Save Us!

Palm Sunday 2020

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
-Matthew 21:1-11

If a person not versed in ancient languages were to attempt to decipher the meaning of the word “hosanna” as it is typically used in church services and contemporary worship music, they might guess it means something like “Yay God!”. The word “hosanna” is an English transliteration of the Greek ὡσαννά. In Hebrew, the word is הושיעה נא , which has the root meaning of “save” or “rescue”. That’s how the word is usually translated in the Psalms, where the Psalmist implores God for help.  So when the crowds shouted “Hosanna!” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, what they were really saying was “Save us!” or “Rescue us!’ It was a cry for help.

Life was not good for the people of God in the first century, and hadn’t been so for centuries as they suffered under the whims of one brutal occupying power after another. They longed for a liberator along the lines of the great military leader and king David, who had reigned a thousand years earlier, and whose memory had faded into the mists of legend. This liberator…this messiah….would drive out those nasty Romans once and for all and peace and prosperity would come again. Everyone would live under their own vine and fig tree, with no one to make them afraid. The miracle-worker Jesus certainly seemed to fit the bill. As a descendent of David, he had the right bloodlines, and he had a reputation for doing things the people liked. He went around the countryside healing people of physical, mental, and spiritual disease, and sometimes providing them with a free lunch as well.  If the rumors were to be believed, he had even raised the dead. No wonder they lined the streets crying, “Hosanna!….Save us!”

But the kind of salvation Jesus was bringing wasn’t what the majority of people expected or wanted. They expected a military messiah who would establish his kingdom by force. Jesus was not that kind of king, and the kingdom of God was and is not that kind of kingdom. The kingdom of God comes not through the love of power, but the power of love. When the ecstatic expectations of the cheering crowd were not realized, they turned into disappointment and then to anger against the one who had not done what they wanted him to do.  And so the same people who shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday were quick to shout “Crucify him!” less than a week later.

It’s the same today, isn’t it? When life becomes hard, we look for a way out. We want God, or the government, or a charismatic leader, somebody, anybody, to get us out of trouble right away. And when that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen quickly enough, we tend to get angry, and often at the wrong people.  We have certainly seen this thought process play out in all kinds of ways in the past few months. Some grasp at every straw of a rumor of a quick cure for the coronavirus. Some blame and attack everyone who appears to be of Asian ancestry. Things aren’t the way we expected or wanted them to be, and we are quick to cry out both “Save us now!” and “Crucify!”

The palm-waving crowds were looking for a shortcut into the promised Kingdom of God, which they expected Jesus to deliver quickly and easily and at minimal cost to themselves. I am extremely mistrustful of populism, whether it comes from the right or the left sides of the political spectrum. Populism is quick to jump on board with those who promise easy solutions to difficult problems, and just as quick to abandon ship when the promised salvation does not come quickly or easily., or costs more than we are willing to pay. I wonder how many of the people in that crowd actually paid attention to what Jesus taught. Jesus never promised his followers an easy life.  In fact, he often said that following him would be quite difficult, was not a choice to be made lightly, and that his followers were likely to be quite unpopular.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.”
“And whoever does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple. Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost to see if he has the resources to complete it
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.…

It’s particularly interesting to note that Jesus’s statement about the narrow and the wide gate in Matthew 7:13 follows directly after he gave us what we have come to call the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12:“In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the Prophets. ” That sounds so simple, yet in practice is so hard. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we don’t even come close to living like this. Like the crowds lining the road into Jerusalem, we aren’t looking for someone to save us from our own selfishness, only from the consequences of selfishness. When selfishness is multiplied by a factor equal to the population of the world, a lot of very bad things are the result. Income inequality, crime, pollution, violence and war, global warming…most of the biggest problems we face have their roots in the grasping selfishness that arises from egocentricity. Just imagine what the world might be like if in every situation, everyone followed the Golden Rule. (There would be no hoarding of toilet paper, for one thing!)

Jesus was and is the promised Messiah, but the salvation he brings isn’t what the people of his time expected or wanted, and sometimes I wonder if we don’t make the same mistake today. Jesus didn’t come to make life easy or comfortable for a select few in the short term, but to address the root problem of all that is wrong with everyone in the whole world. He came to set the wheels in motion to correct the world’s trajectory, which was headed toward destruction and death, and set it  instead on a path of “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And he left us with instructions to follow the trail he blazed for us, to live like he did, to treat others the way he did, with love and compassion and the realization that we are all connected.  “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Sometimes I also wonder if Jesus didn’t make a mistake by leaving matters in flawed human hands, because we haven’t done such a good job of following the path he laid out for us. We keep wandering off the trail he marked for us into the wilderness of our own self-interest, and getting lost. We can no more follow the one simple rule Jesus gave us than the one simple rule God gave Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We have not loved God with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We have failed both in what we have done and what we have left undone. As a result, things are pretty messed up in our personal lives and the world as a whole. We are all in need of saving, and not just from coronavirus.

