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Lectionary Living

Going High

September 6: Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149  •  Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40  •  Romans 13:8-14  •  Matthew 18:15-20

    Today's gospel reading is a quick introduction to doing things the way Jesus did them. Not for the faint-of-heart, these words should come with some sort of warning: Not the easy way! Jesus begins with a common situation: a problem between two people. The two already know each other and they are part of the same group. In the gospel, the group was a small faith community. In my mind, whether it's family or church or work setting or any other community, the instructions apply equally well. In the passage, Jesus provides a four-step process for working things out.

    Step one is for one of the two persons to go to the other one to talk about the problem at hand. However, the obvious first step is often ignored, as our instinct as human beings is to go to a third person to complain! The instinct to avoid a problem rather than engage it, followed by the effort to hand off the problem to a third party, is an all-too-common pattern. Or, one can attempt to stuff it inside, not mentioning it to anyone. Often, at least in my own experience, an odd combination of both is attempted! The 'problem,' whatever it is, has somehow stirred up some feelings. Engaging the problem begins with managing one's own anxiety rather than taking it personally. The good news here is that one has agency over one's feelings. One can reflect thoughtfully on one's emotions.  Once a person has calmed herself down, it is possible to consider in what ways one has contributed to the problem that needs to be discussed with another. Then it's time to talk.

    Sometimes talking with the person – step two – goes well. Moving towards the problem gently but clearly may bring up all kinds of nuances each person had failed to understand previously. It's a short hop from more understanding of a problem to new insights about it. However, going through this process of self-reflection, staying calm, and talking with another, takes time and energy. During a pandemic, it takes more than that – it takes intention. A person has to arrange each conversation, as there is no casual running into one another at the office, in the neighborhood, at the gym, at church, or any of many places we are all missing these days. The Covid-19 virus underscores the need to be intentional about relationship processes.

    The most well-intended efforts, though, sometimes fail.     When the problem continues, step three – involving others – is important not only for the two with a disagreement, but also for the larger community. The underlying anxiety and the problem itself are more than the two can handle alone. Bringing in one or two others who can help sort it out can bring a solution not only for the original twosome but also for the entire group. When cooperation finds new expression, the capacity of the group to manage its problems grows.  

    Finally, step four: when nothing seems to be working, treat the person like a tax collector. The advice of Jesus here is often understood to mean shunning the person. I see it differently. Jesus himself was criticized just a few chapters back in Matthew 11, for partying with tax collectors. His interest in people extended to them. He saw them as people. He moved closer to this universally reviled group, in spite of much criticism for doing so, seeking to understand rather than reproach them.  

    The ability to be with others without agreeing with them – without losing one's own identity – is key here. Maybe the most important thing about this passage is what it doesn't say. Briefly, it doesn't say to give in. When there is conflict, the energy of the emotional system can help a person to hold on to inner principles. It can provide strength to overcome helplessness and engage a problem. While the four steps may fail to bring agreement, they offer the chance to respect the dignity of every human being, including one's self, along the way.     

Reflections

Morning: Where in the four-step process do I struggle the most? What could I do differently?

Evening: What people or problems were difficult for me to engage today?

Psalm 149:4 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.

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Counter-Intuitive

8/30: Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b  •  Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8  •  Romans 12:9-21  •  Matthew 16:21-28

    The readings this week are challenging. In Exodus, the young man Moses is tending sheep when he sees a burning bush. Rather than running away in fear, he declares that he must stop what he's doing and see this thing more closely. In Romans, Paul advises the community to bless rather than curse those who would persecute them. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them. None of these approaches come easy to us human beings: naturally fearful, easily angered, and ferociously clinging to whatever lives we have.

    How hard it is to let go of the lives we have! Jesus, it seems, has begun to realize what he was going to have to give up in order to be true to himself. He was beginning to articulate what it would mean for him to stay faithful to his deepest principles and deny all the rest. Peter, finding it a little harder to make this leap, urges Jesus to stop all this talk of suffering and death. Jesus digs in, saying that Peter is getting in the way of what he, Jesus, has to do. Then he begins to talk to his disciples about denying themselves.

    Self-denial involves denying or overcoming one's false self: all that limits a person, chooses the automatic, declines growth. Take learning to swim. Swimming lessons are tolerable, until it's time to learn to float on your back and it feels like you are going to drown. But the person who really wants to be able to swim will find a way to calm their own fears long enough to give the back float a try.

