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?”

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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?”

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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?”

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By Bread Alone

By Bread Alone

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”   Luke 4:1-4

Accounts of the temptation of Jesus are recorded in Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), and Luke (4:1-13). After Jesus had been baptized by John, he went into the wilderness for 40 days. Matthew and Luke record that Jesus was fasting during that time. The devil met Jesus there and issued three temptations when Jesus was at his weakest from the extended fast. The first challenge was to turn a stone into bread. The second was to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshiping the devil. Finally, Jesus was encouraged to throw himself onto the rocks from the pinnacle of the Temple, knowing that God would protect him. Jesus refused each of the temptations, left the wilderness, and began his public ministry.

Whether one reads this account as a factual or a metaphorical account is beyond the purpose of this Life Note. What I address here is how the temptations of Jesus are about the use of personal power, and how these are temptations we too face, in endless variations, throughout our lives. If the life of Jesus is the standard for our life, we have much to learn from how he used, and refused to use, the power at his disposal.

Although scripture does not give a reason for the fast, it seems safe to assume it was a part of Jesus’ preparation for his ministry. The first challenge was to use his power to turn a stone into bread and end his fast. On the one hand, if I were hungry and had such power, it would be difficult not to use it in that way. Unfortunately, that would betray his purpose for fasting and nullify the benefits from the difficulties he had already endured. Jesus’ response is “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).

The second temptation was to betray his lineage, as revealed by God at his baptism (“You are my son, the Beloved”). By reflecting anything less than the Father, Jesus could not fulfill his purpose of making God known to us. We are frequently encouraged to settle for something less than what we strive for, and we are given the power to settle through our free will. It is not that God will no longer love us if we settle for less, it is that we will disappoint ourselves for giving in, as well as failing to accomplish that which we set out to achieve. Jesus’ response is “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Luke 4:8).

The third temptation was to do damage to his physical body on the assumption God would keep him safe. After all, God had a huge purpose for Jesus in the world. We know God takes us where we are, in whatever shape we are in, and uses us for purposes beyond our comprehension. Even if angels did not save Jesus from the rocks below, surely God would find a way to use him. This temptation was about showing how low we can sink and still have God lift us up. Jesus’ response is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:13).

It is in our most vulnerable moments when we are tempted to use whatever means are available to ease our suffering, regardless of whether we believe we are tempted by the devil, by human nature, or our own personal weakness. The end does not justify the means when it comes to personal holiness. Patience, trust, and faith are required. The way out is by going through the difficulty, not by taking shortcuts around it. Inevitably, at some point or points in our lives, we will find ourselves in a metaphorical wilderness: hungry, alone, and tempted. In our weakest moments, it is helpful to remember how Jesus handled temptation: by persisting after our prayerfully-determined aims, by being as faithful to God as God is to us, and by treating our bodies as God’s temple. God’s strength manifests in our weakness.

This is the 9th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Deny Yourself

Deny Yourself

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:23-24

If there were a “Bottom 10” list of the least popular things Jesus said, Luke 9:23-24 would have to be on it. Had Jesus had a public relations firm back in the day, they certainly would have suggested he massage this message significantly before going public with it. It is bad enough to tell people to deny themselves, but to take up a cross daily? As if that were not unappealing enough, he goes on to say that those who wish to save their life will lose it. His words sound more like a call to misery than a path to a new, richer life. Surely, the message is no better received in today’s narcissistic, consumer-driven culture than in Jesus’ day.

Much is made in this season of Lent of fasting. One of the common practices of fasting is to deny oneself of some routine or cherished part of one’s day. As one misses what has been denied, one remembers the sacrifice Jesus made for us. This helps us discover that we can live, and often live much better, without some of the unhealthy habits and superfluous possessions that weigh down our daily existence. Another purpose of the “denying oneself” type of fasting is to rid ourselves of something in order to make room for Christ to take hold in our lives. A full cup cannot receive more, and a full life stands as a fortress against any newness breaking in, good or bad.

Another type of fasting, perhaps more a matter of semantics than substance, is to add something positive to one’s day instead of removing something else. This can be understood as a fasting by blessing instead of fasting by suffering. Of course, the reality is that for most of us to add anything, the removal of something else must occur first. Either way, one purpose is to try to allow a new and positive habit to be born into and take hold within us.

It is interesting and instructive that Jesus follows the command to deny oneself with the command to take up one’s cross daily. What is our cross? One way to look at it is that our cross consists of our daily tasks – the things we do for our jobs or to keep our home running or to fulfil our obligations as parents, children, co-workers, and friends. This is our work, and our world depends on us fulfilling these tasks. Sometimes our work threatens to overwhelm us, although not always because it is overwhelming in and of itself. More often, for me, work becomes a cross to bear because I fill my life with meaningless distractions that compress the time available to complete my work. With this understanding, denying oneself becomes a way to refocus upon and reframe the context for one’s work – for the cross one bears. As new habits of conscious intention take hold, we see our work in an entirely new light, even when our responsibilities have not changed, and even though there are not more hours in a day. It does not matter if we are a doctor, a home-maker, an accountant, a church committee member, or a volunteer in the local Library, our work is important to the world.

Fasting, as a way to grow closer to God, can help us do our work in a more joyous and grateful manner. If the benefit and blessing of fasting accrues to us, where then is the deprivation? The key is in consciously and willingly turning one’s life in a new direction. To the extent there is discomfort, it is because change can feel like suffering as we let go of the old and reach for the new. There is a transition period required, but it is only that – a transition. Like everything in life, this too shall pass.

Denying ourselves of something that contributes little to life – ours and others’ – is a practice from which we can all benefit. Trying to preserve, or save, the unprofitable aspects of our lives will certainly and eventually fail.

