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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

The View from Above

Genesis 12:1-4a  •  Psalm 121  •  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  •  John 3:1-17

 

    The readings for March 8th present us with two old guys – Abraham and Nicodemus – being asked to do or think something new. Abraham, age 75, is told to move to a new and unknown land, and oh, by the way, that he will be the father of a great nation. Nicodemus, with senior status as a Pharisee and a ruler, is told that he needs to re-think the basics of his religion to be part of the kingdom of God.

 

    Nicodemus seems baffled. Who wouldn't be?! First, he is sneaking out at night to have a word with Jesus. He sees God in Jesus and tells him so. Does Jesus seem flattered? No. Does Jesus seem glad to have this important person's approval? No. Does Jesus say anything to agree or side with Nicodemus? No. Instead, Jesus shows his respect by sharing his own views. First, he is saying that only those who have been born from above can see the kingdom of God. Well this was a hard one for Nicodemus, and he says so. The being born a second time, what does Jesus mean? Go back into our mothers' wombs? Jesus insists that it's so: with a description of being born by water and the spirit.

 

    The spirit blowing wherever it wanted to go was a completely new way of thinking for Nicodemus, who as a Pharisee would think of the spirit as guaranteed for Abraham's descendants; his people, his group. Jesus was telling him something different – that entrance to the kingdom of God is not automatic, that something else is involved besides being part of the group.

    Something happens to human beings in our group identities. Somehow, we feel safer within a group; it becomes a way of managing anxiety. Nicodemus was comfortable as a Pharisee. Others living in his same community may have been comfortable as Romans. Jesus is challenging him – and us – to move beyond the group identity, requiring that each of us become more of a self, born from above, where the perspective on life is much, much bigger.    

 

    The tendency to prefer our own kind, our own tribe, is natural across many species including not only humans, but also fish, wolves, ants and honeybees. The herd instinct runs deep and sometimes, humans can cut-off from one group only to join another group of equal intensity, continuing the same process of insiders and outsiders. But the human brain is malleable; we can teach ourselves new ways. If the spirit is blowing across the world, going where it may, then the view from above can help us to see each other as part of the same kingdom. This capacity, though, has to be cultivated. Wondering about, rather than reacting, to that 'rude' person – clearly from another tribe! - can give room for a relationship to begin. Asking about, rather than ignoring, the thoughts of that quiet person – possibly from one's own group or not – can give room for a new view. In seeking to understand, not only is wisdom within and between groups increased, but also the individual capacity to relate to different people grows. These everyday opportunities matter.

 

    For Nicodemus, what a remarkable evening this must have been! Think of him going home to ponder how different the world might be, if these ideas were real. If we as adults can be re-born, well, then there is hope. Each of us can learn new ways. Adults can stop excluding others, seeing some as in and others as out. All the energy now spent on divisive tactics can be repurposed. The chance to be born from above is given continually, in a thousand daily opportunities to get to know others while being true to one's own deepest thoughts and principles.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What groups am I comfortable in? Curious about? What happens when different views come up?

Evening: When did I give up my own positions or distance myself to remain a part of a group? What changes when I have the perspective of being born from above?

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Everything Takes Practice

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7  •  Psalm 32  •  Romans 5:12-19  •  Matthew 4:1-11

    The readings for Sunday, March 1 cover a lot of territory on temptations. From the Garden of Eden story to a psalm recommending repentance to Romans chapter five to the temptations of Jesus in the desert, sin is centerstage. As Lent begins, it is time to consider these readings on how we humans are tempted – and the consequences for us.

