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Lectionary Living

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.

Reflections:

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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Valley of Death

(4/25): Acts 4:5-12  •  Psalm 23  •  1 John 3:16-24  •  John 10:11-18

    The fourth Sunday after Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is always about sheep. A friend and I had a good chuckle one Sunday after church, thinking of how many sermons we'd heard – and how much we knew! – about sheep. This morning, though, I'm going to turn to another aspect of the fourth Sunday of Easter that is always the same: the appointed psalm 23.  

    Verse four of the psalm was translated in the King James Bible as "Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." More modern translations describe "the valley of the deepest darkness." Whichever one chooses, the reader is identifying with the fear of the psalmist. Wherever he is, it's a scary valley.

    This past week, I had the chance to tour a WW2 battleship. A family member had served on a similar ship during the war. Grampa, as we all called him, who had found a way out of a lifetime in the coal mines of the southern Appalachian Mountains by volunteering for duty, instead found himself pushing fossil fuels into the ship's boiler.

    When we began the tour, I asked the guide where we might find the engine room. He showed me the path to the very bottom of the ship. Walking down the steps – just like the movies, turn around, duck your head, hold onto the side rails – things got tighter and tighter. On the upper levels, people actually slept in rooms. On the bottom, bunks were in the halls, three to a tier, folding up against the walls during the day. The (simulated) loud noise added to the sense of smallness.

    As the psalmist was describing, this must have been one scary valley. I remember asking Grampa once, what it was like during a battle, and how folks managed or not, during one. He just shook his head and said I couldn't imagine. Now, I wish I'd asked a different question. I wish I'd asked what it was like during the many long days when they weren't in battle. It seems like that might have been even harder. How often did they get to go up on deck for a breath of fresh air? What was it like to know what might happen? When his shipmates were buried at sea, what was that like for him? How did he get through it?

    Many (if not all) family members have led interesting lives. Getting them to talk about it, though, can be challenging. I look back on this conversation, or my effort to have one, with some regret. By going for the exciting battle moment, I missed the everydayness: the ordinary, dreadfully ordinary bleakness he must have endured, and probably could have talked about all day! Beginning with more factual questions might have helped.

    Family conversations seldom turn to how a person faces the challenge of her own mortality – to death itself. Even during covid, the topic has been avoided whenever possible. How does one join the psalmist in talking about death? In facing the reality of death without fear? Here, we must join the sheep. Embracing our creatureliness here on earth provides a peculiar comfort. Knowing where one has agency comes with seeing where one does not.

    A person does have considerable agency in learning about their family. The morning I spent seeing the battleship has helped me to see much more about Grampa's life than I had understood until now. His own resilience is clearer to me; his capacity to do what had to be done is plain to see. Not only that, I now have a better appreciation for how this family trait, this ability to step up to the challenge, has been passed down the generations.

Reflections

Morning: What do I want to know about my family? Where can I get started today?

Evening: How do I think about my own dying?

Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.

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Eventually Catching On

(4/18): Acts 3:12-19  •  Psalm 4  •  1 John 3:1-7  •  Luke 24:36b-48

    In this week's Easter reading, Jesus – fresh from the grave – is back, in-person with the disciples. Luke tells us that they thought they were seeing a ghost. The story goes on with Jesus asking for something to eat, and doing everything he can to let them know that he is in the flesh, back from the dead. Here are the grief-stricken disciples, unable to imagine that the good news standing right in front of them is real.        

    As an example of the intricacies of the human brain, this story would be hard to beat. It's hard to take in the unexpected, and harder still to believe the unimaginable, even if it's right before your eyes. More than that, the unexpected generates a fear response. The disciples were startled and terrified (v. 37).

    Sometimes, a startle response is a good thing. From a mosquito buzzing near your ear to an ambulance coming up quickly behind your moving vehicle, the ability to act quickly can make a difference. In this case though, being startled was interfering with the disciples' capacity to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.

    Somehow Jesus manages to calm them down so that they can hear what he's come for. Stopping the fear response – or, more generally, getting less worried, less reactive – can make a difference in what one can hear and understand about life. Some of us have a designated person in the family who does the worrying for us. In my family, this was my Aunt Lavonne. She was famous for the expression Ye Gods and Fishes, which she would utter at the slightest provocation, setting all the rest of us to solve whatever problem she had uncovered before things got worse. An oldest child in a family of very limited means during the Great Depression, she was constantly vigilant. Potential threats were many in her mind, although she was, by the time I knew her, way past any realistic danger of privation of any kind.

    Becoming more realistic may be part of bringing one's own worries and reactivity down. Reacting to the upset of another, without considering the extent of the threat itself (if any!), keeps a person busy with calming another person's anxiety. On the other hand, if one can respond a little less automatically – thinking about whether and how one might want to respond in terms of one's own view of the matter – then a person is beginning to manage her own anxious response, rather than someone else's. In the end, the calmer person is simply more free.

    Staying calm in the face of my Aunt Lavonne would have been challenging. Her anxiety would have initially increased, I imagine, if I had not always done her bidding. Refusal did not seem a choice as a child! As an adult though, I can slow down the path of automatic reactivity which my brain is used to following. I can stop blaming others and look for a more complex understanding of the world around me. The approach has broad implications for leaders everywhere. Generally, if one person can start to calm down and think realistically to gain a broader perspective, others will eventually get interested and follow where they are leading.

    Enter the disciples, who eventually catch on in today's gospel story. It's the eventually catching on that interests me. It takes a lifetime, it seems, to slow down one's own reactivity, to think realistically, and to see a bigger view of life. But what else have we got to do?

Reflections

Morning: Who does the worrying in my family? In my workplace? When is it me? What's automatic for me, in response to the worries of others?

Evening: When did I manage to notice my own reactivity? Slow it down a bit?

Psalm 4:8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

 

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