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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Aunt Lucille

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a and Psalm 42 and 43 •  Galatians 3:23-29  •  Luke 8:26-39

 

    Most of us have at least one person with demons – a 'demoniac' – in the family. Crazy Aunt Lucille, perhaps. Or goofy cousin Larry. Usually, the family started focusing on these folks pretty early in life. Often, something else had gone wrong: someone had died, or lost a job, or whatever. Everyone is already anxious. And then a person comes along, perhaps with a symptom of some kind, bringing a place to put all that worry. Somehow, focusing on him or her beats dealing with the real problems. And it brings the added benefit of calming everyone down: no one is arguing when everyone is joined in worrying about Larry or Lucille.   The focused-on person alternates between loving and hating her position in the family. There are advantages to everyone thinking one is weak: less responsibility, for one. But there are disadvantages also: less chance to practice the skills leading to competency, less chance to grow up. In the end, the focused-on person loses so much self when with her family that she can only tolerate so much togetherness; at the same time, her lack of maturity gets in the way when she tries to be responsible for herself.

 

    Here enters the demoniac in today's story. In a manner somewhat like today's homeless persons, he has not only his family's focus, but somehow the entire community's attention on him. He wanders naked, living among the tombs. He calls himself as "legion," or "regiment," an apparent ironic reference to the Roman invaders who had oppressed the entire community in a way similar to his own inner submission to an overwhelming loss of self.

 

    Jesus finds the way to his real self, bringing back a clothed and fully restored human being. Unsurprisingly, the man begs to follow Jesus wherever he goes. After all, why would he want to stay there? Memories of wandering the tombs would haunt him. The oppressive presence of Romans soldiers would remain unchanged. His family would continue to focus on him. Under these circumstances, how could Jesus tell him to stay home? But this is precisely what Jesus does tell him to do: with one twist. Go back home, he says, and tell everyone what God has done for you. In other words, go back home, insisting on being your full self. Do not cave under the pressure to once again become someone for others to worry about. Show them who you have become in how you live.

 

    Leaving one's current situation to solve one's problems is familiar territory for many of us. In this story, Jesus insists on the opposite: stay where you are without losing yourself. Perhaps one corollary might be added: stay where you are without requiring others to give up who they are. No easy task, but the story ends with the news that the man did just as Jesus had instructed, going around telling everyone his story. In so doing, he sealed the healing begun that day, for himself and for his family and community as well.

 

For reflection:

Psalm 42:1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Morning: Where might I have trouble being myself today? Where might I pressure another to think or feel like me?

Evening: Where did I lose myself today? What early signs did I miss?

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Wisdom and her cousin

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and Psalm 8  •  Romans 5:1-5  •  John 16:12-15

 

     Wisdom. According to the Proverbs reading, Wisdom was present before the beginning of the earth, suggesting the idea of its existing even before the Big Bang. Wisdom – and who knows what other mysteries, now slightly understood from quantum mechanics, particle physics, general relativity, and so on – might still be present after the conclusion of life here on earth, estimated at 5 billion years from now. In the meantime, though, wouldn't it be nice if we were wiser. As a species, human beings have been given dominion over the world, and yet we lack the wisdom to care for creation. As individuals, each of us has the chance to hear the spirit of truth in our lives, and yet most of the time, most of us lack the ability to attend to the truth. How does one avail oneself of wisdom, apparently standing at the city gates, calling to all?

 

     At least a partial answer to this question may be found in the Romans text. In it, Paul builds a magnificent description of resilience that begins with one word: peace. In an odd way, peace itself is tied back to truth. The more a person can see things for what they are – can see the truth or broaden an understanding of the multiple perspectives pertaining to a situation – the more a person can be at peace. Reasoning may be needed to get at truth. Sometimes, the reasoning is emotional: What is making me so angry? Am I angry or just hungry? Sometimes the reasoning is intellectual: Is it fair to be angry with my colleague, or might she have had problems outside my awareness? Are there other ways of seeing what happened? Do I have all the facts? The more one can engage the capacity for reason, the more one can find truth.

 

     In addition to using one's own faculties of reason, staying connected with others can also help ground a person in truth. Reality comes through knowing others; an inability to consider what another person is saying is a sure sign that one has work to do on both the relationship and one's own inner ability to be curious and detached. Somehow it is easy to lose one's own moorings, like shifting sand under one's feet when the tide goes out. But not attending to the potentially different views of others keeps one imprisoned in a world limited to those who agree: a world of an uneasy truce among the insiders who are always looking for validation for their viewpoint, a world less and less moored to reality. Rather, the way of truth is found in staying connected with others who may think differently without giving up oneself. Think Jesus before Pilate. Jesus was crystal clear about his own principles, while able to remain genuinely interested in what Pilate was up against. What is truth? To live one's life in a way that explores the question is the way of wisdom and her cousin, peace.  

 

For reflection

Proverbs 8:1 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

Morning

When will I have a chance to work on detachment today? What is likely to get in my way?

Evening

When was I able to remain detached? What helped?

