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Lectionary Living

Mission-Focused: Healing and So Much More

(9/5) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125  •  Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146  •  James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17  •  Mark 7:24-37


     Today's Mark reading features two back-to-back healing stories. For most of history, it seems that people have gone to their religious leaders for healing. My guess is that for the human species, religion lessens anxiety, and less anxiety is good for both emotional and physical health. Not to take anything away from healers and their capacity to calm folks down! That's enough of a miracle. Too much attention to the miracles, though, and one can miss the thread of the story.

     The story is that Jesus is in trouble. As it opens, Jesus has gone to Tyre – a Gentile region – to get away from the intense scrutiny his actions were receiving back at home. The temple leaders were concerned about upstart itinerant preachers; the Romans had spies everywhere. Jesus' popularity with the crowds, his ability to heal, his concern for the poor and the outsider: all of these things were getting attention. Herod – grandson of the Herod who had ordered the killing of all infant boys in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby – was himself a cruel and unpredictable leader, capable of ordering a beheading as party entertainment.

     So Jesus is in Tyre, hiding, and trying to catch a break. It seems he is also trying to think through what he had to get done to complete his life's work, for when a local person asks him to heal her daughter, he reflects back to her that this has nothing to do with his mission in life. His mission is over in Judah and focused on his people there. She pushes back, in a clever dialogue involving children, dogs and crumbs under the table. Whether he broadens his view of his mission or not is unrecorded, but he does heal her child.

     Another healing happens in the next few verses when Jesus takes a person aside and heals him in secret. However, once again the word gets out, and people are talking more and more about what amazing things he can do. This hero worship is precisely the kind of publicity he does not wish for. A mission of bringing his people back to true religion is difficult enough without the authorities becoming concerned about him as a potential rabble rouser.

     The amazing thing in this passage is not the healings. The truly amazing thing here is the capacity of Jesus to continue to focus on his own mission. The focus allowed him to see what was getting in the way: healing, for instance, and the overall attention his miracles were receiving. He could not change that – miracles followed him wherever he went, a little like the cloud of dust surrounding the Pig-Pen character from Charlie Brown. What he could do – what he did – was to avoid seeking the approval of others. Whether people loved or hated him, he continued on his path, bringing authentic stories like today's, crumbs and all.

     Choosing to be less interested in pleasing or not pleasing others allows room for more mature motivations. A two-year old wanting his parents' praise is developmentally appropriate – as adults, we can watch and question what's driving us. Motivations may be grouped in two buckets – an underlying drive to belong, to connect with others and another drive to be one's own person. To the extent that both are attended to, a person walks with integrity, joy, gratitude, peace, and energy for her life, surrounded with her own little cloud of dust.



Morning: What is my mission or purpose in life? What is motivating me today?

Evening: When did I find energy to connect with others? When was I motivated to focus on my own goals?

Psalm 146:5-7a Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,  who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

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Autonomy, Focus, and Do-betters

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9  •  Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 and Psalm 15  •  James 1:17-27  •  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


(8/29) One of the great things about the lectionary – and life too – is the chance for do-overs or at least do-betters. Today I'll be talking about the Mark reading, which I also wrote about back in 2010, when the lectionary covered the Matthew version of the story. Even though it seems like what I said was okay, I'm glad for the do-better, because I think I missed the main point! 


The main point here – the incredibly good news of this passage – is that one does have autonomy over one's own life. Who you are comes from within; no one can take your self away. Although human impulses can lead to theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, or folly (verses 21-22 and thank you Jesus for the short list!), they are simply impulses. Quite apart from whether they are socially acceptable, a person can decide whether they are personally acceptable: What do I want to do with these base urges? Do they represent my best self? What will I allow myself to be motivated by?


As an example, one can notice oneself going down the path of envy and choose another way. Rather than letting a feeling or an emotion take over one's whole being, a person can begin to observe and even joke about them. I remember a comedian from years ago, and unfortunately I've forgotten her name, but she had a great line about a restaurant hostess announcing a person to be seated alone: Bitter, party of one.


The importance of prevention in emotional health is emphasized in the James reading: rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness (1:21). My goodness he is not beating around the bush here! It's no picnic, seeing oneself as sordid and out of control. It's much easier to focus on someone else. The impulse to gossip, though, leaves the gossiper a little cheapened and weaker from such an exchange. A focus on another, even when "well-meant," is usually a way of managing one's own anxiety: again, keeping immaturity in place. Stopping the focus on other people - whether family or friend, old or young – respects their capacity to be the authors of their own lives, while opening up the time and space to focus on one's own hopes.


Focusing on oneself is not easy, especially when it involves thinking about mistakes. Paul McCartney discussed this in a conversation with Stephen Colbert on September 24, 2019 (starting around six and a half minutes in). McCartney talked about how various artists had re-done his great song, Yesterday. He noticed that while he had taken responsibility for his own mistakes in the song with the line "I said something wrong," others had re-written the lyric, saying "I must've said something wrong…" and refusing to consider their own part in the problem. As McCartney put it, they didn't own it.


The good news here is that to the extent that we can see our contribution to the problems we face, we have preventive options. More than that, each of us may always begin again, regretting where one has failed to be oneself, and focusing back on one's own aims. Motivations matter; noticing – and modifying – what brings energy for living can make room for do-betters. Guilt is less useful; patience with and a certain detachment from our all-too-human nature can help. Living by grace begins here.



Morning: How can I be more myself today? What motivates me?

Evening: When did I stay focused on my own goals or focused on others? What are my regrets?

