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Lectionary Living

Hard times

Jeremiah 33:14-16  •  Psalm 25:1-10  •  1 Thessalonians 3:9-13  •  Luke 21:25-36

 

As Advent begins, the lectionary cycle brings us to words of warning about difficult times ahead for all who live on the face of the whole earth (Luke 21:35). Instead of speculating, though, about what's ahead, which can quickly lead away from reality, I'm going to reflect here about the recent past: the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic, in full swing by March of 2020 and perhaps receding now, is close enough in our memory to think realistically about how the scripture might have been applied. Many other examples – such as the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE, could also be used retrospectively. This world, and all the creatures on it, have endured many stressful times.

 

To begin, Jesus goes on for many verses warning about the dangers ahead, before advising his followers to be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… and that day take you unexpectedly (21:34). I've read these words during Advent for my entire life, but never with the clarity provided by covid-19. Starting at the end, the unexpectedness of the pandemic, the zero-to-ninety nature of the perceived threat, was part of its difficulty. I clearly remember the day we were all told at work to get our laptops, go home, and not come back without checking with someone. The someone of course, had no idea either, of what should happen, and was simply doing the best they could under these extreme circumstances.

 

Jesus warned his followers specifically to be on guard against dissipation or drunkenness or the worries of this life (v. 24). Dissipation – and I had to look this up – combines debauchery (deterioration or lowering of character through sensual indulgence) and surfeiting (desiring no more of something after consuming it to excess). As an example, a mild form of dissipation – binge-watching tv shows – was prevalent for many of us last year. Also as predicted, studies show that drunkenness (in the assorted varieties available in the 21st century) was part of the picture of how time was spent during the pandemic.

 

Harder to measure, though, was the third item Jesus had mentioned to be on guard against: worrying. Worrying! Who didn't worry during the pandemic? The oddest thing was how the worry itself became addictive. If one had nothing to worry about, all that was needed was to turn on one's favorite news channel – from right wing to left wing and even in that tenuous middle – and the latest place to attach one's anxiety could always be found.

 

What all three of these things – debauchery, dissipation, and worry – have in common is the capacity to keep a person from staying alert (21:36). Debauchery and dissipation, working to numb one's anxiety, keep one from facing reality. The worries of this life can lead to an unrealistic understanding of events, as the ruminating mind can exaggerate, minimize, or misunderstand events. In short, excessive worry can flood the brain with emotions, so that the ability to think clearly is lost.

 

Instead of worrying, being alert involves something different: looking at all the facts, being open to different views, seeing broader factors that might add to one's understanding and options for action, and proceeding without undue caution or speed. Whether covid-19 is behind us remains to be seen; whatever the next challenge, Advent readings apply!

 

Reflections:

Morning: Where might I choose to be less worried and more alert?

Evening: Looking back on the pandemic, what can I learn about my own response to challenge? My family's response?

Psalm 25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

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Good question

(11/21) 2 Samuel 23:1-7 and Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)  •  Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93  •  Revelation 1:4b-8  •  John 18:33-37

 

As the church year ends, we are treated to a closing scene from the life of Jesus. He stands before Pilate: an earthly 'king' if ever there was one, with power to crucify, or not. Jesus – an itinerant preacher from the middle of nowhere, with no suggestion of power or even a fledgling army – has anticipated death by crucifixion. The night before, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he had spent hours facing the possibility of this cruel method of death. He was prepared: 'prayed up.'

Pilate, politically astute, begins by asking Jesus for his side of the story. Jesus, having none of it, responds by asking his own question. It's a cosmic shift. Who is in charge here?!

 

Pilate presses on, again bringing the question back to the Jews. Jesus seizes the chance to reframe the conversation. Maybe he's thinking, if I have to die, please God may it not be misunderstood as the result of an insurrection plot, which has nothing to do with what I'm trying to accomplish here. Or maybe, for Jesus, it would be more like this: If I have to die, let me go to my death being clear about who I am.

 

Pilate, though, hearing Jesus talk about a kingdom not from this world, latches on to the word kingdom, and persists in asking: So, you are a king? (John 18:37). Maybe by this time, Pilate has gotten a little curious, wondering what this guy is talking about. Or perhaps he's just being sure that Jesus is no affront to the Romans, who are after all, Pilate's main concern. Whatever is behind the question, Jesus uses it to declare: For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

 

What a brilliant, sweeping, statement of purpose! While the book of John records Jesus talking about truth in other places (John 8:32; John 14: 6), this is a little different, with a more universal tone. In the pressure of the moment, Jesus is able to articulate his rock-solid position: who he was and what he stood for.  

   

For all of us, extreme pressure can create clarifying moments. Later, one looks back with surprise: I didn't even know I thought that. And yet, there it is, where one stands, with no regrets whatsoever, regardless of the consequences. While anxiety can be a negative, distracting influence, it can also – when grappled with – become a powerful tonic, distilling one's own essence.

 

The last thing Jesus does here is to talk about the impact of his mission, quickly balancing the urge towards his own individuality with his responsibility to others: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. In the moment, Pilate brushes him off: What is truth? What is truth? Great question, Pilate! And perhaps he spent the rest of his life wondering about it. Here Jesus offers a master class on the Socratic method: the best of the best evoke good questions in the listener, rather than simply asking them.

 

Reflections:

Morning: When have I had a clarifying moment about a rock-solid position of my own?

Evening: What does it mean to belong to the truth?

Psalm 93:1 The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved.

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Vexation

11/14: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10  •  Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16  •  Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25  •  Mark 13:1-8

 

    At the close of each church year, the lectionary cycle turns to predictions of terrible times to come. Daniel predicts a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence (12:1). Jesus warns that there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs (13:8). In the middle of these dire warnings, we also have the story of Hannah, whose deep anxiety and vexation (1:16) is tied to a specific problem: childlessness.

