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Archive for July, 2018

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Ask, Search, Knock

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Matthew 7:7-8

These words are among the most quoted and familiar of everything Jesus said. They are also among the most misleading. If they were literally true, we could win the lottery by asking God; the 16th Century explorer, Ponce De Leon, would have found the Fountain of Youth; and we could knock on the door of the White House and be granted entry. There is a lot of evidence that Jesus is wrong.

Jesus seems to double-down on these thoughts, however, in the verses that follow. In verse 9, he asks what parent would give a stone to a child asking for bread. In verse 10, he asks what parent would give a snake to a child asking for a fish. In verse 11, he explains that if we know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” In other words, what sort of parent would not try to give his or her children the good things they desire? That being the case, why would not God, our divine parent, do the same for us? As with much of what Jesus says, however, we must look deeper than the literal translation of his words in order to understand the life-giving spirit behind them. God is not Santa Claus, and the asking, searching, and knocking Jesus references are not a Christmas list.

If we learn anything from the life and teachings of Jesus it is that he manifested a perfect unity of body and spirit, a unity he invites us also to attain. If we picture our life on a continuum, stretching from completely materialistic on the far left to completely spiritual on the far right, we can imagine this inclusive unity in the middle of that space. Anything that pulls us to the far left draws us toward materialism and away from our spiritual nature. Likewise, anything that pulls us to the far right draws us toward spiritualism and away from our bodily nature. God gave us both a body and a spirit for a reason, and they are both good.

When we consider the continuum of our physical and spiritual nature, it goes against our created nature to be drawn overly much to either. The problem with focusing on either end to the exclusion of the other is that we become less and less satisfied, less and less at peace, the farther we go in either direction. Both ends are seductive, but neither without the other is healthy. We think, “If I only had a              , then I would be happy;” but we learn it is not true. The more stuff we have, the more we desire. Likewise, the more enlightening spiritual experiences we have, the more we desire. There is no satisfaction at either end. It is not that our physical and spiritual natures should not be sufficiently nourished – certainly they should. But they should not be fed to where they bloat out of proportion to the other.

The unsolvable human mystery is how, when, or even if God grants requests – providing what we ask for, revealing the object of our search, opening the door upon which we knock. There is evidence that God does grant our wishes, as I have seen people healed whose outlook was dismal. Alternatively, I have seen others waste away and die, in spite of countless, heartfelt prayers. I think the sweet spot in gaining what we wish for is in aligning our desires with God’s will, with what is. Only then will our petitions be granted as naturally as Jesus implies in these verses. Paradoxically, that requires us to change our desires. And yet, is that not the point, for us to be drawn closer to God in our humanity? It seems safe to assume God’s will is not for us to dwell overly much at either end of life’s spectrum, but to deeply experience both body and spirit as one.

Yes, we can and should ask, search, and knock, but we do so with the knowledge that God will not answer, reveal, or open that which is inconsistent with attaining unity within ourselves, with others, and with God. God granting an un-unifying wish would be akin to giving a child a snake when he or she asked for a fish.

This is the 29th 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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Strain a Gnat, Swallow a Camel

 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Matthew 23:24-25

This scripture passage is part of a rant Jesus releases in Matthew 23 upon the religious leaders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. He accuses them of perpetuating ignorance while pretending to be guardians of knowledge. He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a brood of vipers. He says they are full of greed and self-indulgence, hypocrisy and lawlessness. In verse 27, he says, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.” Is it any wonder they had him killed? Jesus may have been physically non-violent, but he could be a verbal assassin when he felt it was justified.

Jesus knew the leaders of the Temple were selectively applying scriptural principles for their own benefit. The leaders were not just embarrassed by the accusations, some almost certainly feared Jesus might be right! The common people looked to them for guidance in understanding the scriptures most had no access to (and could not read if they did). Instead of receiving the larger picture of how the Bible applied to their daily lives, the people were given a bunch of rules to follow that mostly benefited the leaders. These rules served to perpetuate the Temple institution more than the community it was erected to serve. The rules also served as a means of behavioral control over the people. It is ironic that the same thing continues today in many houses of worship. Certain charismatic religious leaders convince followers to empty their pockets for the “work” of the church – never mind that a significant work of some churches appears to be the glorification of the pastor. I remember a joke about a pastor who was asked how he determined what money in the collection plate was his and what was God’s. The pastor replied, “I take the money given each Sunday and throw it all up to God. God grabs whatever He needs and lets my share fall back to me.”

