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Lectionary Living

Laughter Lost

June 21: Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17  •  Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18  •  Romans 6:1b-11  •  Matthew 10:24-39

    As today's Genesis reading begins, Sarah had just had a son, Isaac, which means he laughs. The bitter laughter of last week's reading, the nonsensical idea of having a child in her old age, was replaced by the true joy of a new baby. In those early months of Isaac's life, Abraham and Sarah would have been watching him closely, and laughing, as each small grin grew into a smile.

    And yet already, laughter is lost as intense worry creeps back into the story. Now, Sarah is upset that Abraham's son Ishmael might share in her son's inheritance. Never mind that Ishmael is the child she had arranged for her slave Hagar to have with her husband, and the child now playing with Isaac. It is to the eternal credit of the scriptures that these stories (in Genesis 16 and 21), casting both Sarah and Abraham in a negative light, were recorded for us to consider. What happens next is almost too difficult to contemplate. Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out into the wilderness, an act meaning almost certain death for the child and his mother, alone in a harsh environment: a fact they all – Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham – must have understood.

    In the story, God intervenes, first reassuring Abraham, next speaking through an angel to Hagar, and then providing for her and Ishmael. Putting all this fancy footwork aside, though, let's return to the point where all three players understood what was at stake, and the choices that were about to be made. Although an extreme case, these decisions are not unusual in life. Often, family resources and attention are unequally distributed; spouses and children can be treated as expendable outcasts.

    Three questions come to my mind. First, what was Abraham thinking, casting out his first son? Second, what happened to Sarah, who – at least in her own narrative – was going to be happy, once she had the child she had longed for? And third, what happened to both of them, thinking that Isaac was better off without a brother?

    Taking the third question first: Playing together gives children lessons like how to stand up for themselves, how to share, and how to have fun. Big brothers, however, can be big teases, possibly upsetting to both the father and the first-time mother of a precious son of their old age. Next, they started worrying about Isaac having to share his inheritance with Ishmael someday. Pushing Hagar and Ishmael away – distancing and cutting off from them – probably calmed the parents down for a while, although the story's worried focus on their son would (spoiler alert!) continue. 

    Sarah, for her part, had woven quite a story for herself: if only I had a child, then I could be happy. What happened after the child was born was quite different – a continued anxious unhappiness, focused on the presence of another child she saw as threatening to her son. The if only narrative is the trap of helplessness and immaturity. Seeking maturity involves thinking about one's own purpose in life. For Sarah, many years earlier, her emotional desire for a child might have led her to a more mature intention of kindness towards all the children in her world, including the son of her slave.

    Abraham, for his part, also seems immature for his ripe old age, choosing to cut-off from Hagar and Ishmael rather than dealing with the emotional reactivity stirred by their presence. He simply could not think it through. If Abraham had a thoughtful principle that all his partners and progeny mattered, he might have found another solution besides banishing one set from the camp. For both Abraham and Sarah, maturity would involve seeing their responsibility to a branch of the family that they had, after all, arranged to create, and to live accordingly, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Reflections

Morning: What are my responsibilities for myself? To others? What are my own principles for living?

Evening: When did I distance or cut-off from another? How can I stay in touch while managing my own emotions? When was I at my most mature today? My least?

Psalm 69:14 Rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.

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Hope in harsh times

June 14: Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) and Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19  •  Exodus 19:2-8a and Psalm 100  •  Romans 5:1-8  •  Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

    This week's Genesis story has an exotic air about it. The LORD appears by the beautiful oaks of Mamre, where Abraham is resting in the hot noonday hour. Next, three visitors show up (with some suggestion that one is the LORD of the opening vision). Abraham asks them to stay and refresh themselves – a custom in the Mideast, where the gracious, cooperative hosting of guests might mean the difference of life or death to travelers in the harsh climate. Next, he rushes around to prepare a feast for them. Next there is a surprise announcement from one of the men that Abraham and his wife Sarah – both way past the age for having children - would soon be conceiving a child.

    Their desire for a child – and God's previous promises along these lines – had long been a part of their life story. Over time, though, Sarah had lost any hope of bearing a child herself. Not only had she given up hope, she had actively made other plans, arranging for Abraham to sleep with her slave, Hagar. But during Hagar's pregnancy, tension between the two women had developed, and Sarah had treated Hagar harshly (Genesis 16). By the time of this story, when Sarah overhears the men talking about her having a child, she laughs.

