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Lectionary Living

Praying in tough times

Acts 1:6-14  •  Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35  •  1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11  •  John 17:1-11

 

    What a job the writer of John is faced with, in today's reading! Capturing any prayer of Jesus has to be a little like describing a sunset in words: impossible. This prayer goes beyond a beautiful sunset. In this prayer we get a front row seat to the deepest reflections of Jesus as he looks back over his life and faces what is to come. Soon, he will be arrested, tried, and crucified. Here, he stops to pray about what has been accomplished and the relationships that have made up his life.

    To begin, Jesus takes all he has done and hands it to God. A humble prayer, its format acknowledges the limits of a human life. It begins with a brief mention of 'the hour' that has come, suggesting perhaps that he is contemplating what is about to happen. Next, it focuses on his life's work, as though he is saying something along the lines of Look, I did the best I could with this, and I am counting on you to make good come from it. Then he considers the people in his life, commending them to God's care, and stepping back as he sees he will no longer be with them.

    Ever so gently, the reading suggests that we might step up, considering our own lives and our own deaths as well. Following the example of Jesus, looking back over one's own work and relationships can be more than an obligation to get one's affairs in order. Remembering that one's life is ending can be the beginning of a sacred prayer.

    An example from my family's story comes from my grandmother, Hannah. Born in 1905, she came to the U.S. through Ellis Island as a child, growing up in a family of tenant farmers in rural Illinois. Married at age 16, she had my mother – her fourth child – in 1929. The delivery was botched, though, with unclean forceps leading to an infection that would not heal. She spent her last days in the hospital, asking for the baby, and then too weak to hold her or nurse her. Many years later, her younger sister, Seena, told me about going to see her in the hospital one day. As they talked about their childhood, Hannah said, "We sure did fight a lot as kids, didn't we? But we sure did have a good time."

    I'm guessing that Hannah - a devout person raised in a home where prayers were said both before and after each meal! – had spent some of her time in the hospital praying about her death. She had thought about her relationships and how she wanted to leave them. And this conversation with her sister was not only an answer to her prayers about her relationships, it was an extension of those prayers, bringing peace, acceptance, and even amusement in a look back at their sibling battles.  

    Although death itself is far from amusing, in my experience, humor is present in the days leading up to the death of a loved one. For my grandmother and her sister, the ability to look at their relationship more lightly, with a little less intensity, brought an ability to see things differently. It was not about blaming, or fault-finding, or who should apologize. It was about understanding what they had been up against as children set within the bigger challenges of their family: seeing the blessing of the relationship rather than its difficulties.

    Two chapters later in John, after horrific injustice and cruelty, Jesus proclaimed from the cross that It is finished (John 19:30). His life was ending, his work was over, and his prayer was already being fulfilled. He had made it through the ordeal in faithfulness to what he had stood for in his life. In her own way, my grandmother did the same.

 

Reflections:

Morning: What is important for me to focus on in my work today? What relationship do I want to tend to? How can I bring humor and light to bear?

Evening: When did I get distracted today? In what ways does thinking about dying bring clarity to how I want to live my life?  

Psalm 68:5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.

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High School Logic

Acts 17:22-31  •  Psalm 66:8-20  •  1 Peter 3:13-22  •  John 14:15-21

    Today's readings provide much food for thought, with a flavor of high school material – if/then clauses, of all things. The psalmist declares that if he had cherished iniquity, then the Lord would not have heard him (v. 18). Paul tells the Athenians that since we are God's children, we ought not to think of idols made of metals as gods (v. 29). The writer of 1 Peter adds that even if one suffers for doing right, then so much the better (v. 14). The clear winner, though, is John 14:15: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

    If/then clauses come to us courtesy of two disciplines: math and grammar. You may remember if x then y: that is, x guarantees y. You may also remember the subjunctive mood, perhaps from a foreign language class. Already wincing? Groaning? I'll keep this short. In the reading, the subjunctive seems like a warning – encoded in the grammar – not to put the cart before the horse. If you love me, you will keep my commandments tells us not only what to do but also the order of things: begin with love. Then following the directions of Jesus is a natural thing, it will just happen! Love for a teacher leads one to following his teachings. On the other hand, following teachings without love for the teacher is difficult.

