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Lectionary Living

Challenging Times

(5/2): Acts 8:26-40  •  Psalm 22:25-31  •  1 John 4:7-21  •  John 15:1-8

    In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus uses a metaphor about a vine and its branches, applying it to the community gathered in his name. For me, what it calls to mind is a family tree. In many ways, a family tree can be described not metaphorically, but in real life, according to this text.

    Every branch of a family tree that bears no fruit is removed (v. 2). Those without offspring are discontinued branches, so to speak. To the extent that they assist other branches, they do live on, however indirectly. The larger point, though, is that humans live on earth as biological organisms, subject to the same rules as all species.

    Every branch of a family tree that bears fruit is pruned (also v. 2), with the challenges of life providing the pruning. Many of these challenges occur due to the logic of a universe continually evolving. Covid, for instance, is simply a brainless but successful virus, continuing to mutate into various strains, while humans continue to push back with treatments and vaccines capable of limiting its destructive power. Life on earth is no picnic.

    In challenging times, the ability to recollect oneself matters. The advantage goes to families with at least one member able to stop and think – and then, act accordingly. The trick, to me, is to keep on this path. It's one thing to start off trying to stay calm – and a whole other thing to stick with it. Often, people use distancing from others as a way to stay calm. Although it may be necessary at some points, it is ultimately counter-productive, as challenges are better met by involving the resourcefulness of many rather than the strengths of a few.

    Jesus, of course, recommends the opposite of distancing. Abide in me, he says (v. 4). Remaining in Jesus is a whole other way of living. It means not only getting there but staying there.  Well, this is a tall order. When life gets difficult, the capacity to think diminishes. The mind begins to look for causal factors, just as a zebra looks for an explanation for a rustling in the bushes. If the zebra guesses wrong – if it's a lion, not the wind – the zebra is the lion's lunch.  

    In the complex world we live in, explanations are never simple. The capacity to look at the multitude of factors influencing one's life – to get the perspective necessary to make useful decisions – requires one to stay calm. The fear of a lion in the bushes, or its equivalent, can get in the way. The good news here is that the brain has enough flexibility to learn new ways of responding to threat. One can practice noticing one's own reactivity whenever a minor worry has been blown out of proportion. Around one's family, one can get a lot of practice!

    Often, a sense of responsibility for others interferes with one's capacity to stay calm. To the extent that a person worries about others and feels responsible for them, she assumes ever-heavier burdens on herself. Noticing when one is starting to get reactive, and asking oneself, well, whose problem is this? can be a start towards a calmer, more realistic view of life. Here, at least as I see it, one is invited to abide in Jesus.


Morning: When tension starts to rise, how do I recollect myself? How can I remain calm?

Evening: When did I notice my own reactivity? How did I manage myself in it?

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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Valley of Death

(4/25): Acts 4:5-12  •  Psalm 23  •  1 John 3:16-24  •  John 10:11-18

    The fourth Sunday after Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is always about sheep. A friend and I had a good chuckle one Sunday after church, thinking of how many sermons we'd heard – and how much we knew! – about sheep. This morning, though, I'm going to turn to another aspect of the fourth Sunday of Easter that is always the same: the appointed psalm 23.  

    Verse four of the psalm was translated in the King James Bible as "Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." More modern translations describe "the valley of the deepest darkness." Whichever one chooses, the reader is identifying with the fear of the psalmist. Wherever he is, it's a scary valley.

    This past week, I had the chance to tour a WW2 battleship. A family member had served on a similar ship during the war. Grampa, as we all called him, who had found a way out of a lifetime in the coal mines of the southern Appalachian Mountains by volunteering for duty, instead found himself pushing fossil fuels into the ship's boiler.

    When we began the tour, I asked the guide where we might find the engine room. He showed me the path to the very bottom of the ship. Walking down the steps – just like the movies, turn around, duck your head, hold onto the side rails – things got tighter and tighter. On the upper levels, people actually slept in rooms. On the bottom, bunks were in the halls, three to a tier, folding up against the walls during the day. The (simulated) loud noise added to the sense of smallness.

    As the psalmist was describing, this must have been one scary valley. I remember asking Grampa once, what it was like during a battle, and how folks managed or not, during one. He just shook his head and said I couldn't imagine. Now, I wish I'd asked a different question. I wish I'd asked what it was like during the many long days when they weren't in battle. It seems like that might have been even harder. How often did they get to go up on deck for a breath of fresh air? What was it like to know what might happen? When his shipmates were buried at sea, what was that like for him? How did he get through it?

    Many (if not all) family members have led interesting lives. Getting them to talk about it, though, can be challenging. I look back on this conversation, or my effort to have one, with some regret. By going for the exciting battle moment, I missed the everydayness: the ordinary, dreadfully ordinary bleakness he must have endured, and probably could have talked about all day! Beginning with more factual questions might have helped.

    Family conversations seldom turn to how a person faces the challenge of her own mortality – to death itself. Even during covid, the topic has been avoided whenever possible. How does one join the psalmist in talking about death? In facing the reality of death without fear? Here, we must join the sheep. Embracing our creatureliness here on earth provides a peculiar comfort. Knowing where one has agency comes with seeing where one does not.

    A person does have considerable agency in learning about their family. The morning I spent seeing the battleship has helped me to see much more about Grampa's life than I had understood until now. His own resilience is clearer to me; his capacity to do what had to be done is plain to see. Not only that, I now have a better appreciation for how this family trait, this ability to step up to the challenge, has been passed down the generations.


Morning: What do I want to know about my family? Where can I get started today?