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Diversity

Genesis 11:1-9  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  Acts 2:1-21  •  John 14:8-17, (25-27)

 

    This Sunday's readings have a common thread: tribalism. Humans and many other species evolved as groups. Bees, for instance, live for the hive and will protect it from bees from other hives who may be trying to take honey. Prairie dogs live in huge groups, but within that, each family has its own tunnel system, used only by family members. Most fish swim in schools, decreasing the risk of being eaten and increasing the chance of finding food. People evolved in small tribes consisting of a few family groups, where each member watched for danger, increasing the chances of survival for all living within the protection of the group.

 

    The advantage of tribalism in human beings has been the unique expressions of life coming from the innumerable cultures of various tribes. The disadvantage has been the inability of tribal groups to live and let live, so to speak, with each tribe considering other tribes a threat to resources. Into this predicament come today's readings.

 

    The Genesis reading begins with a story of human beings as one group, united by a common language and purpose. In pre-scientific terms, the story describes how the world came to be such a hodgepodge of people; by the end of the reading, people have gone their separate ways in different tribes. There are advantages to diversity, in the creativity of living beings and the constant opportunities to grow and innovate. Without these various expressions, the world would be a much poorer place.

 

    An opposing view of diversity is found in the Acts reading. Diversity brings problems. People can misunderstand each other. They can mistrust each other. They can side with their own group. All manner of conflict and even world wars are to some extent based in tribalism: what my group needs is all that matters. Tribalism was the process leading to the crucifixion of Jesus, as each political leader saw him as a threat to his group. The irony was that Jesus himself came preaching peace, but his message could not be heard.

 

     Somehow in the Acts story, people could hear each other. In spite of coming from many different tribes, they could connect. I remember a time when I was serving dinner to a group of people from another country. They had limited English, and I had almost no knowledge of their language. Then someone pulled out a phone and began sharing pictures of her family, her home, and her travels. The room became full of energy as everyone started showing pictures. In my kitchen it was no longer awkwardness, but laughter and a sense of joy as so much could now be understood.

 

     Where the Genesis reading encourages diversity through tribalism – speaking different languages, having different goals – the Acts reading encourages connections with others, particularly those from other tribes. Both matter, but the balance can be challenging. Getting to know others and letting them know us, while maintaining one's own individuality and respecting other's, is no simple matter. Not letting our hearts be troubled, nor being afraid, is a beginning point.

 

For reflection

 

Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

 

Morning

When might I be with people of different tribes today? How can I notice my own reactivity to them? What can I say or do to connect more clearly?

 

Evening

When did I manage to connect with others today? When was it fun? Joyful?

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Choices

Acts 16:16-34  •  Psalm 97  •  Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21  •  John 17:20-26

 

The Acts passage in this week's readings has provided another set of very human stories: the slave girl, Lydia; Paul, Silas and the other prisoners; and the jailer. First, Lydia, a God-fearing Gentile drawn to attend Jewish worship on the Sabbath, has her powers of divination stripped by Paul, who then faces the wrath of her owners and finds himself and his companion Silas in stocks in the innermost cell of the local prison. Next, in the night, when he and Silas begin singing, the other prisoners, perhaps some of whom were also unjustly locked up, stay awake to listen. Finally, the jailer, who thought he was running the prison, finds himself asking Paul what he should do.

 

There is much to learn from Lydia. She seems to be what we might call "spiritual," with some level of intuition unavailable to most of us. The intuition, however, is getting in her way. She cannot resist the urge to shout out her own particular awareness of what is happening around her.  In a sense, she cannot separate herself from what she is seeing: an extreme case of the "if you see something, say something" axiom found in public transportation these days. The miracle of her healing is not that her insight was taken from her, but she has been able to separate herself from its power over her.

 

There is much to learn from Paul and Silas. Flogged, locked up, in stocks, and probably too uncomfortable from their wounds to sleep, they begin singing hymns. Here are two people who refuse to accept the narrative that they are powerless and the hopelessness that accompanies that view. Being Roman citizens may have helped them to see their circumstances as less than dire. Moreover, in the act of singing, they guard themselves against succumbing to despair. It seems to affect the other prisoners too, who begin listening, instead of mocking them or drifting off to sleep.

 

There is much to learn from the jailer. He has been told that these prisoners must be kept secure, and does his best to lock them down. Awakening to his worst nightmare – the doors of the prison flung open – he reaches for his sword to kill himself. Here is a person absolutely desperate and afraid. When he realizes that Paul and Silas have remained, in spite of their freedom to go, he rushes into them, eventually calming down enough to ask them what he should do to get out of this mess. At this point, the jailer begins to look like the straight man in a comedy routine, asking the question that sets up the ultimate response: believe in Jesus. Whatever piece of this he was able to apprehend, he had realized that these men were trustworthy, and takes them home with him to care for their wounds. Before the night was over, he and his household were baptized.

 

In all these stories, one consistent theme is that of recognizing one's own choices in being responsible for oneself. Lydia can choose to speak or not. Paul and Silas can choose how they see their imprisonment. The jailer can choose suicide or not. A related theme is the way that one's own choices impacts others. Lydia's openness to being healed sets up the whole sequence of events. Paul and Silas help each other through a long night. Their choice to stay in place after the earthquake, a move related to their own long-term goals, is lifesaving for the jailer. Being true to oneself brings new choices in the lives of others.

 

For reflection:

 

Psalm 97:11 Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.

 

Morning

What choices do I have today, in terms of responsibility for myself, that might be hard to see?

 

Evening

When did I find new choices in my day?

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