But God doesn’t give up on us, and never will. Jesus’s journey to the cross demonstrates just how far God is willing to go for us. Jesus’s resurrection assures us that God will ultimately be successful in putting right all that has gone wrong. Good will eventually triumph over evil, in spite of all our failings.  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

Jesus Wept

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Jesus wept. John 11:35

The readings for this week include both the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones and the story of the raising of Lazarus. I’ve previously written about Ezekiel’s vision in a post titled “”When All Is Lost” . What stands out to me today in rereading these stories is the theme that “nothing is impossible with God.” When the world is falling apart around us and God seems so far away that we wonder if he’s really there, these stories remind us that even if we think all is lost, it really isn’t.

Why did Jesus weep at Lazarus’s tomb? Jesus, more than anyone, had faith to know that nothing is impossible with God. He knew, as did Martha, that death was not God’s final answer. He knew that Lazarus was going to walk out of that tomb, restored to health and wholeness, in just a few minutes. So why did he weep?

Luke records another time when Jesus wept. In Luke’s memory,this took place on the way to his triumphal arrival into Jerusalem, an event we remember each year on Palm Sunday.  “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. Matthew records Jesus lamenting, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.” A short time later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his friends that “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” as he wrestles with the knowledge of what is to come.

Jesus was not immune to being overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and fear. As Isaiah had foreseen, “He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest griefSince Christians believe that Jesus was without sin, it follows that sadness isn’t sin, despite what some people with faulty theologies may say. We aren’t sad because of a lack of faith; we are sad because we are human.  Faith isn’t a spiritual mood-altering drug that blunts the affect. It is the assurance that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.

Feelings aren’t wrong or sinful; it’s what we do with those feelings that counts. For example, courage doesn’t mean not being afraid; it means acknowledging those fears and doing the right thing anyway. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, there’s a nice little side story about Thomas, who is my favorite disciple. Unlike some of the other disciples, Thomas was a realist who understood pretty clearly that things were not going to go well for Jesus or his followers in the short term. While James and John were planning seating arrangements for an imminent messianic victory, Thomas has his eyes wide open, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

It is not contradictory to affirm that “with God, all things are possible” and to also know that very difficult days may lie ahead. One may be convinced that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” while accepting that not all things that happen are good, or from God. God didn’t cause Lazarus to get sick and die, and God didn’t cause the current coronavirus pandemic either. Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, and he wept over the suffering he saw coming for Jerusalem. And I believe Jesus still weeps over all the pain and suffering in the world.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance“. It was okay for Jesus to weep, and it’s okay for us to weep too. It is entirely appropriate to mourn both those we have lost, and the loss of our way of life. Things will never be the same again. Perhaps some good can come out of this very bad time, but now is a time to weep. Let’s not make things worse for those who mourn by questioning their faith.

Handwriting on the Wall

But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared. Deuteronomy 18:15-22

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:16

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:15-20

“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4

There have always been people who claim God has given them a special message about future events. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought more than the usual number of these people out of the woodwork and into the news. It’s natural to want to know for sure what is coming in order to be prepared and take whatever action you can, but a lot of the current crop of self-proclaimed modern prophets are speaking words not from God, but words from their own minds. Perhaps they really believe God is speaking to them, but that doesn’t mean God really is. It’s important to recognize that not all the voices in your head- or someone else’s- are from God.

Most of the earlier coronavirus-related prophecies seemed to promise that it would dissipate quickly and that we ought to go about our business as usual. These people have mostly gone quiet, but I still have a screen shot from Twitter of a person who said in early March that the Lord told him “I am removing the threat of this”  and that within a short time the virus will die out. Because of other things the tweeter said, it was obvious to me that the person was speaking from a place of strong political opinions. It echoed words the president was saying at that time, and blamed those who disagreed for sounding a politically motivated false alarm. I was reminded of the story of the prophets consulted by Ahab, who told him what they thought he wanted them to say.  Only Micaiah dared to speak the truth, likely at great risk to himself.

On the other extreme, there are people who see the pandemic as evidence that the end of the world is near. They pull together diverse Scripture passages, often pulling passages written in the apocalyptic genre out of their original context and applying them to our place in space and time. Sometimes they throw in ambiguous prophecies from Nostradamus, or more modern sources written by people who consider themselves to be clairvoyant and/or in possession of a listening bug in God’s throne room.

So who are we to believe? My answer is: likely not any of these people. I can’t remember where I first heard it put this way, but prophecy in the Bible is generally forth-telling, not fortune telling, and I agree. And I think the same criteria ought to be applied to modern prophets as well.

I’m a subscriber to Richard Rohr’s daily meditations, which generally center around a different theme each week. Last week’s theme was “Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics”. Guest writer Albert Nolan wrote, ” Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as people who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by focusing their attention on, and becoming fully aware of, the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading”.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Biblical prophets were men and women so in tune with God that they knew what was likely going to happen. Their minds and hearts were focused on God, not on the kings they may have served, or the societies in which they lived, which gave them the ability to decipher the handwriting on the wall.  Often their prophecies involved speaking truth to power, as Samuel did with Saul, Nathan with David, Elijah with Ahab, and Jeremiah with Jehoiakim. So I’m immediately suspicious of any “prophet” who has an obvious political affiliation. Prophets speak for God, not any human being or group of human beings.

