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Archive for the ‘devotion’ Category

Deny Yourself

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:23-24

If there were a “Bottom 10” list of the least popular things Jesus said, Luke 9:23-24 would have to be on it. Had Jesus had a public relations firm back in the day, they certainly would have suggested he massage this message significantly before going public with it. It is bad enough to tell people to deny themselves, but to take up a cross daily? As if that were not unappealing enough, he goes on to say that those who wish to save their life will lose it. His words sound more like a call to misery than a path to a new, richer life. Surely, the message is no better received in today’s narcissistic, consumer-driven culture than in Jesus’ day.

Much is made in this season of Lent of fasting. One of the common practices of fasting is to deny oneself of some routine or cherished part of one’s day. As one misses what has been denied, one remembers the sacrifice Jesus made for us. This helps us discover that we can live, and often live much better, without some of the unhealthy habits and superfluous possessions that weigh down our daily existence. Another purpose of the “denying oneself” type of fasting is to rid ourselves of something in order to make room for Christ to take hold in our lives. A full cup cannot receive more, and a full life stands as a fortress against any newness breaking in, good or bad.

Another type of fasting, perhaps more a matter of semantics than substance, is to add something positive to one’s day instead of removing something else. This can be understood as a fasting by blessing instead of fasting by suffering. Of course, the reality is that for most of us to add anything, the removal of something else must occur first. Either way, one purpose is to try to allow a new and positive habit to be born into and take hold within us.

It is interesting and instructive that Jesus follows the command to deny oneself with the command to take up one’s cross daily. What is our cross? One way to look at it is that our cross consists of our daily tasks – the things we do for our jobs or to keep our home running or to fulfil our obligations as parents, children, co-workers, and friends. This is our work, and our world depends on us fulfilling these tasks. Sometimes our work threatens to overwhelm us, although not always because it is overwhelming in and of itself. More often, for me, work becomes a cross to bear because I fill my life with meaningless distractions that compress the time available to complete my work. With this understanding, denying oneself becomes a way to refocus upon and reframe the context for one’s work – for the cross one bears. As new habits of conscious intention take hold, we see our work in an entirely new light, even when our responsibilities have not changed, and even though there are not more hours in a day. It does not matter if we are a doctor, a home-maker, an accountant, a church committee member, or a volunteer in the local Library, our work is important to the world.

Fasting, as a way to grow closer to God, can help us do our work in a more joyous and grateful manner. If the benefit and blessing of fasting accrues to us, where then is the deprivation? The key is in consciously and willingly turning one’s life in a new direction. To the extent there is discomfort, it is because change can feel like suffering as we let go of the old and reach for the new. There is a transition period required, but it is only that – a transition. Like everything in life, this too shall pass.

Denying ourselves of something that contributes little to life – ours and others’ – is a practice from which we can all benefit. Trying to preserve, or save, the unprofitable aspects of our lives will certainly and eventually fail.

This is the 8th 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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Come and See

 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”  John 1:38-39

In John 1:35-42, Jesus walks by John the Baptist and a couple of his disciples and John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John’s two disciples begin following Jesus, who turns around and asks, “What are you looking for?” The men ask where he is staying, and Jesus says, “Come and see.” This directive to Jesus’ first disciples two thousand years ago remains a directive to those of us wishing to follow Jesus today: Come and see.

To “come” implies we must leave wherever we are, and to “see” means to open our eyes, heart, and mind to what is revealed in our coming. Those who wish to see must first come. Another important word in this story is the word translated as “staying,” which can also be translated as abiding. There is a way to consider this encounter that I find instructive. When John’s disciples saw Jesus, identified as the Lamb of God, they immediately wanted to know more. Something about Jesus intrigued them. Perhaps they saw something in him they were missing in themselves. Therefore, they asked where he was staying. Personally, I think what they asked was more along the lines of Where do you abide? The difference is significant because if, indeed, the disciples were drawn to Jesus, they would want to know about his spiritual nature, or certainly something deeper than his physical habitation.

