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Lectionary Living

It Don't Come Easy

(9/12): Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 - 8:1  •  Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-9  •  James 3:1-12  •  Mark 8:27-38

    Last summer I talked about the Matthew version of this passage, Counter-Intuitive on Aug 24, 2020. This week, the Mark version is paired with Isaiah and James, who talk about teaching, in the distinct but inimitable styles that each is famous for. Then Jesus proceeds to give a master class in how to teach. Well, who could resist the chance to reflect on teaching, with such a set of material!

    The Isaiah reading is set sometime after the Hebrew people were marched off into exile. His description of himself as knowing how to sustain the weary with a word, makes perfect sense in terms of the Babylonian exile; he was teacher to a weary and discouraged people. Look at what happens to him though, for his efforts: insults, being spit upon, getting hit, and even people tugging at his beard. Apparently, not everyone was interested in being encouraged.

    When I taught remedial math at the community college level, most of my students were uninterested in my well-meaning, encouraging words. Once I began asking them what they saw as their problem and how they planned to get through the semester, things changed. They could overcome their own sense of helplessness and engage the challenge a little more. Acknowledging their responsibility for learning in turn had an impact on me. I was able to be more curious with them about how I could meet my responsibility to them. I started wondering and sometimes asking, "What would be useful?"

    One resource available to every teacher is her own experience. I had struggled with my share of hard math problems. For his part, Isaiah understood only too well the helpless feeling that his people were up against. Sustained by his morning prayers, he had found a way out of helplessness. As he put it, the Lord God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. Every good teacher walks this demanding path.

    Unlike Isaiah, who seemed to be faced with a dearth of leadership, James warned against too many people becoming teachers. Teachers will be judged with greater strictness (v. 2). Then and now, taking on the role as teacher sets a person up for criticism; it's easier for the rest of us to focus on the teacher than it is to come up with our own views! Often, though, the role of teacher is unofficial: occurring whether we intend to take on the role or not. Throughout life – and across many species – we learn continually from one another. Sometimes, species survival depends on passing on what we know.

    It's how to pass it on that's the problem. As James so clearly says, the tongue can be dangerous and destructive! Lashing out solves nothing. In the Mark passage, Jesus models mature ways of using language – asking good questions, talking about his own views and asking others about theirs.  

    What's a good question? To begin, good questions denigrate no one. They are constructive, not reactive. When not too hard, they stir up genuine curiosity (For instance, Jesus asking, Who do people say that I am?). When well-framed, they ask the person to define her own position (Who do you say that I am?).  With effort, a person wrestling with a good question can build her own understanding, eventually able to describe herself in an I-position: what I think and what I'm going to do.  

    In the Mark reading, Jesus soon turns to another question: What does it profit anyone, to gain the whole world and lose one's soul? What, indeed. I'm reminded of a prayer for healing asking for that victory of life and peace enabling you to serve… (Book of Common Prayer p. 456). Life and peace don't come easy; they are available to those who have struggled with Jesus' question regarding profit and loss, found their answer, and acted on it. Not easy tasks – but they round out the subject of how to teach. A good question stirs interest, prompts clarity within self and with others, and ends in action.



Morning: What's a question I'd like to get clearer about?

Evening: When did I manage not to lash out, finding a good question or taking an "I-position" instead?

Psalm 116:7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.

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Mission-Focused: Healing and So Much More

(9/5) Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 and Psalm 125  •  Isaiah 35:4-7a and Psalm 146  •  James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17  •  Mark 7:24-37


     Today's Mark reading features two back-to-back healing stories. For most of history, it seems that people have gone to their religious leaders for healing. My guess is that for the human species, religion lessens anxiety, and less anxiety is good for both emotional and physical health. Not to take anything away from healers and their capacity to calm folks down! That's enough of a miracle. Too much attention to the miracles, though, and one can miss the thread of the story.

     The story is that Jesus is in trouble. As it opens, Jesus has gone to Tyre – a Gentile region – to get away from the intense scrutiny his actions were receiving back at home. The temple leaders were concerned about upstart itinerant preachers; the Romans had spies everywhere. Jesus' popularity with the crowds, his ability to heal, his concern for the poor and the outsider: all of these things were getting attention. Herod – grandson of the Herod who had ordered the killing of all infant boys in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby – was himself a cruel and unpredictable leader, capable of ordering a beheading as party entertainment.

     So Jesus is in Tyre, hiding, and trying to catch a break. It seems he is also trying to think through what he had to get done to complete his life's work, for when a local person asks him to heal her daughter, he reflects back to her that this has nothing to do with his mission in life. His mission is over in Judah and focused on his people there. She pushes back, in a clever dialogue involving children, dogs and crumbs under the table. Whether he broadens his view of his mission or not is unrecorded, but he does heal her child.

     Another healing happens in the next few verses when Jesus takes a person aside and heals him in secret. However, once again the word gets out, and people are talking more and more about what amazing things he can do. This hero worship is precisely the kind of publicity he does not wish for. A mission of bringing his people back to true religion is difficult enough without the authorities becoming concerned about him as a potential rabble rouser.

     The amazing thing in this passage is not the healings. The truly amazing thing here is the capacity of Jesus to continue to focus on his own mission. The focus allowed him to see what was getting in the way: healing, for instance, and the overall attention his miracles were receiving. He could not change that – miracles followed him wherever he went, a little like the cloud of dust surrounding the Pig-Pen character from Charlie Brown. What he could do – what he did – was to avoid seeking the approval of others. Whether people loved or hated him, he continued on his path, bringing authentic stories like today's, crumbs and all.

     Choosing to be less interested in pleasing or not pleasing others allows room for more mature motivations. A two-year old wanting his parents' praise is developmentally appropriate – as adults, we can watch and question what's driving us. Motivations may be grouped in two buckets – an underlying drive to belong, to connect with others and another drive to be one's own person. To the extent that both are attended to, a person walks with integrity, joy, gratitude, peace, and energy for her life, surrounded with her own little cloud of dust.



Morning: What is my mission or purpose in life? What is motivating me today?

Evening: When did I find energy to connect with others? When was I motivated to focus on my own goals?

Psalm 146:5-7a Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,  who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

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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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