    It's the false self – the self that is anxious, worried, afraid – that gets in the way of living and meeting one's deepest goals. The swimming example is more than metaphor: to deny all that is interfering with finding one's true life, to live fully into the person one could become, a person must attend to her emotions. Sometimes, a person must reassure herself that something uncomfortable is necessary, whether it's floating on her back or developing an adult connection with a person who still evokes childhood fears. A self that is in charge of the emotional system, that listens to it, considers it, and acts thoughtfully on behalf of the whole person, is required. What at first seems counterintuitive – or perhaps not even thought of before – now becomes an option available for the choosing.

    When Moses puts aside fear, deciding to move towards, rather than away, from the burning bush, his life begins to change. Finding himself called to a surprising future, to say the least, and initially objecting that he was not up to the task, he eventually stepped up. It all started with curiosity. When he started to put his life energy into what interested him (a bush, of all things!) his life became different. When a person pursues a genuine interest, he is growing his authentic self.

    Cultivating a life consistent with one's own deepest principles is a peculiar path. Along the way, one must continually leave behind whatever interferes with loyalty to one's own inner self. This is not a one-time battle! Much that is automatic, made up of pattens from early years, is in the way. But energy for picking up one's cross – whatever burden one must bear as the world reacts to authenticity – will be available. Even under duress, what is core to a person will remain. During his trial and execution, Jesus was genuine in blessing rather than cursing all who were persecuting him. Respecting the dignity of others at all times, a core principle of his true self, was alive for all to see.

    The capacity to remain true to oneself is best practiced in relationship processes. Staying in life-giving contact with others helps to define oneself more clearly to them and to oneself. Engaging life's challenges - moving towards a burning bush – provides opportunity to grow the true self. Along the way, choosing what's counterintuitive may make a difference – and add some fun, too.

Reflections

Morning: What part of me is getting in the way of my true self? Of my life goals? What new or counter-intuitive approaches might I try?

Evening: What surprised me today? When was I curious? When was I my most genuine, authentic self?

Psalm 105:3b Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.

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Family challenges

8/23: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124  •  Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138  •  Romans 12:1-8  •  Matthew 16:13-20       

    Today's Exodus reading is the famous 'baby in a basket' story. There's a new pharaoh in town, one who doesn't know Joseph. Nor does the new pharaoh have any connection to the family Joseph had brought to Egypt. Joseph's father Jacob, renamed Israel after a wrestling match with an angel, had a large family, which has grown to larger numbers after settling there.

    As human groups are wont to do, the Egyptians have become afraid of this healthy, growing tribe of Israelites. Putting them down through many extreme measures, midwives were supposed to kill the baby boys at birth. But the midwives refused to do this, lying to authorities by stating that the Hebrew women were so strong that they were giving birth before a midwife could arrive. One mother hid her baby as long as she could, and then put him in a basket where he was discovered by Pharaoh's daughter, Bithiah. Bithiah adopts him, naming him Moses. That's the short version of the story. But within these verses is so much more.

    First is Bithiah herself. Turns out, she went with the Israelites when they left town in the exodus, a detail found in an ancestry list in First Chronicles (4:17). What the genealogy fails to speak to, though, is how these events unfolded. Maybe when Moses was born, Bithiah was already a known ally of the Israelites. That could explain the placement of the basket in the reeds along the recesses of the Nile, where she usually bathed. Or maybe adopting Moses provided her a chance to get to know his biological family and other Hebrew people. Or maybe Moses himself, leading the Israelites out of Egypt, went to her first, asking her to come with them. Maybe all of the above. 

     The other character in this story, often overlooked, is the big sister of Moses, a girl named Miriam. Going with their mother Jochebed, who places Moses in a basket in the reeds, Miriam stays behind at a distance to watch what would happen next. After the baby is discovered, Miriam approaches Bithiah, asking her if she'd like for a wet nurse to be found for him. In this pre-Similac era, Bithiah quickly agrees, and Miriam arranges for Jochebed to care for the baby.

    Big sisters, by degrees bossy, overbearing, and meddling, can come with a plus side. Miriam, for instance, was only doing what came naturally to her when she stayed behind to see what happened to her little brother. She would have been used to caring for him. When she saw a chance – perhaps by this time, for instance, the baby had begun to cry – she approached Bithiah. Offering a reasonable solution for the problem (for after all, big sisters are nothing if not decisive problem solvers) she manages to have her mother paid to care for her baby. After he was weaned, Moses went to live with Bithiah as the adopted son of a princess in the pharaoh's house. It is a net win - for Moses, for Bithiah, and for the Israelites, who will soon need a leader familiar with the inner-workings of the pharaoh's court.

