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Lectionary Living


(1/3) Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12  •  Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21  •  Ephesians 1:3-14  •  John 1:(1-9), 10-18          

    Family is mentioned a lot in this week's scriptures. From Jeremiah on, the texts find different ways to play on the theme of people as children of God. In Jeremiah, God has become a father to the people of Israel. In Ephesians, adoption extends the eligibility requirements to all, regardless of place of origin! Finally, in the book of John, (and by the way, a separate person from John the Baptist) one reads that the true light, enlightening everyone, was coming into the world. This week's readings combine to form a universal message to all God's children.

    And yet, it is not that simple. Times are hard. Tension is in the air. Where did this tension come from? The John reading gives some clue, in beginning way back, before anything was created. By verse three, a hint of trouble shows up in a line seemingly meant to assure us that all of creation is good. By verse five, darkness is mentioned: in tension with, but not overcoming, light.

    From a human emotional perspective, darkness is scary. A person can go for a walk on a sunny day and enjoy herself. But try the same walk after dark, and suddenly one is worrying about coyotes, possibly, or other creatures lurking in the bushes. It's an instinctive fear, and it's useful.  When the sun begins to set, the urge to get home is protective, decreasing the risk of everything from a car accident to a predator attack.

    The tension between darkness and light is a motivating pressure for us humans. As with most things these days, Covid highlights the process. An extra measure of fear has been tossed into the mix, with daily attention to possible exposure to a strange, unseen viral threat. Most of the normal ways of living – and in holiday times, celebrating – are gone. The simplest things, from how one gets food to where (or if) one gets work to when one sees family, all these things have had to be re-thought, re-organized. Confusion and chaos have interrupted our lives.

    But wait! Lo! While confusion and chaos can bring a sense of helplessness, they can also stimulate curiosity and clarity. Every time a person has to think about a task she has always done more less automatically, she has a chance to get clearer about her aims in life. Take John the Baptist for example. John is often called John the Baptist to describe his function as a baptizer. Here he is known for another role he fulfilled: that of witness to the gospel message (v. 15). Under questioning, John told the religious leaders who he was. Perhaps more importantly, he told them who he was not. As an addendum (John 1: 19-28), the message was not well received.

    When a person gets clear about some aspect of her life, choosing what she is going to do and not do, she becomes a witness to the singular value of clarity. Her testimony is her life. In a sense, the person described in verses 6-7 - a man sent from God, who came as a witness to testify to the light – is everyman and everywoman. As with John, the world does not always appreciate the effort a person makes to get clear about himself. The good news here is that as a person moves from confusion to clarity, the need to please others matters less. What's left? Light shining in the darkness.


Morning: What are my functions in my family and in other settings? What is not mine to do or be?  

Evening: How did my underlying principles inform my actions today? What was my lived testimony?

Psalm 147:14 The Lord grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat.

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12/27: Isaiah 61:10-62:3  •  Psalm 148  •  Galatians 4:4-7  •  Luke 2:22-40

    Among today's Christmas readings is a brief passage from Galatians. The passage itself talks about the baby Jesus as the person born to bring freedom to the world. To get it, though, you really have to read the whole book. Fortunately, this is a small project! Grab a cup of coffee and sit down with your Bible – one with some good annotations, preferably. Take in the whole book – six short chapters – and reflect with me on what the apostle Paul is saying here.

    What first jumps out at me is Galatians 1:10a. Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? Paul, it seems, has had it with trying to please others. For him, the approval-seeking had come into his life courtesy of the Law of Moses. The pressure to conform, the ever-higher tension of trying to follow every rule, would have been part of the package.

    Each of us has a certain amount of pressure to conform to whatever group we are a part.  Some of this comes from others, but to be fair, some of it comes from within. The pandemic, for instance, is challenging each person to decide what to do for the holiday season. Who to see, and where, and for how long? The pressure is not just others wanting us to be a part of the group. It is each of us, from within, wanting to be a part of the group.

    Family and friend groups and congregations are especially missed here at the holidays. Not only are we close to these people, but there is also, deep within us, an instinct that tells us we are safe with them. There are physiological changes occurring when we talk to each other. These responses occur in our physical body first, and then our feeling system starts messaging a positive sense that all is well. What the physical body is unable to do is to scan for Covid and signal Danger Will Robinson Danger!

    Wanting to be a part of a group, when combined with the pressure from the group to join in, is potentially life-threatening at the height of the pandemic. More generally, it is always threatening to a person's capacity to become a self. If one can be oneself in it, though, the opposite happens. Instead of being crushed by these pressures, one begins to grow through them. One begins to define oneself. As example A, take Galatians 3:28. Here, Paul moves beyond the subject matter of the letter. Thinking way outside the box of his own faith and his own culture, he adds, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

    The day he wrote this letter, did Paul wake up knowing that he was going to say such a thing? Did he even know he thought such a thing? I doubt it. It is a tribute to his no longer being enslaved by the desire to please others that he could have such a thought.

    This is Christmas for grown-ups. The gift, this year as always, is the same. Freedom to become oneself. Seeing life itself as an invitation to become oneself. The invitation is brought to each of us not by an easy life, but by the same pressures faced by the apostle Paul.

    And now we get to today's short reading in Galatians 4. So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (v. 7) Most of us have trouble seeing ourselves as slaves. And yet, whether it is the Law or one's mother-in-law, one can get caught up in trying to please others. Each time a person gives up self to join with the group, she becomes captive to the togetherness force. Each time a person manages to be clear about herself while staying connected with others, she gets a little freer. Christmas is the good news that for all of us in captivity, freedom is available.


