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The Pure in Heart

 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Matthew 5:8

This Beatitude raises two questions for me: What does it mean to be pure in heart, and what does it mean to see God? Is it even possible to become pure enough in heart to be able to see God in this life? Certainly, my early training in Christianity led me to believe not. The problem was sin, and sin was so deeply engrained into my human condition that seeing God was out of the question. While I no longer believe this, as taught, the roots of my early education still run deep in the subconscious recesses of my being and occasionally sprout little demons that whisper in my ear, “You will never be good enough…”

The initial question about what purity of heart refers to raises two questions of its own: What is purity, and what is heart? Purity is probably obvious – untainted, in a natural or original state, and virginal come to mind. The heart has a literal meaning, i.e., the organ that pumps blood, and a number of figurative meanings, including love, emotion, and the center of our being. Assuming Jesus is speaking of the heart in a figurative sense, purity of heart refers to a state where the essence of our being is restored to its original state, which for me means when it is consciously in a state of union with God. While I consider the separateness we experience as humans as an illusion, I confess it becomes a powerful, entrenched illusion long before we reach adolescence. This sense of separation, of being on our own and alone, is the foundational source of our earthly encumbrances and the foundational source of our impurity.

I suspect what Jesus refers to as purity of heart is what we might call an unencumbered heart – a heart free of earthly attachments and woes. Living a life separate from God and others leaves us insecure and grasping onto things to define us and give us worth and meaning. Granted, obtaining a freedom from such attachments is completely contrary to how we learn to live our lives on earth. Yet, how can we expect God-in-us to shine through when we are so heavily cloaked in the stuff of our material existence? An onion is often used to illustrate the peeling off of outer layers in order to reach the center. Perhaps we must peel away the years of accumulation of attachments, self-doubts, and insecurities in order to reach our pure center, the pure heart of our being. And like peeling an onion, it can cause a lot of weeping.

In the Old Testament, the belief was that to see God would result in death. In Exodus 33:20, God tells Moses, “No one shall see me and live.” Even John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God.” Yet, Jesus says the pure in heart will see God. This Beatitude seems to contradict other teachings and long-held traditions of scripture. In my opinion, our sense of separateness constricts our vision to where we cannot see God’s presence in our lives, and it makes our existence too small for God to manifest freely through. This sense of separation shapes our biases and prejudices and leads us to judge others in hurtful and unhelpful ways. In our attempts to improve our own self-image and sense of belonging, we often do so by tearing down others – at least I’m not as fat as him, or I would never gossip like her, or we would never raise our children like they do. We pit ourselves against others and, in the process, widen the perceived separation between them and us. Ultimately, we feel even more alone and isolated. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to an encumbered heart that has little chance of experiencing God’s love and acceptance, at least not until everything earthly is stripped away at death.

One who is truly pure in heart is able to see as God sees. And what God sees, looking out through us, is a creation that God pronounced very good. God sees through our human imperfections and inconsistencies to the center of our being,  which forever remains undefiled, pure, and beautiful. When we learn to see that pure essence in others, we attain the purity in heart to see God – in the faces and forms of those around us.

This is the 16th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

Blessed are the Merciful

 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Matthew 5:7

As with a number of the other Beatitudes, this one seems almost too trivial for serious discussion: that those who show mercy will receive mercy in return. It is another in a long series of illustrations of the law of sowing and reaping, so common in Jesus’ teachings. We reap what we sow. In the current example, when we plant mercy, we harvest mercy.

Mercy and justice are often used interchangeably. There is a familiar fable that goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The fable distinguishes between short and long-term assistance. Many people consider mercy as addressing immediate needs and justice as targeting longer-term solutions that reduce the immediate needs for mercy. Ultimately, both are important, but the way we approach needs for mercy is often different from how we address issues of justice.

