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Lectionary Living


Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7  •  Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24 and Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70  •  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  •  Matthew 25:1-13

    This week's readings offer a rare selection from the apocrypha – the also ran category of scripture. The Wisdom of Solomon, probably written within 100 years before the birth of Jesus, sets the tone for the rest of the texts. Each offers its own slant on wisdom; the story Jesus tells is almost a promotional advertisement for getting wise.

    In the Matthew reading, Jesus talks about ten young women, five foolish and five wise. The details are confusing, involving wedding customs in a different place and time. The bottom line is that at the end of the day – or night, in this case – the five wise girls are prepared, while the foolish are not.

    Many read this story and wonder how to make sense of the wise not helping the foolish. How could refusing to share be the right thing to do? It's a great question and goes to the heart of the message here: some things can't be shared. Some things are a person's own responsibility. Even the process of focusing on another – here, being overly solicitous of the foolish girls – is unwise.

    What is wisdom, then? Well, part of it is the old girl scout motto, be prepared. The wise girls were ready that night. They had thought ahead about what the night would involve, maybe putting together the supplies they would need ahead of time. The wise girls had planned.

    Wisdom, though, involves more than a good weekly planner and a set of folders. Wisdom involves emotional self-management. It involves noticing one's own anxiety. Many emotions can cover up anxiety. One can be mad at the doctor, for example, instead of noticing one's fear at the thought of losing a loved one. Once the underlying fear associated with a problem is identified, one can more realistically assess the situation. More objectivity provides a way to sort out a problem from all sides.

    When the emotional system works in tandem with the intellectual system, more choices for the path forward can develop. The connections with friends, family, colleagues, and even professionals, when needed, soon broaden a person's understanding of a problem and the options one might choose from. All these steps – increasing awareness of one's own emotions, considering them, and connecting with others – lead to an increased capacity to be thoughtful.

    Thoughtfulness is a synthesis, perhaps: part reason, part emotion, and part oneself. This third part, oneself, may get the least attention. In every person, though, is a capacity to develop a self: a solid self with an awareness of its own principles and goals in life. Focused on its own work, a solid self is humbly aware of its limitations. And a solid self develops slowly over time, motivated by assorted challenges, from the mundane to the extraordinary. The slow, small steps approach is supported by findings in neuroscience. Over time, brain plasticity allows a person to change her own wiring, so to speak, developing new pathways and avoiding old ones.

    Going back to the foolish and the wise girls at the wedding party, I wonder about the foolish girls. Did any of them learn from the evening? Maybe the fact that no one solved their problems for them helped them to wake up to their own responsibility for self. Or maybe, more basically, they noticed that, while they were left out in the dark, the wise girls were having all the fun! In a promotional ad campaign for wisdom, its capacity to lead towards a life free from care may be its strongest selling point. Life remains challenging; but for the wise, the burden is light.


Morning: What do I want to accomplish today? How do these tasks relate to my principles?

Evening: What principles that matter to me were reflected in my life today?

Wisdom 6:15-16 To fix one's thought on Wisdom is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.

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A Humble Life

Joshua 3:7-17 and Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37  •  Micah 3:5-12 and Psalm 43  •  1 Thessalonians 2:9-13  •  Matthew 23:1-12 OR Revelation 7:9-17 and Psalm 34:1-10, 22  •  1 John 3:1-3  •  Matthew 5:1-12

    This year, All Saint's Day – November 1 – falls on a Sunday. On the Sunday closest to, or on, November 1, congregations have the choice of using the readings for the Sunday itself or for All Saint's Day. There are many options for texts today! As I look through all these scripture passages, I'm struck by the similar theme: humility. It doesn't matter which of these you read, the message is to be humble.

    Somehow the word humility conjures up the idea of giving up who you are, or what you are trying to do with your life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humility allows a person to be fully herself – shedding many burdens which (as can only be seen from a humble posture) were never hers at all. Humility allows a person to sleep at night.

    Jesus – in the Matthew 23 passage – is telling people to watch out for those who would place heavy burdens on them. He had in mind a particular group, the Pharisees, who had a lot of rules for everyone else to follow. He also condemns them for showing off their good deeds and for craving status. The process, though, of their placing heavy burdens on the people, was Jesus' main concern.

