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Lectionary Living

Moving on

(12/6) Isaiah 40:1-11  •  Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13  •  2 Peter 3:8-15a   •  Mark 1:1-8

    Brought to us courtesy of George Handel's Messiah, this week's Isaiah reading is one of scripture's most well-known passages. You may have memorized the passage without knowing it. Read the first several verses and you may find yourself humming the melody line for the rest of the day!

    The context for the reading, however, is less clear. While the first 39 chapters of Isaiah were set in an earlier century, chapter 40 begins some 60-70 years after some of the Hebrew people have been deported to Babylon. Cyrus of Persia is emerging in the region as a powerful ruler who will conquer Babylon. A different sort of leader, he will allow the Hebrew people to go back to Jersualem, with his blessing. The prophet is telling them that it's almost time to go home.

    Not everyone was that excited about going back (Ezra 1:5). Over the years of their captivity, life had gotten easier for some families. Others may have been concerned about the trip back. Possibly some could still remember the challenges of the journey to Babylon. Maybe they had heard the stories of hardship. The trauma had been shared in the family and handed down the generations.

    The journey would involve a roughly 600-mile trek in a northwesterly direction along the Euphrates river. Then they would head south for an additional 300 miles through a mountainous region, legendary for its stark changes in elevation. Having hiked a few miles on the Appalachian Trail, I can imagine their reluctance. Never mind that Cyrus has approved the trip and that enemy soldiers will not be inflicting pain on them. Snakes, bears, and all manner of trouble may be out there! For 900 miles! They are afraid to go.

    The prophet speaks to their fear. He tells them to take comfort. That a highway will run straight through the wilderness. The valleys will be raised, the mountains lowered, uneven ground levelled, and rough places smoothed over. All of this will happen to prepare the way of the Lord.

    In this case, the way of the Lord was seen as the way for the Hebrew people to go home. In every case, the way of the Lord involves being part of something bigger than oneself. The pandemic has brought unlimited opportunities for humans to cooperate together against a common enemy. We humans evolved this way, surviving not because we were the strongest but because we could work together. More than that, working together can be a rewarding experience in itself. 

    Still, it's not easy. For the Hebrew people, it remained a difficult journey home. There was no interstate highway. The words of the prophet were true at a deeper level. His words helped them to face the challenge of the trip home.  Once they had engaged the opportunity, they could solve the problems they would face along the way. Once they had pictured themselves making the trip, they were ready to do it.

    On a public platform, world-class athletes illustrate the prophet's logic to the rest of us. Whether it's baseball or golf, basketball or curling, badminton or soccer, those who can visualize their own success have an advantage. Neuroscience suggests that such visualization involves several regions of the brains, and the connectivity between them. A first step is identifying what one is trying to do.

    Identifying one's own intention – naming it and seeing it – makes a difference. But setting and sticking with an intention can be hard. Like the Hebrews deported to Babylon, life can make us fearful. Anxiety originating in trauma can be passed down through generations. Add to that another challenge, such as an infectious disease, unseen and yet lurking around, and a person's responses can become somewhat… tentative. Clarifying one's intentions, while staying flexible on the methods or highways that one might travel to get there, is a tall order. Right now, though, it's the only game in town.


Morning: What are my intentions for today?

Evening: What might I visualize for tomorrow?

Psalm 85:10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

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Trying times

(12/6) Isaiah 64:1-9  •  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19  •  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  •  Mark 13:24-37

    The Isaiah readings for the next few weeks can provide some perspective on tribulation. Set during the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites were worn out. They had been beaten in war, becoming slaves of their hated enemies. Their beloved city – and temple – utterly destroyed, they had been marched to their new home, losing loved ones along the way. There they sat, enslaved, with hopelessness and helplessness ruling their lives.

    Over 2500 years later, people continue to be worn out. This time, though, it's not one tribe humiliating another. This time, people around the world face a common enemy: a brainless virus. Like the Israelites many years ago, our groans and laments are constant. Like the prophet, many of us wish for a god who would tear open the heavens (v. 1) and come down and fix this mess. Life, however, does not seem to work this way, no matter how powerful the prophet's voice.

    Still, voicing the wish can help. There is something to be said for a lament, in its capturing of an authentic emotion. Once recognized, it can bring some energy. A person can decide how to manage herself in it, and to move on. Three verses later, the prophet has done just that. At this point, he articulates the idea that the god of his people is not just that, but everyone's god. For the time – 500 BCE-ish – it's an astonishing new idea: From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him (v. 4). In a few brief verses, the prophet has gone childishness to wisdom, from wishing for a god who would take care of everything to a recognition of the universal God of all.

    In the same way, many different lines of thought come up around Covid. The pandemic can spark everything from wishing it would all go away to recognizing one's responsibilities to a larger community to seeing one's small place in the universe. Like the prophet, these responses and more can happen within a few minutes of one another. Within each person, a mature side and an immature side and several stages in-between all seem to be vying for selection.

    The daily task of noticing one's own immaturity and attending to it without letting it take over oneself is brought to the human species by the prefrontal cortex, providing opportunities for self-management less available to other species. Still, we humans are vulnerable sorts. The prophet, quite the poet, puts it this way: We all fade like a leaf (v. 6). The leaves are blown away by the windy chaos of our own immaturity. Like clay, though, we are malleable – with neuroplasticity allowing our brains to continue to grow and rewire. Within each of us is the potential to become our adult selves.