    I don't think this was a happy laugh. At best, maybe a wry chuckle: yeah right. Maybe a snort: I haven't had a period in twenty years. Maybe with bitterness: I have hated my life, hated not getting what I most wanted. In that laugh, one can hear a pattern of disappointment mingled with anger yielding a toxic blend of frustration, helplessness, and hostility.
     What happens next – or actually, a couple of chapters later – is that Sarah does indeed conceive and bears a son. And they lived happily ever after? Well, not exactly, and next week's reading picks up there. For today, I want to take a closer look at Sarah's laugh.

    Rueful laughs and broken dreams are part of the landscape of COVID-19. Hopes, dreams, plans, goals, work: a lot is on the table now; a lot that seemed certain before is now uncertain or unlikely to happen. A person has little control over these events, although a person can still choose her response to them. Unfortunately, under stress – and who among us is not feeling it now? – a person has less ability to regulate herself. Hopelessness can begin to rule the day.

    If tempered by a reality-based view coupled with emotional reason, recognizing hopelessness can be a useful starting point. In Sarah's case, for instance, harnessing reality with emotional reason would begin here: I'm probably not going to have a child. That doesn't mean I can't have a good life. From there to emotional self-regulation would be a short step: I don't have to spend my days in bitterness. When it came to the tension between her and Hagar, she would find more options and principles available: I don't have to compare myself to Hagar. I won't be cruel to her. I will respect her, with the dignity owed to every human being. Hopelessness – and helplessness – do not have to rule the day.

    While the coronavirus can destroy a lot of plans, it cannot destroy the human ability to cooperate, as necessary today as it was in Biblical times. Continuing to think about the challenges with one's family and friends from the perspective of the resources available – assuring that all resources are understood and accessed – is a start. Staying connected with family and friends while maintaining one's own integrity can make a difference, setting one's course both now and in the years to come.

For reflection

Morning: How can I connect with family and friends about the challenges in our lives?

Evening: When did I feel helpless today? How can I start to engage the challenge?

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True Humility

 Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Psalm 8  •  2 Corinthians 13:11-13  •  Matthew 28:16-20

 

    The Bible begins with a pretty big bang. The first Genesis creation story, differing from a scientific view by about four or five billion years plus or minus a week, is not altogether dissimilar to what scientists understand about evolution: first water, then plants, then birds and fish, then mammals, with human beings last. More interestingly, for thinking here, is that God is the actor in all of it – the creator and the one who rests after six days of work. In this reading – one of the most striking readings in all of scripture – a creator god with sovereignty over a continually evolving cosmos is introduced.

    What's different when one understands the creation – and faith – from an evolutionary perspective? Well, two things. First, seeing how something is made can provide insight into its maker. Second, it helps to ground oneself in reality, in truth. Take COVID-19.  Viruses have been on this planet for over four billion years; our species has existed for a mere 200,000 or so. Viruses have lived on earth 20,000 times longer! The coronavirus itself, like all viruses, is almost without form. Less than a cell, it exists without a nucleus, surviving when it finds a way into an existing cell. Yet it is wreaking havoc across the globe and will continually modify itself to outlast us all. That's the reality and the challenge. Embracing rather than ignoring the challenge is a necessary first step, as individuals and as a species.

    The virus has humbled us. Wearing a mask, changing one's usual patterns of work, play, and even family life, stocking up on grocery supplies: all of these are in a sense a bow to the power of this incredibly brainless and ridiculously tiny strand of material. Being humbled, though, is not enough. When virus-inspired fear and helplessness rule, true humility (and all it brings to the human capacity to work together to face the challenge) remains undiscovered.  

    Helplessness is entirely different from real humility. For one of the finer examples of the real thing, notice the comment after several stunning aspects of creation, "And God saw that it was good." (Genesis 1:10, 12, 21, 25). Massive understatement! I mean God hasn't just cooked a good meal or something! Finally when it is all done – (1:31) – God reviews the entire creation and awards it a "very good." I mean God gives a B, maybe a B+ to the overall project! What is remarkable at least to the human ear – and can be heard better if the scripture is read aloud – is that the creation is graded with complete neutrality, without any self-pride, as though it would not have mattered who had authored it.

