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Lectionary Living

Time, for Amendment of Life

(2/28) Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16  •  Psalm 22:23-31  •  Romans 4:13-25  •  Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9

    As this week's Mark reading opens, danger is in the air. Jesus is predicting trouble ahead – his own death at the hands of the chief religious leaders. Like any loyal disciple, Peter tries to deny the reality of what they were facing; like any true leader, Jesus will have none of that.

    How hard it must have been for Jesus, to look in the faces of the disciples and the crowds who were following him, knowing that he could not protect them from the difficulties ahead. They had to be told the truth; and then they had to find a way to face up to it. To put it to them clearly, he says, after all, what use is it to win the world and lose your life

    What use indeed. Jesus, always the big picture thinker, had something bigger in mind than winning the world. He was interested in positioning people to own their lives. Only those who had gotten clear about their loyalties were eligible for such a high stakes event. It was not a time for relaxing. The people in the Mark story were on high alert for danger.

    For many of us, the past year has been a year to be on alert. We now utter the expression stay safe as though this were a normal way of saying good-bye. But the constant requirement for alertness to danger can exhausting for human beings on both physical and emotional levels. While I do not think the Mark reading is inviting us to a constant vigilance, I do think it is asking each of us to consider to what extent one is in danger of winning the world and losing one's life.

    The danger of being led astray by one's "wins" seems less than obvious. Usually, winning is seen as bringing energy and strength. But the scripture is quite clear on this point. The accolades of the world can quickly cause a person to forget what matters to her. The excitement of the world can somehow move a person to disregard her own best ideas and principles. Looking for others to be more appreciative is, over time, destined for failure. Losing one's life then follows as a sad and uninteresting last act, as the person has continually given up or compromised much of herself along the way.

    On the other hand, a person under pressure can choose to remain loyal to her principles. Or, in what's perhaps a more natural pattern, as a person grows in maturity and understanding of her principles, she can choose to act on them. Moreover, she can choose to act differently in the present than she did in the past. When possible, she can find ways to go back and repair or rebuild damaged relationships. A line from an old prayer comes to mind: time for amendment of life.

    Each of us who has lived to see another day has been granted time to amend – to modify – one's life. It is the taking hold of one's existence that matters. All of us die. In the meantime, though, one has many choices in one's daily intentions and one's part in relationship processes. All of this is up to the individual and the world cannot take it away!

    At the same time, existence here on earth is time-limited; death comes for all creatures. Getting comfortable with one's mortality is a tall order – tackled by great thinkers from St. Francis (see his 13th century canticle featuring Sister Death) to Todd Billing (in a 2020 book, The End of the Christian Life). At the high end, perhaps, embracing one's eventual demise reflects a fully developed inner capacity for harnessing the intellectual and the emotional systems together. At a minimum, death can serve as a useful reminder that one doesn't have forever, here, to amend one's life. Getting started is what matters: Right away, or, as Mark says over 40 times in this short book, "Immediately!"

Daily Reflections

Morning: How do I want to amend my life?

Evening: When did I get distracted by the world today?

Psalm 22:26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!

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Repentance, PRN

2/21: Genesis 9:8-17  •  Psalm 25:1-10  •  1 Peter 3:18-22  •  Mark 1:9-15

    Mark's way of moving quickly to the point scores again this week, with the simple advice to repent. Go another way, find a new direction for life. But what's the different direction?

    For that, I'm turning to the Ash Wednesday reading (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), where Jesus is telling others to beware of showing off so that others can see you: whether in giving, or fasting, or praying. Trying to please others is, as Jesus said, its own reward, and a dangerous one at that. The more a person works to please the world, the more the world demands, in a never-ending cycle of giving up who one might have been to win the approval of others.  

    Going back to the Mark reading, when Jesus is baptized, a voice came from heaven announcing that this is my son with whom I am well pleased. Jesus has a big problem now, in pleasing not a person, but God! And as if on cosmic cue, he is driven immediately to the wilderness for a long period of testing.  

    When a person steps up, as Jesus did in his baptism, a testing period comes next. The world wants to know if the person really means it, regarding whatever position the individual has taken. Others will try to push the person back to their previous, less mature, ways of living. Over time, if the person can maintain their new way of living, others will accept and adapt to it. Testing this way is like proofing the yeast: making sure the yeast can do what it's supposed to do so that the bread will rise.

