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Give to Everyone Who Asks

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:42

This is a verse that pops into my head often, but is seldom a welcome addition to whatever I am thinking at the time. There are many things Jesus said that are difficult for me, and this may be chief among them. I was walking downtown last week, and I came across six panhandlers – people asking for money. They held signs saying, “Homeless, please help” or “Hungry” or “Need bus money to go home.” I remember thinking I should help them, but I did not. I walked by, pretending I did not notice, like almost everyone else. At such times, this verse pops into my head.

I used to justify my stinginess by thinking that the beggars might use the money for drugs or booze or cigarettes. How would I be helping them by enabling their unhealthy habits? In addition, by giving panhandlers money, I might be perpetuating their poverty by helping them survive without getting a job. Even if these arguments were true in some cases, Jesus’ words still sound in my head, with emphasis on the words everyone and anyone. Ultimately, I am unable to judge the heart, intention, or life situation of another.

There is another time this verse enters my mind, and it happened recently as I bought a flowering tree for our yard. Mind you, we already have lots of flowering trees in and around our yard. The money I spent on the tree could have provided a decent meal for all six of the panhandlers I encountered the day before. And this verse popped into my head. Perhaps Jesus asks us to not only consider the price we pay for commodities to enhance our lives, but also to weigh the alternative uses for that same money.

If this verse about giving to everyone who asks is not compelling enough, there is a corollary verse that I find every bit as uncomfortable. It is this: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). This comes from a parable where Jesus illustrates that how we treat the least in society is how we treat him. If I recognized Jesus on the street and he was hungry, would I refuse to feed him? Yet, if I believe Jesus lives in me, how can I not also believe Jesus lives in the panhandler on the street? For me, it is a dilemma with only one solution – give.

It is not my intent to lay a guilt trip on anyone, including myself. Guilt trips accomplish nothing. I believe this is a social justice issue God challenges us to wrestle with and draw our own conclusions. If I truly believe that everything I have is a gift from God, however, then I have not earned any of it. It does not belong to me. If everything I have is a gift – from the money in my pocket to my home, car, and possessions – what right do I have to refuse to share it with others?

The second half of the verse continues, “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” If nothing in my possession actually belongs to me, does not that also make me a borrower? I should absolutely take care of what is entrusted to me, but I have no right to hoard it beyond my need. Do I really believe God will cease blessing me because I allow others to share the abundance on loan to me from God?

I do not believe this verse is a call to self-deprivation. Nor do I believe there is a single answer for everyone. There are many non-monetary things we can give, some of which may be needed more than money – attention, encouragement, and a listening ear to name a few. Our challenge is to identify what we can give cheerfully, extravagantly, and without expectation and see where that leads us. We need to give something of ourselves, however; not just for the sake of those who ask, but for our own well-being, too. There are many things Jesus said that are difficult to understand. This is not one of them. Give.

This is the 21st 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

Thoughts Matter

 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:28

For most of us, our parents taught us right from wrong by rewarding the good things we said and did and punishing the not so good. Society does the same by creating laws governing our actions and punishing those who break the law. The focus is on our actions and, occasionally, on the things we say because our words and actions have a direct impact on those around us. Jesus, however, reminds us that thoughts matter, too.

In his 1902 book As A Man Thinketh1, James Allen writes, “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.” Thought (sometimes, very little thought) precedes our words and actions. In fact, our thoughts shape our words and actions. Every act of creation – paintings, songs, poems and other literary works, structures, relationships – begins in thought. Poorly thought out projects inevitably have poor results. In our criminal justice system, a premeditated murder – one consciously planned before the act – is treated more seriously than the accidental killing of another or a murder committed in the heat of the moment.

Jesus’ example of a man lusting after a woman in his heart is an amazingly insightful reference and the main point, in my opinion, goes well beyond lustful thoughts. When a man looks upon a woman with lust, when he not only notices the woman as an attractive being, but also allows his thoughts to explore how he might derive pleasure from that physical body, he has effectively denigrated the woman into an object. There is no recognition of or appreciation for the unique expression of God that occupies that body, for the life she lives or for the ways she impacts others by being who God created her to be. In Jesus’ words, he “has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Focusing for too long and hard on the objectification of another can result in creating ways for one’s thoughts to manifest physically, often with unfortunate and lasting results.

Controlling our thoughts is hard. Our minds were created to wander from thought to thought and, without being consciously aware of it, we can entertain some pretty nasty imagery in our heads about a variety of things we would be appalled to see actually happen. The society around us may not be able to detect our thoughts in the same way it assesses our words and actions, but our inner musings are known to us and to God. Psalm 139:1,2b says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You discern my thoughts from far away.” While I believe God understands our all-too-human tendency to allow our thoughts to run where they will, and to dwell where they perhaps should not, I also believe it is an expected discipline for us to gain a measure of control over our thoughts, every bit as much as we do our words and actions. Our thoughts should be our tools, not our master. We cannot stop unhealthy thoughts from popping into our heads, but we can certainly find ways to diminish our dwelling on them. Contemplative types of prayer can help.

