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Lectionary Living

Autonomy, Focus, and Do-betters

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9  •  Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 and Psalm 15  •  James 1:17-27  •  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


(8/29) One of the great things about the lectionary – and life too – is the chance for do-overs or at least do-betters. Today I'll be talking about the Mark reading, which I also wrote about back in 2010, when the lectionary covered the Matthew version of the story. Even though it seems like what I said was okay, I'm glad for the do-better, because I think I missed the main point! 


The main point here – the incredibly good news of this passage – is that one does have autonomy over one's own life. Who you are comes from within; no one can take your self away. Although human impulses can lead to theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, or folly (verses 21-22 and thank you Jesus for the short list!), they are simply impulses. Quite apart from whether they are socially acceptable, a person can decide whether they are personally acceptable: What do I want to do with these base urges? Do they represent my best self? What will I allow myself to be motivated by?


As an example, one can notice oneself going down the path of envy and choose another way. Rather than letting a feeling or an emotion take over one's whole being, a person can begin to observe and even joke about them. I remember a comedian from years ago, and unfortunately I've forgotten her name, but she had a great line about a restaurant hostess announcing a person to be seated alone: Bitter, party of one.


The importance of prevention in emotional health is emphasized in the James reading: rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness (1:21). My goodness he is not beating around the bush here! It's no picnic, seeing oneself as sordid and out of control. It's much easier to focus on someone else. The impulse to gossip, though, leaves the gossiper a little cheapened and weaker from such an exchange. A focus on another, even when "well-meant," is usually a way of managing one's own anxiety: again, keeping immaturity in place. Stopping the focus on other people - whether family or friend, old or young – respects their capacity to be the authors of their own lives, while opening up the time and space to focus on one's own hopes.


Focusing on oneself is not easy, especially when it involves thinking about mistakes. Paul McCartney discussed this in a conversation with Stephen Colbert on September 24, 2019 (starting around six and a half minutes in). McCartney talked about how various artists had re-done his great song, Yesterday. He noticed that while he had taken responsibility for his own mistakes in the song with the line "I said something wrong," others had re-written the lyric, saying "I must've said something wrong…" and refusing to consider their own part in the problem. As McCartney put it, they didn't own it.


The good news here is that to the extent that we can see our contribution to the problems we face, we have preventive options. More than that, each of us may always begin again, regretting where one has failed to be oneself, and focusing back on one's own aims. Motivations matter; noticing – and modifying – what brings energy for living can make room for do-betters. Guilt is less useful; patience with and a certain detachment from our all-too-human nature can help. Living by grace begins here.



Morning: How can I be more myself today? What motivates me?

Evening: When did I stay focused on my own goals or focused on others? What are my regrets?

Psalm 15:1-3 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.    

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Energy for One's Own Goals

1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84  •  Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and Psalm 34:15-22  •  Ephesians 6:10-20  •  John 6:56-69


Today I'm turning to the alternate Old Testament reading in Joshua 24. To set the stage, Joshua is nearing the end of his life, having brought the Hebrew people into the promised land. While he has led them in some military victories (the famous story of the walls of Jericho, tumbling down, is found here), for the most part, they have entered an area with enough land so that they manage to co-habit with the existing population, who worship other gods.


For us today, I cannot imagine a more relevant story. The multitude of rival gods surrounding us today is not at all dissimilar to human life over 2500 years ago, when the Hebrew people first settled in Canaan. In their time, the idols brought from previous homes or the gods of the Amorites in the land where they had come to dwell were both distracting the people from serving the Lord. In our time, we continue to fool ourselves into thinking that all of our wishes can be managed or juggled or balanced without losing focus.


Joshua, though, was having none of it. Any goal, any priority, besides following God, was suspect. If you won't serve the Lord, then choose what god you will serve, he demanded. Somehow, in Joshua's mind at least, it was much worse to make a half-hearted effort to appease all the gods than to decide to serve any one of them.