    From a pharaoh's ruthlessness to covid-19, all families face challenges. Engaging the problem, rather than giving in to feelings of helplessness, is key. Moses' mother knew when she had to act. When the baby was no longer hide-able, she rose to the occasion rather than letting her grief overcome her capacity to think about her options. Miriam, just a girl, was clear about what she would not do: leave her baby brother Moses alone. Bithiah knew that while she could not stop the larger societal problem of ethnic rivalry nor the Pharaoh's policies around it, she could care for this one child. All three people stepped up, not down. That was the miracle.

    Whenever people are able to act out of their mature side, choosing what they think best rather than allowing unprocessed feelings to rule the day, amazing things can happen. Wherever people are forming and maintaining broad relationship systems with one another, moments of marvelous synchronicity between people can occur. Perhaps one person stepping up can increase the capacity for others to act maturely also.

Reflections:

Morning: How can I broaden and deepen my relationships? What gets in the way of staying connected?

Evening: What is the plus side of my sibling position in my family? What is the down side? Where did I see it in my actions today?

Psalm 124:8 Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

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Define or defile?!

8/16: Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133  •  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67  •  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  •  Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

    Between last week's Genesis 37 reading and this week's Genesis 45, there are several great Bible stories – worthy of their place both in classical literature and in Sunday School classes everywhere. Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, sold by his siblings, becomes a slave in Egypt. He was successful (as these things go!) until one day, refusing to be seduced by his master's daughter, he finds himself falsely accused and thrown into prison. In jail, he becomes famous for dream interpretation. One day he is summoned to interpret the Pharaoh's bad dreams. Predicting a famine ahead, and giving sage advice to the Pharaoh, he finds himself released from prison, suddenly chief of staff for a powerful ruler.

     Meanwhile, back in Canaan, Joseph's father Jacob sends all his brothers except Benjamin to Egypt, searching for food as the famine has hit their family hard. When they arrive, Joseph recognizes his brothers, who do not, of course, connect this powerful man with the young Joseph they had known. He requires them to return home and bring back Benjamin: Joseph's only full brother, the only brother also born by Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife. When they bring Benjamin back, the story takes some tricky turns, eventually with Joseph saying that they can all leave, except for Benjamin. At this point, another brother, Judah, takes a stand (see Genesis 43:33-34). Judah refuses to return to Jacob without Benjamin. He talks about his fear of seeing how his father would suffer if Benjamin did not return home, and offers himself as a slave instead. Next, Joseph – in the opening verse of chapter 45 – sends everyone away so he can have a good cry. Then he calls them all back in, reveals who he is, and arranges for the family to settle in Egypt where they can survive the famine.

    How Jacob's family manages itself through the seven-year famine is a tale with many implications for our pandemic times. The family's relationship processes have changed from the time when Joseph was thrown in a pit by his big brothers. The years of servitude had brought remarkable changes in Joseph himself. Joseph is no longer a whiner, no longer a tattler, but now a leader exercising responsibility to others. The family itself seems to be practicing a little more open communication among its members, less bound by secrets. The family is also more goal-focused, recognizing the need to find a way to provide for all its members during the long famine. And Judah has grown up, making the consideration of the entire family system a part of his decision-making process.

    Judah had many years to reflect on his own contributions to Jacob's sadness at the loss of Joseph, and at Joseph's plight as well. In his thoughts, Judah had started connecting his capacity for reason with his emotions, providing energy for some difficult choices. He defines himself as a person wanting to take responsibility for his part of the problem. In offering to become a slave himself, he stepped up to the challenge of the situation in courageous words and choices of his own.

    Words coming out of a person's mouth – or in text messages or tweets – can either define or defile the person doing the talking. Sometimes, a person knows it instantly – oh, I wish I wouldn't have said that! Somehow, as Jesus points out (Matthew 15:11), one's words taint oneself, damaging the inner person. The third chapter of James provides a more thorough treatment of the human challenge of taming the tongue. Here, hope comes from an unexpected place: neurological research. Brain plasticity exists; even well-worn neural pathways can be altered, diverted, or worked around until alternate paths begin. When a person can stop the diatribe of blaming or taunting or criticizing, instead engaging in emotional self-regulation, then the person is healing herself. Ultimately, it's less what a person says, and more what she does, (or, in Judah's case, what he was willing to do) that defines each of us.

 

Reflections

Morning: How many of my family members am I in touch with on family challenges, covid or otherwise?

Evening: When were my words today self-defining?

Psalm 133:1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

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