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Lectionary Living

Leading from anywhere (Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21  •  John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

    Nestled in the several reading options this week is a great story, seldom read, about leadership. The text is from Numbers – not an obvious name for a book with some pretty good stories, complete with all the details. Here's the set-up. The Israelites, stuck in the wilderness, tired of the same food every day and thinking about the advantages of returning to Egypt, are making their grievances known. Moses has had about all he can take of their complaining, asking God to go ahead and kill him (Numbers 11:15), rather than make him continue to lead this group of whiners.

    This was not Moses' first leadership challenge. His father-in-law, Jethro, had noticed earlier (see Exodus 18) that Moses was getting stressed out by the many responsibilities he faced. Jethro had told him to get organized, select some emerging leaders as impartial judges/decision-makers over the ordinary struggles of daily life, divide the people into groups, and register a leader for each group. Unusual or bigger problems were still referred to Moses, but much of the burden of his role had been spread out among these elders.

    As this week's reading begins, God has just told Moses to gather the elders and take them out to the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting was a portable dwelling, set away from where the people lived. Generally, Moses would go into it to pray, sometimes with the Israelites gathered right outside, but ordinarily with them watching from the camp, where they could see God coming 'in a cloud.' This time, Moses brought the elders with him, and they stood around the outside of the tent while he went in.

    Usually, the spirit of God rested only on Moses. This time, though, some of the spirit was placed on the elders. The elders prophesied, indicating that the spirit had brought them the energy, inspiration, and skill they would need for the long wilderness road ahead of them.      

    Back in the camp, two elders – (Eldad and Medad, and I'm not making this up) - who for some reason had not gone with the others to the tent of meeting, also began to prophesy. When Joshua, Moses' right-hand man, finds out that this is happening, he tries to get Moses to stop them. Moses quickly ends all talk of this, saying "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" (v. 29).

    How quickly a person can become jealous! How quickly an in-group (oh I was at the tent of meeting it was amazing) wants to maintain superiority to the out-group (we didn't get to go, poor us). Emotions like jealousy – shorthand for fear – drive an inability to share not only the burden of our difficulties, but also the energy available for working together towards a common goal like trying to reach the promised land. The ability to get interested in how another person sees a problem, what their solutions to it might be, begins with seeing others as assets: capable people rather than as threats.

    Eldad and Medad were interested, inspired thinkers back in the camp where no one else was prophesying or otherwise feeling it. It takes a certain courage to speak one's mind in an environment where others disagree or, sometimes worse, are disinterested. When everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid, it's easy to be part of the excitement. When one is the lone enthusiast, it's a completely different story. In a sense, Eldad and Medad stand for the capacity to see the truth and live into it, regardless of what others are doing. The person with this integrity becomes an elder, regardless of age, leading others wherever she might be.  

Reflections

Morning: What is a common goal I have with others?  When might I be aware of group pressure today?

Evening: When did I see or experience a sense of inspiration? Where was it a challenge today to be myself?  When was I jealous?

Psalm 104:33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

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Praying in tough times

Acts 1:6-14  •  Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35  •  1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11  •  John 17:1-11

 

    What a job the writer of John is faced with, in today's reading! Capturing any prayer of Jesus has to be a little like describing a sunset in words: impossible. This prayer goes beyond a beautiful sunset. In this prayer we get a front row seat to the deepest reflections of Jesus as he looks back over his life and faces what is to come. Soon, he will be arrested, tried, and crucified. Here, he stops to pray about what has been accomplished and the relationships that have made up his life.

    To begin, Jesus takes all he has done and hands it to God. A humble prayer, its format acknowledges the limits of a human life. It begins with a brief mention of 'the hour' that has come, suggesting perhaps that he is contemplating what is about to happen. Next, it focuses on his life's work, as though he is saying something along the lines of Look, I did the best I could with this, and I am counting on you to make good come from it. Then he considers the people in his life, commending them to God's care, and stepping back as he sees he will no longer be with them.