 

    Beginning with perhaps the most complicated reading, in Romans 5, Paul describes death as having come through sin. Now, death has been part of the natural world from the dawning of life on this planet, from way before humans inhabited it. In another sense, though, it seems to me that Paul is spot on. Each and every day, we humans often neglect what we aspire to, letting our hopes die, or at least, languish, while other things occupy our minds and our time. In this way, we humans are all subject to operating as less than the persons we are capable of being. The story of Adam and Eve is itself a case study in how easily we can be led astray. Eve is being convinced by a snake, for crying out loud, to doubt God. Adam is going along with whatever she says. Together, Adam and Eve are two adults acting like children, throwing away the life they have been given in a fit of immaturity.

 

    Jesus shows us another way to operate: a way to stay fully alive. The important thing here is that it is not an easy way. Being fully alive means several things:

·         Being fully able to experience pain and sadness. When the tempter offers bread to Jesus, after a long fast, it is his willingness to embrace the pain of hunger that kept him from succumbing to temptation. Much sin begins with avoiding one's own human emotions rather than finding, acknowledging, and thoughtfully considering them.  

·         Being mortal with no expectation to be exempt from the rules everyone has to follow. When the tempter offers Jesus super-human powers, the appeal is the same process as for any of us, hoping for the universe to bend itself to our needs, just this once. These hopes do not necessarily involve cosmic events. An example from my own life is wanting the bus to come a few minutes late on days when I'm behind. In wanting circumstances to align with my own needs, I lose sight of reality and the chance to be fully alive in it.

·         Staying the course. In the third temptation, Jesus is offered worldly glory – the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. But there was a cost. Jesus would have had to worship and adhere to the tempter's principles, giving up his own. For Jesus, this was a non-starter. For many of us, the trading of principles for rewards may seem practical, or inconsequential. The reality, though, is that trading one's principles away always leaves one less than fully alive.

 

    Being fully alive means at least one more thing. It means practicing all of the above. It means enough experience choosing the right path that it becomes the automatic way to operate. Jesus, you see, did not have to ask the tempter for a day or two to think it through. Each time, he knew who he was and how he would manage himself. How does one get to this human Carnegie Hall? Practice.

 

For reflection:

Morning: How can I be more fully alive today? What could I practice?

Evening: What temptations did I notice today? What can I learn from how Jesus managed to stand up to them?    

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Getting up and not being afraid

Exodus 24:12-18  •  Psalm 2 or Psalm 99  •  2 Peter 1:16-21  •  Matthew 17:1-9

    The readings for Sunday, February 23 mark a sea change in the Church Year. We readers find ourselves on a mountaintop – first with Moses, and then with Jesus – in extraordinary circumstances. It is as though the folks who put the lectionary readings together are giving us one last chance to enjoy the contemplative view, before the 40 days of Lent begin.

    Many of us, I'm guessing, have had extraordinary experiences of one kind or another: times set apart from the rest of one's life. I have had a few mountaintop experiences – literally mountaintop, for in my younger days I liked to hike. I can remember being up high and the clouds rolling in. I can also remember how helpless it felt, not being able to see anything whatsoever. One literally cannot see enough to move. Running away is not an option – given the chance of falling off a cliff or otherwise hurting yourself. Even the air feels different: moist, cool, thick. At that point, it's a short road from helpless to panicky to fearful.

    Here on the emotion-filled road we meet Jesus, who is stopping as his mountaintop moment ends to coach the three disciples with him. Touching them, he is saying "you guys get up and stop being afraid!" Thank goodness for the disciples, working as stand-ins for our all-too human frailties, and adding some humor in an otherwise sublime scene. Picture the three of them, getting scared and literally running into each other, falling down in a heap!

    Fear can be funny. Some of the funniest scenes in movies – and life – happen when one person gets scared, the fear spreads across the group, and an unreasonable, hilarious response follows. All of us, attentive to fear, anxiety, panic, worry – call it what you will – can catch fear as it spreads. The opposite, though, is also true. If one person can remain calm, others can find their way back to thoughtfulness. On a mountain, for example, one can know in one's mind that the cloud will pass, sooner or later, reassure oneself, and manage to remain still. One's own example can calm others, as Jesus calmed the disciples. All of us have a similar ability!  Human brains have the capacity to toggle back and forth from reason to emotion and back again.

