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Archive for April, 2018

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.

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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

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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.

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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

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