    Ever so gently, the reading suggests that we might step up, considering our own lives and our own deaths as well. Following the example of Jesus, looking back over one's own work and relationships can be more than an obligation to get one's affairs in order. Remembering that one's life is ending can be the beginning of a sacred prayer.

    An example from my family's story comes from my grandmother, Hannah. Born in 1905, she came to the U.S. through Ellis Island as a child, growing up in a family of tenant farmers in rural Illinois. Married at age 16, she had my mother – her fourth child – in 1929. The delivery was botched, though, with unclean forceps leading to an infection that would not heal. She spent her last days in the hospital, asking for the baby, and then too weak to hold her or nurse her. Many years later, her younger sister, Seena, told me about going to see her in the hospital one day. As they talked about their childhood, Hannah said, "We sure did fight a lot as kids, didn't we? But we sure did have a good time."

    I'm guessing that Hannah - a devout person raised in a home where prayers were said both before and after each meal! – had spent some of her time in the hospital praying about her death. She had thought about her relationships and how she wanted to leave them. And this conversation with her sister was not only an answer to her prayers about her relationships, it was an extension of those prayers, bringing peace, acceptance, and even amusement in a look back at their sibling battles.  

    Although death itself is far from amusing, in my experience, humor is present in the days leading up to the death of a loved one. For my grandmother and her sister, the ability to look at their relationship more lightly, with a little less intensity, brought an ability to see things differently. It was not about blaming, or fault-finding, or who should apologize. It was about understanding what they had been up against as children set within the bigger challenges of their family: seeing the blessing of the relationship rather than its difficulties.

    Two chapters later in John, after horrific injustice and cruelty, Jesus proclaimed from the cross that It is finished (John 19:30). His life was ending, his work was over, and his prayer was already being fulfilled. He had made it through the ordeal in faithfulness to what he had stood for in his life. In her own way, my grandmother did the same.

 

Reflections:

Morning: What is important for me to focus on in my work today? What relationship do I want to tend to? How can I bring humor and light to bear?

Evening: When did I get distracted today? In what ways does thinking about dying bring clarity to how I want to live my life?  

Psalm 68:5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.

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High School Logic

Acts 17:22-31  •  Psalm 66:8-20  •  1 Peter 3:13-22  •  John 14:15-21

    Today's readings provide much food for thought, with a flavor of high school material – if/then clauses, of all things. The psalmist declares that if he had cherished iniquity, then the Lord would not have heard him (v. 18). Paul tells the Athenians that since we are God's children, we ought not to think of idols made of metals as gods (v. 29). The writer of 1 Peter adds that even if one suffers for doing right, then so much the better (v. 14). The clear winner, though, is John 14:15: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

    If/then clauses come to us courtesy of two disciplines: math and grammar. You may remember if x then y: that is, x guarantees y. You may also remember the subjunctive mood, perhaps from a foreign language class. Already wincing? Groaning? I'll keep this short. In the reading, the subjunctive seems like a warning – encoded in the grammar – not to put the cart before the horse. If you love me, you will keep my commandments tells us not only what to do but also the order of things: begin with love. Then following the directions of Jesus is a natural thing, it will just happen! Love for a teacher leads one to following his teachings. On the other hand, following teachings without love for the teacher is difficult.

    Love itself is a bit of a grammar nightmare. It means so many things in so many situations, it almost means nothing. To me, love means a kind and genuine regard for another, delighting in another person or thing for himself, herself, or itself – for their own beauty and not necessarily for how they make you feel. When a person has such a regard for another, their influence can lead you to go in a different direction than you might have gone on your own. My own story comes from the day I learned to bake bread.

    I was in graduate school at the time, and a dear friend had once again made a wonderful supper for a group of us. On the menu was his homemade bread. When I asked him for the recipe, he offered instead to come over and show me how. Later we spent a wonderful Saturday, where I learned how to get the yeast to rise, how to keep the dough warm but not too hot, variations of kneading, and finally, baking the bread. It was an absolutely glorious companionable day that I still recall with details like what bowl I used for the starter. For many years, I made various breads for and with our family including a Christmas brunch tradition of cinnamon bread still carried on by our children.

