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Lectionary Living

Right Now

Jonah 3:1-5, 10  •  Psalm 62:5-12  •  1 Corinthians 7:29-31  •  Mark 1:14-20

    This week's short Mark reading packs a punch: immediately. Twice in the six verses, people respond immediately. In the short book of Mark (only sixteen chapters), the word immediately is used 45 times.

    In the context of this story, an immediate response is required of two fishermen, standing there casting their nets into the sea. They could follow Jesus right then, or they could keep fishing for the rest of their lives, as their ancestors had done for probably hundreds of years. It was a good occupation. Somehow, though, the chance to follow Jesus motivated them to choose a whole new life.

    When they chose to take this new direction, of course, they had no idea what would really lie ahead. None of us do. The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a useful example. At age 14, he decided to become a pastor. Although his family was not particularly happy about this choice, they respected his decision. Turned out, as an adult involved in the resistance to Hitler, that the role of pastor allowed him to use the cover of ecumenical work to communicate with the resistance movement across Europe. The choices he made early in life influenced everything he was able to do later, serving God in many ways.

    All of us have immediate choices. They may be major changes – dropping everything and going a different way in life. Or they may be small, almost imperceptible tweaks, at first – observing oneself and managing one's life differently. I would call these process goals, as separate from achievement goals. Not that achievement goals are less valuable: au contraire! Achievement goals and the detailed working out of how to get to them can make a difference for individuals and families. The problem is that without attention to one's internal processes, achievement goals may have little chance of success.

    The person who learns emotional self-management has many more options available to her than the one who continuously allows her less mature self to run the show. The person who works to become more responsible for self and appropriately responsible to others has a different life trajectory than the one who stays stuck in the over or under functioning pattern he grew up with. All of this begins with becoming more self-aware. Self-awareness, the opposite of self-absorption, leads a person towards a bigger perspective, a more reality-based view of oneself and one's life.

    The prospect of the road described here can be a little dismaying. Platitudes like no one said this was going to be easy are of little help as one faces one's own anxiety, reactivity, and resulting general confusion! At this point, I have found three ideas useful. First, the choice is clear: keep repeating the same patterns, or not. Second, on being yourself: for some inspirational music, try Billy Joel's My Life. The lyrics, either way it's okay you wake up with yourself, say it all. Yourself is what you do have to work with.  Finally, some good news from the sciences. Brain plasticity is real; one can rewire, creating more flexibility for living. Practicing within one's own family can help. The key to the benefit plan? Start immediately.


Daily Reflections

Morning: What are my goals these days? What gets in the way of starting on them right now?

Evening: When was I self-aware today? What difference did it make?

Psalm 62:5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.

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Avoiding Deceit

(1/17) 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)  •  Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  •  1 Corinthians 6:12-20  •  John 1:43-51

    Today's Samuel reading is one of my favorites. A little background. As First Samuel opens, a childless woman named Hannah is at the temple in Shiloh praying for a son. The priest, Eli, noticing her intense praying, first thinks that she's been drinking. Hannah makes it clear that not only is she sober, but she is also intent on serving God. She tells Eli that if she has a son, she will give him to the Lord's service. When Hannah gets pregnant, she praises the Lord in words picked up again, hundreds of years later: my soul proclaims the greatness of the lord (Luke 1:46ff). When she has a son, Hannah dedicates his life to God's work. She takes care of him as a baby and toddler, bringing him to Eli as a boy. Annually, she makes the trip to Shiloh to give thanks, and I'm guessing, to check on her son.

    In contrast to Hannah's son, who is growing up 'in stature and favor with the Lord and with the people' (2:26), Eli's sons are not doing so well. Right before the scripture opens, Eli has had a visit from an unnamed person who warns him that his godless children will be utterly destroyed. By this time, Eli was an old man, and his eyesight was poor. Samuel apparently slept nearby, to attend to him. One night, Samuel hears a voice calling him. He goes to Eli, who says he did not call him. This happens three times. On the third time, Eli catches on. It is the Lord's voice. Eli coaches Samuel: if you hear it again, say 'speak Lord, for your servant is listening' (3:9).