Psalm 15:1-3 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.    

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Energy for One's Own Goals

1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84  •  Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and Psalm 34:15-22  •  Ephesians 6:10-20  •  John 6:56-69


Today I'm turning to the alternate Old Testament reading in Joshua 24. To set the stage, Joshua is nearing the end of his life, having brought the Hebrew people into the promised land. While he has led them in some military victories (the famous story of the walls of Jericho, tumbling down, is found here), for the most part, they have entered an area with enough land so that they manage to co-habit with the existing population, who worship other gods.


For us today, I cannot imagine a more relevant story. The multitude of rival gods surrounding us today is not at all dissimilar to human life over 2500 years ago, when the Hebrew people first settled in Canaan. In their time, the idols brought from previous homes or the gods of the Amorites in the land where they had come to dwell were both distracting the people from serving the Lord. In our time, we continue to fool ourselves into thinking that all of our wishes can be managed or juggled or balanced without losing focus.


Joshua, though, was having none of it. Any goal, any priority, besides following God, was suspect. If you won't serve the Lord, then choose what god you will serve, he demanded. Somehow, in Joshua's mind at least, it was much worse to make a half-hearted effort to appease all the gods than to decide to serve any one of them.


One of the most-quoted lines in scripture is found near the end of this reading, when Joshua tells the people to serve whoever they are going to serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. A note in my Bible says that the translators are unclear about whether 'household' meant his family or a larger community. Whether it's families or congregations or organizations or nations, those with shared goals tend to work together more effectively than those whose intentions are unaligned. 


In a sense, Joshua's closing statement is a modelling of intentionality, telling the people that he will not be spending his time trying to convince them of what they should do, but is clear about what he (and his household) will do. At this point, the people all decide to follow his lead. Somehow, those who get clear about themselves, and their lives, attract followers.


First things first though. How does a person get clear and then stick with it? It's one thing to decide on a direction, but it's quite another to make it happen. The biggest problem – bigger than the number of false gods out there – is an internal one. A person's own emotional system can be at odds with her mature self. One result: one's energy goes towards being responsible for others, taking from them what are essentially their own chances to grow. Another potential result is an over-focus on others and their responses to oneself. Does she appreciate/like/care about me? Does he agree/support/sympathize with my view? Setting aside such questions is possible when one can learn to reason with one's own emotions and notice one's own reactivity.


Thinking about what others should do/feel/say is a serious time sink. Thinking about what oneself is going to do – and sticking with it, as Joshua did – leads to a different life, with energy for one's own goals. When the emotional system and the intellectual system can work together, perceiving the false gods and finding the true, good intentions can become realities.



Morning: What are the false gods in my world? How can I be less distracted today?

Evening: When did I manage to stay on track? When did I lose energy by assuming responsibility for others or focusing on them and their responses to me?

Psalm 34:18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.

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An Understanding Mind: Great prayers are humble prayers

(8/15) 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111  •  Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14  •  Ephesians 5:15-20  •  John 6:51-58


After the difficulties of David's life, it's good this week to get to an upside in the readings! Today's story, perhaps his son Solomon's finest moment, comes when Solomon is a young man. Asked what he most wants for Christmas (well, not exactly, but close) he replies that he's overwhelmed with being a king, has no idea what to do, and wishes for an understanding mind (3:9).


It's funny, when looking back at one's life, what turns out to matter and what moments stand out. Perhaps most of us can remember moments when we felt like Solomon: overwhelmed by circumstances and with no idea what to do next. It's a very human predicament. And yet, the anxiety that gets stirred up in difficult situations can work against us. One way of (mis)managing is to get so worked up that one forgets to ask for either help or input from others. Another way is to get so totally focused on what others would do about a problem, so much better than oneself, that one simply freezes in place, doing nothing at all!


The interesting thing here is that in both cases, a person may think she is acting humbly. The one who takes on the whole burden may think something along the lines of oh I don't want to bother them; "them" can be anyone from one's family to friends to God. The one who gives the whole burden up to others, may think something along the lines of oh I'm not nearly as capable as they are; again, "they" can be anyone. At both extremes of arrogance or helplessness, a false humility exists, where the self is somehow belittled in the process.


With true humility, no one is belittled. Recently, the Olympics offered some fine examples. At the end of a swimming event, the swimmers were looking at the time board and then at the water and then at each other with sheer wonder – look at what's just happened here! It seemed almost irrespective of which of them did exactly what. In an interview of one swimmer, when he was first told his time on the last leg of the race, he had a stunned look – not for himself, or so it seemed to me – but a more general sense of gosh I did not know that could be done, that's amazing! It mattered not at all that it was he himself who had done it.


Another clue about true humility, coming from athletes, is the advice to "run your own race." A lot can be lost, apparently, at premier levels of competition, from getting distracted by what the person in the next lane over is doing. Winners stick with their own pace. The danger of the over-focus on the other extends out from the Olympics to everyone. Each of us has our own self, for whom each of us is entirely responsible. Comparing oneself to others confuses the brain pathways. A realistic focus within oneself is tied to humility.


Solomon, of course, never participated in the Olympics. He had a different challenge as a new king in the midst of the people… a great people (3:8). His awareness of his responsibility to the people goes hand in hand with his prayer for an understanding mind. Whether king or pauper, working on seeing all sides of a thing can bring a person towards a more humane, humble posture.



Morning: What is important for me to focus on today? Where might I lose my way?

Evening: When did I have an understanding mind?

Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

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