    Love itself is a bit of a grammar nightmare. It means so many things in so many situations, it almost means nothing. To me, love means a kind and genuine regard for another, delighting in another person or thing for himself, herself, or itself – for their own beauty and not necessarily for how they make you feel. When a person has such a regard for another, their influence can lead you to go in a different direction than you might have gone on your own. My own story comes from the day I learned to bake bread.

    I was in graduate school at the time, and a dear friend had once again made a wonderful supper for a group of us. On the menu was his homemade bread. When I asked him for the recipe, he offered instead to come over and show me how. Later we spent a wonderful Saturday, where I learned how to get the yeast to rise, how to keep the dough warm but not too hot, variations of kneading, and finally, baking the bread. It was an absolutely glorious companionable day that I still recall with details like what bowl I used for the starter. For many years, I made various breads for and with our family including a Christmas brunch tradition of cinnamon bread still carried on by our children.

    Could I have learned this from a set of directions in a recipe? I doubt it, although I suppose, if I had tried enough times, I could have figured it out.  Would I have incorporated bread-making in my life for the next forty years? I very much doubt it. What mattered first was my friend's wisdom, in knowing that my naïve request for a recipe by itself simply would not do. Then it was the time together, and the simple fun we experienced that day. I loved, I delighted in it all: the smell, the careful attention to detail, the kneading, the way the ingredients came together, and the loaves themselves.

    As we baked bread together that day, I took careful notes of each step, following them for years until I knew the directions by heart. To love anyone or anything involves an ardent devotion to the subject itself – a student of the game, so to speak, whether the game is baseball or breadmaking or the beloved. Being attracted to something can create a curiosity, drawing both one's intellectual reason and one's emotions into a focused attention. If one is fascinated, then one is ready to follow where a person or subject or idea leads. Being true to one's own interests – delighting in them, finding the truth in them – comes first. What follows is an increased capacity to remain loyal to what is true.

Reflections

Morning: What do I delight in? When and how can I explore what matters to me today?

Evening: Where today, did I find beauty and truth to delight in?

Psalm 66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

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Troubled

Acts 7:55-60  •  Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16  •  1 Peter 2:2-10  •  John 14:1-14

 

Even as I begin writing this piece, I am aware of my inability to follow the instructions of Jesus: Do not let your heart be troubled. How? Take the usual stressors as thing one, add covid-19 and whoa! I'm troubled! Distressed, agitated, tense, mentally worried, going to extra work, you name it: all aspects of troubled come and go these days.

 

The virus has been a lot of bother, from what kind of face mask works best to where to get toilet paper to how to manage multiple zoom calls. More troubling worries about the health and livelihood of oneself and one's family and friends preoccupy each of us, more or less. Watching the news provides more places for anxiety to land. Jesus, though, is saying to stop being troubled and instead to believe. Being troubled signals a need to look at something from the perspective of one's beliefs, considering one's responsibilities for it and to others, deciding what to do (if anything) and how to do it, doing so, and moving on.

 

In the reading, Jesus moves on quickly, talking about his going to prepare a spacious dwelling place for us. Perhaps it is impossible to go to this place before putting one's anxiety aside, trusting one's beliefs. The frustrated disciples try to pin Jesus down on what he means here, but he will have none of it, insisting that knowing him provides the way.

 

On a pragmatic level, simply knowing what Jesus said and did can provide a sense of the way. That's the easy part! Then one has to do it – which is what I think the disciples were really protesting. Stopping oneself from continuing to be troubled, for instance, is not easy. Right now, the pandemic is the focus. Even before this year, though, many of us were anxious and worried, about something! Somehow, anxiety is in the air, looking for a place to land. Maybe it's easier to look for a place to put anxiety – something to criticize, some problem or someone to fuss over – rather than thinking it through. Both the alertness to threat (Danger?) and the perception of threat (Danger!) happen as worry takes form and takes over one's ability to think.

