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Lectionary Living

A Humble Life

Joshua 3:7-17 and Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37  •  Micah 3:5-12 and Psalm 43  •  1 Thessalonians 2:9-13  •  Matthew 23:1-12 OR Revelation 7:9-17 and Psalm 34:1-10, 22  •  1 John 3:1-3  •  Matthew 5:1-12

    This year, All Saint's Day – November 1 – falls on a Sunday. On the Sunday closest to, or on, November 1, congregations have the choice of using the readings for the Sunday itself or for All Saint's Day. There are many options for texts today! As I look through all these scripture passages, I'm struck by the similar theme: humility. It doesn't matter which of these you read, the message is to be humble.

    Somehow the word humility conjures up the idea of giving up who you are, or what you are trying to do with your life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humility allows a person to be fully herself – shedding many burdens which (as can only be seen from a humble posture) were never hers at all. Humility allows a person to sleep at night.

    Jesus – in the Matthew 23 passage – is telling people to watch out for those who would place heavy burdens on them. He had in mind a particular group, the Pharisees, who had a lot of rules for everyone else to follow. He also condemns them for showing off their good deeds and for craving status. The process, though, of their placing heavy burdens on the people, was Jesus' main concern.

    Burdening or focusing on others lacks humility. A focus on others, thinking what they should be doing or where they have gone wrong (or right!), gets in the way of leading a humble life. The constant attention on another, whether blaming or praising, criticizing or helping, keeps a person from an inward look at their own responsibilities. Not only that, but it can get in the way of the other person's life. At home and at work, when people begin acting to please others without considering their own ideas, they have lost themselves. The reciprocal process keeps everyone bound up.

    Humility, in contrast, is utter freedom. A small example. In these covid times, processes for family members of a patient in the hospital are different. What used to be a bit of a game – get to the hospital early, to catch the doctors on their rounds – has now become an impossibility.  There are two ways of thinking about it. One way is to focus on the hospital staff (including physicians), blaming them for not staying in touch. Another way it to see what they are up against, and to work to stay in touch over the phone. Before all this can happen, though, is the humble step of seeing one's own anguish at the illness of the family member. Bringing one's mind into contact with one's emotional system is the beginning. Distinguishing between one's responsibility to others and for self is a help.

    Once a person is reflecting on the covid-hospital environment, it's possible to recognize one's own need to be in contact with those caring for the family member. It is hard to be left out. That's what all those pre-dawn trips to the hospital were about, back before covid. We are a cooperative species and staying connected during a family member's illness is as natural as breathing. A humble person, though, can show up without having to be the center of attention. A humble person can be present without pressuring others in any direction. A humble person brings peace to the room, zoom or real.  

    A humble person does not follow the practice of the Pharisees, heaping burdens on the hospital staff for health problems that go beyond human capacity to solve. Neither does she take on burdens beyond her own capacity. Jesus warned folks about taking on impossible tasks: the ever-more-exact detail of following the letter of the law while forgetting about its basic principles of kindness and fairness. Whenever a person begins to take on more than she can reasonably do, she is stoking a fire of resentment and blame. A first step towards decreasing one's arrogance is to practice saying something like no, I can't take that on right now. Considering one's own agenda, looking at the calendar with a reality-based view, is a beginning step towards a humble life.

Reflections

Morning: What are my plans for the day? How will I balance my responsibilities?

Evening: Where did I find a humble perspective?

Psalm 107:9 For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.

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Two Things

10/25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17  •  Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1  •  1 Thessalonians 2:1-8  •  Matthew 22:34-46

    The scriptures for this week are rich, rich, rich in wisdom. Beginning at the end, with the gospel reading, Jesus is encountering yet another tough audience, this time the Pharisees, who want him to grill him for a while. They ask him what he considers to be the greatest commandment in the law: an opening question, a prelude to debate. Jesus answers with his summary: thing one, love God with your whole self; and thing two, love your neighbor as yourself. Each leads to the other, it seems.

    I happen to be re-reading The Art of Loving by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, originally published in 1956. It's a little paperback, 118 pages long. It has not stood the test of time particularly well. Nevertheless, it goes to the problem here. Exactly what does Jesus mean when he talks about love? Could he elaborate?