Jesus said, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We do the same thing today when we overly focus on a single word or line in scripture and strain out the spirit and the context of the larger work or historical trend. When we focus on minutia, straining gnats, we almost certainly miss the big picture. Father Richard Rohr writes that the lowest level of understanding of scripture is the literal level. In my opinion, we invite the camel when we believe scripture was dictated by God, instead of being inspired by God and written by imperfect, human beings. These words of Jesus stand as a warning to all (myself included) who pretend to have more than a vague sense about the nature of God. God cannot be known as we know other things of the earth. The things we know are of God, but they are not God. We can only observe where God has been. Any attempt to capture or limit God in words is like trying to catch the wind. If someone assures us he or she is serving God for dinner, we can rest assured it is really a camel.

Jesus says we “neglect the weightier matters of the law” like justice, mercy, and faith when we focus on minutia. It is easy to give rules and dole out salvation based on one’s compliance with those rules. The weightier matters of the law require us to change. When Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees blind, he accuses them of ignorance. They can only focus on minutia because either they do not understand the bigger picture, or they choose not to acknowledge it. Worse, they encourage others to focus on minutia, and so the ignorance perpetuates itself. Wrestling with the totality of scripture is hard and reveals parts of ourselves we prefer to remain hidden. Jesus tells us not to ignore any part of the scripture, but to apply it in a way that includes the difficult and self-incriminating issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Only such an application of religious practice is consistent with the (unwritten) Word of God from which all of life arises.

This is the 28th 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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Not Peace, but a Sword

 Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34

This passage of scripture is easy to ignore as improbable to have been said by Jesus. Perhaps it was mistranslated. Perhaps a disgruntled biblical scribe with an unhappy home life snuck it into the Bible in one of its later rewritings. As Jesus describes his “sword” in the verses that follow, he says he will set “a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:35-36). With the blessings a loving, supportive family brings, one would expect Jesus to teach peace within families, not division.

Unfortunately, family life was not typically healthy or beneficial in Jesus’ day, nor is it in many cases today. Two thousand years ago, families were more like tribes or clans, not unlike the gangs of today or the mafia of the last century. Families were isolated community units with one common purpose – the survival of the clan. Their primary loyalty was to the family. I suspect it was because of the exclusivity of families that Jesus drew people out of them and into a larger, more inclusive community. He called his disciples away from their families and livelihoods in order to unite them around a larger common purpose – the Kingdom of God. This calling to an all-inclusive community must have left the disciples feeling vulnerable and insecure, apart from the group they had identified with since birth. Their safety and security could now only be found in God and in each other. We, particularly in the West, have an aversion to the type of communal life Jesus lived, where resources are shared according to need and not necessarily “earned” according to ability.

Today, we criticize gangs for their often-negative impacts on neighborhoods, including violence against others, drug dealing, sex trafficking, and other atrocities some gangs commit. We forget that people join gangs to satisfy a need to be part of something larger than themselves. They seek security and acceptance they cannot find at home, at work, or at school. The realities of certain socio-economic conditions drive people into gangs, and if we wish to positively impact gang culture we must begin by attacking the underlying conditions that create the need for that type of family. Understanding this may help us understand why Jesus called his disciples away from their families.

It is important, and sometimes counter-intuitive, to realize how our families can stunt our growth. From an early age, many of us attempt to imitate our parents and may set a goal to follow in their footsteps. Carrying on the family business or learning the trade of the parent is not necessarily a bad thing. The prejudices of the parents, however, often become the prejudices of the children, and the sins of one generation pass to the next unchallenged unless and until someone steps out and breaks the cycle. I believe Jesus sought to break that cycle, encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and into a new life. “Your old life may feel secure,” he seems to say, “but I can show you a life that will open whole new realms of possibility.”  He sought to cut us off from the limitations of our past, including its inherited sins, and lead us in a new way. The “sword” of Jesus is not a physical weapon, but a spiritual tool to free us from the old and set us on a new path.

Jesus concludes this difficult passage by saying, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). I believe the life we will lose, according to Jesus, is the ungrounded and unchallenged life so often followed without question in families, then and now. Because it is a life not grounded in Truth, because it does not put us on a path to the kingdom of God, it cannot last. Jesus calls us to a different family, one that may or may not include others of our household. Prior to our birth, after our death, and especially during our life on earth, we are children of God. Only by our willing consent to let go of the old, traditional ways will we rediscover our natural life in Christ.

This is the 27th 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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