The oft-missed starting point for consideration in being merciful is identifying what a person actually needs. Unfortunately, many of us feel better equipped than we actually are to determine the true needs of another. Until we have established some sort of a relationship with the person, we cannot know. If a person is hungry, a meal may be sufficient. If they are hungry and diabetic, however, taking them to Dairy Queen may not be a merciful solution. If they are hungry and homeless, a meal and shelter for the night will be required. If they are lonely, a merciful person will offer company. The point is that we cannot show deep mercy to another without first becoming vulnerable enough to join him or her in their moment. In fact, according to Richard Rohr, we cannot know anything until we first love it1. Love always precedes knowledge. In other words, true acts of mercy go beyond handing money to a homeless person on the street and certainly deeper than donating money to a charity via payroll deduction (not that those types of mercy are not important, too). Acknowledging and assisting with one’s immediate need is one thing; acknowledging and knowing her or him as a unique person of value, as a child of God, is quite another. Yet, honoring and bestowing dignity on another, regardless of his or her current circumstance, is foundational to showing mercy. This requires more than money. It requires time and attention, and often is what is most needed. Sometimes, it is all that is needed.

A couple of chapters beyond this Beatitude in the book of Matthew, Jesus gives us the Golden Rule, which could as easily be named the Rule of Mercy: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) When I am in need, help me where I actually hurt, not where you assume I hurt. Knowing a person well enough to know their need is a mark of love and often leads to the realization that his or her need is my need, too. True mercy grows out of love and relationship and requires an interpersonal connection to first be established. Ultimately, acts of mercy are exercises in self-awareness and, thus, can be unintentionally self-serving. It is God in us reaching out to God in another, becoming one in our mutual need. As such, mercy is not for the faint of heart. If we cannot see God in another, however, how will we ever recognize God in ourselves?

Clearly, mercy requires a heart for others. The most important mercy-skill, however, may be the ability to genuinely listen to another, preferably without interruption. Being heard has become a rare experience because listening has become a lost art. Certainly, we should still give money to those who ask (see Matthew 5:42), but to become truly merciful beings, we will need to ask questions and listen carefully to the responses. We must not only become advocates for others, but also advocates with others, standing side by side with them in their suffering. In this Beatitude, Jesus promises that in the end, lives that are characterized by a deep and sincere commitment to mercy will attract mercy back to themselves like a magnet.

This is the 15th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

1          Richard Rohr, What Difference Does the Trinity Make? Audio recording. https://school.cac.org/mod/book/view.php?id=8116&chapterid=1000, accessed April 9, 2018.

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Matthew 5:5

I wish to consider three parts of this passage. First, what does it mean to hunger and thirst for something? Second, what is righteousness? Finally, in what way and with what is one filled?

When I think of hungering or thirsting for something, I picture a desire so strong that everything else fades to the background. It is said that you cannot teach a hungry child because all he or she can think about is food. Indeed, many schools have breakfast and lunch programs to help assure that hunger is not an impediment to learning. The point is that when we hunger and thirst for something, the desire is all-consuming. In Revelation 3:15, the message to the church in Laodicea is: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” I read this as a message about doing what we do with passion and not settling for half-hearted efforts. As an even-tempered person, I worry that I too often react in lukewarm ways to the life around me.

It is perhaps overly obvious to say that righteousness is about doing what is right. What is right, however, is often subjective and differs among persons, cultures, and times. Some consider a law-abiding citizen to be righteous, which is probably true as long as the law is righteous. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed many times for protesting unrighteous laws. Yet, history has not judged him an unrighteous man. We could say a righteous person is one who follows the mandates of scripture. While I find the Bible useful for spiritual discernment and growth, I find it much less helpful as a rule book. Indeed, Jesus frequently criticized the literalist religious authorities of his day for applying scripture by its letter but ignoring its intent. It is far more fruitful, in my opinion, to strive to live as Jesus lived than to remold the laws and customs from thousands of years ago into something applicable today.

Based upon my understanding of Jesus’ life, what Jesus refers to as righteousness is social justice. In fact, I think we can reasonably translate this Beatitude as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” Jesus displayed a laser-like focus on the poor, sick, and disenfranchised of society. For much of my life, it has been difficult to recognize my responsibility for issues of injustice. Should I feel guilty because I was born white and male in a resource-rich, first-world nation? I have had a paying job every day of my life since I was 14. I inherited little or nothing from family and have worked and paid for everything I have. One can say I earned and deserve my life.

This is a tricky topic because yes, of course, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps would certainly count for something, if it were ever true. Being honest, however, every move up the social ladder for me has come because someone I knew, often a family acquaintance, opened a door for me to enter through. Consistently throughout my life, I have had opportunities presented that may not have been offered if not for the color of my skin, my country of origin, or the connections I had. What this has to do with justice is the realization that I am not a self-made person – not even close. Everything I have is a gift. A hunger and thirst for righteous on my part might begin with a passionate commitment to open doors and give a hand up to others who have not had the same opportunities.