Evening: How do I think about my own dying?

Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.

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Eventually Catching On

(4/18): Acts 3:12-19  •  Psalm 4  •  1 John 3:1-7  •  Luke 24:36b-48

    In this week's Easter reading, Jesus – fresh from the grave – is back, in-person with the disciples. Luke tells us that they thought they were seeing a ghost. The story goes on with Jesus asking for something to eat, and doing everything he can to let them know that he is in the flesh, back from the dead. Here are the grief-stricken disciples, unable to imagine that the good news standing right in front of them is real.        

    As an example of the intricacies of the human brain, this story would be hard to beat. It's hard to take in the unexpected, and harder still to believe the unimaginable, even if it's right before your eyes. More than that, the unexpected generates a fear response. The disciples were startled and terrified (v. 37).

    Sometimes, a startle response is a good thing. From a mosquito buzzing near your ear to an ambulance coming up quickly behind your moving vehicle, the ability to act quickly can make a difference. In this case though, being startled was interfering with the disciples' capacity to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.

    Somehow Jesus manages to calm them down so that they can hear what he's come for. Stopping the fear response – or, more generally, getting less worried, less reactive – can make a difference in what one can hear and understand about life. Some of us have a designated person in the family who does the worrying for us. In my family, this was my Aunt Lavonne. She was famous for the expression Ye Gods and Fishes, which she would utter at the slightest provocation, setting all the rest of us to solve whatever problem she had uncovered before things got worse. An oldest child in a family of very limited means during the Great Depression, she was constantly vigilant. Potential threats were many in her mind, although she was, by the time I knew her, way past any realistic danger of privation of any kind.

    Becoming more realistic may be part of bringing one's own worries and reactivity down. Reacting to the upset of another, without considering the extent of the threat itself (if any!), keeps a person busy with calming another person's anxiety. On the other hand, if one can respond a little less automatically – thinking about whether and how one might want to respond in terms of one's own view of the matter – then a person is beginning to manage her own anxious response, rather than someone else's. In the end, the calmer person is simply more free.

    Staying calm in the face of my Aunt Lavonne would have been challenging. Her anxiety would have initially increased, I imagine, if I had not always done her bidding. Refusal did not seem a choice as a child! As an adult though, I can slow down the path of automatic reactivity which my brain is used to following. I can stop blaming others and look for a more complex understanding of the world around me. The approach has broad implications for leaders everywhere. Generally, if one person can start to calm down and think realistically to gain a broader perspective, others will eventually get interested and follow where they are leading.

    Enter the disciples, who eventually catch on in today's gospel story. It's the eventually catching on that interests me. It takes a lifetime, it seems, to slow down one's own reactivity, to think realistically, and to see a bigger view of life. But what else have we got to do?


Morning: Who does the worrying in my family? In my workplace? When is it me? What's automatic for me, in response to the worries of others?

Evening: When did I manage to notice my own reactivity? Slow it down a bit?

Psalm 4:8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.


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Authors All

4/11: Acts 4:32-35  •  Psalm 133  •  1 John 1:1-2:2  •  John 20:19-31

    Every year, the gospel on the Sunday after Easter is the same: the story in John about the one disciple who was out when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the others. The absent one, Thomas, on hearing about the visit of Jesus, said he would not believe this story unless he could reach out and touch the marks in the flesh of the Lord. So, Jesus returns, and Thomas comes to believe.

    More importantly, perhaps, is the last verse of the story, also the last verse of the gospel of John. The author is saying that he has written all of this down so that the reader might come to believe. Well, that's a high bar! It's one thing to write to entertain, or to make sense of something that's happened, or to remember a detail one might otherwise forget, or even to reflect on scripture. The business of writing so that others might believe is quite a goal.

    It's commonly said that seeing is believing. For humans, though, the opposite is often more the case. People tend to see what they already believe. Apparently, the tendency to see what one expects to see is so common in criminal cases that an attorney will doubt any story if all the witnesses agree! If they all saw it the same way, then the story had to be made up.

    The writer of John, then, is up against a lot. The reader's own ideas and expectations about scripture may get in the way of hearing these stories for what they are. They may keep the reader from even entertaining the ideas seriously.  The first step, then, is for the reader to get a little looser about how this story might go. A bit of the willing suspension of disbelief may go along with this phase. Life itself pushes us to suspend our previously held notions, to open us up to new ways of seeing or thinking about a thing.

    With a bit of an open mind, one can then consider whether a thing makes sense. Whether one is persuaded by a story, or a research article, or a well-reasoned argument, is the question. It's the question we often duck. The mental discipline required to think a thing through, to consider whether it fits with one's own views, experience, and knowledge, is challenging work. A person may have to set aside her own emotional reaction to consider what's there. In the end, human reasoning is fully alive when one's mind is yoked, somehow, to one's emotional system, with information flowing back and forth between the two. True thoughtfulness emerges, motivating a person to take a position – to act – on what's been understood.   

    The response of Thomas to Jesus' appearance was life-changing for him. What a person truly believes shows up in how she lives. Like the writer of John, each of us is an author: the author of one's own life. And all of us are readers, if you will, of each other's lives. Each person provides others her own lived interpretation of her way of seeing life through how she is living it. Active authorship begins with thinking about what one believes, and its influence on how one is living. That's all. And that's plenty, gracious plenty.

Daily reflections

Morning: What do I believe? How does it match what I see or understand?

Evening: How did I act according to my beliefs today? When did I find them to be life-giving?

Psalm 150:6 Let everything that breathes praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!

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