cry out to God and feel as if God is not there is even harder.

What about being accused unjustly, or treated abusively and derisively?   Such treatment may well steal our sense of self.  Or what about Jesus’ disciples in this story?  Like them we have notions about the purpose of what we are doing.  How hard it is if what we have worked for so long suddenly falls apart.

What I learn in the passion story is that my suffering is not unknown, that God is with me in it regardless of how I may feel or how the suffering may have come to pass.  And that no matter how bad things are, the suffering is not the end of the story.

Queries:

What has been your experience of Easter?

How can you connect inwardly with the suffering and the joy of Easter?

Prayer:

Jesus, forgive us for the barriers and blocks we put up to keep us from living in the abundant joy you desire for all of us.  May you reign in our hearts and in our world.

For further reference:

Read the passion story in one of the gospels—Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, John 18-21.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10).

Giving and Receiving

“It is more blessed to give than to receive” seems to be the general assumption among those who have relative material prosperity.  It certainly is a joy to give.

On a recent Mother’s Day, my 7-year-old granddaughter persuaded her dad to take her to the store so she could pick out presents for her mother.  She knows what her mother likes, and she enjoys giving gifts.  Giving also can be not in material things but in giving of oneself.  Some share professional knowledge and do helpful things such as developing a system to monitor and maintain precious wells that provide water for communities whose water-needs shape their lives.  Some, as teachers, give their creativity and energy to draw out the best from students.  Some give to others a listening ear and a sense of being loved and important.  There are so many ways to give oneself.

Some people are very willing to give to others, but never acknowledge any need themselves and therefore avoid the experience of receiving.   I think receiving is a gift in itself.  When I took my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education in a local hospital, I was given a badge that included my name and the title of chaplain.  That badge meant that I was received by people and allowed to give the services I already was able to give but had had no place where those gifts could be received.  I was very grateful for the badge.  Both giving and receiving are important.

The ultimate gift we celebrate at Christmas is the birth of Jesus.  We have been given stories about his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.  But unless we are enabled to receive the meaning of these stories, we, like many before us, miss the gift.

Queries:

What is your experience of giving and receiving?  In what way might you be called to do more of one or the other than you have been doing?

Who is Jesus for you?  What is the gift of Christmas for you, if any?

Prayer:

For persons who are homeless, for newborn babies, for young families, for people who are traveling, for peace and goodwill to all we pray.  Let us see the star.  May we receive your gift of love.

For further reflection:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (See John 4: 1-26).

“Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (See John 16: 24).

Friends

I am very fortunate to have many good friends, in my town and around the country.  They challenge, support, and sustain me.  They are the source of lots of fun and joy, whether by phone or in person.  This morning I was out for a walk on a beautiful day when a friend drove past in her truck, recognized me, and waved.  Automatically I waved back, smiled broadly, and felt my heart touched–ah, this is a good day.

I have a friend with whom my husband Ralph and I regularly take hiking trips as couples.  Ralph picks out where we go, my friend finds a place to stay, Ralph picks out the hikes, I find wildflowers and interesting things on the trail, my friend takes pictures of them, and her husband brings up the rear finding things we miss and keeping us altogether.  Each of us has a part to play, and the whole is much richer than any one part or even their sum.

Ralph loves for me to bake a fruit pie.  It doesn’t happen very often because they take a long time to make and no time to finish eating.  I have another friend with whom Ralph once shared a piece of his apple pie.  Ever since then she has been begging me to make an apple pie for her.  One day I will, because her friendship has enriched my life beyond measure, including introducing me to people, places, and ideas that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

True friendship—with its equality, intimacy, and oneness—is special.  Jesus tells us that if we obey his command to love one another, we will be his friends.  We will not be servants or slaves to a master whom we must fear and obey for the benefit of the master’s business, which of course we do not know.  If we love, we will be one with Jesus and with God, and can do much good that will last.  It isn’t easy to love, but we have help.  It is quite an invitation.

Queries:

Who are your friends and what do they mean to you?  How are you as a friend?

What is it, or would it be, like to be a friend of Jesus?

