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Lectionary Living

All God's Creatures Die

(11/1) Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9 and Psalm 24  •  Revelation 21:1-6a  •  John 11:32-44


    This week, I'm going to talk about the All-Saints Day readings, which may be used in your church on November 7. I'll fold in some ideas from J. Todd Billings' recent book: The End of the Christian Life. As you may have guessed, the topic is death.


    The Wisdom of Solomon text is a tough one, to me. Understood to apply to those who suffer and die for their faith (rather than by the thousand and one maladies that plague us all), it makes some sense. Still, if there could be anything less useful than reframing a death as they seemed to have died (3:2), I'd like to know what that would be! The downplaying of suffering is also difficult. That they – the dearly departed, that is – were disciplined a little (3:5) seems to deny the reality of their suffering.


    The mention of God having tested the souls of the righteous was useful. Life as a testing ground, a place to grow oneself up, is a concept found both throughout scripture and in the natural order of things. Look at birds, who go from helpless creatures being fed each worm to adults feeding their own young. Look at prairie dogs, who manage as family groups to share sentry duty against an astonishing variety of predators. For all creatures, regardless of the species, the organisms that can face life's challenges – to deal with the reality of their changing context – are the most likely to survive.


    What, exactly, does surviving have to do with dying? After all, this piece is about death, right? While the individual organism dies, the family organism – and the other groups one belongs to – endure. What endures from those who have died is worth pondering, every All-Saints Day. The teachers, coaches, colleagues, mentors, friends, and family members who have shaped us continue to live on, in and through us. Remembering them combines gratitude with a bigger perspective on one's life.


    More difficult, but also worth pondering each All-Saints Day, is one's own mortality. It's one thing to be afraid of death; it's another to let that fear keep one too busy to think about dying! Here, the Wisdom of Solomon reading earns its name, with this singular statement: Those who trust in God will understand truth (v. 9). Trusting the cycle of new life, death, decay, and new life – written into creation as the natural order for every living thing – is the beginning step to understanding truth.


    Trusting the process allows a clear view of the reality of one's own mortality, rather than a quick glance, now and then. The result: the fear is managed rather than lurking underneath and keeping a person from thinking clearly. As usual, Jesus sets the example in today's gospel. Lazarus has died; when Jesus arrives and sees others grieving, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… and began to weep (John 11:33b, 35). Approaching the tomb, he is again greatly disturbed; soon, he pulls himself together: directing that the stone be moved, questioning Martha, and thanking God. It is exactly as he had taught: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).


    Similarly, Revelation 21:4 describes God tenderly wiping away every tear from their eyes. One has to be careful in reading this passage, for it – and the book as a whole - provide many interpretive challenges. (It's hard to picture a new Jerusalem floating down from heaven.) Still, the image of God attending to the tears of each person is a hint to our own self-care. Our emotional system is not to be ignored; neither is it to be given free rein; tending to it rather than distancing from it allows one to be more connected with others.


    Staying connected with others and getting comfortable with one's creaturely nature both tend to lead toward a clearer view of reality. What is realistic – under one's control or not, worth working on or not - may look different than before. Relating to oneself more realistically, as a mortal whose life is coming to an end, may bring some surprising results.



Morning:  How do I manage my fear of dying? When might it be useful to remember that I'm mortal?

Evening: Who are the people I want to remember this All-Saints Day? How did they change my life?

Psalm 39:4 Lord let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.

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A Bigger View

(10/24) Job 42:1-6, 10-17 and Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)  •  Jeremiah 31:7-9 and Psalm 126  •  Hebrews 7:23-28  •  Mark 10:46-52


    In coming to the end of Job, chapter 42 tries to tidy up several strands of the story line. Job has his last word (v. 1-6), God has something to say to Job's friends (v. 7-9), and there is a somewhat happy ending to the story line of Job's life (v. 10-16).  The mystery of life remains, though: perhaps reflecting the point of the book more clearly than ever.

    To begin, Job acknowledges the mystery: therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (v. 3b). It seems that Job has found both comfort and joy in God's description of the cosmos (last week's reading, Ch. 38-39, a must-re-read of the first order). For Job, somehow, an awareness of 'things too wonderful,' brought him relief from his suffering.

    When a person sees a bigger view, something changes within. The prefrontal cortex, for one thing, can get more engaged, adding the capacity to think more clearly. Then a person can get freed up to see their own situation a little differently. A bit of neutrality, or detachment, makes all the difference. While the emotional system is still doing its piece, continuing to alert the brain through various systems, the intellectual system can pick up its share of the load, sorting out what's a real concern and what can be left aside.