Where we abide can refer to our state of consciousness and/or a state of relationship. It is our go-to mode for living. It is where we reside internally, as in the center point from which we live and move and have our being. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, was in a relationship with God that these men wanted to experience for themselves. Thus they ask, where are you abiding? Those of us who seek to follow Jesus will eventually ask the same question. If this interpretation of the story is reasonable, the journey Jesus invites us to is an internal journey more than an external one. Jesus invites us not to a different geographic state, but to a different state of conscious awareness.

Jesus tells the men, “Come.” That means to leave wherever you are. In this case, it meant for the disciples to leave their current lives, including leaving their mentor, John. For us, it may mean many things, but wherever it is Jesus invites us, it is not our life as it is today. To come somewhere is to leave one’s current abode. Jesus might as easily have said, “Leave!” The command requires an affirmative decision, followed by action on our part to accomplish.

Finally, Jesus says, “See.” Only after we have come to where he abides can we begin to see what he wishes to reveal. To witness the inner reality of Jesus is to experience what it means to live in unity with God. It is not enough to listen, nor is it sufficient to read or talk it out with others. We only experience this divine reality by trusting, following, and committing to this new type of freedom, this new state of being.

Here is the problem for many of us: our lives are like a hamster wheel in that we confuse activity with progress. We are worried and distracted over many things and overwhelmed with the day’s demands. We run faster and faster, but at the end of the day/week/year we have progressed no farther along any road upon which we wish to be traveling. This is completely discouraging because no matter how hard we work, neither the scenery nor the schedule changes, and the only tangible result we have to show is total exhaustion! I understand Jesus’ invitation to come and see as one to step off the hamster wheel, leave the cage, and enter a new, expanded reality. How we actually do this, from a practical standpoint, is another matter that each of us must figure out for ourselves – just as Jesus’ disciples had to figure out how to leave their former lives in order to attain a new one.

Either way, all who want off their current hamster-wheel-abode are invited: Come and See!

This is the 7th 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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Humble Yourself

 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4

In general, I try to build people up and make them feel good about themselves and their lives. Never mind that some of my friends are gagging now because I also enjoy humbling others on occasion (for their own good, of course). Nevertheless, I truly believe that everyone and everything is an amazing and unique work of creation, unlike anything created before or that will be created in the future. We are literally the only one of ourselves out of countless trillions of beings. In that sense, we are special beyond comprehension. Our specific blend of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual traits will never again see the light of day when we pass. We could interpret this as a reason for arrogance.

While some may agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, others are suspecting there is a catch. And there is. Are you ready? Yes, you are unique in all of creation. BUT (make sure you are sitting down for this). Here’s the catch (take a deep breath now): Everyone and everything else is a completely unique creation, too!!! This includes the pebble in your shoe and the gnat you swatted away from your food at dinner. God expresses absolutely uniquely in and through the specific nature of everything. I once heard a bit of business wisdom that goes, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” The corollary on the topic of uniqueness is this: “If everyone is a unique creation, no one is unique.” While this is may be overly cynical, it does perhaps shed some light on why Jesus tells us to humble ourselves.

The context for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:4 is that he is sitting with his disciples who ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by setting a child on his lap and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Indeed, the call for humility is not unique to Jesus in the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Micah (6:8) wrote, “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!”

It is interesting and instructive that Jesus uses children to illustrate humility. Many parents, myself included, put enormous amounts of energy into building our children’s self-esteem and trying to assure they develop a positive self-image. We want our kids to celebrate their distinct place in creation and to know themselves as a beloved child of God. While we do not want them to feel inferior, we also do not want them to believe themselves superior to others, either. Uniqueness does not equal preeminence.

In general, children are curious, optimistic, joyful, easily awed, and have short memories. They are not “smart” in the ways of the world, but they learn to shape their unique character into the puzzle of the life around them. Children possess important traits of humility we often forget as we grow up and become “wise.” Children are more likely to be present to the moment, and in that moment to see and appreciate the beauty and joy in the specificity of everything around them. Jesus warns that the childlike traits we shed as we age are the very ones we should most strive to retain.

