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Archive for June, 2018

The Road is Hard

 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:13-14

This teaching calls to mind the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. One or more of these cardinal “sins” come easily to most of us. Jesus says, “…the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction.” Many agree that these sins lead to destruction, at least in the sense of bringing negative consequences. The unfortunate results impact both the person committing them and those with connected lives.

As if succumbing to one or more of the deadly sins is not easy enough, our society encourages and rewards many of these behaviors. We are told to take pride in our accomplishments; yet, there is a fine line between feeling proud of something we participated in and displaying an arrogant superiority over others. We are forever tempted to consume beyond our needs or means, leading to the sin of greed. “Sex sells” in advertising, but it is not the sort of sex that occurs as a healthy expression of a long-term, loving relationship. Lust is what sells products. Envy, gluttony, and wrath are center stage in movies and television. Sloth, or laziness, is a constant temptation for me on weekends when I often prefer stretching out for a nap to doing whatever else may need to be done. Jesus tells us that, easy as these behavioral choices may be, they lead to “destruction.” In the current context, this means they do not put us on “the road that leads to life.”

Most of us who have lived beyond middle age can attest that few thing in life worth having come easily, quickly, or without disciplined effort. Often, we must sacrifice a short-term reward in order to receive a greater reward over the longer term. This may be what Jesus refers to when he says, “…the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.” He adds, “…and there are few who find it.” This means, in my paraphrase, that many people do not apply the contemplative intentionality required to build a life worth living throughout its course. The alternative way is simply too easy and enticing. As we grow older, there is often an element of regret for the “sins” of our past. We may wish we had lived more beneath our means, saving more for our later years. On the other hand, we may wish we had enjoyed our resources more freely, instead of being overly miserly. Certainly, we may wish we had spent fewer hours at work and more with family and friends. We make choices about our lives every day, and Jesus’ warning about the wide and narrow gates is encouragement to make our choices consciously.

Am I suggesting that Jesus does not want us to enjoy our lives on earth, that we should always seek the more restrictive and less pleasurable path, or that we should never just relax? Certainly not! I suspect what Jesus has in mind is to practice a more contemplative approach to our choices in life, gazing beyond the single step in front of us to assess where that particular step is likely to lead. A few chapters after this passage, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30). Following Jesus should not be tortuous, but we may have to exchange certain forms of gratification today for more wholesome rewards tomorrow. As we learn to find joy in the simple pleasures offered each moment, the road becomes easier.

The road that leads to life is hard, but not because it was created that way. The good road is hard because we so easily fall prey to get rich quick schemes, lose weight without diet or exercise programs, and sin without consequence temptations. The ecological maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch is as true today as it ever has been, but only because an acceptable lunch today is so expensive in terms of its long-term consequences. Free graces abound in every moment for those with eyes to see the road that leads to life.

This is the 26th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Lipstick on a Pig

 Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. Matthew 7:6

When Jesus says, “Do not throw your pearls before swine,” I think of the old proverb, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” The point of the proverb is that you cannot change the inner essence of something simply by decorating the exterior. Another similar, though perhaps unrelated, saying that comes to my mind is this: “Arguing with an engineer (or insert the profession or person of choice here) is like wrestling in the mud with a pig. After a couple of hours you realize the pig is enjoying it.”

While Jesus’ words are less crude than the folk wisdom I cited, I believe the point is similar. Who and what we are dealing with should determine how we proceed. Jesus says if we give what is holy to a dog or pearls to pigs, they will not treat our gifts with a level of reverence that we consider appropriate. Why? Because they do not perceive the inherent beauty and value that we see. Is that a fault in their character? Of course not! It is our perception that ascribes the value, and pigs and dogs have a much different perspective of what is valuable or useful for their purposes. Consider the thought of giving a new computer to a person in a third world country who has no access to electricity, let alone to the internet. They might use the computer as yard art, as a doorstop, or as a conversation piece with their neighbors, but it will never open their eyes to the world we know in the way we may have hoped. It cannot do what we wish for that person, no matter how good or honorable our intentions, nor can the other appreciate it in the way we intend. Likewise, if we give a Rolex to a toddler, they will just chew on it.

The lesson in Jesus’ words has nothing to do with dogs and pigs, however, but in how we treat others. If someone does not share our appreciation for enlightened readings, why would we share them with that person? They will treat what we value as if it were worthless. Who is likely to be offended? It is us, of course! A better approach to share the joys of enlightenment is to find out where the other person is in his or her spiritual journey and meet them there. Who knows, we may find they are enlightened in ways we are not.