This is the 8th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Come and See

Come and See

 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”  John 1:38-39

In John 1:35-42, Jesus walks by John the Baptist and a couple of his disciples and John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John’s two disciples begin following Jesus, who turns around and asks, “What are you looking for?” The men ask where he is staying, and Jesus says, “Come and see.” This directive to Jesus’ first disciples two thousand years ago remains a directive to those of us wishing to follow Jesus today: Come and see.

To “come” implies we must leave wherever we are, and to “see” means to open our eyes, heart, and mind to what is revealed in our coming. Those who wish to see must first come. Another important word in this story is the word translated as “staying,” which can also be translated as abiding. There is a way to consider this encounter that I find instructive. When John’s disciples saw Jesus, identified as the Lamb of God, they immediately wanted to know more. Something about Jesus intrigued them. Perhaps they saw something in him they were missing in themselves. Therefore, they asked where he was staying. Personally, I think what they asked was more along the lines of Where do you abide? The difference is significant because if, indeed, the disciples were drawn to Jesus, they would want to know about his spiritual nature, or certainly something deeper than his physical habitation.

Where we abide can refer to our state of consciousness and/or a state of relationship. It is our go-to mode for living. It is where we reside internally, as in the center point from which we live and move and have our being. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, was in a relationship with God that these men wanted to experience for themselves. Thus they ask, where are you abiding? Those of us who seek to follow Jesus will eventually ask the same question. If this interpretation of the story is reasonable, the journey Jesus invites us to is an internal journey more than an external one. Jesus invites us not to a different geographic state, but to a different state of conscious awareness.

Jesus tells the men, “Come.” That means to leave wherever you are. In this case, it meant for the disciples to leave their current lives, including leaving their mentor, John. For us, it may mean many things, but wherever it is Jesus invites us, it is not our life as it is today. To come somewhere is to leave one’s current abode. Jesus might as easily have said, “Leave!” The command requires an affirmative decision, followed by action on our part to accomplish.

Finally, Jesus says, “See.” Only after we have come to where he abides can we begin to see what he wishes to reveal. To witness the inner reality of Jesus is to experience what it means to live in unity with God. It is not enough to listen, nor is it sufficient to read or talk it out with others. We only experience this divine reality by trusting, following, and committing to this new type of freedom, this new state of being.

Here is the problem for many of us: our lives are like a hamster wheel in that we confuse activity with progress. We are worried and distracted over many things and overwhelmed with the day’s demands. We run faster and faster, but at the end of the day/week/year we have progressed no farther along any road upon which we wish to be traveling. This is completely discouraging because no matter how hard we work, neither the scenery nor the schedule changes, and the only tangible result we have to show is total exhaustion! I understand Jesus’ invitation to come and see as one to step off the hamster wheel, leave the cage, and enter a new, expanded reality. How we actually do this, from a practical standpoint, is another matter that each of us must figure out for ourselves – just as Jesus’ disciples had to figure out how to leave their former lives in order to attain a new one.

Either way, all who want off their current hamster-wheel-abode are invited: Come and See!

This is the 7th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Humble Yourself

Humble Yourself

 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4

In general, I try to build people up and make them feel good about themselves and their lives. Never mind that some of my friends are gagging now because I also enjoy humbling others on occasion (for their own good, of course). Nevertheless, I truly believe that everyone and everything is an amazing and unique work of creation, unlike anything created before or that will be created in the future. We are literally the only one of ourselves out of countless trillions of beings. In that sense, we are special beyond comprehension. Our specific blend of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual traits will never again see the light of day when we pass. We could interpret this as a reason for arrogance.

While some may agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, others are suspecting there is a catch. And there is. Are you ready? Yes, you are unique in all of creation. BUT (make sure you are sitting down for this). Here’s the catch (take a deep breath now): Everyone and everything else is a completely unique creation, too!!! This includes the pebble in your shoe and the gnat you swatted away from your food at dinner. God expresses absolutely uniquely in and through the specific nature of everything. I once heard a bit of business wisdom that goes, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” The corollary on the topic of uniqueness is this: “If everyone is a unique creation, no one is unique.” While this is may be overly cynical, it does perhaps shed some light on why Jesus tells us to humble ourselves.

The context for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:4 is that he is sitting with his disciples who ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by setting a child on his lap and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Indeed, the call for humility is not unique to Jesus in the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Micah (6:8) wrote, “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!”

It is interesting and instructive that Jesus uses children to illustrate humility. Many parents, myself included, put enormous amounts of energy into building our children’s self-esteem and trying to assure they develop a positive self-image. We want our kids to celebrate their distinct place in creation and to know themselves as a beloved child of God. While we do not want them to feel inferior, we also do not want them to believe themselves superior to others, either. Uniqueness does not equal preeminence.

In general, children are curious, optimistic, joyful, easily awed, and have short memories. They are not “smart” in the ways of the world, but they learn to shape their unique character into the puzzle of the life around them. Children possess important traits of humility we often forget as we grow up and become “wise.” Children are more likely to be present to the moment, and in that moment to see and appreciate the beauty and joy in the specificity of everything around them. Jesus warns that the childlike traits we shed as we age are the very ones we should most strive to retain.

One might wonder about the purpose for our unique blend of skills, characteristics, and insights if not for us to gain an advantage over others in life. At least two responses come to mind. First, we are creations of God, created in God’s image and likeness, so whatever uniqueness we have comes from God and not from anything we have done. Where, then, is our cause to brag? Secondly, we are given special qualities in order to make this world a better place for ourselves and others. For every talent we are given, there is a need nearby that we alone are uniquely gifted to meet. The biggest question is whether we are humble enough to use our talents in service to others (like Jesus did). That, I think, is becoming humble like a child and holds the key to the kingdom.

This is the 6th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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