    Burdening or focusing on others lacks humility. A focus on others, thinking what they should be doing or where they have gone wrong (or right!), gets in the way of leading a humble life. The constant attention on another, whether blaming or praising, criticizing or helping, keeps a person from an inward look at their own responsibilities. Not only that, but it can get in the way of the other person's life. At home and at work, when people begin acting to please others without considering their own ideas, they have lost themselves. The reciprocal process keeps everyone bound up.

    Humility, in contrast, is utter freedom. A small example. In these covid times, processes for family members of a patient in the hospital are different. What used to be a bit of a game – get to the hospital early, to catch the doctors on their rounds – has now become an impossibility.  There are two ways of thinking about it. One way is to focus on the hospital staff (including physicians), blaming them for not staying in touch. Another way it to see what they are up against, and to work to stay in touch over the phone. Before all this can happen, though, is the humble step of seeing one's own anguish at the illness of the family member. Bringing one's mind into contact with one's emotional system is the beginning. Distinguishing between one's responsibility to others and for self is a help.

    Once a person is reflecting on the covid-hospital environment, it's possible to recognize one's own need to be in contact with those caring for the family member. It is hard to be left out. That's what all those pre-dawn trips to the hospital were about, back before covid. We are a cooperative species and staying connected during a family member's illness is as natural as breathing. A humble person, though, can show up without having to be the center of attention. A humble person can be present without pressuring others in any direction. A humble person brings peace to the room, zoom or real.  

    A humble person does not follow the practice of the Pharisees, heaping burdens on the hospital staff for health problems that go beyond human capacity to solve. Neither does she take on burdens beyond her own capacity. Jesus warned folks about taking on impossible tasks: the ever-more-exact detail of following the letter of the law while forgetting about its basic principles of kindness and fairness. Whenever a person begins to take on more than she can reasonably do, she is stoking a fire of resentment and blame. A first step towards decreasing one's arrogance is to practice saying something like no, I can't take that on right now. Considering one's own agenda, looking at the calendar with a reality-based view, is a beginning step towards a humble life.


Morning: What are my plans for the day? How will I balance my responsibilities?

Evening: Where did I find a humble perspective?

Psalm 107:9 For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.

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Two Things

10/25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17  •  Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1  •  1 Thessalonians 2:1-8  •  Matthew 22:34-46

    The scriptures for this week are rich, rich, rich in wisdom. Beginning at the end, with the gospel reading, Jesus is encountering yet another tough audience, this time the Pharisees, who want him to grill him for a while. They ask him what he considers to be the greatest commandment in the law: an opening question, a prelude to debate. Jesus answers with his summary: thing one, love God with your whole self; and thing two, love your neighbor as yourself. Each leads to the other, it seems.

    I happen to be re-reading The Art of Loving by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, originally published in 1956. It's a little paperback, 118 pages long. It has not stood the test of time particularly well. Nevertheless, it goes to the problem here. Exactly what does Jesus mean when he talks about love? Could he elaborate?

    The life of Jesus is an elaboration of what he means. What he did with his days is his version of what it means to love. It's on each of us to write our own versions, so to speak, with our lives. The Leviticus reading provides a stellar aid.

·         Verse 15: Stop with the premature judginess! Look at all sides. Don't flatter those who can help you, nor ignore those who can't. Stay neutral, impartial, and fair. 

·         Verse 16: Don't go around talking about others, making them look bad, or creating problems for them, so that you can improve your own status or connection with others.

·         Verse 17: Don't hate your own people, your own kin. Remember your responsibilities to (not for) them and the world we all inhabit.

·         Verse 18: Let go of the grudges you hold onto. Stop with the scoffing skepticism.

    These ideas are as applicable now as they were then; all of them speak to relationship processes where a person can get stuck.

    Maybe the Pharisees and Jesus talked about these ideas; certainly, everyone would have known this part of the law. At some point – and this is where scripture picks back up – it was Jesus' turn to ask them a question. True to form, Jesus does not pick some random trick question for them. Instead, he shares with them something he's wondering about: the messiah predicted by the prophets, a psalm (110:1), and his own self-understanding. In this way, he expands on today's Thessalonians passage, offering his own self not only to those he's grown close to, but also to those who wish him harm.