    A similar testing process occurred when Jesus pleased God. The same testing was required, in effect asking, did he mean it? Was he baptized to try to please the crowd and/or God? Or was he baptized as part of becoming the person he was choosing to be?

     Most of us reading and thinking about the scriptures have been baptized – some as infants or children, others as adults. All of us, though, have a chance to ask ourselves, at this point in our lives, about our baptism. Did we mean it? Do we mean it – now, do we take on our baptismal covenant? The promises that were made by or for each of us, the prayers that were made on our behalf, the baptism itself – these can be owned or disowned, all day long.

    How easy it is to disown them! Small compromises – usually made to please someone else – get in the way of being faithful to one's principles. Joining with others, for instance, in unkind comments regarding a third person. Or, going along with others when actually one thinks differently about a subject. Or, taking care of someone else's responsibilities rather than one's own. It's seldom a big, breaking-news event; rather, it's the many small disloyalties to oneself that get in the way of becoming one's mature self.   

    Becoming this mature self takes practice. It takes noticing that one is feeling pressured, first. Then, instead of blaming others for the feeling, it takes deciding for oneself how one will act. It takes looking at one's own anxiety – for instance – if I disagree, will they like me less? – and concluding that being oneself is worth the risk.

    The good news here is that baptism allows for the problems of being human. The baptismal covenant is not a promise to get it right, but a promise to repent, as needed. Finding a new way takes time; managing oneself with integrity takes practice.  

Daily Reflections

Morning: What would it mean today to live according to my baptismal covenant?

Evening: When was I trying to please others today? What did I gain by giving up my self?     

Psalm 25:8-10 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

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Limping Along?

2/14: 2 Kings 2:1-12  •  Psalm 50:1-6  •  2 Corinthians 4:3-6  •  Mark 9:2-9

    The story of the transfiguration is an important one – read every year on the last Sunday before Lent begins. Featuring Jesus, three disciples, two old testament leaders, a voice from a cloud, a mountain top, and some very strange weather, it's a tribute to all that goes into gaining perspective. An interesting detail is the choice of old testament characters. Who would you have guessed would be present for this summation of all that has happened and discernment of what was to come? Moses, surely, but who else? Maybe Abraham, patriarch of the faith? Or Joshua, responsible for moving the work of Moses forward. Maybe Isaiah, that great prophet who seemed to anticipate what was ahead. Well, none of the above. Instead, the other figure on the mountain top is Elijah.

    Elijah was one wild and crazy guy. Hairy, with a leather belt around his waist, he was apt to do the unexpected. First off, he was big on telling the truth – alienating King Ahaz and his wife Jezebel. Second, he took huge risks. For instance, when he fled from Ahaz (1 Kings 17), he told the widow he'd taken refuge with her to use up all her remaining food to make a meal. The third thing about Elijah is that he could deliver the goods. When the widow's son died, Elijah brought him back to life.       

    Another Elijah story (I Kings 18) perhaps gives more insight into how he was chosen by central casting for the Transfiguration event. Going to King Ahaz, who could have had him killed on the spot, he challenges him to a cosmic duel of sorts. He asks Ahaz to assemble everyone on Mount Carmel: people and prophets, both of Yahweh and of Baal and Asherah, the local gods. Some were devoted to one; many hedged their bets, trying to stay in the good graces of all possible deities. Looking at the gathered crowd, Elijah asks the people one question: How long will you go limping with two different opinions?

    Now the content of the rest of the story 'may be unsettling' to some. It's a high stakes, winner takes all, situation, where animals are prepared for sacrifice and the question is whose god can make the fire to burn the offering. Losers are to be killed. The prophets of the local gods attempt to invoke their power through parading around their altar, incantations, and cutting themselves. Elijah mocks them, and they try harder. Nothing happens. Elijah works hard to set up his altar, building it deep and wide and dousing it thoroughly with water. In the end, Elijah calmly says a two-sentence prayer, and his offering is consumed by fire.

    It's a great story and a fun read. More to the point, though, it's a story describing what motivated Elijah. His deeply held principle about serving one god, and one god only, seems to have given him an abundance of energy and focus. It bothered him, for instance, to hear folks make illusions to the local god, who was said to control the rain and the dew. It bothered him that the King had married a woman with ties to these local cults.  He saw how these mixed allegiances weakened the people: limping with two different opinions.

