Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 16: Meekness is not Weakness

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

meeknessAmong the definitions for the word meek are docile, spiritless, obsolete, and overly submissive or compliant. These do not sound particularly holy, given that Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. The word meek, however, can also mean humble, gentle, and kind. As we wonder why Jesus held meekness in such high esteem, the latter definitions may lead us to a better answer. Certainly, Jesus modeled these positive characteristics of meekness.

To say that the meek will inherit the earth seems like a paradox of giant proportions. As we look around our world today, we see a small percentage of people controlling the largest share of the earth’s bounty. My perception of the very rich is hardly meek. I see people who are bold, aggressive, assertive, opportunistic, hard-driving risk-takers. While some may be humble, gentle, and kind in their private lives, their public persona is usually very different.

Meekness, in any of its forms, is not particularly encouraged in character development by our current culture. We have popular, anti-meekness bits of folk wisdom like, “Go for the gusto,” or “You only live once,” or “Just do it!” I suspect the type of meekness Jesus advocated for was not the sniveling, whiny, frightened, spiritless, spineless sort we often associate with the word today. Rather, the meek who will inherit the earth are the strong but humble, gentle, and kind people who place other’s needs above their own. These are common traits of women and men who model their lives after Jesus.

The difficulty in understanding this concept is in our understanding of what it means to inherit the earth. If our desired inheritance is one of vast riches, nice homes, fancy cars, lavish clothing, or a private jet, then meekness is not likely to get us there. These riches are transient, in that they do not last in a way that extends beyond our time on earth. There are other riches uniquely of the earth, however, that imprint on our souls and, I believe, shape our existence beyond this life. Enjoying a stunning sunset, watching the full moon rise over a still ocean, experiencing long-term, deeply-loving relationships, making a positive difference in someone else’s life, and working for causes greater than our own. These are opportunities the earth gives that are available to all, but are only sought and valued by those with a propensity towards meekness. Only the meek will inherit these more lasting gifts of the earth – everyone else will forego them for something more material.

The meek will inherit the earth. How did I miss that?


Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 15: Brokenness Leads to Wholeness

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:17

brokennessThe egg shell must be broken at the right time for the chick to emerge. The caterpillar must be broken and bound for the butterfly to emerge. The skin of reptiles must split open for them to grow into their next stage of life. And, painful as it often is, our current state of life must be broken in order for us to move to the next stage of our development. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths, and being broken is at the heart of the process. I do not enjoy it, but I can either be broken willingly, or I can fight it tooth and nail, but broken I will be.

The central problem is that a full and satisfied heart has no motivation to change. When we are satisfied, we fight to maintain the status quo. We do whatever we can to minimize change, even when a change is necessary to improve the lot of our self and others. In political contests, one candidate is often portrayed as the “change” agent and the other as the “establishment.” The former makes the case that the political system is broken and needs to be rebuilt (or reborn). The latter claims the current system is good enough to provide a solid foundation from which to improve. In many cases, who we favor depends on the level of brokenness of our current state in life. While I do not advocate change for the sake of change, brokenness, in its time, is necessary for the sake of growth.

I am not advocating that we break a perfectly good life – destruction is a process that happens naturally enough, with or without our prodding. When we feel the status quo of our life starting to bend, however, it may be time to embrace a change. It may be the Spirit moving in our lives in a way that will lead us to a new level of wholeness. Sometimes, that may mean breaking away from negative influences by ending a toxic relationship, leaving a disrespectful employer, or receiving help for an addiction. Other times, we need to break away from our own inertia by intentionally committing ourselves to a new relationship, forming new, healthier habits, or beginning a regular prayer or meditation practice.

Sometimes we have already been broken, but we do not yet recognize the possibilities. We, like Humpty Dumpty, have fallen off the wall, and we expend energy and resources trying to rebuild what once was instead of taking stock of what is now. Being broken opens a new world of possibilities for us, but we will never see the possible until we willingly let go of the shattered past. An old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Realistically, there are times when we do need to break something in order to move ahead in life.

Brokenness leads to wholeness. How did I miss that?


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How Did I Miss That?

Part 14: Marginalized Lives Matter

 “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:34b-36,40b

A marginalized person is one who is at the edges of society – not outside per se, but not exerting influence or experiencing the blessing of full inclusion, either. Marginalized people need advocates, people firmly within the societal circle to work on their behalf. If they have no such representation, they end up forgotten, shunned, and disenfranchised.

marginalized-livesBefore proceeding further, let me confess that I a member of the privileged class who created and/or perpetuate the current cultural norms – fully-abled, white, American, and male. I write this blog as a way to better understand how to be a part of the solution. In our current environment, the Black Lives Matter movement formed in reaction to the marginalization of people of color. While given equal rights under the law in the 1960’s, arrest and incarceration rates, unemployment and murder rates, discrimination and profiling, and the prevalence of poverty remain unacceptably high for their race as a whole. Some have tried to make the movement more inclusive by saying All Lives Matter, which is true, of course, but it misses the point. In his personal leadership blog, Nathan Collier writes, “When everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.” A society can only rise as high as it is willing to lift and include the least within it. In a truly just and fair world, there would be no need to focus more attention on certain segments. Unfortunately, that is not our world. All lives will matter when no lives are marginalized.