    A particular problem for humans, in my view, is that we no longer live in small tribes. A lot has been lost: the relative freedom of the tribal lifestyle, with less work, more play, and greater attention to fairness. The group size of 150 or so gave more of a natural, built-in chance for an individual to manage emotional forces in relationship processes while growing herself up. 

    Without tribes, humans have become relatively isolated individuals. The isolation works against us, making us more anxious and less capable. Covid-19 is the latest opportunity to work together against a common enemy.  No longer tribes, but nations must find a way to cooperate as a species. From individuals to nations and at every level in-between, the challenge is to put our immaturity aside.

Daily Reflections

Morning: What is important to my adult self today?

Evening: When did my immature side take over my functioning today? How could I have noticed earlier?

Psalm 80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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(11/22) Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 100  •  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 95:1-7a  •  Ephesians 1:15-23  •  Matthew 25:31-46

    In this week's Matthew passage, a lot is happening on many levels. It's confusing, at least to me. There is the judgment day theme, a king, sheep and goats, and a lot of surprised people. In the scripture passage, the king explains to those who had shown kindness and mercy to others that in doing so, they had shown kindness and mercy to his family: and indirectly, to him. It did not matter who they had treated with decency and respect – everyone, even the least important, counted.  The king also explains to those who had failed to be fair and just to others that they had failed to be fair and just to him.

    Somehow, we humans have reversed-engineered a moral message into the story. It is often read as criticism – with a push to do more, try harder, lest one land in the group not doing enough. The more I look at it, though, the less this interpretation makes sense to me. In essence, this is a good news story.

    The king, you see, is telling those who are simply showing up in the lives of others that they are inheriting (v. 34) what has always been theirs. And he tells those who are failing to do so that they are damned forever. It is more or less a description of how things are, in the present moment. Those who are attending to relationship processes are blessed, now and later.

    At its most basic level, attending to relationships begins with staying in touch. It involves having enough contact with family members that one would know, for example, if they were hungry or lonely or ill. Next would come acting on one's responsibilities to others.

    More than that, one would know what was important to the other – and they would know the same about oneself. Respecting the other, and their own capacity to solve their problems, can keep the relationship strong. Being clear about one's own thinking – taking I positions – can help. All these processes, though, are available only when one is connected with the aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family that make up one's relationship system. The family is everyone's birthright and each person's inheritance.  

    In the story, every person – sheep or goat – was surprised. I remember a time when I was surprised to hear someone thank me. At church one fall day, another parent told me that I had really helped him get through a long summer. I asked what I had said, imagining maybe some wise comment in a Sunday School class. Not so much. He told a story about the first day of summer swim practice, seeing each other as we dropped off our kids. Both of us, of course, were facing long summers of trying to juggle work and parental responsibilities. Apparently, I'd said, "only 89 days until school starts back!"

    Just being oneself with others is enough. Showing up is what matters. The good news? That's the only criteria for making it to the sheep side of the room.


Daily Reflections

Morning: Who in my family network am I distanced from now?

Evening: In what relationships could I define myself more clearly?

Psalm 95:7a  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

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Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123  •  Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12  •  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11  •  Matthew 25:14-30

    If I were making a list of most mis-understood scripture passages, this week's Matthew text would be near the top. In it, Jesus tells a story of three people, one of whom fails to use his 'talents' wisely. This last character finds himself in eternal torment for failing to do more.

    'Talents' in the passage is the translation for money – currency – in Biblical times. In efforts to understand the meaning of this reading, talents become equated with a person's strengths, financial and otherwise. The passage often gets summed up this way: look at your strengths and invest them for the kingdom of God wisely. Well, at least as I see it, yes and no.

    In the yes column: Yes, look at your strengths. Remember, though, realistically, that if you want to be strong, you must attend to your relationships with other people. Hiding yourself – distancing from your family – creates weakness. It may feel like strength, as the emotional system finds solace in avoiding those often-called toxic people. The trouble, though, is that they may be finding you to be a tad toxic too! The ability to be your own self with your family – to neither avoid them nor to give up who you are to be with them – is the beginning of strength. Mutual respect is the goal.

    In the no column: No, you are not responsible for the kingdom of God. God is responsible for the kingdom of God. The arrogance of thinking that one could possibly take on such a responsibility! The ease with which that expectation gets communicated through the church! Rather, each of us creatures is responsible for herself: for developing and offering her own gifts to her community. Cooperation begins with the humble awareness that one's own talents must be expressed with and through others.

    Cooperation in Jesus' time would mean that the Pharisees would lead the people towards justice and mercy. It would mean the Pharisees focusing on what matters in their own lives, rather than scolding others about the details of law. Both then and now, overfocusing on others leads to a decreased awareness of oneself and one's own contribution to the problems of the day. Parallels to the 21st century are easy to see. But focusing on these parallels can become its own avoidance strategy. Instead, one can embrace the reality that much work lies ahead: individually, and co-operatively.


Morning: What family members do I avoid? How might I stay calm while connecting with them?

Evening: How did connections with family go today? How did I work cooperatively with others in my life?

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

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