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Service to Others

 …whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve… Matthew 20:26b-28a

In what we call The Golden Rule, Jesus tells us to treat others as we want them to treat us.[1]  It is an early call to servanthood, and one that Jesus modeled throughout his ministry. Serving others is not only a nice thing to do, it is also an effective tool for personal spiritual development. Most of us spend far too much time thinking about ourselves, what we want, and what we believe we deserve. Serving others gets our minds off ourselves and onto someone else and their needs, at least for a time.

There are several considerations when preparing to serve others. First is the question: In what ways am I gifted to serve? There are usually several ways we can help meet a need. If someone is hungry, we can give him or her money to buy something to eat. We can also buy something to give to them. We can fix food for them, or we can offer to drive them to a food pantry. There is always something helpful we can do, even if it is just to acknowledge the other as a fellow child of God.

Another consideration has to do with finding out what the other person wants. Jesus often asked of those seeking his help what he or she wanted from him. When we assume we know what another person wants, we are most likely seeing their situation through our own biases instead of through their eyes. To know, in most cases, we must ask. In addition, asking what another person needs helps to affirm his or her personhood. To assume we already know can come across as arrogant.

Perhaps the most important consideration, at least from a spiritual development standpoint, is to ask ourselves this question: Can I serve this person freely and without any expectation of a return? Will I resent helping this person if they do not say “Thank you,” or offer any other sign of appreciation? If I give them money and see them coming out of a liquor store a few minutes later, will I regret having tried to help them? Jesus encourages us to give with no expectation of return. If we cannot give unconditionally, we may be giving to meet our own need for recognition more than a desire to actually help someone else.

In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”[2] Certainly, there are some phases of our lives where it is more difficult to be a cheerful giver. If our schedule is unavoidably overloaded, or if we are in some deep need ourselves, we might need to wait until we have a better handle on our own lives. If our lives are always too busy to serve others, however, we probably need to examine our priorities.

From a scientific standpoint, the Golden Rule is Jesus’ equivalent to Newton’s Third Law of Physics, which reads, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”[3] By opposite, this law does not mean that when we do something helpful for another we will receive something unhelpful in return. Rather, it means that the measure of kindness we extend will return in the opposite direction or back to us – like a rubber ball thrown against a hard surface. It is the law of cause and effect, or the law of Karma, if you prefer. Unfortunately, this law is nearly impossible to observe in action because we expect to see the rebound from our kind acts immediately. Sometimes we do, but more often than not, those reactions do not occur in sequential time and maybe not even in this lifetime. Sometimes, the rebound from our kindness goes to others, as when kind acts are paid forward to others. The point is that we are to give without expectation of a personal return, secure in the knowledge that there will be a return somewhere, sometime. No good deed is wasted.

Regardless, the best way to receive the service, kindness, and understanding of others is to act in serving, kind, and understanding ways to others. It is humbling and freeing to regularly focus on needs other than our own. Our faith should assure us we are already in good hands.

This is the 16th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Matthew 7:12

[2] 2 Corinthians 9:7

[3] https://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-4/Newton-s-Third-Law

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The Sign of Jonah

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Matthew 12:38-39

Many of us were taught the story of the prophet Jonah as children in Sunday School. It is recorded in the short Old Testament book of his name. God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to warn them of their impending destruction because of their wicked ways. Jonah hated the Ninevites and believed they deserved to die. Because he did not want them to have an opportunity to repent, he boarded a ship headed away from Nineveh. God caused a great storm that threatened to break the ship apart. The others on the ship were terrified and wondered who was responsible for this calamity. Jonah confessed that he had disobeyed his God, who was causing the storm to punish him. He told the sailors to throw him overboard, which they did, and the storm abated. Instead of drowning, however, a “large fish” [1] swallowed Jonah, where he remained for three days and three nights. Jonah repented in the belly of the fish, and God had the fish spew him out onto dry land. God, again, told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people of their impending destruction. He went, provided the warning, the people heeded his words, turned from their evil ways, and “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.”[2]

Jonah was angry with God as this was exactly what he feared would happen. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites destruction was a right and just punishment. Instead, God showed mercy to this most undeserving of people. Jonah confessed his reason for trying to flee from God’s command: “…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3] Whether one reads the story of Jonah literally or allegorically, the lesson is the same: God’s actions and purposes do not always fall in line with what we believe is best or just. God will be who God will be, unapologetically.