Marginalization is not limited to a specific race. The homeless, the poor, those whose first language is not English, the variously challenged, the addicted, all are too often kept on the fringes of our society – hidden from view as if they were invisible and unimportant. Who will stand for the marginalized? Who will advocate with power for the LGBTQ community, or the girl with the unwanted pregnancy – or her unborn child? Who will stand in the gap with sleeves rolled up and work for a just and caring world? Jesus makes clear that it should be us. In the passage above from Matthew he lists the marginalized of his day and says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Can it be any clearer? I do not know how I can overlook it. When I walk by a person in an unfortunate circumstance, when I witness an injustice, when I see someone brokenhearted or lonely, I see a broken member of Jesus’ family. That person is loved and cherished by the one I claim to follow. If I pass them by in their hour of need, I pass Jesus by in his.

We marginalize others when we fear them, when we ignore them, or when we treat them differently than we desire to be treated. One solution that is deceptively simple, but monumentally challenging, is written in Matthew 7:12: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” As we do to others, we do also to Jesus.

Marginalized lives mattered to Jesus; therefore, they had better be a priority for us, too.


Life Notes

Paul Wrote the Book of Love

Love is patient; love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13 4a,b

My latest book, Paul Wrote the Book of Love: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13, will be available this Sunday in the FUMC-Lawrence office, and is available now on Amazon, at ContemplatingGrace.com, or directly from me. It is an insightful and quick read and would make a great gift for anyone confused about love! Here is the Introduction to the book:

bookThe 1950’s music group, The Monotones1, asked the question, “Who wrote the book of love?” Six decades later, I answer the question in this book. The apostle Paul wrote it. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes a comprehensive essay on what love is and what love is not. No doubt, it was timely 2000 years ago when he wrote it, but it is still relevant today. Our society thinks too narrowly about love, usually limiting love to romance. While romantic love is one important and pleasing manifestation of love, it is far from the only or most enduring. All of us want more love in our lives, but until we know what we lack and what we desire, we cannot begin to find it. The purpose of this book is to help the reader find a true, lasting, dependable love.

Fr. Richard Rohr and other Christian mystics point out that we do not think our way into a new way of acting, we act our way into a new way of thinking. The same is true for love. We cannot intellectualize our way into love. Love is an action, so when we decide to increase the experience of love in our lives, we do so by intentionally acting in more loving ways. Feelings of love may follow, but feelings cannot lead, at least not in a dependable manner.

Therein lies the beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 – it provides a list of specific actions that define love. It provides some of the most straightforward guidance for how to become a more loving person, and in the process become more worthy of receiving the love of others. We reap what we sow, and this truth is never more evident than in matters of love.

The first specific reference to love in the Bible occurs in Genesis 22:2, where God orders Abraham, “Take your son, your only son whom you love,” and offer him as a burnt offering (a fate that ended up not being required). A few chapters later, we find Jacob working seven years to be able to take Rachel as his wife “because of the love he had for her.” There are over 150 references to love in the Psalms alone – God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other. As Moses details the laws of righteousness for the Hebrew people in Leviticus (19:18), he writes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment to love others is repeated by Jesus in all four Gospel accounts, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Clearly, there are many variations of love recorded in the Bible, but throughout the Bible, love is non-negotiable.

Love is sacrificial in nature, meaning we hold what is dear to us loosely, willingly offering whatever we possess to our beloved. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was evidence of his love for God above all else. The story is immoral and inexcusable by today’s standards, but the lesson is sound – we may willingly sacrifice in otherwise unthinkable ways for the sake of love.

A word of caution as we begin: This book about relationships, but it is not intended to suggest that all relationships should be endured. Abusive, unhealthy, one-sided relationships should be terminated, not withstood. An abusive relationship is perversion of how God intended us to treat each other and is never a loving relationship.

Paul wrote the book of love 2000 years ago, and it remains as profound and vital today as it was in his day. This book intends to help the reader apply the timeless wisdom of the original Book of Love.

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 13: The Language of God is Silence

Be still, and know that I am God! Psalm 46:10a

Words encapsulate and narrow our lives. If we are not talking to someone, our internal dialogue is running rampant. If we are not interrupting the speaker, we are planning how to respond instead of listening with a mind open to learning something new. After we converse with another person, we often replay and analyze the dialogue. We may think of things we wish we had or had not said, or we may wonder what the other person meant by words they used or how they spoke them. The point is that immediately after an experience, we begin reshaping the experience with our words. The actual experience ends and the less-than-accurate description of the experience replaces it.

silenceWords are symbols for things, not the things themselves. We describe, label, and categorize, but words themselves have no substance. We might describe this picture in detail, but the image in the hearer’s mind will still be very different from the actual picture. Such is the nature of a verbal description – it is not the reality. Our words always remove us a step or more from the experience. Thus, the biblical directive to “Be still.”

