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Lectionary Living

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.

 

Reflections

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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Growing Up Begins with Calming Down

8/1 2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:13a and Psalm 51:1-12  •  Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Psalm 78:23-29  •  Ephesians 4:1-16  •  John 6:24-35

 

In today's reading from 2 Samuel, the prophet Nathan tells David that his mistakes will have repercussions down the line. Well, no disrespect to Nathan, but I could have told David that! Is there a grandmother in the world who has not watched her own children with some awareness that her own mistakes are being repeated to at least the third generation? With some further thought, any grandparent can look back a few generations and find the patterns that have continued through the family since that time – and now we're talking six generations, or more.

 

Not all of these family patterns are a bad thing. In the Exodus reading, for example, manna has been provided for the people to eat in the wilderness. A few verses later, specific rules were set out for managing the manna on the Sabbath, to avoid any work. A similar religious practice of a Sabbath rest was still going on, at least among the older folks in my extended family, until the 1960s. The Sabbath was a part of my family's way of being. The pattern of honoring a certain day of the week as set aside, as sacred, did not go unnoticed. Actions do speak.

 

Of course, some remember the Sabbath less fondly. Jesus himself railed against those who were too rigid about observing the day of rest. It's the same with anything a family seeks to make important. Without flexibility, any pattern can have a negative side. A family who values hard work can lose its playfulness. A family who values doing things well can become perfectionistic. And then the next generation may choose the polar opposite behavior, which simply continues the rigidity and the lack of options of the other extreme.

 

For the person seeking a way out of the mistakes of the past, his own reactivity can get in the way. The inability to see what others were up against keeps him from considering a more flexible response. The idea of finding a middle way, instead of the other extreme, is simply unavailable to him. Here, the Ephesians reading speaks volumes: We must no longer be children… we must grow up in every way (4:14-15).

 

Growing up begins with calming down. Jesus is saying as much, when confronted by those who want to know about the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. He tells them that their appetite for bread was getting in the way of finding the food that endures for eternal life (John 6:27).

 

David's appetite for Bathsheba pushed him towards some terrible choices. I can almost hear my neighbor scolding her dog, Wrong Fido wrong! All of us mammals can let our instinctual drives lead us astray. Growing up involves attending to them without letting them steer the course. A lovely hymn, Dear Lord, creator of us all, (and may I be excused for the liberties I have taken with the title), prays us out of the conundrum. Beginning with a request to reclothe us in our rightful minds, and moving on to orderly lives and Sabbath rest, it concludes as follows: Breathe through the heats of our desire/ thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,/ O still, small voice of calm!

 

Reflections:

Morning: What family patterns am I reactive to? How can I find a middle way?

Evening: When were my appetites in charge of my actions today?

Psalm 51:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

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Derailed

7/25: 2 Samuel 11:1-15 and Psalm 14  •  2 Kings 4:42-44 and Psalm 145:10-18  •  Ephesians 3:14-21  •  John 6:1-21

 

Well, well, what a surprise. Just a few chapters back, David was having a fight with his wife Michal and distancing from her. Now, he's having an affair with Bathsheba, wife of one of his key military leaders. Not only that, but when he discovers that he's gotten Bathsheba pregnant, he seeks to cover it up by bringing her husband Uriah home from the battlefield. David's plan is that husband and wife might sleep together, making Uriah think that he had fathered the child. But the loyal soldier refuses the comforts of home while his comrades are in the field, choosing to sleep with David's servants instead. David's next move? He sends Uriah back to the field, along with directions to the high command to "set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die" (v. 15).

 

Even for those with a cynical eye, the utter immorality of David is astonishing. It was predictable, though. When people use distancing as a way of managing their relationships with others, they are signaling a lack of the inner capacity to manage themselves. Eventually, the intellect serves the whims and impulses of the more instinctive and sometimes childish side of oneself, either ignoring or rationalizing every thought which might get in the way. The capacity for emotional reasoning is lost.