    Emotions themselves are not the problem. Fear, for example, has great adaptive value for humans as a species. The problem with unregulated fear is that it steals the present moment from us. In a continued fearful response, much is lost. All that might be seen or understood, all the challenges one might embrace, manage, and lead others through, all the choices available in the moment, all of this disappears. More than that, others – families, friends, or colleagues, - pick up on the worries, and before long, everyone is getting anxious. This can happen not only in the big moments, but in everyday life. So many ordinary but lovely moments go unnoticed, unappreciated, and un-enjoyed as people are distracted by many worries. It is almost as though fear and her many cousins keep us from being completely alive. The good news is that any one of us can stop the cycle by getting up and not being afraid.

 

Reflections

Morning: What am I afraid of, or worried or anxious about? How can I remember to toggle between my emotions and my thoughts about them?

Evening: When did I find my anxiety going up today? What sorts of clouds bring it on?

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Grow Up!

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20  •  Psalm 119:1-8  •  1 Corinthians 3:1-9  •  Matthew 5:21-37

    The readings for Sunday February 16 continue to challenge us: grow up! Beginning in the middle, the First Corinthians reading likens the readers to newborn infants. The Deuteronomy reading tells us to choose wisely. Matthew brings it home, with some of the most important and most ignored directives in scripture, in a description of mature ways to deal with common human emotions.

    One emotion discussed in the Matthew reading is anger. Jesus is describing a situation where a person is angry with a brother or a sister – a situation that resonates from the first century to the 21st. Nothing has changed in the last 2000 years, a very brief time in the history of our planet and the human beings on it. Most of us can remember being angry with a brother or a sister early in our lives – and most of us, in our most honest moments, might still admit to more recent moments of anger towards one or more siblings. Anger, that is, occurring in one of its many forms, from disappointed to offended to incredulous to contempt to resentment to frustration to complete outrage.

    Last week I was at my gym one evening when a person near me began talking about her family with her trainer. It was remarkable. She spent at least five minutes of her training session talking about a recent visit from her sister and how the sister had offended her. Somehow, the parents were involved too, and that also required a discussion, and maybe another five or ten minutes or so. I was trying hard not to listen, and the content doesn't matter anyhow. Nor does it matter that she was experiencing anger. It is a human feeling; and having a sense of anger is not in itself to be held against a person.

    What does matter is how anger can capture a person. There she was, paying a trainer to help her with her physical health, and instead using the time to focus on her sister. What a waste of time! Family relationships are so powerful that even when angry, even when distant from the 'offending' member, one can think of nothing else.

    In an astonishingly similar way, a person who is sexually attracted to another can begin to lust after that person, thinking of nothing else. Again, what a waste of time! In verse 28, Jesus warns us to avoid entertaining the intense desire that follows the initial attraction. The danger is that lust captures the person – it is distracting, reducing the capacity towards emotional reason. The problem is not the instinct of sexual attraction itself: that much is a part of who we are as humans. It is what we do with our instincts and feelings that matters.

    Going back to anger, Jesus is quite specific about what needs to be done. Go and find that sibling and reconcile. That is not easy to do. But is it easier to live a thousand miles from one's siblings, see them briefly, and then spend the days between the visits ruminating on and/or complaining about and/or ignoring what they did? The time and energy spent on avoiding the problem is striking. The road towards real contact with one's family members – clearly saying what one is thinking, completely owning one's own contribution to the problem, really listening to the other – may seem hard at first. But it is how we grow up. The mature person has no trouble following these words; they are a description of how a grown-up behaves. The rest of us have a choice, many times a day, to stay on the path towards maturity.

 

Reflections

Morning: What may get in the way of operating from my mature side today? 

Evening: How could I have used more emotional reason in my day?  Where did I waste my time?

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