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Lectionary Living

Grace

Exodus 17:1-7  •  Psalm 95  •  Romans 5:1-11  •  John 4:5-42

    The readings this week are all over the place, and yet (spoiler alert), all about the same thing: grace. In Exodus, the Hebrew people are wandering around in the wilderness, thirsty and mad about it. In John, Jesus is thirsty and dealing with it through a most unusual character. In Romans, the apostle Paul is knee-deep in theological distinctions.  

    So! Let's begin with Romans, and "justification by faith," a term suggesting that people are justified – that is, in the right – not because of what they've done but because of what they know: grace. Knowing grace means an awareness of every minute of life as a gift: something one did not have to earn. Justification by faith takes the pressure off of us hapless human creatures, stumbling around thirsty but demanding, and moves us towards a humble, grace-filled posture more appropriate to our relative place in the universe.  Justification by faith keeps us paying attention to the grace in life instead of trying to justify ourselves, always trying to prove – to ourselves and others – that we are in the right.

    Proving one is right, blameless, or faultless is closely tied to worrying about what others think. The opinion of others, as a way of deciding how to behave, is deep within us as human beings. From our earliest years in life, we begin to notice whether others approve or not and to modify our own behavior accordingly. This has adaptive value. Think for instance of the child who starts to run into the street, stopping when his parents cry out. Or the adult who stands up in front of the room to speak, waiting for the group to quiet itself quickly. A human community could not survive without some ability to co-regulate.

    The problem, though, is that in the end, being regulated by others doesn't work very well. Using what others think to guide how one will behave leads to an endless cycle of trying harder and failing more. Here we come to Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: two people who are relatively uninterested in what others think. The Samaritan woman, with five previous husbands and unmarried in her sixth relationship, is operating outside of her community's mores. To be sure, she's aware and sensitive to criticism, going to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid others; still, her behavior reflects a willingness to flout conventions. Jesus, exhausted from his travels, is breaking several societal norms, including talking to a woman alone and drinking water provided by a Samaritan. Their conversation is a free-ranging discussion, with a sort of SNL vibe to it, apparently one they were both enjoying so thoroughly that Jesus opens himself up to a pretty big truth he's never said out loud before: I am he, the messiah.

    Next, the Samaritan woman literally takes this information and runs with it. Leaving her water jug and returning to the village, she tells everyone about Jesus, making herself, at least temporarily, the village heroine.  Perhaps the lack of judgement from Jesus had set her free to bridge the cutoff between herself and others. Moral judgement separates people from one another; both the judger and the judged are equally lessened in the process. The alternative is living by grace.

    The person who lives by grace spends no energy on judging others, nor on meeting the rules or expectations of others. Instead, she is developing and following her own inner compass while remaining in relationship with others. Within herself, she is finding a strength unavailable to her when her attention was focused outward; surprisingly, both the interest and the capacity to serve others are increased now that she is less dependent on their approval.

    The free grace of life is available to anyone willing to stop trying to be right in the eyes of the world. Living fully and freely is the result.

 

Reflection

Morning: Where, today, can I care a little less about what others think?

Evening: When did I fall into judging, criticizing, or blaming others?

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The View from Above

Genesis 12:1-4a  •  Psalm 121  •  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  •  John 3:1-17

 

    The readings for March 8th present us with two old guys – Abraham and Nicodemus – being asked to do or think something new. Abraham, age 75, is told to move to a new and unknown land, and oh, by the way, that he will be the father of a great nation. Nicodemus, with senior status as a Pharisee and a ruler, is told that he needs to re-think the basics of his religion to be part of the kingdom of God.

 

    Nicodemus seems baffled. Who wouldn't be?! First, he is sneaking out at night to have a word with Jesus. He sees God in Jesus and tells him so. Does Jesus seem flattered? No. Does Jesus seem glad to have this important person's approval? No. Does Jesus say anything to agree or side with Nicodemus? No. Instead, Jesus shows his respect by sharing his own views. First, he is saying that only those who have been born from above can see the kingdom of God. Well this was a hard one for Nicodemus, and he says so. The being born a second time, what does Jesus mean? Go back into our mothers' wombs? Jesus insists that it's so: with a description of being born by water and the spirit.