 

David's reactivity to Michal (see more in 2 Samuel 6) led him to cut off. As he licked his wounds, refusing to consider her viewpoint in any way, his own immaturity grew. Later, his lust for Bathsheba took charge. The back-and-forth between his feelings and his thoughts around her became as unavailable to him as his connection to Michal. It is only a few short hops from reacting to others, to distancing from them, to cutoff, to becoming unable to hear other views, to a more confused view of life altogether.

 

When a person can stay connected with others, while still being her own self, something changes inside. It is like a muscle is getting exercised – developing and holding onto one's own core way of being. Even under pressure, such a person can still act on principles. The inner guidance system, so to speak, is less easily derailed.

 

The family unit provides a keyway. Reactivity to one's family is an invaluable treasure: automatically steering each of us to our deepest challenges. The chance to notice and manage one's responses more maturely – rather than try to change the other person – is the chance to grow oneself up. The chance to see different views – rather than go down the ever-narrower rabbit hole of one's own perspective – is also a chance to become more adult.

 

Today's story is often seen as a warning against greed. After all, Michal was wife #3, by my count, anyhow. How many wives did David need?! More than greed, though, the story showed how cutting off from others lessened his orientation to reality. Being able to connect respectfully with Michal, seeing another perspective besides his own, would have taken David towards a larger view of life. Cutting off from her may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but he lost some of himself along the way.

 

Reflections:

Morning: Where – or on what subjects – might I look for a larger perspective today?        

Evening: When did I become reactive today?

Psalm 14:2 The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.

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What's Mine and Not Mine

7/18: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Psalm 89:20-37  •  Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 23  •  Ephesians 2:11-22  •  Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

Whether you are a person with too much on your plate or too little to do, today's 2 Samuel reading is meant for you. In it, David, a person with a lot on his plate, hears from his chief advisor/prophet that he's supposed to build a temple. That night, though, in his own prayers, he hears from God that it's not time to build a temple. Not only that, he hears that God has someone else in mind for the task!

 

People who tend to take on too much can forget that there are others who might be more fit for a job. On the other hand, those who tend to take on too little must be given room to gain the experience necessary to succeed. Some take on too much in one sphere and too little in others. Every situation, though, provides the same question: Which comes first?

 

In the 2 Samuel story, it's clear: David, (and by extension, all those who do too much) must step down so that others can step up. Those stepping down step down must continue to focus on the work that matters to them, resisting the urge to take over what belongs to someone else to do. In equal measure, those who step up must resist the the helplessness that can emerge when trying something new or difficult. When both sides can find a new balance, the entire unit – family, congregation, office, or other – can become more functional.

 

In this week's Mark reading, Jesus provides an example of what happens when the leader chooses to step back. He had previously sent the disciples out, in pairs, to teach and to heal. On their return, they tell him all they have done. If he thought of how much better he could have done it, it went unmentioned. Neither does Jesus explain the disciples what they should have done. Instead, he listens with interest to all they have to say.

 

Jesus had a capacity to both listen to others and to love them objectively. While he saw the disciples for who they were, he neither overlooked their flaws nor got judgy about them. Maybe he was aided by his own sense of self. He had his own principles which no one – from his own disciples to his family to the religious elite – could take from him. He was that solid. Even under pressure, he managed to remain himself, choosing to do what seemed best to him. When a person is that clear, the things that matter to most of us – like being agreeable or agreed with – don't even seem to be considerations at all. He could simply listen, being in contact with the disciples without becoming responsible for them.

 

After the disciples finish telling him about their journeys, he offered no instruction. Instead, he invited them to take a retreat and rest a while. When a person takes the time to rest and reflect, one is more ready to listen to the lessons of life. Once thoughtfully considered, what is one's own to do and what belongs on someone else's plate can become clearer.  

 

Reflections:

Morning: What is mine to do today? Where might I step up or back?

Evening: When did I find time to rest in my day?

Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

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