    Once the intensity begins to lessen, a person can be more herself. It's an odd thing; to care for oneself, one must have a bit of separation from oneself. Observing things too wonderful for me can lead a person to a better ability to observe herself. These experiences – whether the big 'mountaintop' moments or the small noticing of flowers on a walk, brings a person towards more contact with reality.

     The reality described in Job 38-39 is that the natural world has been set up (unapologetically!) according to a (rather messy?) model of continuous decay and new life. More than that, the lack of any mention of humans suggests that we just might not be the center of the universe. That's reality – and while it may be annoying to the proud, it's good news for the humble, who find comfort in living according to the truth of how things really are.

    Humble people are an odd sort – an unusual breed. They are not easily imitated, although many try to achieve a humble affect through various self-effacing behaviors. For true humility, take Bartimaeus, the blind man in today's Mark reading, who was the opposite of self-effacing! While others were trying to hush him, he pressed his case. If he had failed to raise his voice, to ask for mercy, he would not have found healing. Or take Jesus, who, respecting the dignity of another, left it to Bartimaeus to say what he wanted to be done for him. Or take Job. The book of Job is a story of a person on a path towards becoming humble. The view of the cosmos helped him to recognize of his small place in the scheme of things. As a bonus, of sorts, it helped him to stop blaming himself or anyone or anything else for his misfortunes, to stop looking for a cause for his troubles. He could look at his life without judgment.

    As the book closes, Job's fortunes are restored to him, with twice as much as he had before (42:10). I wonder how much difference that made to him. Given what he had seen in that extraordinary view provided to him by God – given what he had experienced in his own illness and the loss of family members – it seems that he would have been less caught up in, or more detached from, any new-found wealth. Surely, by this point, whatever peace and joy he had found in life would have been independent of his finances! The book closes with him old and full of days: perhaps as neutral an ending as Job himself had realized.



Morning: When might it be important for me to press my case today?

Evening: What difference does it make to remember the reality of my small place in the world?

Psalm 34:2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad.

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10/17: Job 38:1-7, (34-41) and Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c  •  Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16  •  Hebrews 5:1-10  •  Mark 10:35-45

    The book of Job, often cited as the most profound book of wisdom in the Bible, is an unusual duck. To begin, Job is wealthy, and the Lord is pleased with his behavior, bragging about him to 'Satan,' a sort of prosecutor in the court of heaven. Satan suggests that Job would be less faithful if he were less wealthy. The Lord gives Satan permission to test that idea, and the game is on. First, property and children are destroyed, and Job remains faithful. Then, after some renegotiation between the Lord and Satan, Job's physical health is attacked, with terrible sores over his whole body. Still, he does not complain. His wife, asking do you still persist in your integrity? advises him to curse God and die (2:9). Three friends come to visit and, horrified at what they see, sit with him in silence for a week. Finally, Job speaks, cursing the day he was born.

    Over the next 35 chapters, the reader finds a thorough treatment of the problem of pain. Job's friends are a case study in how not to be a friend. They are absolutely convinced that if one suffers, one deserves it, somehow. Job, they insist, must have done something wrong. At one point, Job calls them miserable comforters, and wonders what provokes you that you keep on talking? (16:2-3).

    What causes people to keep pressing their point, long after it's clear that the other person is not buying it? In this case, Job's friends can't seem to face the reality of the situation. Job was a good guy; now they see him suffering. Unable to move beyond a good-guys-win perspective, they pressure Job to say something to support their previously shared view.

    When people feel less anxious, they can manage differences. But when people feel threatened (oh my gosh I too could be covered in boils), then everyone watch out.  A true friend gives the other room to explore what's on his mind. One does not have to agree; one does have to stay interested and respectful: managing reactivity within oneself rather than dumping it back into the conversation.  Showing up is thing one; staying open is thing two.

    Job's heated discussion with his friends, when paired with the fight among the disciples in today's gospel, bring up the subject of conflict. Many of us endure a false peace as easier, somehow, than the anxiety stirred by sticking with one's own views. Real peacemakers, on the other hand, don't avoid conflict; they use it to broaden the perspective for all (Mark 10:42-45). 

