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Lectionary Living

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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