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Lectionary Living

If I Perish, I Perish

(9/26) Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124  •  Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14  •  James 5:13-20  •  Mark 9:38-50

 

    One of the greatest stories in a book of great stories, the book of Esther is about an orphan Jewish girl. The set-up offers a humorous sidenote: beginning with a king at the end of a six-month party binge, who gets his feelings hurt when he calls for his more sober wife, who refuses to come. The wife – told never to enter the king's presence again, which I'm guessing was fine with her – is eventually replaced through a prospective 'bride and queen contest' won by Esther. I am not making this up! Esther had been entered into the event by her uncle Mordecai, who had been her caretaker for many years.

 

    Now Mordecai had advised Esther to keep her Jewish background to herself. Later, when Haman, an advisor to the king, convinces the king to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed, Mordecai manages to get word to Esther of the plot. Esther lets him know that she has not been invited into the king's presence in a month and has limited capacity to influence the situation. Mordecai messages back that all their people will die if she doesn't do something. Esther next takes a I-position, asking that all the Jewish people make a three-day period of fasting and prayer, after which, "I will go to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish" (4:16).

 

    Esther keeps her wits about her, though. She is perspicacious, seeing what has to be done and finding a way forward. She manages to approach the king with his approval, inviting him and the Jews' archenemy, Haman, to a banquet. Haman goes back to his family, bragging about the invitation, and complaining that the only thing between him and total happiness was a small feud he'd had with Mordecai. It's a great study in triangles: Esther's capacity to relate to both the king and Haman, versus Mordecai's incapacity to endure anyone taking a position different from his own. It's at this point in the story – actually, the second of two banquets held by Esther – that today's reading begins. Haman is hung; a new policy is made so that the Jews are free to defend themselves.

 

    In a sense, Esther herself is set free in this story. By its conclusion, she has already become her own person. Earlier, when she was able to declare what she was going to do about the problem presented to her, Esther has liberated-in-place, becoming herself in the middle of a challenging environment. If I perish, I perish. When a person comes to this point, determined to take a stand, her self is more solid for it. 

 

    Whether it's a big decision or a small moment of everyday life, attending to one's responsibility for oneself includes attention to process, to how one is going to manage oneself in it. Consider the late banjo player Bill Emerson, may he rest in peace, who once said, "For me, it's all about satisfying me. If I feel good about what I did, it's better than a thousand people on their feet applauding." He described that sometimes, when he knew he'd played his best, no one said anything to him about it. Other times, when he knew he'd done poorly, lots of folks would come up to him and say great job. Eventually, he decided that he would give up on pleasing the crowd and be his own judge of how he was playing: the banjo player's version of Esther, and each of us. If I perish, at least I perish for doing the best I knew how to do.

 

    In today's gospel, Jesus was talking about the same idea. If some part of how you are living is getting in the way of being fully alive, then lose it. It's better to let go of what's not working than to continually let it gnaw away at you, taking your solid self from you every day of your life.

 

Reflections:

Morning: Where might I have to give up some aspect of my life today, to gain myself?

Evening: When have I taken a stand? What difference has it made to my life?

Psalm 19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.

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Happy

(9/19): Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1  •  Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54  •  James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a  •  Mark 9:30-37

 

The bookends for the Sunday readings this week – Proverbs and Mark – offer challenges for the 21st century reader. In Proverbs, one can easily get lost in wondering what flax looks like, or why a merchant would want a sash? In Mark, the contextual difficulties are double trouble, for they are elusive and yet go straight to the heart of the message. Sigh! Let's plunge ahead.

 

To gain strength for the journey, today's psalm is a help. A happiness can be gained – not a superficial kind – but a deep satisfaction can come from applying scripture to daily life. Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. Now, thinking about the scoffer in me and my multigenerational family, it calls me up short! Still, to be free of a thing, one must first observe it. Onward.

 

The Proverbs reading, an acrostic poem in the Hebrew, is an ode to a "good" or capable wife. The author of the poem was forward thinking for his time, urging that she get a share of the profits from all her labor. I wonder, more basically, if she was doing too much.