The early Jewish people did not believe the name of God should be spoken. When Moses met God at the burning bush, he asked God for a name to give the people. God said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Once we have named something, we narrow our belief about its nature. If we say, “This is a maple tree,” we believe it is not a rock or a person. As soon as we begin describing God with words, we limit the possibilities of an otherwise limitless God. Our tendency toward naming and describing makes it easier for us to understand and process our experiences, but as our words remove us from those experiences, we substitute the words for the reality. Much beauty, depth, and meaning is forever lost in the process.

The Psalmist encourages us to still our minds. There are many ways to do this, all of which require focus and persistence. Yoga, meditation, centering or contemplative prayer are a few ways to silence our inner dialogue long enough to draw closer to God. God’s language appears silent to us because God does not speak as we do. In the creation story, God speaks the world into being. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) God’s voice itself provided the creative power. Similarly, in the first chapter of John, the Word of God became flesh in Jesus. God’s creative language does not interface with our spoken language, and we cannot experience it as long as our internal dialogue interrupts and interprets. As the Psalmist says, we must “be still” to know God.

The language of God is silence. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 12: The Kingdom of Heaven is Near

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”

Mark 1:14-15

I do not know how I missed it, but somewhere in my childhood, and reinforced throughout my life, was the concept that heaven and hell were faraway places where we would go after we die. Heaven was somewhere above, and hell was somewhere below. Heaven was a paradise where we would be reunited with long-lost relatives, and hell was a place of eternal punishment where we would go if we did not live a life on earth worthy of heaven.

the-kingdom-of-heavenI believe the church I grew up in perpetuated these images and many churches today do the same. In spite of insisting we are saved by grace, as the apostle Paul proclaimed, there is still an element of needing to earn our salvation present in too many religious discussions. The threat of hell is ever near for those who do not give enough money to the right causes, live an acceptable lifestyle, vote for certain candidates, or regularly attend the right kind of church. Thankfully, many churches recognize an inclusive God. If God is the God of any of us, God is the God of all and is not limited by our imperfect, individual perceptions. But I digress…

The first recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and repeated throughout the Gospels, are that the kingdom of God – heaven – is near. We consistently overlook that reality. For all the speculation about possible states of being after we die, we completely ignore that heaven and hell are present realities in our world right now, today, this moment, and in this place! Speculation about the future comes at the expense of the blessings of the now. Eternity stretches out in all directions from wherever we are at a point in time, and from that point we can experience heaven, or we can experience hell. The choice is ours because we are co-creators with God of the world we experience.

Finding heaven on earth is challenging because there are so many attractive distractions that entice us to look in other directions, like possessions, positions, and power. The earth is a beautiful place with many lovely entertainments. But none of them are eternal. Finding hell on earth, however, is much easier. There are many opportunities to succumb to illness, financial straits, disabilities, loneliness, and broken hearts. When we focus on our suffering – and everyone suffers – we lose another moment in which we could experience heaven. Jesus invites us to repent (turn around) and live the good news.

The kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of heaven is here. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 11: There is a Third Way

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

John 8:7

throwing-stonesI imagine the excitement building in Jerusalem. The crowds were ready for some gruesome entertainment. A woman had been caught in the act of adultery, and the Law was clear – she should be stoned to death. Stoning was a religious mandate that the crowds could participate in. The pious, religious authorities were there, and the people were ready to begin, stones in hand. There was one problem, however – Jesus. The Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus into denying the legitimacy of the Law of Moses, asked him whether the woman should be stoned. Jesus bent over and wrote something on the ground. When they continued pressing him, he suggested that anyone without sin throw the first stone. One by one, the people dropped their stones and walked away.

Jesus modeled a third way, a higher truth. The Law was clear, and the Hebrew people believed their salvation was dependent on obedience to that Law. Jesus did not challenge the Law. Instead, he transformed the situation by challenging the justice of one sinner punishing another. It was a brilliant move. It was a third way that did not deny the Law, nor did it condone the woman’s behavior. It forced everyone present to examine his or her own lives and actions. There may not have been other adulterers in the crowd, but there were no sinless purists, either.

We have a tendency to reduce our choices to two options – right or wrong, light or dark, male or female, condone or condemn. There is a significant portion of each day that is neither light nor dark, however, but somewhere in between. The same is true for our lives. There are circumstances that are not clearly right or wrong, depending on the perspective from which they are experienced. When we narrow our choices to two, supporting one and denying the other, we limit the possibilities of our existence and perpetuate an either-or world. Thus, the importance of the third way.

Finding the Third Way is seldom quick or easy, but is always inclusive and respectful of peoples and traditions. The third way may not be any one particular group’s preferred way forward, but it will allow all people to progress. The third way may not achieve perfection, but it will move us closer to a just and righteous society. One of the many shortcomings of our two-solution focus is that we become more vested in defending our position than in solving our problems. We hold a stone, and it needs to be thrown.

Jesus taught that there is a third way. How did I miss that?