    Eli's responsibility to Samuel – and to his mother, for that matter – was to bring him to this point. To raise up a person who could serve the Lord was his task. Part of the work, at this point, was for Eli to step down. It seems that Eli had once been favored with these kinds of chats in the night, let's call it. As the person to whom the Lord had spoken in the past, it might have been a hard thing to move to the outside of what one might describe as privileged communication. Eli saw that it was now Samuel's turn. But before Eli's job was done, Samuel still had to learn what to do with a vision from the Lord. Samuel is afraid to tell Eli, as the news repeats the warning that Eli's kids are in big trouble.  Eli, anticipating that the news might be difficult, warns Samuel to tell him everything.

    Avoiding deceit – AKA telling the truth – is hard to do. Under pressure, it's often the first thing to go. Jesus, in the gospel reading, seemed happy simply to see one person in whom there was no guile! What makes the truth so important is its capacity to provide a broader view of reality. What makes it so rare is an incapacity to be interested in gaining perspective! It's easier to lie to oneself and to others.

    When Samuel tells Eli what the Lord had said, Eli answers, "It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him." It seems to me that Eli taught Samuel two lessons that day. The first was that the word of the Lord – the truth, let's call it – was a message to be shared, not held in secret. The second was how a mature person responds to the truth. Assimilating bad news requires emotional self-regulation. Samuel would have many opportunities to speak the truth to others over his life. Sometimes it would be difficult news. But now he knew what to look for: a hearing of the message and a tad of curiosity around how this would work out for the good.

    In some homes, everyone is required to agree, more or less, with the family's outlook. The lack of openness limits the circulation of new ideas through the system. In a closed system, children have little opportunity to hear or engage different thoughts. Learning how to share one's own thinking while remaining interested in the view of others is challenging work. Phrases like I see this a little differently… can be kept in mind, as one practices. Human cooperation is built on the broadening of individual understanding so that the group can find its way forward.


Morning: Where might I hold back the truth today? How can I find a way to share it?

Evening: When was it hard to hear another person's point of view? How did I do with emotional self-regulation?    

Psalm 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

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Epiphanies Happen!

(1/10) Genesis 1:1-5  •  Psalm 29  •  Acts 19:1-7  •  Mark 1:4-11

    It's a very odd thing, this week's Mark reading. Jesus is being baptized, the heavens are opening, and a voice is coming from the heavens. Oh and something like a dove descended on Jesus. Only, scholars are not sure who saw and heard this. After careful analysis of the scripture, they can't tell if Mark meant that it was everyone in the crowd, or maybe only a few people. Or maybe Jesus alone had this experience and reported it back to others.         

    Then as now, chances are good that more is happening than most of us are noticing. Not that if one could pay attention, he would see the heavens opening on a regular basis! Or maybe he would, who knows? At any rate, what gets in the way of noticing more is worth considering.

    A chief culprit here is anxiety. Somehow the tension in a system draws a person in to focus on one thing or another. A worry may cause a person to miss a beautiful sunset off in the distance, or a chance to connect with another person, or a chance to meet the goals for the day. Besides distracting, worry can also absorb energy. The time spent fussing over a problem, who's to blame and what's to be done, can take away any enthusiasm for a project. When anxiety takes over, the energy to pay attention seems to get drained from the system.

    I've heard it said that one antidote to anxiety is curiosity. Not curiosity as prying behavior, but curiosity as an inquiring mind. Taking today's gospel reading, consider those in attendance that day. John's baptism was a baptism 'of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.' Repentance itself can go at least two ways. One way is the honest, forthright sorting out of one's own immaturity: noted and then dispatched. The other involves a curving in upon oneself in an endless preoccupation that is its own sin. The crowd gathered that day around John the Baptist could have been so focused on confession that they lost all interest in what was happening around Jesus, right before their eyes. If so, their own miserable lives were interfering with their capacity to behold a story still being told, 2000 years later!