    The life of Jesus is an elaboration of what he means. What he did with his days is his version of what it means to love. It's on each of us to write our own versions, so to speak, with our lives. The Leviticus reading provides a stellar aid.

·         Verse 15: Stop with the premature judginess! Look at all sides. Don't flatter those who can help you, nor ignore those who can't. Stay neutral, impartial, and fair. 

·         Verse 16: Don't go around talking about others, making them look bad, or creating problems for them, so that you can improve your own status or connection with others.

·         Verse 17: Don't hate your own people, your own kin. Remember your responsibilities to (not for) them and the world we all inhabit.

·         Verse 18: Let go of the grudges you hold onto. Stop with the scoffing skepticism.

    These ideas are as applicable now as they were then; all of them speak to relationship processes where a person can get stuck.

    Maybe the Pharisees and Jesus talked about these ideas; certainly, everyone would have known this part of the law. At some point – and this is where scripture picks back up – it was Jesus' turn to ask them a question. True to form, Jesus does not pick some random trick question for them. Instead, he shares with them something he's wondering about: the messiah predicted by the prophets, a psalm (110:1), and his own self-understanding. In this way, he expands on today's Thessalonians passage, offering his own self not only to those he's grown close to, but also to those who wish him harm.

    The Pharisees had no answer that day; after that time, no one dared to ask him any more questions. The grilling was over. The debating, the arguing, the trying to convince, was done. That these commandments are as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago – and as difficult to follow – goes to how stuck humans can get in relationship processes. Finding one's way out is a matter of many small choices over time. Seeing how and when one has a choice is a first step.

Reflections

Morning: When am I likely to get stuck in relationship processes today?

Evening: Looking back over my day, what would it say about the story of my life? What two things I was trying to do?

Psalm 1:1 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.

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Trick Question

10/18: Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99  •  Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)  •  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  •  Matthew 22:15-22

    As this week's Matthew reading shows, little has changed – at least about political discourse – since the time of Jesus. When the story opens, the religious leaders were plotting to trap Jesus, looking for a way to get him into trouble with the Roman authorities. Jesus sees their game from the start, turning the whole discussion from a debate to a defining moment.

    I watched the vice-presidential debate this past week. Literally, with the sound on mute, I watched the two candidates. What I saw were two opposite - and equally ineffective - ways of managing self. One candidate, stony-faced, never allowed an emotion to flit across his countenance. The other, all-expressive, appeared alternately derisive, ridiculing, and incredulous. Perhaps, with the sound on, I could have heard a little more nuance! My intention here is not to dishonor anyone. I ask your indulgence as I use the debate example towards my purpose: understanding emotional self-regulation.

    When a person works at having a poker face, he is attempting to keep his emotions to himself. While not revealing oneself to the world may be useful sometimes, the problem is that he may be keeping the emotions from himself; he may be unaware of what he's feeling. Emotions, rumbling inside, may disorganize the intellect, forcing it to serve the feeling system. In this way, a person who is lying to the world may also be lying to himself – for his emotional system cannot tolerate any information inconsistent with its own narrative.

    On the other hand, when a person allows her reactions to another to show up – unmonitored – in her face, she may be attempting to be genuine. The result, though, is that she's put herself at the mercy of her emotional system. All feelings are not created equal. When a person fails to consider her feelings and simply expresses them, immaturity can take over. Without consulting her thinking system, her feeling system is running the show and keeping her from her own principles, such as respecting the dignity of every person. If reason could be harnessed with emotions, she might find herself with interest and curiosity in the diverse views of others.

    The story of Jesus in his response to the Pharisees and the Herodians is the story of someone who has mastered emotional self-regulation. He begins with the truth: the trap, the hypocrisy of asking about paying taxes. He moves on quickly, asking for one of the coins that would be used to pay such a tax. Paying taxes to the conquering emperor in far-away Rome was unpopular to say the least; the coin, with its stamp of Caesar's face (considered idolatry) and its inscription about Caesar's divinity, was a reminder of Roman power, as was the cross.  