The last part of this Beatitude is that we will be filled. We might better understand Jesus’ meaning by reversing it – that we will no longer be empty. When we are on the upper rungs of the societal ladder, we often possess an abundance of stuff, but we may be void of the love and fulfillment that genuine relationships bring. Our stuff distracts us from what is most important in life. Whenever we choose objects over others, our life experience becomes shallow, unstable, and empty. Perhaps a better contemporary translation would be to say, “Blessed are those who work passionately on matters of justice, for they will live full and contented lives.”

This is the 14th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

Blessed are the Meek

 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Matthew 5:5

Among the modern-day synonyms for meek are timid, docile, passive, spineless, resigned, and weak. I suspect the definition of meekness has softened from what it meant in Jesus’ day, and here is why: One of Jesus’ most frequent instructions was to follow him, presumably even in his meekness. I find no evidence that any of these terms describe Jesus or his nature. Rather, he was assertive, courageous, persistent, and action-oriented. Therefore, as we read this Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” I think we must look to a more reflective meaning for meekness.

A more accurate, contemporary translation might be to say blessed are the non-violent. Jesus passionately challenged injustice, illness, ignorance, and poverty wherever and whenever he found them, but he did so in a non-violent manner. There were a number of non-violent activists from the last century who modeled Jesus’ brand of meekness, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. None stood idly by in the face of injustice, but they steadfastly refused to answer violence with violence. The inconvenient truth is that Jesus did not allow his followers to react with violence at his arrest (Matthew 26:51), nor did he raise a finger to avoid his own violent death. There is a price to pay for a non-violent commitment, often a painful price.

Violence is never isolated. It is a reaction to a perceived threat and, as a reaction, violence is always a choice we make. In other words, we choose whether to respond in a violent manner to a particular situation. We deceive ourselves to think violence is always physical, however. Emotional cruelty, verbal abuse, and economic injustice are much more common and can wound more deeply. Violence in our culture extends beyond gun control debates, abortion, the death penalty, bullying, and military invasions of sovereign nations. Violent reactions, personally and collectively, reflect our insecurities and subconscious motivations. When we value others in terms of their usefulness for our own interests, we misuse whatever power we have over them to our advantage and at their expense. We see this manifest in rape and other types of sexual exploitation. The reach is broader than that, however. When we believe the rest of creation exists only for our benefit, we cause environmental destruction. Further, when we judge others as of no value to us, as wrong or insignificant, we ignore the higher truth that every person is a child of and loved by God every bit as much as we are. When we see our world (and everything in it) as our playground, as something for our personal exploitation, or even when we expect that others should think and act as we do, we box ourselves into a very small, incomplete world. Such a limited domain can only be forcibly sustained (temporarily) by violence because it is completely contrary to how the world was created.

Far from a cry to timidity, Jesus calls us to courageous and active resistance to the violence of our day, to find creative solutions that do not perpetuate cycles of violence. Such solutions respect and honor life where and as we find it, while also not allowing one immature life to run roughshod over another. Admittedly, it is not an easy undertaking. Jesus’ message is clear, however. In Matthew 5:38-39, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus modeled a higher level of response, one that is non-vengeful and non-violent.

There is always a moment immediately following a threatening event when we can consciously choose our reaction. Sometimes it is best to hold the tension for a time, acknowledging it for what it is and identifying what within us is threatened by it. This allows the tension to become a source of internal healing instead of a trigger for another round of violence. As we learn to respond in non-violent ways to the world around us, as we learn Jesus’ brand of meekness, we find our lives and the lives of those around us increasingly blessed in innumerable ways. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the good things of the earth, which ultimately exist in a web of beautifully diverse, interdependent relationships.

This is the 13th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

Those Who Mourn

Those Who Mourn

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Matthew 5:4

The second of the Beatitudes seems almost too obvious to warrant serious consideration, that those who mourn will be comforted. If it were so obvious, why would Jesus bother to say it? Perhaps the answer, as is so often the case, is that the truth in the statement is deeper than it appears. For one thing, one does not have to look far to find people who mourn who are not being comforted. After my father died, I mourned (poorly) for years. Yes, there were many who stepped up to comfort me, but what about the sleepless nights, the dreams, and the times I simply wanted to share something with my dad? He never met my wife or my children. He was not present to congratulate me on graduations or other achievements. Where is the comfort when one heart mourns for another and there is no one near to ease the burden?