Additionally, prophecies were not necessarily  “fixed points in time” that could not be altered, as Jonah was dismayed to find out. When prophets speak for God, it is because God hopes that people will change their behavior for the better, hopefully in time to mitigate the dire consequences that will otherwise ensue. Those consequences may sometimes come as a result of direct divine intervention, but I think more usually they are natural consequences.

For example, I do not think the current global pandemic is a direct punishment from God, but it may be the result of what some might call karma…a law of cause and effect God built into the fabric of the universe. As I understand it, novel viruses like this one are not the result of spontaneous generation, but of existing animal viruses that mutate enough to jump species. It’s possible that  the virus originated with our poor stewardship of the earth, which resulted in loss of habitat for many animal species, which resulted in animals encroaching into areas occupied by humans, which resulted in close enough contact for the virus to move from animal to human hosts.

I’m skeptical of those who claim to know God well enough to speak for God, especially if I don’t see much in the way of what Jesus called “good fruit” in their lives. I’m skeptical of people who claim to know God well enough to see the future, especially when they have repeatedly made incorrect predictions. I’m especially skeptical when someone claims to have a message from God that will personally benefit the “prophet”. That isn’t how these things usually work.  What I am convinced of is that there is a force for good in the universe, which I know as God, and that force is working to redeem all that is broken and sick and hurting in this world and in me.

“Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand, but I know who holds the future, and I know who holds my hand.” And that’s good news to me!

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us

Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm is a favorite of mine, and one of the first scripture passages I memorized as a child. I learned it in the King James version, because that’s what everyone used back then, and although I prefer more modern translations for my everyday reading, when I hear the words of Psalm 23 in my head, they’re always in the KJV. It’s a comforting psalm for me, as it is for many, and perhaps there’s a psychological factor in going back to the poetic language I first heard as a child. In times of stress and anxiety, I will go back to this psalm time and time again. These days, I find myself reciting it on at least a daily basis. We are certainly living in “interesting times” with the coronavirus pandemic spreading exponentially and the resultant economic dominoes falling everywhere.

I ventured out to the grocery store today (during off-hours, wearing gloves, wiping down the cart handles with disinfectant wipes, and trying to stay at least six feet away from other customers). I saw for myself the empty shelves that have been endlessly featured on the news. As I understand it, people are buying in large quantities because they fear being up the proverbial creek without toilet paper. And it’s not just paper products and cleaning supplies…the cereal aisle, canned food aisle, and many others were cleaned out too! Everyone seems to be operating from a mentality of scarcity: there won’t be enough, so I’d better get mine while I still can. But the kingdom of God isn’t a zero-sum game. The kingdom of God doesn’t operate from a mentality of scarcity, but one of abundance, as Jesus tried to demonstrate when he fed the multitudes.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters“. The KJV is deceptive here, because “want” here doesn’t mean desire, but refers to having the necessities of life. Desire is never satisfied, and getting everything we want isn’t what God promises, despite the misuse by some of Psalm 37:4, “delight thyself in the Lord and he will give thee the desires of thine heart” Too often the focus is on the second part of the sentence rather than the first. Those who “delight themselves in the Lord” usually find that the desires of their hearts change significantly. They find themselves desiring less for themselves, being more grateful for what they have, and sharing more with others. The problem with a mentality of scarcity is that it encourages hoarding, which initiates a vicious cycle: more hoarding causes more scarcity, which causes more hoarding. As Gandhi observed, “the earth has enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” When the Lord is our shepherd, we will operate from a mentality of abundance, not one of scarcity, and there will be enough for all.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” In this time of disrupted routines and prescribed social distancing, I find myself having more time to spend with God, and finding it more meaningful. Spending time with God calms my fears about the future in a way I can’t explain, but to which I can attest. The problem with following news updates 24/7 is that it amplifies feelings of helplessness. It’s like being in the middle of one of one of those bad dreams where something is chasing you and when you try to run, you are moving in slow motion. Psychologists tell us that whenever so much seems out of our control, we need to concentrate on what we can control. We can’t control the course of this virus, nor its effect on the economy., or what other people do or don’t do. As Tolkien put it,  “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That sounds pretty close to what the psalmist is telling us here. Whenever the word “righteousness” is used in the Bible, it almost always has to do with how we treat other people. And that’s something we very much can control. When the Lord is our shepherd, we will treat others the way we would like to be treated: with respect, kindness, and generosity.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Note that God doesn’t promise us we won’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death; he promises us that we don’t have to fear it because he is with us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As I understand it, the rod and staff of ancient shepherds were primarily instruments of guidance and protection, not instruments of punishment. Otherwise why would the psalmist find their presence comforting? The word “comfort” is associated with giving strength. When the Lord is our shepherd, we are strengthened by the assurance that God is present with us, always.

Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The banquet imagery here repeats the psalmist’s understanding of both the presence of God no matter what we have to face, and the mindset of abundance rather scarcity. I understand the overflowing cup of wine metaphorically rather than literally. Wine is often used in the Bible as a symbol of joy, and I think that is what the psalmist means to convey. The glass isn’t half-full or half-empty. When the Lord is our shepherd, our glass is overflowing.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever‘” I have quite a few friends who are atheist or agnostic. For some of them who grew up hearing stories of an angry god ready to rain down fire and brimstone on those who stick a toe over an arbitrary line, a non theistic worldview comes as a relief. But some of them also have a fear of the nothingness of death, and some of them wrestle with paralyzing existential angst. When God is our shepherd, we don’t have to fear the end of the world as we know it, or even death itself. When God is our shepherd, however long or short our lives may be, we can know meaning and purpose playing our small part in a greater story. When God is our shepherd, we can be assured that death will not be the end of our existence, nor will we remain separated from those we have loved and lost forever.

