icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Lectionary Living


(June 6): 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) and Psalm 138  •  Genesis 3:8-15 and Psalm 130  •  2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  •  Mark 3:20-35

If a person is interested in understanding human emotional process, this week's reading from I Samuel is an important text. In it, the Hebrew people are demanding their first king. They have lived for many years with 'judges' in their midst – leaders who could be called upon to sort out a difficult dispute within the community, or lead in a skirmish with another tribe. Now, though, they are done with this informal approach to leadership. They want their own king.


Their reasoning? Well, it went something like this: Other nations have kings, we should too. He will govern us. He will lead in war, fighting our battles (1 Samuel 8:20). The immaturity is noteworthy in three ways. First, the unquestioning assumption that what others have is the important thing. Second, that they would prefer another in charge, rather than governing themselves. And third, their desire to find someone who would go out before them into combat, fighting their battles, and signaling their own lack of courage.


This week, I've been re-reading Paul Tillich's The Courage to Be. Say what you will about Tillich (and apparently, he's controversial in some circles), this book goes to the heart of the matter. Briefly, being true to oneself requires courage. Following Spinoza, Tillich describes the courage of "self-affirmation" not as an isolated act in an individual, but as ultimately unselfish.


In demanding a king, the people had avoided self-affirmation. Samuel tried to tell them what they would be giving up. He described in vivid detail how a king would lord it over them, taxing them, enslaving them, and taking their sons for battle and their daughters for his personal needs. In demanding a king, they were giving up any chance for self-governance, and instead, increasing their chances of helplessness over matters where they had previously had control.


Tillich (p. 36-37) described helplessness as a common expression of anxiety, present in many species, and marked by indecisiveness. Courage begins with engaging a challenge and thinking through one's own options. But individuals, families, and congregations can all move towards helpless postures automatically; under stress it's even more likely. Once helplessness creeps in, most of us are looking around for someone else to figure things out.


Instead of looking to others to decide what to do, a person has the option of self-regulation. Although one can neither control nor be responsible for any other adult, becoming king or queen of oneself is in the realm of the possible. Putting on an imaginary crown, considering different emotions and thoughts as 'subjects' for your consideration, can be both fun and instructive. Finding the inner authority to manage one's own emotional system, harnessing it to one's intellectual system, promotes self-rule. Regarding oneself, a person has many choices to make.


Sacrificing self-rule, the Hebrew people demanded a king. What happened next? The text jumps ahead a few chapters to let us know that Samuel reluctantly gave in to them, anointing Saul as their ruler. The Old Testament readings for most of the summer are set in I and II Samuel: providing a rich set of stories on human immaturity and its consequences.



Morning: What might get in the way of my own self-rule today?

Evening: When did I notice myself feeling helpless?

Psalm 138:6 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Be the first to comment

Contemplating a Squished Cicada

(5/30): Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29  •  Romans 8:12-17  •  John 3:1-17


Like a get-out-of-jail-free card, one of the best lines in all of scripture is provided today, an antidote to the otherwise murky world of the Sunday after Pentecost, aka Trinity Sunday. It's found in the Isaiah reading, which begins with Isaiah's vision: an awesome view of the Lord on a throne in the temple, angels surrounding, coals burning, the whole thing. A conversation (regarding the state of the planet Earth?) seems to have already begun. The gathered group (for apparently, the Lord is not simply talking to himself) is wondering who will take up the challenge, when Isaiah answers, "Here am I; send me!"


Usually, the reading is understood as an extraordinary experience, relevant for those few with a calling to the prophetic ministry. And certainly, few of us see angels or otherwise experience a vision like Isaiah had. Nevertheless, the stepping up – the here am I; send me! – is a common experience.


What motivates a person to say yes, I'll do it? Whether it's doing the dishes or watering the garden, coaching soccer or t-ball, making masks or quilts, what matters is taking one's turn at any of a thousand tasks necessary to a family, congregation, workplace, or other setting. Stepping up to do what has to be done is how humans have managed from the beginning.  


In Isaiah's case, his wisdom was to follow what brought him energy. When he saw his vision of the Lord in the temple, he did not succumb to fear. Instead, he noticed his fear – a fear, by the way, of dying: the usual fate of those who look on the face of the Lord. In the story, a seraph (a high-ranking angel) used a live coal from the altar to remove the danger. Then, Isaiah was able to hear the question: who will go for us? Once heard, he could respond with his full being.


Responding to life with one's full being is a paradoxical task. The very idea of power can get in the way; the opposite of helpless is not powerful, but capable; the capacity to manage oneself is what matters. How does a person become a great prophet? Isaiah began by wrestling with his fear. First, he recognized his mortal nature, letting go of any vestige of arrogance. His ability to ask for help, to embrace his creatureliness, ultimately led to his ability to take on the role in question.


The creature making the headlines in today's news is the lowly cicada, a bug living 13-17 years below ground, and the last four to six weeks of adult life above ground – reproducing and then dying, by the millions. As if covid weren't enough, these bugs are the latest reminder that death is part of the life cycle for all creatures. Near my home, dead and dying cicadas can be seen lying on the ground and sidewalks, pretty much wherever there are big trees.


Contemplating a squished cicada can be a useful exercise. When humans die, they usually won't lie on a sidewalk for others to step over or on. Still, death may come with or without dignity; reflecting on the likely circumstances of one's own death (a daily task as recommended by saints of many traditions down through the centuries) requires a certain courage. But, when fear of dying can be put aside, one can begin to see the reality of existence more clearly. Cultivating an awareness of humans as creatures is a good thing; it's odd, but facing one's mortality helps a person to become more truly herself.



Morning: What do I want to say yes! to?