    Could I have learned this from a set of directions in a recipe? I doubt it, although I suppose, if I had tried enough times, I could have figured it out.  Would I have incorporated bread-making in my life for the next forty years? I very much doubt it. What mattered first was my friend's wisdom, in knowing that my naïve request for a recipe by itself simply would not do. Then it was the time together, and the simple fun we experienced that day. I loved, I delighted in it all: the smell, the careful attention to detail, the kneading, the way the ingredients came together, and the loaves themselves.

    As we baked bread together that day, I took careful notes of each step, following them for years until I knew the directions by heart. To love anyone or anything involves an ardent devotion to the subject itself – a student of the game, so to speak, whether the game is baseball or breadmaking or the beloved. Being attracted to something can create a curiosity, drawing both one's intellectual reason and one's emotions into a focused attention. If one is fascinated, then one is ready to follow where a person or subject or idea leads. Being true to one's own interests – delighting in them, finding the truth in them – comes first. What follows is an increased capacity to remain loyal to what is true.

Reflections

Morning: What do I delight in? When and how can I explore what matters to me today?

Evening: Where today, did I find beauty and truth to delight in?

Psalm 66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

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Troubled

Acts 7:55-60  •  Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16  •  1 Peter 2:2-10  •  John 14:1-14

 

Even as I begin writing this piece, I am aware of my inability to follow the instructions of Jesus: Do not let your heart be troubled. How? Take the usual stressors as thing one, add covid-19 and whoa! I'm troubled! Distressed, agitated, tense, mentally worried, going to extra work, you name it: all aspects of troubled come and go these days.

 

The virus has been a lot of bother, from what kind of face mask works best to where to get toilet paper to how to manage multiple zoom calls. More troubling worries about the health and livelihood of oneself and one's family and friends preoccupy each of us, more or less. Watching the news provides more places for anxiety to land. Jesus, though, is saying to stop being troubled and instead to believe. Being troubled signals a need to look at something from the perspective of one's beliefs, considering one's responsibilities for it and to others, deciding what to do (if anything) and how to do it, doing so, and moving on.

 

In the reading, Jesus moves on quickly, talking about his going to prepare a spacious dwelling place for us. Perhaps it is impossible to go to this place before putting one's anxiety aside, trusting one's beliefs. The frustrated disciples try to pin Jesus down on what he means here, but he will have none of it, insisting that knowing him provides the way.

 

On a pragmatic level, simply knowing what Jesus said and did can provide a sense of the way. That's the easy part! Then one has to do it – which is what I think the disciples were really protesting. Stopping oneself from continuing to be troubled, for instance, is not easy. Right now, the pandemic is the focus. Even before this year, though, many of us were anxious and worried, about something! Somehow, anxiety is in the air, looking for a place to land. Maybe it's easier to look for a place to put anxiety – something to criticize, some problem or someone to fuss over – rather than thinking it through. Both the alertness to threat (Danger?) and the perception of threat (Danger!) happen as worry takes form and takes over one's ability to think.

 

Recently I heard a high school senior talking on the news about how upset she had been over the fact that there would be no graduation ceremony at her school this year. While the inability to connect with others in her life is a frustration, the funneling of the worry onto the graduation itself might be a misuse of anxious energy. Instead, listening and acting on what her troubled heart is telling her – that she needs her friends – would harness her feelings and her mind into a thoughtful effort to stay connected with them.

 

Much has also been in the news about anxiety as mental illness, specifically anxiety  related to job loss. I wonder to what extent it's a sign of a healthy mind, grounded in reality, gathering the strength to face a real problem. How a person can notice the anxiety, letting its energy be useful without taking over the capacity to reason – that is the challenge. None of this is easy. The effort itself to stop being troubled can be at once both challenging and comforting.

 

Reflections

Morning:  How am I troubled today? What do I need to deal with? What is not on me?

Evening: When did I find more energy for living?

Psalm 31:3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name's sake lead me and guide me.

 

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