Interestingly, mourning manifests from different causes. We most often think of mourning from the loss of a loved one by death or other separation. Mourning can also occur from life-altering events over which we have no control. In addition, mourning happens with regret over past behavior, although this type of grief is often pushed beneath our conscious awareness. In the book God For Us1, Lauren Winner offers several fascinating insights into suffering. She writes, “There is something light in mourning – or at least something lightening – precisely because there is something true in mourning. To mourn the consequences of sin is, oddly, to edge very close to joy, because any encounter with the truth, even the truth of sin, has some hint of the lightened joy that comes when we allow ourselves to see things not as we wish they were, but as they really are; and a hint of joy that will come when sin is no more.” When our mourning stems from past behaviors, it is something that weighs heavily on us in such a way that we know we are carrying a heavy burden, but we cannot consciously pinpoint the source of the load.

The larger point is that proper mourning is important to our well-being and wholeness. When we are not allowed – by ourselves or others – to fully mourn our losses and regrets adequately, we find ourselves living in an ambiguous shadow of gloom. Being sad is an emotion and is not the same as mourning. True mourning names and exposes the source, the pain, and the way forward. It reaches deep within to bring everything associated with the pain into conscious awareness where it can be acknowledged and, eventually, healed. When done properly and patiently, mourning is transformative. Clearly, professional assistance is usually required.

One reason we tend to rush through our mourning is the sense of vulnerability and insecurity it brings. To acknowledge our weakness from and powerlessness over our life’s circumstances, or even over our own behavior, forces us to rearrange our understanding of life. That same vulnerability, however, is what opens us to comfort, rebirth, and resurrection. Thus, the words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The fact is we cannot be truly comforted until we have actually mourned. Further, mourning is not a one-time event, but a process that takes however long it takes – weeks, months, or years.

In his book, The Prophetic Imagination2, Walter Brueggemann, writes about our nearly pathological resistance to acknowledging or even discussing the certitude of death – our own and that of those we love. In reference to this Beatitude, he says, “Only those who embrace the reality of death will receive new life. Implicit in his (Jesus’) statement is that those who do not mourn will not be comforted and those who do not face the endings will not receive the beginnings.”

Hidden within our mourning is new life – a fresh beginning – just as the freshness of spring lies hidden within the desolation of winter. There is no way to get to spring, however, except by going through winter. Not only will those who truly mourn be comforted, they will be blessed by the process.

This is the 12th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

1  Lauren F. Winner, God For Us. Edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. Paraclete Press,       Brewster, MA. 2014. Page 75.

2  Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 2001. Pages 56-57.

The Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

The first Beatitude of Jesus tells us the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. As he so often does, Jesus mixes metaphors in a way that many will reject as nonsense. For others, it is an invitation to explore the teaching in a deeper, deliberate way. The images of poor and kingdom seem a poor match for each other. Those who are poor are those who have little or nothing. Images of kingdoms, however, call to mind abundance and access to things considered good and beautiful – a large castle, an extended estate, servants, vineyards, and lavish banquets. Kingdom images often also include excesses, such as gluttony, lust, and all sorts of abuses of power and privilege, of lives built on the backs of the poor and oppressed.

Although the text refers to the poor in spirit, I think the lot of the poor was intentionally used by Jesus as an example. Poor people, by definition, do not have a lot of extra things. I often see homeless people with (presumably) everything they own in a paper sack. Some barely squeak by with life’s necessities, while others require assistance to live at even a marginally life-sustaining level. They are burdened by what they lack. The non-poor among us, on the other hand, are prone to become burdened by our excesses. I suspect what Jesus means when he refers to the poor in spirit are those with an unencumbered spirit. These are people who can move between places and life situations with ease because most of what they need is contained within. Their faith assures them of provision for their needs, and they trust that those needs will be met as they arise. This requires a level of faith I do not possess, but I understand how freeing it would be. For most of us, seeking a less encumbered life would be a reasonable and helpful beginning.