 

    The spirit blowing wherever it wanted to go was a completely new way of thinking for Nicodemus, who as a Pharisee would think of the spirit as guaranteed for Abraham's descendants; his people, his group. Jesus was telling him something different – that entrance to the kingdom of God is not automatic, that something else is involved besides being part of the group.

    Something happens to human beings in our group identities. Somehow, we feel safer within a group; it becomes a way of managing anxiety. Nicodemus was comfortable as a Pharisee. Others living in his same community may have been comfortable as Romans. Jesus is challenging him – and us – to move beyond the group identity, requiring that each of us become more of a self, born from above, where the perspective on life is much, much bigger.    

 

    The tendency to prefer our own kind, our own tribe, is natural across many species including not only humans, but also fish, wolves, ants and honeybees. The herd instinct runs deep and sometimes, humans can cut-off from one group only to join another group of equal intensity, continuing the same process of insiders and outsiders. But the human brain is malleable; we can teach ourselves new ways. If the spirit is blowing across the world, going where it may, then the view from above can help us to see each other as part of the same kingdom. This capacity, though, has to be cultivated. Wondering about, rather than reacting, to that 'rude' person – clearly from another tribe! - can give room for a relationship to begin. Asking about, rather than ignoring, the thoughts of that quiet person – possibly from one's own group or not – can give room for a new view. In seeking to understand, not only is wisdom within and between groups increased, but also the individual capacity to relate to different people grows. These everyday opportunities matter.

 

    For Nicodemus, what a remarkable evening this must have been! Think of him going home to ponder how different the world might be, if these ideas were real. If we as adults can be re-born, well, then there is hope. Each of us can learn new ways. Adults can stop excluding others, seeing some as in and others as out. All the energy now spent on divisive tactics can be repurposed. The chance to be born from above is given continually, in a thousand daily opportunities to get to know others while being true to one's own deepest thoughts and principles.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What groups am I comfortable in? Curious about? What happens when different views come up?

Evening: When did I give up my own positions or distance myself to remain a part of a group? What changes when I have the perspective of being born from above?

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Everything Takes Practice

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7  •  Psalm 32  •  Romans 5:12-19  •  Matthew 4:1-11

    The readings for Sunday, March 1 cover a lot of territory on temptations. From the Garden of Eden story to a psalm recommending repentance to Romans chapter five to the temptations of Jesus in the desert, sin is centerstage. As Lent begins, it is time to consider these readings on how we humans are tempted – and the consequences for us.

 

    Beginning with perhaps the most complicated reading, in Romans 5, Paul describes death as having come through sin. Now, death has been part of the natural world from the dawning of life on this planet, from way before humans inhabited it. In another sense, though, it seems to me that Paul is spot on. Each and every day, we humans often neglect what we aspire to, letting our hopes die, or at least, languish, while other things occupy our minds and our time. In this way, we humans are all subject to operating as less than the persons we are capable of being. The story of Adam and Eve is itself a case study in how easily we can be led astray. Eve is being convinced by a snake, for crying out loud, to doubt God. Adam is going along with whatever she says. Together, Adam and Eve are two adults acting like children, throwing away the life they have been given in a fit of immaturity.

 

    Jesus shows us another way to operate: a way to stay fully alive. The important thing here is that it is not an easy way. Being fully alive means several things:

·         Being fully able to experience pain and sadness. When the tempter offers bread to Jesus, after a long fast, it is his willingness to embrace the pain of hunger that kept him from succumbing to temptation. Much sin begins with avoiding one's own human emotions rather than finding, acknowledging, and thoughtfully considering them.  