One might wonder about the purpose for our unique blend of skills, characteristics, and insights if not for us to gain an advantage over others in life. At least two responses come to mind. First, we are creations of God, created in God’s image and likeness, so whatever uniqueness we have comes from God and not from anything we have done. Where, then, is our cause to brag? Secondly, we are given special qualities in order to make this world a better place for ourselves and others. For every talent we are given, there is a need nearby that we alone are uniquely gifted to meet. The biggest question is whether we are humble enough to use our talents in service to others (like Jesus did). That, I think, is becoming humble like a child and holds the key to the kingdom.

This is the 6th 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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Do Not Be Afraid

He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Mark 4:40

When we are afraid it is often because we have lost a sense of control, we are in an unfamiliar situation, or darkness has made our surroundings strange and threatening. We can be frightened because we feel our life, or the life of a loved one is in danger. Fear is a common reaction whenever something out of our comfort zone is occurring. On the one hand, we are told to fear God, as in Leviticus 19:14, and on the other hand, sprinkled throughout scripture, is the directive not to fear God’s messengers.

Biblical encounters with a divine being – God, Jesus, or an angel – is often preceded with the directive to have no fear. For example, in Genesis 15:1, God visits Abraham in a dream and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” In Matthew 1:20, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” In Luke 1:13, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” In Luke 1:30, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” It is as if the message is, “Do not allow your fear to prevent you from receiving the message contained in your discomfort.”

About 25 times in the four Gospels, Jesus says not to be afraid or not to fear. In the passage from Mark 4:40, the disciples are on a boat crossing the sea. Jesus is asleep when a strong storm hits and threatens to sink the ship. The disciples are in fear of their lives when they wake up Jesus. He calms the sea with a word and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” What is so interesting about this story is the connection Jesus draws between fear and faith. Is Jesus suggesting that a person with sufficient faith should have no fear?

The night before Jesus was crucified, as he prayed, he asked, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…” (Luke 22:42). Was that an expression of fear? Personally, I think there is an important distinction to draw between fear and dread. The human part of Jesus dreaded the pain, suffering, and humiliation that was before him in a similar way to how we might dread an upcoming Calculus final or a course of chemotherapy. The divine part of Jesus knew there was a greater purpose for his suffering, and so he relented, “…yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Perhaps the type of fear Jesus warns against is the type that manifests as worry. We fear many things because we suspect they may negatively impact our current or future states of being. Of course, the vast majority of what we worry about does not happen. Invariably, the outcomes of that which does happen are seldom as disastrous as our worry leads us to believe. Worry shows a significant lack of trust in God’s care and hinders our ability to be fully present to whatever is going on.

Anyone who has believed in the goodness of God over a significant period knows that faith does not prevent tragic things from happening. Certainly, there are events and circumstances on earth where fear is a rational reaction. Our faith, however, can help put our suffering into a meaningful context. God does not promise bad things will not happen, only that we will not have to carry the burden alone. In addition, God assures us that, over time, all things work together for good (Romans 8:28) in ways we simply cannot imagine. God always transforms suffering into blessing.

In Luke 12:22, Jesus is explicit: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” We are in good, albeit invisible hands worthy of our trust. Fear of God, as in an awe-inspired reverence for God’s incomprehensible presence, is good. Worry and speculation about future possibilities reveals a faith deficit and only saps our strength. God may be speaking to us through our fear-inducing events, but succumbing to our fear will inhibit our ability to receive God’s message. Why are we so afraid? Have we still no faith?

This is the 5th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Do you prefer listening to reading? Check out the Life Notes podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts.

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The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”     Matthew 13:31-32

Jesus’ initial instruction to us is to repent, or to change the direction of our life. The purpose of repentance is to enter the kingdom of heaven. The next logical question is, “What is the kingdom of heaven like?” The image I received from my childhood was that heaven was somewhere up in the sky where there were many long-dead relatives, along with angels playing harps while floating on clouds. It made me think of family reunions as a child, minus the angels, and it was hardly a compelling image for me at the time. The thought of spending an eternity there made me wonder about my other options.

Jesus paints a completely different picture of heaven, however. In Matthew 13, he tells a number of parables about the kingdom. In 13:18-23 he compares a planter sowing seeds in different types of soil to different people hearing the word of the kingdom. Some will receive the message as a seed sown in fertile soil and enter the kingdom. In the parable quoted above, Jesus compares the kingdom to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree. In 13:33, he compares the kingdom to yeast added to flour. In 13:44, he compares heaven to “treasure hidden in a field”; in 13:45, the kingdom is like a “pearl of great value.” In 13:47, he compares it to a “net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” An obvious question is this: “What do these analogies tell us about the kingdom of God?”