Those who have done mission work in third world countries have witnessed first-hand the unencumbered spirits and inherent joy of those who are poor in spirit. If the electricity goes out, the internet is down, the car stops running, one’s computer crashes – none of these first-world “catastrophes” impact their lives at all. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have directed his followers to work with and live among the poor of their time. The purpose was not, however, to “help” the poor folks so much as it was to allow the poor folks to help change his followers. I went on a mission trip to New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina decimated the area, and we were told to make sure we did not focus so much on the work that we did not spend significant time with the residents. In my arrogance, I assumed it was so we could serve as emotional, as well as physical support to them. In retrospect, I suspect the goal of spending time with these folks was so they could change and help us instead of the other way around. We people of “privilege” have much to learn about attaining the freedom to experience joy in the moment, which is the key to the kingdom of heaven. Our encumbered lives pull us out of our moments back into the past or forward into an uncertain future.

I do not want to be overly negative about the blessings of privilege. It is not that our stuff is evil, as much as it is that our attachment to our stuff stands between us and the experience of the presence of God. Many people misquote 1 Timothy 6:10 as, “Money is the root of all evil.” The passage actually says, “…the love of (i.e., attachment to) money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” So it is with our possessions – when they possess us, when they become the central objects of our desire instead of tools for our use, when we become dependent upon them, they stand as a barrier between us and the gates to the kingdom of heaven.

Far from a call to vagrancy and homelessness, Jesus’ invitation is to let go of our earthly attachments and dependencies, which is an altogether different kind of poverty. Blessed is the unencumbered spirit…for he/she will freely enter the kingdom of heaven while yet on earth.

This is the 11th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at http://www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

 

Rejoice and Be Glad

 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.  Matthew 5:12a

As this series on What Did Jesus Say continues, I will begin reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, as found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. This is one of the longer of Jesus’ discourses recorded in the Gospels. The initial part of this sermon is referred to as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), or the Be-attitudes, which provide a distinctively Jesus-way of processing our life experiences.

Rather than starting with the first beatitude, I will begin with what I consider the summarizing point of the series: “Rejoice and be glad.” Although one can say I am pulling this quote out of its context (rejoicing when others persecute us), I believe it is a reasonable conclusion to all of the statements preceding it. It puts the teachings into a greater context, giving them a worthy purpose. They tell us that life is good, regardless of occasional and apparent evidence to the contrary. Outside of this context, the statements can seem nonsensical.

Each of the nine Beatitudes follows an if-then type of format, i.e., if this, then that. More specifically, Jesus says, “Blessed are (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.), for (theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, etc.). So, a situation is named, and its accompanying blessing follows in a concluding statement. The ultimate conclusion, as revealed in Matthew 5:12, is to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” A condensed version of the same teaching is found in Luke 6:23, where Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Most of the situations named are not at all what we would consider worthy of leaping for joy, nor does our world encourage or reward them. This lack of short-term gain is how we intuit that Jesus is referring to a different depth of reward than any immediate response we may or may not receive. More accurately, Jesus is referring to a gain that we cannot realize when we remain on the surface of our lives. There are hidden blessings for going deep into the experience of any given moment. As long as we skim obliviously along from moment to moment, we cannot experience the depth and the beauty that lies beneath. It is under the surface of our moments that the blessings of the Beatitudes are found.

When Jesus says, “…your reward is great in heaven,” I do not believe he is referring to a post-death existence. Most of us have developed a limited understanding of heaven as an eternal paradise available to those who have been good enough in this life to warrant such eternal bliss when this life comes to an end. While I do not deny that such may be our experience after death, I do not believe that is the heaven to which Jesus refers. Rather, he is talking about a state of being, or a level of consciousness available to us in the here and now. This is the state Jesus calls heaven, where we can be one with Jesus, and through Jesus be one with the Father.

With this as context, we can begin to understand the Beatitudes as lessons from Jesus about attitudes for being, for diving beneath the surface of our life experience, and for harmonizing our lives into unity with God. Being poor in spirit, merciful, and pure in heart become key to our ability to find the heart-space where we can meet Jesus in the here and now, regardless of where or how we are. Sometimes, the behaviors and events least praised and admired by those around us are the very ways most conducive to experiencing heaven on earth. Whether we suffer, mourn, or are without the “advantages” others seem to have over us, we can rejoice and be glad, knowing that our disadvantaged-ness holds the key to the kingdom of heaven. Life is good, even now. This, then, is the direction in which the Beatitudes we will discuss in the coming weeks are pointing.

This is the 10th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts