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Lectionary Living

Not a Pretty Picture

(5/23) Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21  •  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


Ah Pentecost – that day when the church goes a little crazy. In my congregation, the custom is to dress in red, commemorating a day when flames appeared over the heads of everyone in the room. That was only a sign of the true miracle, as I see it. The true miracle was that people were understanding each other. Folks from many different countries, speaking various languages, were hearing and responding to one another!


In the opposite of this story, today's news headlines are all about the latest conflict in Jerusalem. No one is listening to the other; war is at hand. I'm reminded of the story (in Judges 13-16) of Samson and Delilah – a terrible tale of tribal warfare and the inhumanity of our species. The miracle of Pentecost was not only that people could understand each other; it was that they were interested in doing so.


A lot gets in the way of keeping us from listening to one another. One major barrier is our inability to listen to our own selves. When a person starts down the path of trying to understand what is happening within, the results are… well, at least in my own case, less than hopeful. The inner strands of immaturity come out in a thousand and one tongues. Some are tied to my inability to manage my own emotions; others are tied to my faulty reasoning; the interaction of the two is also noteworthy. It is not a pretty picture.


Before a person can hear another clearly, all this inner turmoil has to be first, understood, and second, mastered. There is a daily or hourly self-emptying, a taking out of the inner trash, necessary to begin to be open to hearing another. Once listening, a second challenge, at least as difficult, follows. The second step is to listen without taking on or somehow absorbing the other's problems or worries. Leaving them with the other is a way of respecting both the other's capacity to manage herself and recognizing one's own incapacity to manage more than one's own self.


I myself am big on this last point. The energy of Pentecost comes when each person is fully alive. It is the opposite of each person spending energy trying to shore up the other, losing herself in the process. The temptation to glom onto another, or to try to get them to glom onto oneself, is always there. But it keeps both the community and the individual from being fully alive – from being in some sense, stuck.


There is always some stuckness to the human predicament. How many people does it take to change a light bulb? The joke is always funny, no matter what the variation, because it is the question about our species. What should take one person to do, somehow turns into two – or more! Each of us fails to mature, to be fully responsible for our own self and our own tasks.


Apparently, at this point in our species' evolution, we humans manage by negotiating away at least some of our individuality. Here, perhaps, the Ezekiel reading may be useful. In the valley of dead, dry bones (37:2), life is restored: not to individuals alone, but to all. They come back to life as a people (v. 12). That each person might exist as a full self while still being part of a family and a larger community is the dream and the challenge for each of us, every day.



Morning: How can I listen to myself today? What might get in the way?

Evening: When did I get stuck in immaturity?

Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

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Ordinary Life

(5/16) Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  •  Psalm 1  •  1 John 5:9-13  •  John 17:6-19


I'm a fan of the lectionary. The set readings have added structure and sense to my life. Still, this Sunday, I have to complain. How did the gospel reading get shortened so that the reader dives into a prayer already in progress? Why ask folks to start in the middle of perhaps the thickest reading ever, and then to skip its conclusion? What were they thinking? Sigh. For me, reading all of John 17 provides the bookends necessary to make any sense at all of the chapter.


The chapter itself is someone's effort to sum up a prayer of Jesus near the end of his life. It contains deep thoughts regarding his life and his hopes for us humans. From the start here, I freely admit that it's way over my head. And of course it would have to be – how could a prayer of Jesus be rendered understandable to me, with my feet of clay? While the more modern translations are some help, and while I have given this chapter a lot of study and thought, I still get stuck.


One stuck point is the whole I in thee and we in they and mine and thine language, which comes and goes throughout the chapter. As I see it now, two things are happening here. First, Jesus is talking about relationships within the Godhead. Leaving that aside, Jesus is also describing how humans overlap with one another, how one is actually a part of the other, with little-to-no capacity to find a way to a separate self. In my own life, this process is easiest to see in my relationship with my sister. Born 16 months apart, we were wired together. Our intense relationship had an up and a down-side, though, as I'm guessing they all do.


The disciples of Jesus also had close relationships marked by petty bickering. Perhaps it is they, particularly, along with the whole human species, hopefully, whom Jesus is praying for when he asks in v. 23 that they all may be one. My guess here is that Jesus is not praying that they will always agree; rather, that they will find so much freedom in their community that disagreeing would be part of the package. Otherwise, they would have difficulty in finding the truth, which sets each person more free to see the broader picture of life – and which they need to function well as a group.  


Each of us has many groups – family, friends, work colleagues, church community – where we have the opportunity to grow ourselves up. In my own experience, the work continues to remain incomplete, in this life. I think about my sister, who died at age 42. I still miss her! But if she were still alive, would we have found our way to a perfect, mature relationship? Would we ever, in this life? I think not.


I wonder about eternal life, which according to John 17:3 is somehow about knowing God. Well that's a tall order! It's hard enough to know one another! So much gets in the way; we are, after all, just creatures here on earth. However, even here in this ordinary life, there are opportunities for understanding one another better.


Reflecting on the lives of those who have died can bring a larger view. For instance, I've recently become more aware of some challenges in our parents' lives when my sister was an infant. Thinking about one's family history can bring a more realistic assessment of what others were up against. With that comes a greater ability to apprehend what really happened and one's own ever-smaller place within it. Once found, the larger perspective cannot be taken away. And the greater understanding may bring the beginnings of deep joy, as Jesus prayed for us to find in verse 13 of today's impossibly unreadable reading.