Because our thoughts are such powerful creative forces, we should always be conscious of them. For example, when we are overly critical of our own shortcomings, we almost certainly increase our likelihood to underachieve in many areas. If we berate ourselves for not being good at one thing, we may extrapolate that we are not good at anything. Positive thinking may have its limits, but negative thinking is almost boundless in its destructive power. While we need to guard against unhealthy self-talk, we also need to guard against negative thoughts about others. If another person does something that annoys us, it is easy to write off the entire person as annoying. When that happens, our own thoughts may blind us to what should bless us in others.

Our thinking mind is a gift that allows us to co-create with God in awesome and infinite ways. From the way we treat others to the ways we decorate our homes to the legacy we leave for our children, our thoughts birth what manifests in our lives – both beautiful and less than beautiful. In all things, our thoughts matter.

This is the 20th 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          James Allen, As A Man Thinketh. Sourced from www.gutenberg.org/files/4507/4507-h/4507-h.htm on May 14, 2018.

First, Be Reconciled

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Matthew 5:23-24

We live in increasingly angry times, or so it seems to me. Perhaps our expectations of ourselves and others have been set so high that it is impossible for them to be met. In an age of photo-shopped images and unreal “reality” TV, perfection has seemingly become the new normal. No one measures up to that standard and many of us resent the self-imposed expectation that we could or should. On the rare occasions when I watch the news, I see stories of anger manifesting in families, schools, and workplaces. Whether we are stuck in traffic, annoyed by political commentary, or offended by the thoughtless actions of another, we are quick to become angry and slow to forgive. In many ways our self-righteous anger has morphed into the lifeblood of our society – if we are not angry about something, it seems we cannot be alive to the moment.

I am not implying there is nothing worthy of our anger. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, child and spousal abuse, injustice and oppression in their many manifestations, all should fill us with fury, and a commitment to action. My point is not that we should never be angry, but that it is not helpful to respond to anger with more anger. Becoming angry is a hollow, unhealthy emotion if it goes no further than being an emotion. When we sit in our easy chair, point our finger at the television and scream, “Someone should do something about that!” we are correct. Someone should do something about it. Unfortunately, we miss the point whenever we think the someone who should do something is someone else.

Where we stray from Jesus’ teachings about anger is when we demand retribution or retaliation when confronted with injustice or inconsiderate behavior. Jesus did not preach retribution or retaliation; Jesus taught reconciliation, and the difference is profound. Anger separates us from others and tells us, in essence, that we are better, more righteous, or more Christian than they. Jesus encourages unity with others, honoring and respecting the diverse ways in which each person manifests God’s presence in the world. This is especially true in our churches, where Jesus tells us to first be reconciled to our brothers and sisters before we offer our gifts at the altar. Anyone preaching hatred, intolerance, punishment, retribution, or retaliation from the pulpit is, in my opinion, not faithfully relaying the message of Christ. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.” In a word, always.

Anger is a gift from God intended to motivate us to action, not a sword to divide us one from another. It is the energy and passion that empowers our words and actions. We do well to remember, however, that that which upsets us is almost always a reflection of some deeply repressed dissatisfaction within our own being. Therefore, humility is always a wise companion to anger.

In the 1970’s movie Network1, a former news anchor played by Peter Finch goes into an on-air rant, encouraging people to stick their head out the window and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The movie pans to scenes throughout the country where people yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Being mad is neither the problem nor the solution, however. The problem comes when we focus outside of ourselves first, blaming and demanding change from others, before assessing our internal motivations and responsibilities. Yes, we should be mad as hell; and yes, we should do something about it. This is our world – yours and mine – and it is our responsibility to make it better for everyone. Our righteous anger can help us do so, but meaningful change begins within.

Once we have lovingly reconciled with our brothers and sisters – and our spouses, parents, children, co-workers, neighbors, strangers-on-the-street, immigrants, and those of different ethnicities and orientations – then can we lay our offerings at the altar in peace.

This is the 19th 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           Network, motion picture. United Artists. 1976.

Those Persecuted for Righteousness

 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:10-12

Persecution takes many forms, none of them pleasant. Sometimes it is physical, as in a beating, lynching, or other act of violence. Other times, persecution is emotional, such as being devalued, made to feel insignificant, or misunderstood. Persecution can also be social, as in bullying, gossiping, or otherwise isolating someone from a group. Although we all suffer, not all suffering is persecution. Much of what we suffer from cannot be controlled. For example, if we are genetically disposed to cancer or heart disease, we may suffer a serious physical ailment regardless of how well we attend to our health. Persecution can occur from things we have little control over. Particularly in bullying, someone may be persecuted because of the way they look. Perhaps a speech impediment or birthmark brings the unwelcome and hurtful ridicule of others. On the other hand, there were kids from my school days who seemed to invite persecution for no obvious reason. They seemed to annoy others for the sole purpose of getting attention, even when the attention they received was negative. Regardless of the cause or motivation, persecution is painful.