    'Limping with two different opinions' is a great line. The more one doubts her direction, the more time she wastes in indecision. And the more vulnerable she becomes, like a wave in the sea, tossed by the wind. Recognize that line? See James 1:6 – a book, incidentally, which closes with a story from the life of Elijah.

    A moment came in Elijah's life when he lost his momentum. Hiding in a cave, he does not find it, although powerful winds, an earthquake, and a fire rage. Finally, it comes to him again as a still, small voice. Here is the task and the challenge of growing up. Recognizing what one is loyal to, when it has lost its luster, is a necessary step towards integrity. Elijah belongs in the Transfiguration story, where Jesus searched and found the motivation to stay the course.

    In today's reading from 1 Kings, Elijah's chief disciple, Elisha, is accompanying him on his last day on earth. In a humble moment, Elijah asks Elisha what he might do for him before he goes. When Elisha identifies what he wants – a double share of that spirit – Elijah responds that he cannot guarantee this. Elijah had much to offer, to teach, to give. But motivation comes from within. With it comes an abundance of energy, a host of problems, and the greatest stories ever told.


Morning: What do I have energy for today?

Evening: When was I limping along with two different opinions? How do I find clarity?

Psalm 50:1 The mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.

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(2/7) Isaiah 40:21-31  •  Psalm 147:1-11, 20c  •  1 Corinthians 9:16-23  •  Mark 1:29-39

    Today's Mark reading begins with a problem: Peter's mother-in-law is sick. She's in bed, of all things. One can guess the implications:  no supper waiting for Peter and his friends! Well, this is indeed an emergency, and Jesus is notified right away. He goes in to see her. Holding her hands in his, he brings her to her feet. Immediately feeling better, she begins taking care of them all.

    Mark's brief words suggest that the functional capacity of the band of disciples was tied to the functioning of Peter's family. Their mutual cooperation looks to have been relatively seamless. Peter's mother-in-law, a woman perhaps 40 years old, given the pattern of early reproduction at the time, would have been indispensable to the family's ability to manage itself. Caring for grandchildren, helping with labor-intensive tasks like meal preparation and laundry, all of these tasks would be supported by her efforts, freeing her daughter to other necessary tasks. Any lack of health in her would be felt by the family unit and the followers of Jesus, gathered together there. They needed her back on her feet.

    The healing properties of those three little words, we need you! Sometimes they are communicated when someone important to the person reaches out his hands. Sometimes, though, the knowledge comes from within. "I can't get sick right now," one tells oneself, in a variety of circumstances. Sometimes – depending on the seriousness of the disease and the interior of the individual - the body can mount a response from within.

    During the pandemic, perhaps many of us have wished for a savior who would grab a friend or family member by the hands and heal her of the virus. To everyone who has lost a loved one, I offer my condolences. When death takes a partner, child, parent, or even mother-in-law, the family suffers a heavy blow. Even still, one must find the energy to go on. The example of Jesus, who (as I see it) invokes the mother-in-law's relationship system to motivate her healing process, serves well here.

    Like Peter's mother-in-law, each of us gets energy from family and other groups we're a part of. Like her, becoming more aware of one's own functioning – of how one is of service to others - can be useful. Many of us, I'm guessing, don't spend enough time thinking about the difference we make or might make in the lives of others.

    Both serving and being served are important contributions to the group. An old Fred Rogers children's song put it best. "There's the cooking way to say I love you…" quickly followed by "there's the eating way to say I love you. There's the eating something someone made especially for you." The counterbalance of responsibility both for self and to others bears some reflection.

    Thinking about how the family can manage more effectively may make a difference. Flexibility within the unit helps, as does laughter and perspective. Whatever the challenge, the energy to keep going can be aided by an intentional, cooperative effort. This spring, finding the continued resolve and the self-discipline to stay safe are the essential tasks. Somewhat mysteriously, they occur both within a person and within the relationship system.

    Today's scripture tells us that people are motivated by their place and their function within a group. In one way or another, each of us can take one another's hands and say, "You matter to me."  Strengthening each relationship – in the creative ways still possible during these times – can make a difference. Getting to know others for who they are and letting them know you for yourself provides energy to face the challenges of 2021.

Daily Reflections

Morning: How am I expressing to others that they matter to me? How am I doing in managing my responsibilities for myself?

Evening: What motivated me today? Where did I have trouble finding energy for my life?

Psalm 147:3 He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.

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