Archive for May, 2018

Love Your Enemies

 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Matthew 5:44-46

As I ponder these words of Jesus, I find it helpful to distinguish between people I do not like and those I consider an enemy. In general, I choose not to associate with those whom I share little in common. The person I must associate with in the normal course of my days who does not share my core values and understanding of the world, however, is a higher level of annoyance for me. While I accept that not everyone feels the same way I do about things, I find these people unpleasant to be around for an extended time, and I try to avoid or ignore them as much as possible. The third category of person is one who not only does not share my core values and understanding of the world, but he or she actively works against what is important to me. This person fits my definition of an enemy because avoiding or ignoring them is not sufficient. Rather, I find myself working in direct opposition to them in support of what I believe. Fortunately for me, there are not too many people in either of the latter two categories. They do exist, however, and I struggle with how best to deal with them in a way that is consistent with Christ’s teachings.

There is one striking example in the Gospels of Jesus becoming angry and actively working against the interests of another. In Matthew 21:12-13 (also in Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2). Jesus enters the temple and finds merchants selling sacrificial animals to worshipers. He overturns their tables and orders them to leave, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” The sellers were actively working against Jesus’ vision of the temple as a house of prayer. It was a dramatic clash of values, and Jesus took overt action against them. Based on my definition above, one could say the merchants were the enemies of Jesus.

Even so, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Everyone loves those who love them, Jesus says. For me, it is helpful to remember that to love someone does not necessarily mean I have to agree with them, approve of their behavior, or even particularly like them. The type of love of which Jesus speaks is an action, not an emotion. We can act in the best interest of another without necessarily agreeing with their life choices. We do not have to become like them, but we do need to acknowledge their existence, respect their right to feel as they do, and understand that God loves and cares for them every bit as much as God loves and cares for us. God allows us our preferences, but when our preferences lead us to judge others harshly, we tread a thin line between seeking to do what is right and believing that God is on our side, exclusively.

With some serious self-reflection, we begin to understand that our views and preferences are fraught with biases and prejudices, just like those of our enemies. With more reflection, we may even discover that what we find so annoying about another is actually a reflection of some deeply repressed tendency in ourselves of which we are ashamed. In other words, our enemies reflect something within us that we are hesitant to acknowledge. In that sense, our enemies are our greatest teachers. When we hate an enemy, we are only directing our venom back upon a part of ourselves that needs to be known, loved, and transformed. Many times, our enemies are not even aware of our feelings, so we truly only harm ourselves.

What I actually think Jesus is leading us to through loving our enemies is to persist in finding a third way to reconcile our differences – one that includes and honors both the position of our enemy as well as our own. In that way, there is no reason to hate our enemies because they are no longer an enemy but a comrade in a shared purpose. Loving others is the mark of a child of God, even and especially when that person seems to be working against us.

This is the 22nd 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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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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