Prayer:

Begin by thinking of a neighbor friend and hold that person in God’s love and light.  Next, but not too quickly, move to a special friend from past or present and do the same.  And lastly to someone not yet a friend or even to someone who is very hard to like.  Again, hold that person in God’s love and light.  Thank Jesus for his offer of friendship with you.  Thank God for God’s love of you.

For further reflection:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (See John 15: 9-17).

“And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him” (See Mark 2: 2-12).

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).

Healing

The gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ healing of a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.  She was bent over and unable to stand up straight.  This is a wonderful story that is very easy for readers to identify with.  There are so many things that weigh us down.

I first thought about this story the day we had a number of first-year college students visiting our Quaker meeting before their classes had begun.  They were bright and perky; but I remembered other students I had seen in other years in the middle of the term, weighed down with schoolwork, relationship issues, concerns about the future, lack of sleep, and more.

I can also remember being weighed down feeling overwhelmed with many different projects that needed to be addressed, feelings of inadequacy, and a sense of great responsibility.  And, especially as a young woman, feeling burdened with being a woman and the struggles that brought me in trying to find my place.  I really value that in the story Jesus sees the woman, speaks to her, and lays his healing hands on her.  All three actions bring healing.  What a joy to be released from the spirit that crippled her—or cripples us.

One time I had been feeling weighed down for several days, with no particular cause that I could point to.  The more I felt uncomfortable about the feeling, the more I paradoxically seemed set on being bent over.  Until I heard a friend, who knows God’s love for her and has a deep and abiding love for God, say, “Sometimes I have things come up that I just can’t handle, and I tell God he is going to have to take care of that himself.”  So I tried that.  “God, I can’t handle this feeling.  You’re just going to have to handle it.”  I first had to agree to let it go if I were released from it, and I had to trust it into God’s hands.  The next day I woke up cheerful.  My anxiety about a particular responsibility had shifted.  I felt companioned by Jesus, open and curious instead of fearful.  The crippling spirit had been lifted.  I was standing up straight again.

Queries:

In what way are you, or someone you know, bent over with a spirit that cripples?

How does your faith speak to that condition?

Prayer:

Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.  In thee I trust.  (And thank you, God, for faithful friends.)

For further reference:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16a).

“Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15: 4).

Weakness

As a country we do not like to be weak.  The appeal of Donald Trump’s tough-talking rhetoric and “Make America Great Again” slogan reflects a will for power and disdain for weakness.  Personally we don’t like weakness either.  For example, it’s hard to make plans for the last years of our lives because we don’t want to imagine ourselves as able to do anything less or have anything less than is so right now.

And yet it is often the case that it is in weakness we can find life.  This is the story of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous.  Only when alcoholics admit that they are unable to control their use of alcohol, when they recognize this “weakness” and surrender themselves to a higher power whom they trust more than themselves, do they begin to know life again.  When life is good and comfortable, we can assume we are deservedly blessed by God or simply forget God altogether.  But they say there are no atheists in foxholes.  In weakness we know where our true strength lies.

The temptation is to hold onto a false sense of power and a false god.  The man who talks with Jesus about how to inherit eternal life illustrates this tendency.  He has been following the outward commandments from childhood, but something yet seems missing.  Jesus hears his concern and loves him.  Recognizing what blocks the man from life, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow him.  But the man can’t do that and goes away sad.  He has wealth and power, and there is where his trust lies. Wealth and power are his gods.  But they do not give life.

This story is challenging because we have many false gods.  If we can avoid appearing weak in the world’s eyes, we often choose a life-less god.  How wonderful that we have the story of Jesus.  He taught with authority, but his disciples didn’t quite get his message.  He died on a cross as a criminal.  Plenty of weakness.  But through his resurrection, his weakness became strength.  The disciples got the message, and we have a chance at the good news.  God’s grace is sufficient.  No worldly weakness has to have the final word.

Queries:

Where in your life have you experienced weakness?  How have you handled it?

In what or whom do you trust?

Prayer:

God, you choose the weak and lowly to proclaim your strength and glory. Empower us to trust in you and live in your love.

For further reflection:

“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  (See 2 Corinthians 11:16 – 12:10.)

“The heart is normally opened through a necessary hole in the soul, a sacred wound. Our wound is the only way, it seems, for us to get out of ourselves and for grace to get in.” –Richard Rohr