My first observation is that the kingdom of God is not a static point or place in time. In the parables of the sower, the mustard seed, and the leaven, the example used is something that is grown into over time. Like a plant growing to maturity, the kingdom dweller is dynamic, forever changing, and evolving into new versions of itself. Patience is necessary.

A second observation is that the kingdom is a life-multiplier. Particularly in the yeast parable, but also in the seed parables, the analogy indicates that accessing the kingdom enhances whatever is happening in life in positive ways. Without yeast, bread may still be bread, but it will not rise or be nearly as tasty as it would otherwise be. Without yeast, bread is also left sterile, meaning it cannot generate additional loaves of bread from itself. This is further illustrated in the parable of the sower when the seed is sown on fertile soil and the seed multiplies. Likewise, in the story of the net, this kingdom net catches many fish of every kind and size. The kingdom of heaven, like yeast, soil, and a good fishing net, improves the state of, bounty from, and diversity in our lives.

A third observation is that the kingdom, once experienced, becomes the most valuable part of our lives. In the parables of the pearl of great value and the hidden treasure, the possessors of the pearl and treasure give up everything else in order to attain this one treasure. Their sole focus becomes the kingdom.

Finally, the kingdom of God is about the here and now. It is not some faraway place up in the clouds. Jesus uses everyday examples and explains the impact of the kingdom on regular, daily activities. It under girds and supports our lives, just as the mustard seed transforms into a tree and provides shelter for birds.

Entering the kingdom means experiencing our world in a new way. It does not necessarily change our profession, our health, our finances, or any of the material particulars of our lives. What it changes is our perspective, assuring us of a larger, beneficent life surrounding us, and that can lead to astronomical changes in the life we experience going forward. Far from being a family-reunion-in-the-sky, the kingdom is about our lives today! It takes the life we have and makes it joyful, richer, more productive, more loving, and more fulfilling. The kingdom of God is not a place we go, but a unity we become as we learn to see others through and to be seen by the unfathomably loving gaze of God.

This is the 4th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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The Kingdom is Near

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Matthew 4:17

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ first instruction to his followers was to “Repent.” He follows this directive with a brief justification. In my paraphrase, Jesus says: “You need to change the focus of your life because the kingdom is very near and available to you here and now, but you will never experience it from the path you are on.” The kingdom of heaven Jesus refers to may or may not be a place we go when we die, but it most certainly is a state of being here and now.

It is difficult to overemphasize the central position the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God (I believe the terms are used interchangeably), has in the teachings of Jesus. This kingdom is the nexus from which his teachings emanate. Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven/God 85 times in the four Gospels. He refers to the kingdom another 34 times. Clearly, there is something significant about this kingdom that Jesus invites us to know and experience.

Most of us were taught to think of heaven as a faraway place where the good and faithful go after they die. The alternative, hell, is where those not qualifying for heaven go. Our stay in either place is rumored to be eternal. While I do not wish to speculate about possible states of being after our physical death, I have certainly experienced both heaven and hell on earth. It is to these present states of the human condition that I believe Jesus is referring when he tells us the kingdom is near.