Evening: When did fear get in my way today?

Psalm 29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Be the first to comment

Not a Pretty Picture

(5/23) Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21  •  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


Ah Pentecost – that day when the church goes a little crazy. In my congregation, the custom is to dress in red, commemorating a day when flames appeared over the heads of everyone in the room. That was only a sign of the true miracle, as I see it. The true miracle was that people were understanding each other. Folks from many different countries, speaking various languages, were hearing and responding to one another!


In the opposite of this story, today's news headlines are all about the latest conflict in Jerusalem. No one is listening to the other; war is at hand. I'm reminded of the story (in Judges 13-16) of Samson and Delilah – a terrible tale of tribal warfare and the inhumanity of our species. The miracle of Pentecost was not only that people could understand each other; it was that they were interested in doing so.


A lot gets in the way of keeping us from listening to one another. One major barrier is our inability to listen to our own selves. When a person starts down the path of trying to understand what is happening within, the results are… well, at least in my own case, less than hopeful. The inner strands of immaturity come out in a thousand and one tongues. Some are tied to my inability to manage my own emotions; others are tied to my faulty reasoning; the interaction of the two is also noteworthy. It is not a pretty picture.


Before a person can hear another clearly, all this inner turmoil has to be first, understood, and second, mastered. There is a daily or hourly self-emptying, a taking out of the inner trash, necessary to begin to be open to hearing another. Once listening, a second challenge, at least as difficult, follows. The second step is to listen without taking on or somehow absorbing the other's problems or worries. Leaving them with the other is a way of respecting both the other's capacity to manage herself and recognizing one's own incapacity to manage more than one's own self.


I myself am big on this last point. The energy of Pentecost comes when each person is fully alive. It is the opposite of each person spending energy trying to shore up the other, losing herself in the process. The temptation to glom onto another, or to try to get them to glom onto oneself, is always there. But it keeps both the community and the individual from being fully alive – from being in some sense, stuck.


There is always some stuckness to the human predicament. How many people does it take to change a light bulb? The joke is always funny, no matter what the variation, because it is the question about our species. What should take one person to do, somehow turns into two – or more! Each of us fails to mature, to be fully responsible for our own self and our own tasks.


Apparently, at this point in our species' evolution, we humans manage by negotiating away at least some of our individuality. Here, perhaps, the Ezekiel reading may be useful. In the valley of dead, dry bones (37:2), life is restored: not to individuals alone, but to all. They come back to life as a people (v. 12). That each person might exist as a full self while still being part of a family and a larger community is the dream and the challenge for each of us, every day.



Morning: How can I listen to myself today? What might get in the way?

Evening: When did I get stuck in immaturity?

Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

Be the first to comment

Ordinary Life

(5/16) Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  •  Psalm 1  •  1 John 5:9-13  •  John 17:6-19


I'm a fan of the lectionary. The set readings have added structure and sense to my life. Still, this Sunday, I have to complain. How did the gospel reading get shortened so that the reader dives into a prayer already in progress? Why ask folks to start in the middle of perhaps the thickest reading ever, and then to skip its conclusion? What were they thinking? Sigh. For me, reading all of John 17 provides the bookends necessary to make any sense at all of the chapter.


The chapter itself is someone's effort to sum up a prayer of Jesus near the end of his life. It contains deep thoughts regarding his life and his hopes for us humans. From the start here, I freely admit that it's way over my head. And of course it would have to be – how could a prayer of Jesus be rendered understandable to me, with my feet of clay? While the more modern translations are some help, and while I have given this chapter a lot of study and thought, I still get stuck.


One stuck point is the whole I in thee and we in they and mine and thine language, which comes and goes throughout the chapter. As I see it now, two things are happening here. First, Jesus is talking about relationships within the Godhead. Leaving that aside, Jesus is also describing how humans overlap with one another, how one is actually a part of the other, with little-to-no capacity to find a way to a separate self. In my own life, this process is easiest to see in my relationship with my sister. Born 16 months apart, we were wired together. Our intense relationship had an up and a down-side, though, as I'm guessing they all do.


The disciples of Jesus also had close relationships marked by petty bickering. Perhaps it is they, particularly, along with the whole human species, hopefully, whom Jesus is praying for when he asks in v. 23 that they all may be one. My guess here is that Jesus is not praying that they will always agree; rather, that they will find so much freedom in their community that disagreeing would be part of the package. Otherwise, they would have difficulty in finding the truth, which sets each person more free to see the broader picture of life – and which they need to function well as a group.  


Each of us has many groups – family, friends, work colleagues, church community – where we have the opportunity to grow ourselves up. In my own experience, the work continues to remain incomplete, in this life. I think about my sister, who died at age 42. I still miss her! But if she were still alive, would we have found our way to a perfect, mature relationship? Would we ever, in this life? I think not.


I wonder about eternal life, which according to John 17:3 is somehow about knowing God. Well that's a tall order! It's hard enough to know one another! So much gets in the way; we are, after all, just creatures here on earth. However, even here in this ordinary life, there are opportunities for understanding one another better.


Reflecting on the lives of those who have died can bring a larger view. For instance, I've recently become more aware of some challenges in our parents' lives when my sister was an infant. Thinking about one's family history can bring a more realistic assessment of what others were up against. With that comes a greater ability to apprehend what really happened and one's own ever-smaller place within it. Once found, the larger perspective cannot be taken away. And the greater understanding may bring the beginnings of deep joy, as Jesus prayed for us to find in verse 13 of today's impossibly unreadable reading.



Morning: In what family relationships do I notice some intensity? Where might I begin to find a bigger perspective?

Evening: When have I experienced joy? What gets in the way?

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.

Be the first to comment