 

When a person does more than her share, it may seem valiant, or virtuous. The long-term consequences, though, are less than admirable. When others get used to her being responsible for everything, they become less responsible for their own part in anything. Eventually, others around this person begin to lose capacity to be responsible for themselves, to do the ordinary things in life that others can manage who had less over-functioning parents! As adults, these folks must overcome the helplessness that comes from being too cared for. 

 

The Mark passage moves to a time and place where children were plentiful and tended to be overlooked. A family photo taken during Jesus' time, if such could be found, would show many children, a few parents, and very few older folks. In such a world, being a child brought zero prestige. It's a little like being old today; one is seen as a bit of a nuisance: requiring patience, and feeding, even, in spite of a lack of productivity.

 

In a re-telling of the story for our time, perhaps Jesus would bring in an 85-year-old and set her down in the middle of the group, reminding us to be servants of everyone. Regardless of the era, the larger point remains.  When Jesus plopped that child down in the midst of his disciples, he was countering their concern with identifying who was the greatest. Making comparisons suddenly looked silly. Here was a child, as important as anyone on earth.

 

In human relationships, it's easy to get distracted by who's more important/successful, or who's closer to whom, or who gets left out. While humans (and other mammals) are wired to notice and avoid loneliness, a focus on the attention, appreciation, approval, and/or expectations of others keeps a person stuck in comparisons: immaturity, in a word. Comparing is twin to coveting, the only vice which made it twice into the ten commandments! It's a dangerous path.

 

Instead of comparing oneself to others, an inner guidance system regarding one's own satisfaction with oneself is an option. Proverbs' good wife is a great example. If she's busy trying to be the greatest wife on the block, she's losing herself. If she's busy with her responsibilities for herself and to others – busy with the tasks that matter to her and connecting with others on them – she's becoming a mature self: happy, as the psalmist might say.

 

Reflections

Morning: When am I at my most mature? When does maturity bring a kind of happiness?

Evening: When did I get interested in comparisons with others? How did I regain my own focus?

Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

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It Don't Come Easy

(9/12): Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 - 8:1  •  Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-9  •  James 3:1-12  •  Mark 8:27-38

    Last summer I talked about the Matthew version of this passage, Counter-Intuitive on Aug 24, 2020. This week, the Mark version is paired with Isaiah and James, who talk about teaching, in the distinct but inimitable styles that each is famous for. Then Jesus proceeds to give a master class in how to teach. Well, who could resist the chance to reflect on teaching, with such a set of material!

    The Isaiah reading is set sometime after the Hebrew people were marched off into exile. His description of himself as knowing how to sustain the weary with a word, makes perfect sense in terms of the Babylonian exile; he was teacher to a weary and discouraged people. Look at what happens to him though, for his efforts: insults, being spit upon, getting hit, and even people tugging at his beard. Apparently, not everyone was interested in being encouraged.

    When I taught remedial math at the community college level, most of my students were uninterested in my well-meaning, encouraging words. Once I began asking them what they saw as their problem and how they planned to get through the semester, things changed. They could overcome their own sense of helplessness and engage the challenge a little more. Acknowledging their responsibility for learning in turn had an impact on me. I was able to be more curious with them about how I could meet my responsibility to them. I started wondering and sometimes asking, "What would be useful?"

    One resource available to every teacher is her own experience. I had struggled with my share of hard math problems. For his part, Isaiah understood only too well the helpless feeling that his people were up against. Sustained by his morning prayers, he had found a way out of helplessness. As he put it, the Lord God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. Every good teacher walks this demanding path.

    Unlike Isaiah, who seemed to be faced with a dearth of leadership, James warned against too many people becoming teachers. Teachers will be judged with greater strictness (v. 2). Then and now, taking on the role as teacher sets a person up for criticism; it's easier for the rest of us to focus on the teacher than it is to come up with our own views! Often, though, the role of teacher is unofficial: occurring whether we intend to take on the role or not. Throughout life – and across many species – we learn continually from one another. Sometimes, species survival depends on passing on what we know.