And that’s good news to me!

 

 

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. Romans 13:9-10

The Chinese word for “crisis‘ is often referenced by various political figures and motivational speakers as being composed of the symbol for “danger” combined with the symbol for “opportunity”. While that translation may not be factually true in a linguistic sense, it is nevertheless a true observation of reality. And this particular crisis has brought into sharp focus two very different ways of seeing opportunity in the face of danger.

One way of seeing is “every man for himself”. In any crisis, there are some who will look for ways to enrich themselves, such as  this man who went around buying all the hand sanitizer he could find in order to resell it at exorbitant prices. People are hoarding toilet paper to such an extent that stores can’t keep it on shelves, and in some places actual fights have broken out over the last rolls. There are not enough face masks and gloves for medical personnel because those, too, are being stockpiled by fearful or profit-minded individuals. Gun and ammunition sales have also increased dramatically. And then there are those who ignore the advice to stay home whenever possible in an attempt to “flatten the curve“, perhaps because they see themselves as being young and therefore invulnerable.

The other way of seeing is “all for one, and one for all”. In any crisis, there are some who will look for ways to help others. They apply the admonition, “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.” to toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  There are some young, healthy people who will volunteer to go shopping for those who are older or have underlying health conditions which put them more at risk. There are those who will reach out to those who may be feeling lonely or isolated by making phone or video calls. There are those who will use social media not to spread rumors and fear, but accurate information and connection.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is pretty clear which way of seeing is preferred by God. Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the answer given by Moses, the prophets, and Jesus is a resounding yes. Jesus illustrates his understanding of God’s way of seeing in many parables: the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25; the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16; and the rich fool  in Luke 12. He used fruit trees as a metaphor to describe the differences in behavior that arise from the two ways of seeing:  “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.

Paul expounded further on the fruit metaphor in his letter to the Galatians, ” The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. I don’t see these as a laundry list of sins to avoid and virtues to cultivate, but as examples of actions that are the result of two different ways of seeing. All the things on Paul’s bad list are the result of seeing with self-centered eyes. All the things on Paul’s good list are the result of seeing with the eyes of love.

The writer of the letter of 1 John implores his readers to “love one another, because love comes from God” Like Jesus, John sees a clear dividing line between those who demonstrate love and those who demonstrate selfishness. “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love“.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Perhaps it is also true that “with great danger comes great opportunity”. The question is: what kind of opportunity will we see? If we see ways to help ourselves at the expense of others, we are seeing with eyes of selfishness. If we see ways to help our fellow humans, we are seeing with eyes of love.

With eyes of love, we will seek to “do no harm” by following “best practices” advice from the medical community, which currently includes social distancing as much as possible. With eyes of love, we will seek to “do good” in whatever ways we can. With eyes of love, we can use this crisis to deepen our relationship with God by spending more time in Bible study and prayer.

May we keep our gaze pointed in the right direction.

 

 

Gaslighting the Woman at the Well

Third Sunday in Lent, Year A

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John 4:5-42

The story John tells of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well is an interesting one on many levels. As with the conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, the reader is likely to find humor in the woman’s literal take on Jesus’s metaphorical language about living water. But unlike Nicodemus, the woman was not respected in her community due to her multiple failed marriages, and has developed an even worse reputation over the intervening centuries. Like Mary Magdalene, she has often been portrayed as an especially bad sinner, with the blanks scripture leaves in her story filled in by prurient imaginations. But consider that it’s entirely possible that she may have been more victim than sinner. In this place and time in history, divorce was something that could be done only at the initiative of the husband. Therefore, her five husbands must have either died or divorced her. And at this time adultery was punishable by death, so I doubt she was guilty of marital unfaithfulness.

The fact that she had come to draw water from the well at high noon rather than in the cool of the early morning or evening is an indication that she had reason to want to avoid people. Why would that be? Perhaps she was tired of hearing unkind gossip or speculation about her marital history or status. Perhaps she had begun to doubt her own character as a result. What was wrong with her that five husbands had either died or divorced her, and that she wasn’t married to her sixth partner? Was she cursed by God? Some kind of jinx? I can’t help help but think of the story of Tamar, who had lost only two husbands, and consequently wasn’t allowed to marry Judah’s third son because Judah thought he might die too.  In their cultural milieu, neither Tamar nor the unnamed woman at the well had any good options without a male relative to support them. Perhaps she, like Tamar, made the best choice she could in a no-win scenario.

In the Genesis story, Tamar isn’t condemned for tricking Judah into impregnating her; in fact Judah admitted that it was he who had done her wrong. Interestingly, although usually only paternal ancestors are named in biblical genealogies,  Tamar shows up in Matthew’s genealogy as an ancestor of both David and Jesus. And it’s similarly interesting to note that while Jesus acknowledges the facts of this Samaritan woman’s life situation, he doesn’t condemn her for it either. He doesn’t say “go and sin no more” or “your sins are forgiven” as he does in other situations. Instead, he engages her in a robust theological conversation about the nature of God!