    People have a limited ability to see what's happening around them. About a dozen years ago, when I was looking for a new job, the "ability to multitask" was on every job description. Now, the idea of multitasking has been debunked. In everyday life, a person does have to choose what to attend to. More than that, what one sees is constrained by one's previous experiences in life. A person sees what they expect to see.

    The ability to see a bigger picture, to notice more sides of what's happening in any moment, can be cultivated over time. A bigger perspective increases one's own awareness of the depth of life and one's own options within it. Epiphanies happen!

    A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Utah with dear friends. It was October and the aspens were gorgeous. My friends showed me how the trees are connected through underground root systems and how one could tell from the leaf colors which family, so to speak, each tree belonged to. This was unexpected information! I looked at the mountains again, with more perspective. The thought of those trees connected through various root systems made more sense of the whole view. Not at the 'heavens opened, and a dove descended' level; still, it provided an insight that has added to my life. In my experience, it's friends and colleagues and family members and bloggers and blog readers, all of us who open each other's eyes to what we can't see. And so I close today with thankfulness for you, dear reader!


Morning: What am I worried about? How could more curiosity help?

Evening: Where did I see a bigger view today?

Psalm 29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

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(1/3) Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12  •  Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21  •  Ephesians 1:3-14  •  John 1:(1-9), 10-18          

    Family is mentioned a lot in this week's scriptures. From Jeremiah on, the texts find different ways to play on the theme of people as children of God. In Jeremiah, God has become a father to the people of Israel. In Ephesians, adoption extends the eligibility requirements to all, regardless of place of origin! Finally, in the book of John, (and by the way, a separate person from John the Baptist) one reads that the true light, enlightening everyone, was coming into the world. This week's readings combine to form a universal message to all God's children.

    And yet, it is not that simple. Times are hard. Tension is in the air. Where did this tension come from? The John reading gives some clue, in beginning way back, before anything was created. By verse three, a hint of trouble shows up in a line seemingly meant to assure us that all of creation is good. By verse five, darkness is mentioned: in tension with, but not overcoming, light.

    From a human emotional perspective, darkness is scary. A person can go for a walk on a sunny day and enjoy herself. But try the same walk after dark, and suddenly one is worrying about coyotes, possibly, or other creatures lurking in the bushes. It's an instinctive fear, and it's useful.  When the sun begins to set, the urge to get home is protective, decreasing the risk of everything from a car accident to a predator attack.

    The tension between darkness and light is a motivating pressure for us humans. As with most things these days, Covid highlights the process. An extra measure of fear has been tossed into the mix, with daily attention to possible exposure to a strange, unseen viral threat. Most of the normal ways of living – and in holiday times, celebrating – are gone. The simplest things, from how one gets food to where (or if) one gets work to when one sees family, all these things have had to be re-thought, re-organized. Confusion and chaos have interrupted our lives.

    But wait! Lo! While confusion and chaos can bring a sense of helplessness, they can also stimulate curiosity and clarity. Every time a person has to think about a task she has always done more less automatically, she has a chance to get clearer about her aims in life. Take John the Baptist for example. John is often called John the Baptist to describe his function as a baptizer. Here he is known for another role he fulfilled: that of witness to the gospel message (v. 15). Under questioning, John told the religious leaders who he was. Perhaps more importantly, he told them who he was not. As an addendum (John 1: 19-28), the message was not well received.

    When a person gets clear about some aspect of her life, choosing what she is going to do and not do, she becomes a witness to the singular value of clarity. Her testimony is her life. In a sense, the person described in verses 6-7 - a man sent from God, who came as a witness to testify to the light – is everyman and everywoman. As with John, the world does not always appreciate the effort a person makes to get clear about himself. The good news here is that as a person moves from confusion to clarity, the need to please others matters less. What's left? Light shining in the darkness.


Morning: What are my functions in my family and in other settings? What is not mine to do or be?  

Evening: How did my underlying principles inform my actions today? What was my lived testimony?

Psalm 147:14 The Lord grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat.

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