Morning: In what family relationships do I notice some intensity? Where might I begin to find a bigger perspective?

Evening: When have I experienced joy? What gets in the way?

Psalm 1:1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.

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Laying it down

(5/11): Acts 10:44-48  •  Psalm 98  •  1 John 5:1-6  •  John 15:9-17

    This week's readings are all about love. I think it's a hard concept – it's been so trivialized, so overused – and besides, it's complicated! Jesus, though, doesn't seem to have this problem. He's clear about the idea, and says what he thinks. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends (v. 13).

    My church does an Easter sunrise service at a nearby cemetery. Walking around after the service Easter morning, I saw verse 13, inscribed on a tombstone. I knew nothing else about the person buried there, but I had an instant reaction: What a brave thing to do!

    Love is not usually described as brave. Usually, it's thought of as kind, or sweet, or thoughtful. In our culture, at least, it's about feelings or the expression of feelings. In essence, though, it's about doing. Starting the coffee is a small act of love. Love must act; otherwise, it's something else besides love.

    The comfortable feeling of being together with others can be confused with love. The pressure to be together at the holidays begins with the naïve assumption that the all-too-squishy togetherness is love. Add the belief that the more togetherness, the better, and a holiday disaster has already begun. Along the way, the pressure to agree is huge, raising the eternal question: How can a family be together for a holiday without everyone having to agree on everything?

    When families can become more open to one another, they are more able to be resourceful. Emerging tension somehow becomes more manageable. Perhaps part of what's happening here is that being open to various views is a way of strengthening the family, which can always benefit from a widening of its lens on the world. The openness and respect for one another enhances the family's resilience, as each person may become calmer and less anxious. In such an atmosphere, people are more likely to be together and still be themselves.

    During this covid year, togetherness has been tight with a few, perhaps, but minimal with all others. Finding ways to stay in touch has been the challenge, with joining a zoom call or texting a friend often the only options. I wonder what's been learned from the year. Intentional conversations about what was really missed, and what can just as easily be left behind, will be important.

    Conversation is nothing, though, without action. And here I think it's useful to consider the ultimate sacrifice of giving up of one's life for another. We all know people who routinely give up their own life responsibilities to focus on others. In my view, this is not love, but rather a 'glomming on' to another which prevents a person from developing a self. Living one's life in a way that is responsible for oneself, and responsible to others, is the beginning point of loving others. Then, if the moment comes when a sacrifice is called for, a person has a self to offer.


Daily Reflections:

Morning: How can I balance my responsibilities for myself and my responsibilities to others today?

Evening: When does my family pressure others to agree? When do I notice this pressure at work? How can I be my most mature self in it? How can people be together and still be themselves?

Psalm 98:1 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

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Challenging Times

(5/2): Acts 8:26-40  •  Psalm 22:25-31  •  1 John 4:7-21  •  John 15:1-8

    In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus uses a metaphor about a vine and its branches, applying it to the community gathered in his name. For me, what it calls to mind is a family tree. In many ways, a family tree can be described not metaphorically, but in real life, according to this text.

    Every branch of a family tree that bears no fruit is removed (v. 2). Those without offspring are discontinued branches, so to speak. To the extent that they assist other branches, they do live on, however indirectly. The larger point, though, is that humans live on earth as biological organisms, subject to the same rules as all species.

    Every branch of a family tree that bears fruit is pruned (also v. 2), with the challenges of life providing the pruning. Many of these challenges occur due to the logic of a universe continually evolving. Covid, for instance, is simply a brainless but successful virus, continuing to mutate into various strains, while humans continue to push back with treatments and vaccines capable of limiting its destructive power. Life on earth is no picnic.

    In challenging times, the ability to recollect oneself matters. The advantage goes to families with at least one member able to stop and think – and then, act accordingly. The trick, to me, is to keep on this path. It's one thing to start off trying to stay calm – and a whole other thing to stick with it. Often, people use distancing from others as a way to stay calm. Although it may be necessary at some points, it is ultimately counter-productive, as challenges are better met by involving the resourcefulness of many rather than the strengths of a few.

    Jesus, of course, recommends the opposite of distancing. Abide in me, he says (v. 4). Remaining in Jesus is a whole other way of living. It means not only getting there but staying there.  Well, this is a tall order. When life gets difficult, the capacity to think diminishes. The mind begins to look for causal factors, just as a zebra looks for an explanation for a rustling in the bushes. If the zebra guesses wrong – if it's a lion, not the wind – the zebra is the lion's lunch.  

    In the complex world we live in, explanations are never simple. The capacity to look at the multitude of factors influencing one's life – to get the perspective necessary to make useful decisions – requires one to stay calm. The fear of a lion in the bushes, or its equivalent, can get in the way. The good news here is that the brain has enough flexibility to learn new ways of responding to threat. One can practice noticing one's own reactivity whenever a minor worry has been blown out of proportion. Around one's family, one can get a lot of practice!

    Often, a sense of responsibility for others interferes with one's capacity to stay calm. To the extent that a person worries about others and feels responsible for them, she assumes ever-heavier burdens on herself. Noticing when one is starting to get reactive, and asking oneself, well, whose problem is this? can be a start towards a calmer, more realistic view of life. Here, at least as I see it, one is invited to abide in Jesus.


Morning: When tension starts to rise, how do I recollect myself? How can I remain calm?

Evening: When did I notice my own reactivity? How did I manage myself in it?

Psalm 22:26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!

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