    Back to Job. At the end of the book, God scolds Job's friends for not speaking rightly (42:7). In the middle, though, the friends-as-foils piece works well for considering the limits of a simplistic cause-effect, reward-retribution framework. How does a person understand the unmerited suffering of this world? The increasing pathos culminates in chapter 31, when Job, reviewing his conduct over the years, finds that he has met his own standards. He stops talking and waits for answers on how life works.   

    When God shows up in today's reading (Job 38), it is without direct answers. Here, one will not read why the wicked prosper nor why a loved one dies in the prime of life. Instead, God goes big picture. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (38:4). God speaks – eloquently – for two chapters, talking about everything from ravens to lions, from constellations to climate. Interestingly, while many wonders of the cosmos are named, people go unmentioned. We may (understandably, in my view) wish for a different world, with less pain and more comfort, for starters. Here, though, what we're offered is reality: sometimes glimpsed by those who persist in their integrity. 



Morning: When might I show up and stay open to others' views today? How can I manage myself in the midst of conflict?

Evening: Where did I notice the wonder of the natural world today? Where did I see unmerited suffering?

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

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Mindful of the Needs of Others

10/10: Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15  •  Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17  •  Hebrews 4:12-16  •  Mark 10:17-31

    Tucked away, in the so-called minor prophets at the end of the Hebrew scriptures, is the short book of Amos. It begins with a brief introduction: the words of Amos, a shepherd, and what he saw at a particular point in the history of Judah and Israel, two years before an otherwise unidentified earthquake (1:1). Later in the book (7:14), Amos himself denied being a prophet.

    In chapter 7, Amos was being pressured by Amaziah, priest at Bethel. Warning Amos to go earn his bread elsewhere, Amaziah described Bethel as the king's sanctuary, and a temple of the kingdom. Amos quickly quelled any notion that he was in this project for the money. He earned his bread through working as a herder and a dresser of sycamore trees. He was prophet based on what he had seen and understood as his to communicate to the people of Israel. He had a responsibility he intended to meet.

    The priest back in Bethel gets hammered for trying to stop him! The curse (7:17) was thorough, beginning with his own family and extending to the entire people of Israel. And this makes sense to me. The people were responsible, in a sense, for making Amaziah responsible for them. It was a reciprocal process. It's a bargain somehow: if you will be the priest, we will let you think for us.

    Nothing good comes from letting others think for us, as it keeps individuals stuck. Nothing good comes from thinking for others, as it keeps each one from his own work. No one grows up! The over-under responsibility imbalance is a quandary for churches today. As families shrink in size, congregations have new challenges. Will they adapt quickly enough to live in this new world, seeing the path forward, reframing the mission? Will there be a famine of hearing the word of the Lord? (Amos 8:11).

    Amos was clear about his own mission. Over and over again, in this short book, he condemns those who trample on the poor (5:11). Little escaped his scrutiny. Rich women were cows of Bashan… who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, 'bring something to drink. (4:1). He warned the people that their lovely worship was despised by God: I will not listen to the noise of your songs… but let justice roll down like water (5:23-24). In particular, he pointed out (twice – 2:6, 8:6) that the rich sell the righteous for sliver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

    It's unclear from the text whether this selling of the righteous and the needy was a matter of bribery to slant justice their way or outright slavery – from which they as a people had escaped just a few centuries earlier. Either way, they were directly or indirectly profiting from those less fortunate. Amos was calling it out: an 8th century BCE version of systemic injustice if you will. As a people, they had been formed through years in the wilderness, managing their togetherness with an acute sense of justice described in the ten commandments. Now their community was fraught with unfairness.

    For his part, Amos was not without mercy. He pleaded O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! (7:2). Maybe his compassion and perspective came from a vocation of herding sheep and trimming trees. I'm reminded of All Creatures Great and Small, a book about veterinarians in rural England. Just reading the book or watching the original show – no less if one had actually been on the dale, day after day – one can develop more of an awareness of what we creatures are up against. 

    With wealth, one can forget how hard life can be. Here Jesus calls it out, in a well-known but routinely ignored verse. How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! (Mark 10:23). Hiding behind houses of hewn stone (Amos 5:11) keeps one from the reality of what others are facing. Staying connected with others is each person's responsibility to (not for) us all. Keep us ever mindful of the needs of others is a prayer that manifests – and blesses – to the extent that one is in relationship with others.  


Morning: What would Amos say about the world I live in? What might I do differently within it?  

Evening: How wealthy am I? How does my wealth get in the way of living in the kingdom of God?

Psalm 90:12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

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