 

Recently I heard a high school senior talking on the news about how upset she had been over the fact that there would be no graduation ceremony at her school this year. While the inability to connect with others in her life is a frustration, the funneling of the worry onto the graduation itself might be a misuse of anxious energy. Instead, listening and acting on what her troubled heart is telling her – that she needs her friends – would harness her feelings and her mind into a thoughtful effort to stay connected with them.

 

Much has also been in the news about anxiety as mental illness, specifically anxiety  related to job loss. I wonder to what extent it's a sign of a healthy mind, grounded in reality, gathering the strength to face a real problem. How a person can notice the anxiety, letting its energy be useful without taking over the capacity to reason – that is the challenge. None of this is easy. The effort itself to stop being troubled can be at once both challenging and comforting.

 

Reflections

Morning:  How am I troubled today? What do I need to deal with? What is not on me?

Evening: When did I find more energy for living?

Psalm 31:3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name's sake lead me and guide me.

 

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Smarter sheep

Acts 2:42-47  •  Psalm 23  •  1 Peter 2:19-25  •  John 10:1-10

    Today's story from John continues a passage read last month. I posted a comment on it called Nobody's fault. It involved the man born blind, his healing, the religious leaders throwing him out, and Jesus checking on him. Today, we hear what Jesus does next: launching into a commentary about bad leaders and a good shepherd.

    A short ten verses, the reading builds on Hebrew scriptures – Ezekiel 34 – which would have been familiar to the audience. Jesus denounces the religious leadership, comparing them to careless shepherds. The figure of speech did not work though; the Pharisees did not get what Jesus was saying (v. 6). Somehow, it was impossible for them to see themselves as anything other than good shepherds, good religious leaders. They were following all the rules! Setting such an example! But throwing a man out of the congregation rather than facing the truth he was telling them. Another truth is that human leaders are going to come up short. Putting too much trust in them is a greater burden than they can bear. In the end, each person must step up and be responsible for herself: becoming a smarter sheep.

    Several things get in the way of being smarter sheep. With lots of sheep milling around, it can be hard to think or to be oneself. However, in this time of the novel corona virus, many of us are in contact online with more family members than usual and finding an up-side to the experience. The great opportunity here is to get to know folks for who they really are and to allow them to get to know you: talking about things that matter to each of you. It's possible to set some new patterns that may go forward in the years ahead, rather than continuing as an unwitting flock of sheep.

    Smarter sheep are able to recognize and follow the voice of the shepherd. It reminds me a little of going to pick up my children from preschool. The other children just keep on playing, but my own kids – or grandkids, these days – hear me talking with a teacher, turn to look, and then run to me. We walk to the car, the children following along because they know me and my voice. It is that automatic and that natural. They will not follow a stranger.

    Jesus saying that the sheep follow him because they know his voice is a bit circular. Who follows me? Those who know my voice. Who knows my voice? Those who follow me. Here the sheep metaphor moves from a perplexing, enigmatic figure of speech to reality. Soon enough – too soon, I know – my grandchildren will no longer follow my voice automatically. The solution for them, for all of us, is a difficult one. Attempting to replace one's grandparent or parent with a benevolent god who will direct all of one's activities keeps one in a position of permanent immaturity, indecision, and confusion.

    Instead, I think these verses are challenging each of us to notice what is automatic and natural, questioning whether it is consistent with one's beliefs. This is hard work. Sometimes, one will notice with dismay how far the automatic is from how one wants to live. The advice to "fake it 'till you make it," staying with a new behavior until it becomes more natural, may be a help. Knowing the voice of Jesus is not child's play.

For reflection:

Morning:  What family member might I connect with? What would I want to share about myself? To learn?

Evening: What patterns were automatic for me today? To what extent are they consistent with what I believe? With the person I want to become?

Psalm 23:1-3 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

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