Another interesting point about this story is that Jesus apparently didn’t have a problem with meeting alone with a woman thought to have a questionable reputation for fear that doing so might damage his reputation. Not only that, she was a Samaritan woman, and he asked to drink from her water jar. John’s parenthetical comment about Jews and Samaritans not sharing things in common reminds me of the white and colored water fountains I remember seeing in my youth.  Jesus wasn’t concerned about catching Samaritan cooties by drinking from the same water jar, and he wasn’t worried about being falsely accused of inappropriate behavior by the woman.

Following her conversation with Jesus, the woman is so excited by what she has learned about God that she abandons social restraint along with her water jar and runs into town to share what she understands to be very good news. She turns out to be a rather successful evangelist, and because of her words, many of her neighbors come to know God and follow Jesus. This last piece is especially meaningful to me because I’ve been told that certain roles in the church are biblically proscribed for me as a woman. It took me a long time to get to the place where I understand that just because someone tells me I shouldn’t teach or (gasp!) preach about what I believe to be good news- that doesn’t mean that God thinks that way. I guess that’s why I can empathize so much with my nonbinary friends who have had church doors slammed in their faces, and who think God must reject them too.

The woman at the well may have been a victim of gaslighting by her community and by history, but that’s not the end of the story. Jesus offers himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” out of entanglement in the web of lies spun by others as well as that of our own self-deceptions. The truth is that God doesn’t reject anybody, and God can use anybody who is willing to share God’s love. The metaphorical well of living water is freely available to all who ask for a drink, and there are no “white” and “colored” fountains there.

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born Again

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:1-17

Ye must be born again.”  Those of us who grew up in evangelical churches will be very familiar with Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. I can remember multiple sermons on the subject, and John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” is one of the first Bible verses I was encouraged to memorize. Nicodemus generally got a bad rap in those sermons. He is castigated for coming to Jesus by night, seeking a secret meeting with Jesus so as not to risk the disapproval of his colleagues. And he’s mocked for taking the words of Jesus too literally and asking how someone could revert to a fetus and repeat their own birth.

Personally, I don’t agree with those understandings of Nicodemus. He certainly wasn’t a coward, for he stood up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin and later he and Joseph of Arimathea were responsible for getting permission from Pilate to take Jesus’s body down from the cross and give him a decent burial.  And I think he understood Jesus’ statement about being born again as being metaphorical, and his “how can this be” question was phrased in metaphorical terms as well. The whole conversation is rich with metaphors which transcend literal understanding.

Nicodemus raises a good question. How can a person start their life all over again, unmarked and unscarred by all the the environmental factors and experiences that have gone into making them who they are? Most people I know have had at least fleeting thoughts along the lines of “if I had my life to live over again”, I might have had different priorities and made better choices. It reminds me of the Doctor Who episode, “Boom Town“. In the story, the Ninth Doctor captures an alien who has caused the Doctor and his companions considerable distress, not to mention attempting to wreak general havoc on Earth. He plans to take her back to her home planet, but she tells him that would be a death sentence for her because of the choices she has made, some of which she appears to regret. The story ends when some timey-wimey hocus pocus causes her to revert to an egg, and the Doctor takes her back to her home planet to be adopted by a different family and grow up in a different environment. The Doctor is hopeful that her life will turn out differently the second time around.

I think that’s what Nicodemus was asking. Yes, I know I’ve made mistakes, but what can I do about them? It’s not possible to start all over again. Children are born fairly malleable, but as humans age, they become more and more “set in their ways”. For better or worse, our environments and experiences cause our personalities and ways of thinking and responding to become more and more entrenched. As we become older, it becomes harder and harder to change, even if we recognize the need to do so. Perhaps Nicodemus had heard Jesus say that “anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” and he was being completely honest about how difficult it would be for him to change his long-established ways of thinking about and relating to God. A major paradigm shift would be necessary before Nicodemus, or anyone else, would be able to really change.

Jesus continues the metaphorical dialogue by saying that  “flesh gives birth to flesh and spirit to spirit.”   Human ways of living and relating to God and others are basically selfish and tribalistic. But that is not God’s desire for humanity, and not the way Jesus lived and taught. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” As Isaiah wrote, God’s ways are very different from human ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” The stark divide between human thinking and the mind of God is certainly evident in the Beatitudes, and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus structures a sentence by saying “you have heard it said (a,b,c) but I say to you (x,y,z) The Kingdom of God is sometimes called an “upside down kingdom” but it might be more accurate to say that the kingdom of God is right side up, and we’re the ones living in the Upside Down.