Morning: How can I let family and friends know what is on my mind today?

Evening: When was I aware of a pressure or tension to conform or please others?

Isaiah 61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

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Being Human

(12/20): 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16  •  Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26   •  Romans 16:25-27   •  Luke 1:26-38

    This week's readings are all about being human. Being human? In my view, it's all about the counterbalance of two forces – Individuality and Togetherness, constantly at work within and between people. Take the prophet Nathan to start. There he is, talking to the king, going along with him and whatever he's saying about building a temple. Nathan's behavior, from my perspective, is a response to the Togetherness pressure – wanting to please and support the king. That night, though, he has a vision with a very different message.  Returning to the king, he relays all that he has seen (v. 17). The force toward Individuality, leading Nathan to want to be his own person, took a little time. But they happen. And David rises to the occasion, acknowledging and agreeing to the new plan.

    In just a few chapters, Nathan is again going to disagree with his king. His capacity to differ with him – increasing every time those neural pathways are repeated – will be useful. The next time (in the Bathsheba story, chapters 11-12) the stakes are much higher. The process of having to go back to the king and present a different view in today's reading may have helped to prepare Nathan to be more able to counterbalance the tense pressures about to come his way.  

    Today's Luke reading is among the loveliest stories in the Bible, and maybe in all wisdom literature. Mary is approached by an angel who tells her that she is the lucky winner of the Messiah Mom contest. Assenting to the angel, Mary's response reveals that she is nobody's fool. She is not interested in ingratiating herself to anyone, not even the angel Gabriel. She is stepping up to the situation, declaring who she is and how she will handle the news in a Hall of Fame level I-statement: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Both her efforts to be an individual and her efforts to be together within something larger than herself can be seen in this remarkable passage.  

    Sometimes this passage, in my opinion, has been misunderstood. When and where and to whom to be a handmaiden are choices! While Mary's capacity for discernment is inspirational, her words cannot be applied thoughtlessly to every situation. If a situation is malleable, a person would do well to consider how she wants to define herself in it. If a situation is unchangeable, a person has a chance to choose her attitude towards it. Both provide opportunity to be, like Mary, true to oneself.

    Over her lifetime, Mary had daily opportunities to be the self she wanted to be in the situation she found herself in. It was the same for the prophet Nathan. It's the same for us. While an angel may be missing, (at least to our senses!), daily challenges provide chances to define a self. While a person's efforts to form I-statements may never make the Hall of Fame, they can make a difference every day of one's life.   


Morning: What challenges will I face today?

Evening: When did I make an I-statement? How was it useful to me?

The Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.   

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Scripture and Self

(12/13): Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11  •  Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55  •  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   •  John 1:6-8, 19-28

    This week's readings are examples of understanding scripture as a way of getting clearer about oneself. Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist knew scripture well enough to be able to make it their own.  Taking them in reverse order, the John reading is about John the Baptist, and his use of the Isaiah 40 passage to describe who he was and who he was not. John, son of a priest, slightly modifies Isaiah 40 to put himself in the wilderness. The Luke reading, an echo of Hannah's song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, is Mary's way of telling her cousin Elizabeth her thoughts and feelings about her pregnancy. Mary's situation is different from Hannah's, but she is experiencing a similar joy. The Isaiah reading is picked up almost verbatim by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, who uses it to describe his calling in life.

    Jesus uses the Isaiah passage to reach out to the discouraged people of his own time:  broken-hearted, captives, oppressed, and prisoners. It seems that he, like Isaiah, is wanting them to find joy, to have "a garland instead of ashes" (61:3). Ashes were a custom of the time for mourners, wearing them on their heads. In these COVID times, there is much to mourn. Perhaps a loss of health has occurred or a death (and my condolences to you). Other losses, of jobs or opportunities, are many. For most of us, a loss of relationships, as the social distancing drags on, has been difficult. A difficult winter is still ahead.

    Every verse of the Isaiah passage could be seen as an instruction manual for tough times. Remember social justice. Grow your community into an oak of righteousness. Put away the ashes and hang up that wreath. Even the verses left out of the lectionary (61:5-7) adds useful details. Saying to the people that their lives are going to be known for their ministry provides a sense of the extraordinary opportunity of the time.

    That we're in unprecedented times is old news. Still, it's a reminder that creativity is called for. Scripture – if one bothers to read it! - offers ways of thinking about human problems. Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary all followed a similar process of using scriptural reflection to become the persons they wanted to be. Their religion provided them a vision of their best selves. Scripture both challenged them to grow up and provided a way. The problem, as I see it, is that many of us have not followed this process. Many of us have failed to consider how our religion can be a guide to defining ourselves and our principles. The great insights of our faith perspective remain unconsidered in the most challenging time of the last 100 years.

    Not that it goes that well for those who do consider it. John the Baptist, after all, was beheaded. Mary watched her first-born son die on a cross, and Jesus did the dying. Even the day that Jesus first read the Isaiah passage ended with the community trying to push him off a cliff! Choosing to follow one's best thoughts, one's highest aspirations, will not be without a cost. The world will push back on those acting with maturity. The example of the wise can stir the reactivity of others.  

    Maturity, though, has a contagious quality. Over time, the less mature are drawn to follow leaders who attract others through their clarity of purpose. One can be a leader regardless of one's place in a system: a mother, a desert hermit, or a prophet. Paradoxically, one becomes a leader not by focusing on others, but by getting clear about one's own aspirations for life.


Morning: What scripture passage or story is important to me? How can I make it my own?

Evening: What sort of push back do I experience when I work on growing myself up?

Psalm 126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.      


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