One of the most-quoted lines in scripture is found near the end of this reading, when Joshua tells the people to serve whoever they are going to serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. A note in my Bible says that the translators are unclear about whether 'household' meant his family or a larger community. Whether it's families or congregations or organizations or nations, those with shared goals tend to work together more effectively than those whose intentions are unaligned. 


In a sense, Joshua's closing statement is a modelling of intentionality, telling the people that he will not be spending his time trying to convince them of what they should do, but is clear about what he (and his household) will do. At this point, the people all decide to follow his lead. Somehow, those who get clear about themselves, and their lives, attract followers.


First things first though. How does a person get clear and then stick with it? It's one thing to decide on a direction, but it's quite another to make it happen. The biggest problem – bigger than the number of false gods out there – is an internal one. A person's own emotional system can be at odds with her mature self. One result: one's energy goes towards being responsible for others, taking from them what are essentially their own chances to grow. Another potential result is an over-focus on others and their responses to oneself. Does she appreciate/like/care about me? Does he agree/support/sympathize with my view? Setting aside such questions is possible when one can learn to reason with one's own emotions and notice one's own reactivity.


Thinking about what others should do/feel/say is a serious time sink. Thinking about what oneself is going to do – and sticking with it, as Joshua did – leads to a different life, with energy for one's own goals. When the emotional system and the intellectual system can work together, perceiving the false gods and finding the true, good intentions can become realities.



Morning: What are the false gods in my world? How can I be less distracted today?

Evening: When did I manage to stay on track? When did I lose energy by assuming responsibility for others or focusing on them and their responses to me?

Psalm 34:18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.

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An Understanding Mind: Great prayers are humble prayers

(8/15) 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111  •  Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14  •  Ephesians 5:15-20  •  John 6:51-58


After the difficulties of David's life, it's good this week to get to an upside in the readings! Today's story, perhaps his son Solomon's finest moment, comes when Solomon is a young man. Asked what he most wants for Christmas (well, not exactly, but close) he replies that he's overwhelmed with being a king, has no idea what to do, and wishes for an understanding mind (3:9).


It's funny, when looking back at one's life, what turns out to matter and what moments stand out. Perhaps most of us can remember moments when we felt like Solomon: overwhelmed by circumstances and with no idea what to do next. It's a very human predicament. And yet, the anxiety that gets stirred up in difficult situations can work against us. One way of (mis)managing is to get so worked up that one forgets to ask for either help or input from others. Another way is to get so totally focused on what others would do about a problem, so much better than oneself, that one simply freezes in place, doing nothing at all!


The interesting thing here is that in both cases, a person may think she is acting humbly. The one who takes on the whole burden may think something along the lines of oh I don't want to bother them; "them" can be anyone from one's family to friends to God. The one who gives the whole burden up to others, may think something along the lines of oh I'm not nearly as capable as they are; again, "they" can be anyone. At both extremes of arrogance or helplessness, a false humility exists, where the self is somehow belittled in the process.


With true humility, no one is belittled. Recently, the Olympics offered some fine examples. At the end of a swimming event, the swimmers were looking at the time board and then at the water and then at each other with sheer wonder – look at what's just happened here! It seemed almost irrespective of which of them did exactly what. In an interview of one swimmer, when he was first told his time on the last leg of the race, he had a stunned look – not for himself, or so it seemed to me – but a more general sense of gosh I did not know that could be done, that's amazing! It mattered not at all that it was he himself who had done it.


Another clue about true humility, coming from athletes, is the advice to "run your own race." A lot can be lost, apparently, at premier levels of competition, from getting distracted by what the person in the next lane over is doing. Winners stick with their own pace. The danger of the over-focus on the other extends out from the Olympics to everyone. Each of us has our own self, for whom each of us is entirely responsible. Comparing oneself to others confuses the brain pathways. A realistic focus within oneself is tied to humility.


Solomon, of course, never participated in the Olympics. He had a different challenge as a new king in the midst of the people… a great people (3:8). His awareness of his responsibility to the people goes hand in hand with his prayer for an understanding mind. Whether king or pauper, working on seeing all sides of a thing can bring a person towards a more humane, humble posture.