In yet another metaphor, Jesus compares God’s Spirit to the wind: it goes where it pleases and can’t be controlled by humans. That is as true today as it was in Jesus’s time. Jesus repeatedly got into trouble with religious people who wanted God to stay inside the boxes of their understanding of the scriptures. Jesus prioritized helping people over rigid rules, for example. and sadly there are religious people today who also have similar wrong priorities. Fortunately, God won’t stay put in the most carefully constructed biblical boxes. The Spirit often breaks out in the most surprising ways using the most surprising people. To paraphrase Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the Spirit will find a way.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”The reference Jesus makes to Moses and the snake can be found in Numbers.The Hebrew people have been wandering in the  wilderness for some time now and seem to spend most of it complaining about Moses and/or God. Their bad attitude leads to them being attacked by venomous snakes, but Moses constructs a bronze serpent, and those who gaze upon it are cured. (Fun fact: this may be part of the origin story of the medical symbol)

The bronze snake imagery is a powerful one, for it tells us that it is only by looking to Jesus that we can be spiritually healed and begin to experience the kind of life God intended for us. Looking to Jesus means far more than a one-time confession that we have failed and asking Jesus to save us from ourselves. Going back to the “born again” metaphor, birth is just the beginning of a new life. Looking to Jesus is not a one-and-done experience. It must be ongoing and continuous if our new birth is to result in us growing up into the kind of people God wants us to be. If it is tragic when developmental disabilities keep a person at an infantile stage of development, how much more tragic it is when a person remains spiritually infantile!

Jesus claims that he alone can show us what God is like and what God wants from us, because he alone comes from God. When we continually look to Jesus, study his life, meditate on his teachings, and try to practice them, then we will begin to experience real change. Our ingrained ways of thinking and behaving will be changed into Jesus’s ways of thinking and behaving. We will begin to experience the life God wants us to have, and not only us, but the whole world will begin to change through us. As we metamorphosize, God’s love will metastasize. Oh,  how different our world will be when Christlike behavior becomes the norm rather than the exception!

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Devil’s Bargain

 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11

There are hundreds of stories about people who make deals with the devil, of which Faust is probably the most well known. Usually these stories end badly for the deal-makers, although some of the more modern variations on the story have the protagonist outwitting the devil in some way. There’s the short story of the devil and Daniel Webster, the musical Damn Yankees, and of course, the bluegrass song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis might say that when similar stories pop up again and again in different times and places, that’s because there’s an underlying truth to them.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus’s encounter with the devil took place right after his baptism and affirmation by God as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus needed to decide exactly how he ought to go about that ministry. And so he goes into the wilderness alone, away from the distractions of everyday life, to think and to listen for God’s direction. But before he hears the voice of God, he hears another voice, a voice that is not from God.

The voice of the devil takes advantage of Jesus’s hunger and suggests that he use his superhuman power to turn rocks into food. Not only would that alleviate his immediate physical distress, it would assuredly yield great results if he duplicated the trick for others. And feeding hungry people is a good thing, right? And it would certainly get people’s attention quickly, and garner him a lot of followers. (That’s exactly what happened later when, out of compassion, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd that had come to hear him)

But Jesus said no to this idea. Although he was deeply concerned about people’s physical needs (see Matthew 25) he knew that there was more to his mission than being a one-man food bank. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I’ve often heard it said that the purpose of this quote was to say that there are things in life that are more important than food, but I think there’s more to it than that. God’s words, as recorded again and again in both the Law and the Prophets, tell us that taking care of those marginalized by society is not an option, but an imperative. Those who have should share with those who have not. And it’s not just an individual, but a corporate responsibility. God will judge rulers and societies by how well they live by these words. Jesus knew that God had already told people how societies ought to function, but that they mostly ignored or disobeyed those instructions. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” A one-man, or even a one God-man relief operation wasn’t the answer. The hearts of many would need to be changed, the law “written on their hearts”  before the kingdom of God could begin to spread exponentially. Jesus foresaw a time when his followers would do even more in the way of helping people than he had been able to help during his short time on Earth.

The voice of the devil also suggested that Jesus could jump off a tall building in the middle of town, then supernaturally float to the ground and land unharmed. That would get the attention of a lot of people, right? They would pay attention to someone who could perform a stunt like that, yes?

But Jesus said no to this idea too. “Do not put the Lord your God to a test“. This scene reminds me of “King Herod’s Song” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Herod taunts Jesus to “prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool” Demanding signs from God is not only arrogant, it’s ultimately ineffective. In the stories of the Exodus, Moses found that to be true again and again. Pharaoh remained unconvinced by Moses’s staff turning into a snake and most of the plagues.The children of Israel seemed to have had extremely short attention spans, for in spite of witnessing multiple supernatural events, kept whining and complaining. As Jesus told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, even the most spectacular miracle is insufficient to overcome confirmation bias. People will deny any evidence that does not conform to what they want to believe is true.If (people) do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Paul made the same observation when he wrote to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

It’s also interesting to me that in this particular temptation, the devil quoted Scripture to try and get Jesus to go along with him. But Jesus knew Scripture well enough to recognize a passage taken out of context and used manipulatively , and Jesus responded with a Scripture passage of his own that was more relevant to his decision-making. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about trying to convince people to read and study the whole Bible is because I think Biblical ignorance is one of the best tools in the devil’s toolbox. Just to take one example…how long was slavery justified on “biblical” grounds? Did you know that there was once a “slave Bible” that contained passages like “slaves obey your masters but omitted all the passages that “might incite rebellion” such as Galatians 3:28 not to mention the entire book of Exodus? That was a devilish use of the Bible, and unfortunately there are many more examples of the Bible being used in devilish ways.