    It's how to pass it on that's the problem. As James so clearly says, the tongue can be dangerous and destructive! Lashing out solves nothing. In the Mark passage, Jesus models mature ways of using language – asking good questions, talking about his own views and asking others about theirs.  

    What's a good question? To begin, good questions denigrate no one. They are constructive, not reactive. When not too hard, they stir up genuine curiosity (For instance, Jesus asking, Who do people say that I am?). When well-framed, they ask the person to define her own position (Who do you say that I am?).  With effort, a person wrestling with a good question can build her own understanding, eventually able to describe herself in an I-position: what I think and what I'm going to do.  

    In the Mark reading, Jesus soon turns to another question: What does it profit anyone, to gain the whole world and lose one's soul? What, indeed. I'm reminded of a prayer for healing asking for that victory of life and peace enabling you to serve… (Book of Common Prayer p. 456). Life and peace don't come easy; they are available to those who have struggled with Jesus' question regarding profit and loss, found their answer, and acted on it. Not easy tasks – but they round out the subject of how to teach. A good question stirs interest, prompts clarity within self and with others, and ends in action.

 

Reflections:

Morning: What's a question I'd like to get clearer about?

Evening: When did I manage not to lash out, finding a good question or taking an "I-position" instead?

Psalm 116:7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.

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Mission-Focused: Healing and So Much More

(9/5) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125  •  Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146  •  James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17  •  Mark 7:24-37

 

     Today's Mark reading features two back-to-back healing stories. For most of history, it seems that people have gone to their religious leaders for healing. My guess is that for the human species, religion lessens anxiety, and less anxiety is good for both emotional and physical health. Not to take anything away from healers and their capacity to calm folks down! That's enough of a miracle. Too much attention to the miracles, though, and one can miss the thread of the story.

     The story is that Jesus is in trouble. As it opens, Jesus has gone to Tyre – a Gentile region – to get away from the intense scrutiny his actions were receiving back at home. The temple leaders were concerned about upstart itinerant preachers; the Romans had spies everywhere. Jesus' popularity with the crowds, his ability to heal, his concern for the poor and the outsider: all of these things were getting attention. Herod – grandson of the Herod who had ordered the killing of all infant boys in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby – was himself a cruel and unpredictable leader, capable of ordering a beheading as party entertainment.

     So Jesus is in Tyre, hiding, and trying to catch a break. It seems he is also trying to think through what he had to get done to complete his life's work, for when a local person asks him to heal her daughter, he reflects back to her that this has nothing to do with his mission in life. His mission is over in Judah and focused on his people there. She pushes back, in a clever dialogue involving children, dogs and crumbs under the table. Whether he broadens his view of his mission or not is unrecorded, but he does heal her child.

     Another healing happens in the next few verses when Jesus takes a person aside and heals him in secret. However, once again the word gets out, and people are talking more and more about what amazing things he can do. This hero worship is precisely the kind of publicity he does not wish for. A mission of bringing his people back to true religion is difficult enough without the authorities becoming concerned about him as a potential rabble rouser.

     The amazing thing in this passage is not the healings. The truly amazing thing here is the capacity of Jesus to continue to focus on his own mission. The focus allowed him to see what was getting in the way: healing, for instance, and the overall attention his miracles were receiving. He could not change that – miracles followed him wherever he went, a little like the cloud of dust surrounding the Pig-Pen character from Charlie Brown. What he could do – what he did – was to avoid seeking the approval of others. Whether people loved or hated him, he continued on his path, bringing authentic stories like today's, crumbs and all.

     Choosing to be less interested in pleasing or not pleasing others allows room for more mature motivations. A two-year old wanting his parents' praise is developmentally appropriate – as adults, we can watch and question what's driving us. Motivations may be grouped in two buckets – an underlying drive to belong, to connect with others and another drive to be one's own person. To the extent that both are attended to, a person walks with integrity, joy, gratitude, peace, and energy for her life, surrounded with her own little cloud of dust.

 

Reflections:

Morning: What is my mission or purpose in life? What is motivating me today?

Evening: When did I find energy to connect with others? When was I motivated to focus on my own goals?

Psalm 146:5-7a Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,  who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

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