Morning: What is important for me to focus on today? Where might I lose my way?

Evening: When did I have an understanding mind?

Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

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Opportunities: Time-limited chances to find the eternal in the ordinary

(8/8): 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130  •  1 Kings 19:4-8 and Psalm 34:1-8  •  Ephesians 4:25-5:2  •  John 6:35, 41-51


This week's readings cover a lot of territory. From David's grief over his son Absalom, killed by David's army as his son attempted a takeover; to Elijah, exhausted and hoping to die; to Ephesians, providing detailed advice on how to conduct oneself in this vale of tears; the setup is a noteworthy compilation on the challenges of living.  As if on cue, Jesus opens the gospel reading with this startling claim: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (v. 35).


On the surface, what Jesus says here is patently false. Mammals get hungry - else we'd all starve! And yet Jesus chose the language of hunger and thirst, to describe what he was offering. Although the language is often thought of metaphorically – that is, no more spiritual hunger – I wonder whether something else is implied. I wonder whether very earthly struggles are exactly what he meant. Moving on down the passage, an even more fulsome expression occurs: eternal life. Anyone who believes has eternal life: not only in some future time, but also right now (v. 47).


When seeking to contemplate eternal life, one can easily be led to consider some sort of ethereal, blissful 'mental nirvana,' as a friend put it to me. But I don't think that scripture bears that up entirely. Rather, it is the choice to look reality square in the face and live into the present earthly moment, finding not necessarily happiness, but certainly, truth.


The story of David and Absalom is an example of an epic failure to face reality. Today's scripture gives us David weeping over his dead son. What's the back story? Well, to begin somewhere, let's start with David's taking (and raping? the Bible is unclear about whether the sex was consensual) of Bathsheba, another man's wife, and seeing that the other man – his comrade on the battlefield – was killed. This is the great king David, killer of Goliath, writer of the 23rd psalm! It reminds me of a Fred Rogers line, explaining to children that the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes. No wonder David's sons were confused!


The acting out that follows is Biblical. One of David's sons, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar – full sister of Absalom. Absalom avenges her rape, having Amnon killed and fleeing to another country, where his mother's family was from. David begins to miss Absalom, and Joab (also a family member, David's sister's child) finds a way to get him to come back. But then, both Joab and David continue the cutoff, avoiding any contact with him. Finally, Absalom has a servant set fire to Joab's barley field, to get his attention. Although he does gain an audience with King David, he continues to be shut out of the royal business and takes to sitting at the gate where his good judgement is useful to the people. Eventually, war breaks out between father and son, with the grandfather of Bathsheba a key player on Absalom's side. 


David had multiple opportunities to change this sequence of events. Scripture reports that David was upset about the rape of Tamar, but would do nothing because he loved Amnon, his firstborn (2 Samuel 13:21). More than that though – much more than that – was the chance he had earlier in life, to teach his sons to do differently than he had done with Bathsheba. Teaching his sons, of course, would have involved more than explaining sexual mores to them. For David, it would have meant being a different person himself, respecting others rather than using them to his own ends. But David lacked any interest in changing himself.


David's emotional immaturity shows itself again, in his bringing Absalom back to town and then ignoring him for two more years. How childish! He's stuck in his narrow world, unable to consider other views beside his own. And when it turned out that Absalom was a good judge of people, David was unable to use him as a resource, utterly destroying the chance to build a dynasty that would include this son. All along the way, he had missed opportunities.


Opportunities – the bread of heaven, if you will – are found in the mundane, today and every day. These chances, though, or as the prayer book calls it, the time for amendment of life, don't last forever. Today's story ends on a tragic note, with David weeping for his son. It's important not to skip over this too quickly, in David's story and our own.



Morning: What are my regrets? Where are the opportunities to take a new path, going forward?

Evening: What gets in the way of growing myself up? What am I interested in changing?

Psalm 130:1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.


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