The voice of the devil then makes an offer he thinks Jesus won’t be able to refuse. If Jesus will pledge allegiance to the devil, then the devil will make Jesus king of the world. Then Jesus will have the power to control everybody and everything. That would be a good thing, right? Jesus could make all the laws, so everybody would have to behave themselves or else. Jesus could redistribute the world’s resources any way he saw fit. And being Jesus, all his decisions would be loving and just and fair. The world would be a much better place with Jesus in charge!

But Jesus said no to that tempting offer too, referring to the first commandment. Idolatry doesn’t always come in the form of a golden calf. Idolatry is anything in which you place your ultimate allegiance and trust. Now, as in Jesus’s time, the most common idols are money, power, and pleasure. “No man can serve two masters“, Jesus warned his disciples. In Matthew’s context, Jesus was speaking specifically of money, but the warning can be generalized to other idols too. The way of the cross- the way Jesus took- is diametrically opposed to the way of power and control.  (Jesus), “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”  Counterintuitively, Jesus’s refusal to use his power and “come down from the cross” resulted in him becoming (as Obi-wan-Kenobi might put it) more powerful than anyone could imagine. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The sayings “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the ends don’t justify the means” don’t come from the Bible, but those concepts are at play here in the deals the devil tries to make with Jesus. Jesus said “no” to any kind of devil’s bargain, and I think it’s incumbent upon his followers to do likewise. Real, lasting change won’t come through the love of power, but the power of love. Jesus has shown us the way.  And that’s good news to me.

My Lenten Garden

Ash Wednesday  (Originally written for my gardening blog, Arizona Backyard Eden)

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom. But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. -Galatians 5 19-22, The Message

Lent usually arrives about the time our garden begins to wake up. The roses we cut back in January are beginning to leaf out, the fruit trees are beginning to bud and blossom, hollyhock and larkspur seedlings are emerging, and the temperatures are generally in that sweet spot between the chill of the winter and the blast furnace of the summer. We usually aim to plant tomato transplants and other warm-weather crops by Valentine’s Day, so that they will have a decent start before it gets too hot for them to prosper.

On the one hand, it seems incongruous that Lent, that traditional time of introspection, repentance, and self-denial, should occur just when the circle of life is reinventing itself in our back yard. On the other hand, it makes total sense. The garden has to be prepared in order for desirable plants to grow. That includes a lot of digging in order to remove Bermuda grass, Mexican primrose, clover, and assorted weeds which will take over the garden if ignored, and crowd out the vegetables and flowers I want to have. It includes adding fertilizer, compost, and other soil amendments to nurture the growing plants, and making sure the drip irrigation system works so they will get enough water. If I don’t do these things, the garden won’t be what I want it to be.

Are there things in my life that need to be thinned? Our peach trees usually produce many more blossoms than they can support as fruit, and if we don’t thin the baby peaches down to a reasonable number, the fruits will be small and tasteless and the branches may break from the weight. Many things that are desirable and good are best enjoyed in moderation. Trying to do too many good things at once may result in none of the things being done well, or even burnout.

Are there things in my life that need to be weeded? Removing weeds from our garden bed is a boring, continual, labor-intensive, but necessary task There are some things that don’t belong in the garden of my life, and they deprive the things I want to see growing of water, nutrients, and sunshine. Ignore them too long, and they will spread and become more difficult to remove.

Are there things in my life that I want to plant? I’ve always found Lent a pretty good time to try out a new spiritual practice. If I try something and find that it brings me closer to God, then I try to make it a permanent part of my life. If not, I don’t feel the need to continue it for an arbitrary period of time. Sometimes my gardening experiments don’t work so well, either.

For me, Lent isn’t about giving up something for a prescribed number of days. It’s a time for taking stock: thinking about what kind of person I want to be, of acknowledging the many ways I fall short of being all I could or should be, and of making the changes needed to start anew in the right direction. Sometimes that means digging up weeds, and sometimes that means adding fertilizer. By Easter, our roses should be in full bloom and our backyard full of green and growing tasty things to eat. I hope I will be able to say the same about my relationship with God!

 

It is Well

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:6-9

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

In the summer of 1873, a Chicago lawyer named Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna planned a trip to Europe to visit family and friends, along with their four young daughters, ages 18 months to 12 years. But as the time for the trip approached, Spafford’s legal practice ran into some difficulties and he didn’t feel he could leave He didn’t want to spoil the vacation for the rest of his family, so he kissed them goodbye and they embarked on the trans-Atlantic journey alone. He planned to join them as soon as he got his business problems straightened out. But their ship collided without another ship off the coast of Newfoundland, and the damage was so severe that it sank in twenty minutes. If you ever saw the movie Titanic you can imagine what it must have been like for Anna and her children to try to hold onto each other as the waves swept over the decks, taking them into the frigid waters. Ten days later, the rescue boats reached land and Anna was able to telegraph her husband that she alone had been rescued. It was with this tragedy in mind that Spafford penned the words “When peace like a river attendeth my way; when sorrows like sea billows roll …Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”

To be able to honestly say “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well with my soul” is to experience “the peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace not as the world gives” that comes from God. Usually, when we hear the word “peace” we think of it in negative terms: absence of war, absence of interpersonal conflict, absence of personal trouble and loss. But that isn’t what Paul and Jesus are talking about here.