What Jesus says about the kingdom is instructive. Aside from the many comparisons he draws, i.e., the kingdom of heaven is like…, Jesus refers to the kingdom as a place that is very close. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (emphasis added). Elsewhere in Matthew (12:28) he says, “the kingdom of God has come to you.” In Mark 12:34: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” From Luke 17:21: “the kingdom of God is among you.” The unmistakable common theme is that this kingdom is not somewhere far away, but this kingdom is here. As if this is not convincing, in Luke 9:27, Jesus says: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Point number one is that the kingdom is near. Point number two is that the presence, knowledge, or experience of Jesus is integral to our ability to enter the kingdom. Third, while many Christians believe Jesus is the entry point to heaven (Jesus, in fact, claims as much in John 14:6), I do not believe the Christian experience of Jesus is the only entry point. Rather, all points likely require a knowledge or experience of God in the flesh, which is exactly what Christians believe of Jesus. In other words, entry into heaven on earth requires a Jesus-like encounter with the divine, which is available to all, including those who have never heard of or experienced the Son of God manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, in referring to the kingdom, is talking about a state of being that is present now, while we are alive on earth, and we enter it through Christ, the Son of God. We are not separate from God; only our lack of faith makes it seem so. In a recent Daily Meditation1, Richard Rohr wrote, “The belief that God is ‘out there’ is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Jesus came to put it all together for and in us. He was saying, ‘This physical world is the hiding place of God.’” Although the body of Jesus left this planet 2000 years ago, he is still present through the reality of the Spirit, offering us entry into the kingdom whenever we are ready – right here, right now, next week, or when we die (death likely changes our focus for us). The ticket to the kingdom is repentance – rearranging our priorities. Once our heart is set on the right path, Jesus will lead us to the kingdom, as will become apparent as we continue to explore his teachings.

This is the 3rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. January 5, 2018. http://www.cac.org, Sourced January 15, 2018.

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Repent!

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”   Matthew 4:17

The first instruction from Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). This line is exactly what John the Baptist is quoted as saying earlier in Matthew (3:2) and occurs after Jesus has been baptized by John and spent 40 days in the wilderness. It seems safe to assume these words hold a special significance, since they mark the beginning of his ministry. What does it mean, exactly, to repent? The current understanding has largely to do with being sorry for poor behavior. In Catholic traditions, parishioners can attend confession, where they admit to a priest where they have fallen short in the recent past: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” Certainly, confessing our shortcomings and seeking forgiveness is a healthy practice, but the fuller meaning of repentance goes beyond being sorry for less-than-stellar behavior.

Dictionary.com1 defines repent as “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better” (emphasis added). The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “a transformative change of heart: especially, a spiritual conversion.”2 To repent is to turn around or to make a conscious choice to change the direction of one’s life. It goes to the core of our being and seeks to change us from there. Much more than saying, “I’m sorry,” to repent is a determined, sustained, and conscious action to chart a different course for one’s life. This, then, is Jesus’ initial instruction for those who wish to follow him.

For me, there is an Advent-feel about repentance in that it invites us to prepare for something magical and mystical. It is magical in that the life Jesus calls us to is largely foreign to our daily routines. It is mystical in that it cannot be explained or foreseen except by faith. In Luke 3:4, John the Baptist, echoing the prophet Isaiah, says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John’s Gospel records the words as “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). To the extent that John’s words are a call to repentance, it is a call to a process and not a single event; a preparation for an extended journey, as opposed to a specific destination.

This directive from Jesus for repentance is about a new focus for our lives. Jesus offers a bridge to this new life, but the first step of this journey of the heart is ours to choose. In a recent daily meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else.”3 This journey is not one of becoming upwardly mobile in order to rub elbows with the societal elite. There is not anything wrong with upward mobility, per se, except that is not an orientation conducive to finding God. Its motivations are wrongly placed. Our deepest essence cannot be focused on material gain and also upon God. In fact, the journey Jesus invites us to is more likely to take us among those society rejects. We, along with Mary and Joseph, must make the long heart-journey to Bethlehem and find our way to the dark of the stable. The Christ within will not be born among the lights and parties at the Inn with everybody who is anybody. There is no room there for this birth. The Christ within is born in the simplicity, solitude, and minimal provision of the stable.

To repent is to change our priorities. We focus less on ourselves and more on others. We are less concerned with accumulating stuff and more on acquiring useful items for those in need. Our priorities shift from success to meaning. This change is not something forced upon us, that we are guilted into beginning, or even something that is possible without our willing consent. As we turn our faces toward God, we are naturally pulled in a new direction, a direction an earlier version of ourselves likely would have shunned. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 

This is the 2nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Dictionary.com, Sourced January 8, 2018.                                                                                                             2  Merriam-Webster.com/dictionary/metanoia, Sourced January 8, 2018.                                                       3  Richard Rohr. Daily Meditations,cac.org. Published and sourced January 9, 2018.

 

 

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