    And then, God rests from all the work. Not only that, but God blesses a day of rest and hallows it. Resting implies many things: The world is good without my constant activity… I am more than my work… I need rest. If one can get this far, more lessons in true humility seem to come along. Oh my gosh, they did better without my help than they would have with me… Things take time... I truly don't know what's best for anyone besides myself… Oh gee, I see my own contribution to the problem.

    Although the beauty of true humility is plain to see, it is hard to do, especially when anxieties get in the way. Once a person begins worrying, a cycle of blaming, judging, and generally focusing on the worry interferes with the ability to remain humble. The tendency to become overly serious can add to the intensity while decreasing the capacity to stay connected, which makes things even worse. Plus, an anxious person can neither rest nor sleep. Focusing on something besides the anxieties of the week makes a day of rest different. A day off – when treated with care – can become a weekly chance to restore the ability to see a larger picture. Staying calm makes it possible to rest and to be humble.

Reflections

Morning: What would I need to do today, to put in place a day of rest this week?

Evening: When did I see an example of true humility today?

Psalm 8:3-4 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

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Leading from anywhere (Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21  •  John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

    Nestled in the several reading options this week is a great story, seldom read, about leadership. The text is from Numbers – not an obvious name for a book with some pretty good stories, complete with all the details. Here's the set-up. The Israelites, stuck in the wilderness, tired of the same food every day and thinking about the advantages of returning to Egypt, are making their grievances known. Moses has had about all he can take of their complaining, asking God to go ahead and kill him (Numbers 11:15), rather than make him continue to lead this group of whiners.

    This was not Moses' first leadership challenge. His father-in-law, Jethro, had noticed earlier (see Exodus 18) that Moses was getting stressed out by the many responsibilities he faced. Jethro had told him to get organized, select some emerging leaders as impartial judges/decision-makers over the ordinary struggles of daily life, divide the people into groups, and register a leader for each group. Unusual or bigger problems were still referred to Moses, but much of the burden of his role had been spread out among these elders.

    As this week's reading begins, God has just told Moses to gather the elders and take them out to the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting was a portable dwelling, set away from where the people lived. Generally, Moses would go into it to pray, sometimes with the Israelites gathered right outside, but ordinarily with them watching from the camp, where they could see God coming 'in a cloud.' This time, Moses brought the elders with him, and they stood around the outside of the tent while he went in.

    Usually, the spirit of God rested only on Moses. This time, though, some of the spirit was placed on the elders. The elders prophesied, indicating that the spirit had brought them the energy, inspiration, and skill they would need for the long wilderness road ahead of them.      

    Back in the camp, two elders – (Eldad and Medad, and I'm not making this up) - who for some reason had not gone with the others to the tent of meeting, also began to prophesy. When Joshua, Moses' right-hand man, finds out that this is happening, he tries to get Moses to stop them. Moses quickly ends all talk of this, saying "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" (v. 29).

    How quickly a person can become jealous! How quickly an in-group (oh I was at the tent of meeting it was amazing) wants to maintain superiority to the out-group (we didn't get to go, poor us). Emotions like jealousy – shorthand for fear – drive an inability to share not only the burden of our difficulties, but also the energy available for working together towards a common goal like trying to reach the promised land. The ability to get interested in how another person sees a problem, what their solutions to it might be, begins with seeing others as assets: capable people rather than as threats.

    Eldad and Medad were interested, inspired thinkers back in the camp where no one else was prophesying or otherwise feeling it. It takes a certain courage to speak one's mind in an environment where others disagree or, sometimes worse, are disinterested. When everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid, it's easy to be part of the excitement. When one is the lone enthusiast, it's a completely different story. In a sense, Eldad and Medad stand for the capacity to see the truth and live into it, regardless of what others are doing. The person with this integrity becomes an elder, regardless of age, leading others wherever she might be.  

Reflections

Morning: What is a common goal I have with others?  When might I be aware of group pressure today?

Evening: When did I see or experience a sense of inspiration? Where was it a challenge today to be myself?  When was I jealous?

Psalm 104:33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

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