The Hebrew word translated as peace is “shalom” which is a positive word: it means overall well-being. It carries connotations of prosperity, health, and wholeness.
The Greek word “eirene” in biblical usage is understood in much the same way. When “peace be upon you” is used as a greeting in the Bible, it means “may your life be full of good things”.

But even that doesn’t get the whole meaning of the “peace that transcends all understanding” The peace that God promises is not about the absence of conflict, but about the presence of God. It is not about having a life unmarked by pain, but by having the perspective of God. It is not a Pax Romana, a peace enforced by power and control, but a Pax Christos, a peace that comes by surrendering to God.

In the 23rd Psalm we read “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me It doesn’t say we will be able to avoid the valley of the shadow of death, but that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.
It is inevitable that bad things will happen to us. But God promises that we don’t have to go it alone, and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul wrote to the Romans, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. ”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There’s a meme of a quote by Frederick Buechner that goes “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” There’s certainly plenty to worry about in today’s world, but there was in Paul’s too. And much of it is completely out of our control, just as it was in Paul’s time. Remember he was in prison awaiting execution when he wrote this letter.

So how do we get to this place of peace that transcends all understanding? Paul advised the Philippians“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”   I think Paul must have been a good psychologist as well as a theologian, because much of what Paul told the Philippians is right in line with what mental health practitioners today will tell you about coping with anxiety.

First, pray. When you are worried about something, it’s usually not helpful to keep it to yourself, so therapists will suggest that you talk with a trusted friend. That’s good advice, but with God you have a trusted friend who is always available. Tell God what you are thinking and how you are feeling. You can tell God anything- he’s heard it all.

It’s okay to tell God what you’d like to have happen but remember the purpose of prayer isn’t to get God to do what you want. The purpose of prayer is to connect with God. I think of it as kind of like the mind melds in Star Trek. When you are connected to God in prayer, you begin to see things from God’s perspective and not just your own. Your wants and desires become synchronized with God’s. Or as Mother Teresa put it, “I used to think prayer changes things but now I know that prayer changes us.”

Second, be thankful. There’s a reason why so many self-help materials recommend keeping a gratitude journal. It’s easy to get caught in a downward spiral of negative emotions when you ruminate about all that is going wrong or could go wrong. Writing down things you are thankful forces you to change your focus. There are some studies that indicate that practicing gratitude actually rewires your brain to be happier by creating new neural pathways and changing your brain chemistry.

Or as the old gospel hymn goes, “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, When you are discouraged thinking all is lost. Count your many blessings, name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

Third, watch what you feed your mind. Paul goes on to say, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” How much of what you read, watch, listen to, or talk about is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admiral, excellent, praiseworthy? And how much might be best described by using other adjectives? A diet composed of junk food may give you a sugar high, but when it wears off you’re left feeling worse than you were before.

As computer programmers remind us, “garbage in, garbage out”. This applies not only for the kind of entertainment options you consume, but also for how you consume the news.  It’s way too easy to get sucked into a black hole on social media, TV, or radio and consume stuff that is sensationalistic, inflammatory, and distorted, not to mention dangerously polarizing. If what you are reading, watching, or hearing is resulting in increasing feelings of fear and/or anger, you can be sure your amygdala is in control of your mind, not your cerebral cortex, and certainly not God. Why not turn off the TV, log out of Facebook, and practice loving your neighbor?

I’m not saying we should stick our collective heads in the sand. We need to know what is going on in the world in order to make good decisions, and to do what we can to improve it. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth is credited with saying “take your Bible in one hand and your newspaper in the other.” What’s often left out in this quote is “But interpret your newspaper from your Bible.”  Barth goes on to say, “Indeed the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart. Never! There is still someone who reigns, not in Washington or Moscow or Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That is why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, hope for all the nations of the world. God does not let us fall, not a single one of us, and not all of us together. Someone reigns!

Fourth, get busy. Paul tells the Philippians to put into practice what they have learned from him about being a follower of Jesus. St. Francis instructed the first friars, “You only know as much as you do”.  Psychologists tell us that it is easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. Some even prescribe volunteer work as therapy, for when you help someone else you are also helping yourself. “It’s blessed to be a blessing .”

If we practice what Paul preached to the Philippians, we will become more aware of the presence of God. We will see more clearly from the perspective of God. And in doing so we will begin to realize the promise that God’s “peace which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”We will know that “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well; it is well with my soul”.

But wait- there’s more! Part of seeing things from God’s perspective means glimpsing a bigger picture than our short-sighted vision allows. Martin Luther King intuited this when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leads toward justice. The big picture is that God will bring about not only justice, but the final realization of shalom in all its fullness. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but someday earth and heaven will be one, and Jesus is going to put right everything that once went wrong. That promise is found all through the Bible. I like the way  Isaiah envisioned it: No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

There’s a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr which has come to be known as the “Serenity Prayer.” Most people are familiar with the first part of it because of its association with Twelve Step programs, but not the second part, which is overtly Christian, and I think even more meaningful.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen, and peace be with you.