    The Pharisees had no answer that day; after that time, no one dared to ask him any more questions. The grilling was over. The debating, the arguing, the trying to convince, was done. That these commandments are as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago – and as difficult to follow – goes to how stuck humans can get in relationship processes. Finding one's way out is a matter of many small choices over time. Seeing how and when one has a choice is a first step.


Morning: When am I likely to get stuck in relationship processes today?

Evening: Looking back over my day, what would it say about the story of my life? What two things I was trying to do?

Psalm 1:1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.

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Trick Question

10/18: Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99  •  Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)  •  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  •  Matthew 22:15-22

    As this week's Matthew reading shows, little has changed – at least about political discourse – since the time of Jesus. When the story opens, the religious leaders were plotting to trap Jesus, looking for a way to get him into trouble with the Roman authorities. Jesus sees their game from the start, turning the whole discussion from a debate to a defining moment.

    I watched the vice-presidential debate this past week. Literally, with the sound on mute, I watched the two candidates. What I saw were two opposite - and equally ineffective - ways of managing self. One candidate, stony-faced, never allowed an emotion to flit across his countenance. The other, all-expressive, appeared alternately derisive, ridiculing, and incredulous. Perhaps, with the sound on, I could have heard a little more nuance! My intention here is not to dishonor anyone. I ask your indulgence as I use the debate example towards my purpose: understanding emotional self-regulation.

    When a person works at having a poker face, he is attempting to keep his emotions to himself. While not revealing oneself to the world may be useful sometimes, the problem is that he may be keeping the emotions from himself; he may be unaware of what he's feeling. Emotions, rumbling inside, may disorganize the intellect, forcing it to serve the feeling system. In this way, a person who is lying to the world may also be lying to himself – for his emotional system cannot tolerate any information inconsistent with its own narrative.

    On the other hand, when a person allows her reactions to another to show up – unmonitored – in her face, she may be attempting to be genuine. The result, though, is that she's put herself at the mercy of her emotional system. All feelings are not created equal. When a person fails to consider her feelings and simply expresses them, immaturity can take over. Without consulting her thinking system, her feeling system is running the show and keeping her from her own principles, such as respecting the dignity of every person. If reason could be harnessed with emotions, she might find herself with interest and curiosity in the diverse views of others.

    The story of Jesus in his response to the Pharisees and the Herodians is the story of someone who has mastered emotional self-regulation. He begins with the truth: the trap, the hypocrisy of asking about paying taxes. He moves on quickly, asking for one of the coins that would be used to pay such a tax. Paying taxes to the conquering emperor in far-away Rome was unpopular to say the least; the coin, with its stamp of Caesar's face (considered idolatry) and its inscription about Caesar's divinity, was a reminder of Roman power, as was the cross.  

    Maybe it took a minute for the questioners to come up with a coin and hand it to Jesus. And maybe this minute was useful to Jesus, giving him time to process his emotions. Perhaps fear was coming up in him, around his growing awareness that he might be crucified. Much contemplative thought centers on how he managed these emotions. My own guess is that he somehow used the energy from his fear to make the last choice available to him: making sure he stayed true to himself in the time he had left here on earth.

    By the time the coin was handed to him, he was ready for his audience. Over the course of his public ministry, he had developed a capacity to see what people were up against. He could see these religious leaders as human beings, trapped in their own way by complex factors over many years, rather than the direct cause of his problems. He begins asking questions – a trademark of his method – engaging the crowd in reflecting on the problem they have brought to him. Jesus was never interested in solving anything for people, but with them. They walk away, amazed.

    The ability of Jesus to engage his emotional system with his intellectual system is in clear, stunning contrast to our all-too-human leaders debating this week. Jesus did not suppress his feelings. Nor did he allow them free rein. But by an interplay between his emotional system and his intellectual system, he managed a principled response to the religious leaders.  


Morning: When might I try to avoid my emotions today?

Evening: When did I engage my thoughts around my feelings?

Psalm 99:4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

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