    Hannah's infertility serves as a reminder of human limits. Fertility and the weather are two items on a long list of things over which we have little control. MasterCard advertisements to the contrary, we are not masters of our own fate. What we can control – what any one of us can do – is manage oneself and one's own response to challenge.

    Whether the challenge is childlessness, famines, earthquakes, or something else, the underlying human response is often as Hannah described it: anxiety and vexation. Vexation – the state of being annoyed, frustrated, or worried – is a word covering a lot of ground. Looking back on the covid year, anxiety and vexation were interacting all the time: from the societal level to individual homes and back again.

    When people are vexed by something, they have two directions to go in: engaging the challenge or becoming overwhelmed by it. Putting Jesus' comments (Mark 13) in context, he was aware that his own life would be ending soon. He knew that his disciples, under pressure, could become helpless rather than resourceful. He was trying to prepare them for what was to come, after his death, so that they could engage rather than run from what was ahead.

    In a sense, every person has the same problem. At some level, every person is aware that his own life is coming to an end. Anxiety about dying can get in the way of managing to prepare oneself and one's networks - family, friend, congregational, and community – for that day. As I see it, each person must look to himself first, facing the fear of dying. One cannot expect to overcome this fear – it is operating at a deep level within every living thing, providing instinctive energy to stay alive. Still, though, the fear of dying does not have to rule one's life.

    Contemplating our mortal nature can bring some surprising results. One can relax a little – quit trying so hard – in proportion to the capacity to see one's small place in the scheme of things. One can be less reactive over the day, viewing both oneself and others from the lens of flawed creatures. A new gentleness can emerge.

    Accepting one's creatureliness not only makes living easier, it also makes one's life more grounded in reality. Moving towards this more realistic view of life – and death – is an ongoing effort. Engaging the challenge involves some surprising steps: focusing, for instance, on what one can reasonably accomplish rather than criticizing oneself for what has been left undone; finding, for instance, what one wants to say to others and saying it, while there's time. The freedom that comes from walking this path is as remarkable as the difficulty of starting down it.

 

Reflections

Morning: How do I stay grounded in reality today? Where are my plans unrealistic? When might I be vexed?

Evening: What is different when I stop to contemplate my own death?

Psalm 16:11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

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Resilient Families

(11/7) Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127  •  1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146  •  Hebrews 9:24-28  •  Mark 12:38-44

 

    The book of Ruth is less about Ruth and more about another heroine, Naomi. When the story begins, Naomi is in Moab – a place detested by the Hebrew people. It's Biblical. The story (Genesis 19) was that an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter had led to the birth of a boy named Moab. A number of additional Bible texts are hostile towards the Moabites. To make things crystal clear, Deuteronomy 23:3 states that Moabites aren't allowed to dwell with God's people. 

 

    But people have to eat. A famine in Judah forced Naomi, her husband, and their two sons to move to Moab. After her husband dies, Naomi and her sons remain there, with the sons taking Moabite wives. Then both sons die, before either of their wives have conceived a child. Naomi and the Moabite wives start heading to Bethlehem when Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their families. She plans to journey home alone and embittered. One daughter-in-law does choose to go back home; the other, Ruth, goes back to Bethlehem with Naomi.

 

    The relationship between Ruth and Naomi has been celebrated often – mainly at weddings, where Ruth's words, Where you go, I shall go… and your people shall be my people, and your God, my God, (1:16) are adapted for use by the couple. For a mother-in-law to inspire such loyalty in her daughter-in-law, though, is a more impressive feat. When partners unite, enhanced body-mind chemistry supports the union. When Naomi and Ruth band together, something more is at play.

 

    In the lifestyle of that era, the sons and their young wives would have made their home with the sons' mother, who would have managed the household affairs. In the close daily lives of domestic chores, Naomi would have had choices in how she treated Ruth: with the contempt a Jewish person might show a Moabite, for instance, or with the grudging tolerance of one trying to make the best of a bad situation, or with genuine respect. She opted, apparently, for respect: speaking to her capacity to be her own person, no longer following automatically whatever she'd been taught about those people.

 

    Reviewing whatever principles one has absorbed as a child – deciding what to keep and what to toss – is hard work. Maybe it had happened slowly for Naomi, as her life in Moab unfolded and reality turned out to be different from her expectations. Maybe it had happened quickly, if the culture of Moab had appealed to her. Maybe Ruth herself had helped Naomi to see the beauty of these other people; maybe Ruth faced a similar challenge from her end. The Bible does not say. What's clear is that Naomi and Ruth developed a relationship that lasted a lifetime.

 

    In a sense, every wedding brings a challenge to honor differences. At a wedding, each new member brings not only herself, but her whole family, with their principles and their practices. The family unit as a whole is strengthened as these new members are accepted. Boaz, a rich kinsman of Naomi, sets the example, recognizing Ruth's loyalty to Naomi (2:1-13). His capacity to see Ruth for her strengths rather than denigrating her background offers a template for what all resilient families do.

 

    Boaz and Naomi exhibited another aspect of healthy families. Under stress, neither got stuck in helplessness; rather, each could pivot as needed. Naomi moved to a foreign place, and later, back again, when it was important to do so. Boaz was quick to see to the needs of the family and quick to go to the elders at the city gates to manage changing circumstances. Naomi, seemingly ever-aware of the next step required, deftly directed Ruth's actions as in a made-for-television play (3:1-5). The family moved ahead, with Ruth as the great-grandmother of David (4:13-17).

 

Reflections:

Morning: Where am I stuck in helplessness? How might I pivot?

Evening: How did my principles show up in my life today? Where was my automatic response inconsistent with who I'm trying to be?

Psalm 127:2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

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