·         Being mortal with no expectation to be exempt from the rules everyone has to follow. When the tempter offers Jesus super-human powers, the appeal is the same process as for any of us, hoping for the universe to bend itself to our needs, just this once. These hopes do not necessarily involve cosmic events. An example from my own life is wanting the bus to come a few minutes late on days when I'm behind. In wanting circumstances to align with my own needs, I lose sight of reality and the chance to be fully alive in it.

·         Staying the course. In the third temptation, Jesus is offered worldly glory – the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. But there was a cost. Jesus would have had to worship and adhere to the tempter's principles, giving up his own. For Jesus, this was a non-starter. For many of us, the trading of principles for rewards may seem practical, or inconsequential. The reality, though, is that trading one's principles away always leaves one less than fully alive.

 

    Being fully alive means at least one more thing. It means practicing all of the above. It means enough experience choosing the right path that it becomes the automatic way to operate. Jesus, you see, did not have to ask the tempter for a day or two to think it through. Each time, he knew who he was and how he would manage himself. How does one get to this human Carnegie Hall? Practice.

 

For reflection:

Morning: How can I be more fully alive today? What could I practice?

Evening: What temptations did I notice today? What can I learn from how Jesus managed to stand up to them?    

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Getting up and not being afraid

Exodus 24:12-18  •  Psalm 2 or Psalm 99  •  2 Peter 1:16-21  •  Matthew 17:1-9

    The readings for Sunday, February 23 mark a sea change in the Church Year. We readers find ourselves on a mountaintop – first with Moses, and then with Jesus – in extraordinary circumstances. It is as though the folks who put the lectionary readings together are giving us one last chance to enjoy the contemplative view, before the 40 days of Lent begin.

    Many of us, I'm guessing, have had extraordinary experiences of one kind or another: times set apart from the rest of one's life. I have had a few mountaintop experiences – literally mountaintop, for in my younger days I liked to hike. I can remember being up high and the clouds rolling in. I can also remember how helpless it felt, not being able to see anything whatsoever. One literally cannot see enough to move. Running away is not an option – given the chance of falling off a cliff or otherwise hurting yourself. Even the air feels different: moist, cool, thick. At that point, it's a short road from helpless to panicky to fearful.

    Here on the emotion-filled road we meet Jesus, who is stopping as his mountaintop moment ends to coach the three disciples with him. Touching them, he is saying "you guys get up and stop being afraid!" Thank goodness for the disciples, working as stand-ins for our all-too human frailties, and adding some humor in an otherwise sublime scene. Picture the three of them, getting scared and literally running into each other, falling down in a heap!

    Fear can be funny. Some of the funniest scenes in movies – and life – happen when one person gets scared, the fear spreads across the group, and an unreasonable, hilarious response follows. All of us, attentive to fear, anxiety, panic, worry – call it what you will – can catch fear as it spreads. The opposite, though, is also true. If one person can remain calm, others can find their way back to thoughtfulness. On a mountain, for example, one can know in one's mind that the cloud will pass, sooner or later, reassure oneself, and manage to remain still. One's own example can calm others, as Jesus calmed the disciples. All of us have a similar ability!  Human brains have the capacity to toggle back and forth from reason to emotion and back again.

    Emotions themselves are not the problem. Fear, for example, has great adaptive value for humans as a species. The problem with unregulated fear is that it steals the present moment from us. In a continued fearful response, much is lost. All that might be seen or understood, all the challenges one might embrace, manage, and lead others through, all the choices available in the moment, all of this disappears. More than that, others – families, friends, or colleagues, - pick up on the worries, and before long, everyone is getting anxious. This can happen not only in the big moments, but in everyday life. So many ordinary but lovely moments go unnoticed, unappreciated, and un-enjoyed as people are distracted by many worries. It is almost as though fear and her many cousins keep us from being completely alive. The good news is that any one of us can stop the cycle by getting up and not being afraid.

 

Reflections

Morning: What am I afraid of, or worried or anxious about? How can I remember to toggle between my emotions and my thoughts about them?

Evening: When did I find my anxiety going up today? What sorts of clouds bring it on?

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