The reason Jesus provides for not giving gifts that others cannot appreciate is not only that they will trample them under foot, but also that they will turn and maul you. They may actually strike out in anger against us. One problem with giving something we think another person needs or wants is the very assumption he or she needs or wants anything from us. It may be more an expression of our well-intentioned, but arrogant assumption than his or her actual need or desire. If, in our sincere effort to help, we offend instead – we make them feel less a person – we can expect a negative and perhaps aggressive reaction. Particularly in giving advice, we cannot show a person a better way unless and until we know they (1) actually need a better way, and (2) desire to receive what we have to offer. Otherwise, we are simply throwing our “pearls” before swine, to paraphrase Jesus.

I hope not to imply that I consider those who have different thoughts about what is holy and valuable than me to be dogs or swine. I must remind myself regularly that what I value is what I value – nothing more, nothing less. Further, if I want to give something to others, it is best to give unconditionally, meaning without expectation of whether they use or appreciate the gift in the way I intended. If I cannot give something freely, I am probably still too attached to it and am likely to feel I have just given pearls to pigs.

Finally, I cannot resist sharing another “pig proverb,” this one from the author, Robert Heinlein: “Never try to teach a pig  to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig”.1

This is the 25th 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          http://thinkexist.com/quotation/never_try_to_teach_a_pig_to_sing-it_wastes_your/218581.html, accessed June 18, 2018.

 

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In My Father’s Arms

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June 14, 2018

Do Not Judge

 Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. Matthew 7:1

When I think of judgment, I remember a scene I witnessed several times growing up. The parents of one of my friends had matching easy chairs in their living room with a small table between them. They would smoke, drink, and comment, usually critically, on whatever they saw on television, in the neighborhood, or standing in front of them. My image was of a self-appointed king and queen meting out judgment on their lowly subjects and rarely granting anything smacking of mercy. As one who was sometimes the subject of their sharp judgment, the memory is not a pleasant one. Even as I write this, fifty years later, I realize I am judging them in return, albeit posthumously. Interestingly, this is exactly what Jesus tells us will happen when we cast judgement on others – that we, too, will be judged.

I believe most Christians are aware of Jesus’ instruction not to judge. What constitutes judgement, however, and whether casting judgement on another out of concern for his or her “salvation” creates a large divide among us. For example, if one truly believes that living outside of the Bible’s behavioral guidelines condemns one to an eternity in hell, would not the loving thing be to tell a friend or family member that they need to repent? Of all the issues that turn people away from the Christian faith, however, the sense that we are overly judgmental is one of the most common. When a person sets foot inside a church and is accosted by language about salvation and other accusations that make them feel less than welcome or worthy of God’s love, it is little wonder so many of our churches are struggling. Personally, I think Jesus tells us to tend to our own house, first.

There is a foundational reason why it is so difficult not to judge: our minds are designed to judge. We constantly categorize what we see, hear, feel, touch, and taste. This is good, that is bad; this is beautiful, that is ugly; this is worthy of my attention, that is not; this is safe, that is dangerous. These judgments are usually made much too quickly to know anything or anyone at more than the shallowest of levels. Yet, this is what our minds do. In that sense, Jesus is asking us to overcome our natural tendency to judge – both for ourselves and for others. More accurately, Jesus asks us to become more discriminating about when to act on our judgments.

One common and frequently overlooked form of judgment is gossip – saying things about a person in his or her absence that we would not say in their presence. Gossip is often malicious, but not always. I sometimes catch myself saying things about someone in a way I would not say to him or her face to face. Usually, I am not trying to hurt them, but rather to be funny. I attempt to be funny, however, at someone else’s expense.

Here is an even more important reason to be careful about casting judgment, however. That which we find most worthy of judgment against another is almost certainly a reflection of a similar trait or tendency within our self. If we are not consciously aware of that particular tendency, we likely have repressed our awareness of it, often out of shame. Bringing those types of issues to light and acknowledging them can be painful. The old saying that when I point a finger at you there are three pointing back at me is often truer than we care to admit.

When it comes to our own shortcomings, we desire mercy for ourselves more readily that we typically grant it to others. When we see something worthy of judgment in another, perhaps our first thoughts should be, “What within me is reacting so negatively to this behavior? Am I guilty of the same thing?” Once we have those answers, we may not be so quick to judge. No one is perfect, but we seldom improve or grow from the harsh judgments of others. Allowing our repressed memories and immature tendencies to rise to conscious awareness helps us to transform those hidden parts of ourselves into something good. Somehow, that transformation also seems magically to transform others, or at least our perception of others. Because the mercy of withholding judgement is something we desire for ourselves, Jesus suggests we grant the same to others.

 This is the 24th 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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