    Maybe it took a minute for the questioners to come up with a coin and hand it to Jesus. And maybe this minute was useful to Jesus, giving him time to process his emotions. Perhaps fear was coming up in him, around his growing awareness that he might be crucified. Much contemplative thought centers on how he managed these emotions. My own guess is that he somehow used the energy from his fear to make the last choice available to him: making sure he stayed true to himself in the time he had left here on earth.

    By the time the coin was handed to him, he was ready for his audience. Over the course of his public ministry, he had developed a capacity to see what people were up against. He could see these religious leaders as human beings, trapped in their own way by complex factors over many years, rather than the direct cause of his problems. He begins asking questions – a trademark of his method – engaging the crowd in reflecting on the problem they have brought to him. Jesus was never interested in solving anything for people, but with them. They walk away, amazed.

    The ability of Jesus to engage his emotional system with his intellectual system is in clear, stunning contrast to our all-too-human leaders debating this week. Jesus did not suppress his feelings. Nor did he allow them free rein. But by an interplay between his emotional system and his intellectual system, he managed a principled response to the religious leaders.  

Reflections:

Morning: When might I try to avoid my emotions today?

Evening: When did I engage my thoughts around my feelings?

Psalm 99:4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

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Make an Effort

10/11: Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99  •  Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)  •  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  •  Matthew 22:15-22 

    This week's Matthew reading offers the reader a discordant, discomfiting parable. It's a troubling story where the king – a stand-in for God – enforces expectations. What happened to mercy?!

    To unpack this a little, let's go back and take a look at the story. First, there's a king who invites folk to his son's wedding. All the food is ready – and remember, this is before refrigeration! But the people are all too busy to come. Pausing here for a minute, one does have to wonder about this busy-ness, here in DC, the center of People with Important Things to Do (PITD) with their days – people who (pre-covid) could not show up at the baseball stadium for the opening pitch, mostly because they were still working. Somehow, what folks are reporting during covid is that they're busier than ever! Pre-during-or-potentially-post-covid, it seems that busy-ness may serve a function of some sort in the PITD life, wherever one lives, a function beyond getting work done.

    But back to the story. The king, getting annoyed, tells his staff to go out and find people to come to this wedding. Invite everyone, he tells them. And so they fill the party banquet hall with folks. Not PITD folks, but more ordinary people who were apparently having a great time. Then, one guy is spotted without wedding clothes on. The king asked to see him, and asks him about it gently – using the word friend. He asks how he'd even gotten in, dressed as he was. But the person answers not a word.

    What do clothes have to do with it? Let's assume that the king's servants had made some provisions for these folks they'd brought in, off the streets, so that they could be dressed for the event. If a person avoids dressing for the occasion, what's the implicit message? I'm reminded of the Emmys a few weeks ago. The letter inviting the nominees to the event included the following covid-related request about dressing for an online platform: So, what are you wearing??? Our informal theme for the night is "come as you are, but make an effort!"

    What a great piece of advice. Come as you are; be yourself. But make an effort; avoid helplessness and put some thought into this. Going back to our story, one sees a king trying to have a party for his son, and one person threatening to put a damper on the festivities. The king is trying to tell him that this party is not about him: that he has an obligation to show up dressed for the occasion. Implicit in the king's message is the belief that the person is capable; he can overcome his immaturity. The trouble is that no one – king or otherwise – can do this for him. The opposite is more likely to be true; the more others try to make up for him or to accommodate him, the less likely he is to find his own inner strength of character. Join us, but make an effort!

    Human beings are good at joining; we are a cooperative species whose success is built not on physical strength, but on working together. At a wedding party, cooperation includes dressing appropriately to celebrate the event. At a debate, cooperation means avoiding name-calling and allowing your opponent time to speak. In a pandemic, cooperation involves watching one's own symptoms and being careful to avoid a potential spread of infection even when one is asymptomatic. Still, some side with the rude guy, the one thrown out of the wedding party.

    Whether at a wedding party or in the midst of a pandemic, a person who fails to follow the rules cannot be allowed to bring everyone down. We owe it to each other to insist on some minimum rules of behavior and decorum. Those who put up with the bully are as bad as the bully; a reciprocal process is involved. It is time to be reminded of a king who requires us to honor our responsibility to one another.

Reflections

Morning: What are my responsibilities to others? For myself? 

Evening: How well did I do with managing myself today?

Psalm 106:3 Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.

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