Jesus refers to a specific type of persecution in this passage, however; one that is consciously chosen. This is a persecution brought about by the overt practice of one’s sincerely held beliefs. In Jesus’ words, it is being “persecuted for righteousness sake,” meaning suffering condemnation for what one believes is right. In a sense, this type of suffering is self-inflicted, for if one backed away from their expressed beliefs, at least in theory, the persecutors would stop persecuting. This suffering is consciously chosen in service of advocating for a position that is not in line with those in power. The act of speaking truth to power is an example – standing up to those in authority to point out injustice or the unethical use of authority. This type of suffering requires a dedication to a cause or a position that overrides one’s concern for one’s own safety and comfort. It is entirely selfless and can be dangerous.

It is wholly consistent with Jesus’ teachings and life that we would be encouraged to stand up for the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, and the sick. And when our dedication to these groups comes at a personal cost to us, when our actions on their behalf causes us to suffer persecution, Jesus assures us of our reward. In this case, our reward is the kingdom of heaven. As I have expressed elsewhere, receiving the kingdom of heaven may or may not be an after-death experience. I believe Jesus refers to a state of being here and now, so the obvious question is this: If persecution is so unpleasant, what sort of compensating reward could override the pain?

This question cannot be answered in the same way we answer most questions because, as is typical of spiritual mysteries, words cannot adequately explain the reality. The kingdom of heaven is a real and present reality (for example, see Matthew 4:17), but we cannot experience it at the same level of consciousness where most of us live our lives. In our everyday reality, doing something that invites persecution is disagreeable, at best. We must experience life at a level deep enough to get beyond the unpleasantries at the surface, however, to the forces at work at a more foundational level. At this level we see and serve Christ by seeing and serving the disenfranchised. If we are persecuted as a result, so be it. In other words, when all we experience is pain from our acts of righteousness, we are likely not present to the state of conscious reality in which Christ exists and works in and on our world. Underneath our surface-level suffering is rejoicing and gladness because the righteous are working with God. God is working through the righteous to put the world on a more just and honorable path, making all things new.

As Jesus tells us, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The prophets knew it, and so can we.

 This is the 18th 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 Peacemakers

 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Matthew 5:9

When I think of a peacemaker, I think of someone with a gift for easing tension, for working through differences, and for finding a way to bring together people with diverse beliefs and goals. When I was a young adult, there was much talk about the United States achieving peace through strength. This meant that we would maintain a military force strong enough that no one would dare disturb the peace sufficiently to provoke us to action against them for that nation would face certain annihilation. I wondered then, and I wonder today: Is that really peace? It is fear-based compliance, which seems to me like a very shallow and tenuous peace. Underneath, the weaker party is forever scheming ways to attain their purposes without overly provoking the more powerful party. This type of peace leads to subversion, hatred, and jealousy as people devise subtle ways to rebel and undermine the other. I think peace through strength might be illustrated by the compliant housewife who outwardly stands with her abusive husband, but only because of and for as long as it seems to be the best option available to her. Behind the placid face brews hatred and prayers for how she might free herself from the oppression one day. Somehow, I doubt this is the sort of peace of which Jesus refers.

In his book A Brief History of Everything1, Ken Wilber describes the concept of transcend and include, which refers to stages of growth and development. For the atom to join a molecule, it must transcend its atomic state and join other atoms to form a molecule. It still retains its being as an atom, however, only in a larger, integrated context. The same is true of our cells. In order to grow into a higher order of existence, a cell must join together with other cells under a common purpose to form organs and organisms. Each cell continues to exist, both as an individual and as part of a larger community. What does this have to do with peace? When people, corporations, or nations clash, each side is locked in its own small, exclusive reality, refusing to accept the legitimacy of their opponent’s small, exclusive reality. In the cellular example, one cell refuses to join with another cell in order to participate in and create a higher being that transcends, yet includes both cells. When this happens, a battle ensues – physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual – until one side beats the other into submission. And our world calls that peace. Peace, however, is much more than the absence of violence.

The only lasting and true peace must be inclusive of what is important to all sides. What is always required is a transformation to a higher, more inclusive state of being. Some authors refer to it as a third way. This way to peace requires each side to expand their conscious awareness enough to reassess their own position, while opening themselves to the position of the other. With persistence and patience, a third way emerges that allows both sides to retain what is truly important to them – traditions, cultures, languages – but they do so in a mutually beneficial, respectful, and transcendent way. This is the peace of Christ, who stood at the crossroads of human nature and spirit, of government and religion, of heaven and earth, and held himself there as an inclusive uniter. It was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross; it was his love for both sides. Whether the issue is national borders, homophobia, racial or social injustice, Christ stands in the gap, holding the tension, and lovingly welcoming everyone to the table.

Those who follow the unifying example of Christ, then, are the peacemakers. They are the ones who stand in the gap between warring factions and, often at their own peril, work to expand the vision and experience of both sides so everyone can co-exist. Peacemakers are never exclusive but always inclusive of all people and views. This is why they are called children of God. They do exactly what Jesus came to earth to do – to make God known to us through a peace demonstrated by an unfailing love and acceptance of all.

The peacemakers are among the instruments of God on earth.

This is the 17th 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          Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala Publications. Boston, MA 2000.

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.