In the context of the story of Jonah, what does Jesus mean by saying “No sign will be given to (this evil and adulterous generation) except the sign of the prophet Jonah”?[4] It is an interesting question with a number of possible answers. First, when God wants something done, it will be done whether we do it willingly or grudgingly. If we run in another direction, we may find ourselves swallowed by a metaphorical fish and spit up on the very ground where we were directed to go. Therefore, one sign of Jonah is that God’s will will be done, with or without our enthusiastic participation.

Another telling sign of Jonah has to do with God’s inexplicable grace. The people of Niveveh were not good people, at least not by the standards of the day. According to the story, and consistent with other biblical stories, God had every reason to destroy them. Like a benevolent guardian, however, God wanted to warn them of their impending demise and give them another opportunity to redeem themselves. Here is another sign of Jonah: God gives second and third chances, regardless of how we feel about it.

A third sign from the story of Jonah is God’s love for us, even when we are unloving. Jonah fell into a significant sulk after the redemption of Nineveh. He was angry with God, but God understood and loved him, anyway.

Finally, Jesus says that only the evil ask for a sign, as if they need to see a miracle before they decide to change their ways. In the story of Jonah, however, God sent an unwilling prophet to give a reluctant message of repentance. For whatever reason, the people heard and heeded Jonah’s words. Sometimes, even when we feel we need a divine sign, the Spirit moves within us to nudge us in a direction closer to God.

Even though the Matthew passage seems to imply the sign of Jonah is one of judgment and punishment for sin, consistent with many passages from Matthew’s telling, the final message is one of grace. Ultimately, the sign of Jonah is one of love and redemption, and that is the sign given by Jesus.

This is the 15th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Jonah 1:17

[2] Jonah 3:10

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Matthew 12:39

 

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Living Beyond Words

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

It is common to have a narrative running nonstop in our heads. Most of us are more present to the descriptions of our experiences than we are to the actual experiences, and we do not even notice ourselves doing it. The problem is obvious – our descriptions are one step removed from reality. Language is one of the first things we are taught as we grow, and by the time we reach adulthood we have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the detached reality our words describe. We forget that words are metaphors. They point to or describe something, but they are not the thing itself. For example, the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm speak of lying down in green pastures and resting beside still waters. Comforting words, yes, but they are only mental representations of the experiences they describe. God meets us in our experiences, not in our descriptions.

In the book of Exodus, as Moses and God conversed on Mount Sinai, Moses told God the Israelites would want to know God’s name. God answered, “I am who I am.”[1] The people wanted a description of God, a box within which they could place God, some way of limiting God’s nature to something tangible and controllable. Many sacred writings throughout the ages have affirmed that God cannot be known; only experienced. The same is true of our lives on earth – they cannot be lived by description. A contemplative life, in particular, seeks the experience that inspires the description – the life beyond words.

God experiences life in and through us. In other words, God experiences you through me and me through you, which is not to say any of us are God. The true self within –the best, purest, and most holy self we know we can be – is where God resides. It is the part of us that was never born and will never die. It is the part that will live on when our earthly body gives out. This true self is not, however, cause for feelings of superiority because what is true of you and me is true of everyone else, too.

Our words, however, tell us we are not equal and that we are separate beings. Our life descriptions, supported by our egos, tell us we are better than this person, although maybe not as good as another. Descriptions necessarily compare, divide, and define this and that. We assess things not by their similarities but by their differences. By the time we become adults we are so convinced we are independent beings, separate from everyone else that ignoring our neighbors, leaving family members to work out their own problems, and not flinching at the genocide occurring across the globe become the accepted norm. Because we do not see our interconnectedness, and because the words that describe our lives are inadequate to capture any semblance that we are truly one body, we lose the lived experience and responsibility of oneness – one with God and one with each other.

Our words separate all kinds of things that are actually of the same essence, and we are deceived when we believe them. For example, we define light and dark, day and night, north and south in relation to each other, by what we consider their opposite. In fact, they are different states of the same reality. The same is true for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, we are all one in Christ. Our oneness is NOT metaphorical, even if the words we use are. Even good and evil, in the larger picture, are parts of the same process of growth and evolution. No process of growth occurs without suffering, which often feels like evil when taken out of its larger context.

We are not our descriptions of ourselves; our true essence resides where our experiences meet the part of us that is one with God. Of these experiences, Jim Finley writes, “What is so extraordinary about such moments is that nothing beyond the ordinary is present. It is just the primal stuff of life that has unexpectedly broken through the mesh of opinions and concerns that all too often hold us in their spell. It is just life in the immediacy of the present moment before thought begins.”[2] Once we find that place, even for a moment, we know our true life, indescribably rich, resides beyond words.

This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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

[1] Exodus 3:14.

[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart. Sorin Books, 2000, pp.  24-25

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