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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

You Give Them Something to Eat

 

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”  Mark 6:35-37b

The feeding of a large crowd is one of the miracle stories of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, albeit in slightly different variations. The core of the story has Jesus teaching to a crowd of about 5,000 men, plus women and children. The hour is getting late, and the disciples are concerned that the people will need something to eat. They ask around and find only a paltry amount of available food – five loaves of bread and two fish, in Mark’s version. It was far too little for so many. Jesus takes the meager offering, raises it to heaven in blessing, and tells the disciples to distribute it to the crowd. Everyone in the crowd eats their fill, and the disciples collect the leftovers, filling 12 baskets.

God miraculously multiplied the small amount of food into an abundance to feed the hungry crowd. The question is this: How did God do it? Did God take a little, apply the Word, and magically transform it into a lot? Perhaps. I do not question God’s ability to accomplish such a feat. My life experience, however, makes me think God may have worked in a different way. Imagine that the disciples had asked people in the crowd what they could contribute to feed the masses, but only a few were willing to contribute a small bit of what they had – five loaves and two fish. Once others saw that some people were contributing, however, their hearts opened and more became willing to offer what they had with them. When the little, which was first offered, was combined with the abundance that was actually in the crowd, there was more than enough for everyone to have their fill. Is this telling of the story any less miraculous than if God alone had created the abundance? I think not. In fact, I find it more compelling.

We see this at church with potluck dinners. The church provides a little and everyone else brings something to contribute to the common meal. The amount of food always exceeds the hunger. Perhaps the feeding of the 5,000 is the biblical version of the story of Stone Soup. In that story, a traveler stops in a town at dinnertime, but can find no one willing to feed him. He takes his pot to the river, fills it with water, and places one round stone in the bottom. He builds a fire in the town square and starts heating the water. Curious townsfolk stop by to see what he is making. He says, “Stone Soup. It’s delicious!” He tells one person it would be better if only he had a few carrots. She says, “I have a few carrots I could bring.” He tells another that onions would be nice. Another person offers seasoning, and others bring potatoes and meat. In the end, they share a delicious and abundant community meal to which everyone contributed, in spite of their initial reluctance.

Here is why I believe the story seems more plausible along the lines of the Stone Soup legend than that God performed a miracle alone: I believe God works through us as much or more than God works for us. God provides the inspiration and the nudging for us to perform generous acts we might not otherwise perform. In the current example, one clue lies in Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” It is a directive to personal action. It reminds me of Jesus’ parting instructions to Peter in the Gospel of John (21:15-19). Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and Peter assures him he does. Jesus responds, “(You) Feed my sheep.” God relies on our hands and hearts to do the physical work of God’s will on earth. Very often, as in the case of the feeding of the 5,000, that work requires a handful of people to begin contributing something, inspiring others to follow suit. There is plenty for everyone when faithful people trust God’s abundant provision and share what they have.

Who should feed the hungry? You (and I) should. God reveals the need and gives us the opportunity to take it from there. God, acting through and with us, is the initiator of miracles.

This is the 33rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Forgive Seventy-Seven Times

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22

The context for this passage of scripture is that Jesus is teaching his disciples about sin and the separation it creates. He begins chapter 18 by saying we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He warns against putting “stumbling block(s)” before others. He goes on to illustrate how important each of us is to God, with the parable of the lost sheep. Handling members of the community who sin against each other is next, followed by this passage where Peter asks how many times we should forgive a community member who sins against us. Jesus says, in essence, that we should always forgive.

What does it mean, exactly, to forgive? Certainly, it does not mean to forget. An abusive spouse may be forgiven, but the abused partner should never forget the warning signs of impending abuse, nor the ways to best protect her or himself in the event of a reoccurrence. When a lender forgives a debt, the principal and interest of the loan are both wiped off the books so nothing is owed. The incurring of the debt still happened, but it no longer impacts life going forward. To forgive does not erase the offending event from our memory or from our past. Rather, to forgive is to release the tyranny the sin holds over us and others. It is a very personal and often difficult decision, and it is not necessarily the act of forgiving another as much as it is giving ourselves permission to let go of our attachment to the lasting physical, emotional, or psychological injury. There are two distinct impacts of sin of which we need to be aware, both very real. The first is the sin itself and what it did to us – the actual physical or emotional injury. The second is the aftermath of the sin, which is primarily our response. This secondary insult is a result of the power we grant the sin over us. It is this, too, that must be forgiven and healed for us to be able to move on with our lives.

Our emotional reaction, the secondary injury, is what tortures us long after the event and keeps it alive as an active, negative influence over our being. We may need to first forgive our seeming inability to let it go, before we can effectively release it. This may require professional therapy. How can we avoid finding ourselves in a similar situation in the future? How can we better recognize when circumstances are arranging themselves for a possible reoccurrence? What are strategies to minimize the damage of the original sinful act, should it be done to us again, and forgo the tyranny of the emotional aftermath?

The fact that it for our own benefit that we are encouraged to forgive is one lesson in Jesus’ words. Another is that our reaction to a sin against us is often much worse and longer lasting than the initial sin. Finally, and most revealing, is that many times, what offends us in or by another is something that triggers a deeply repressed, painful memory or feeling in our own self that we are reluctant to acknowledge. This is why our reaction to a perceived sin against us may be disproportionate to the actual sin. It is also why someone may sin against us and never know he or she hurt us. The place needing forgiveness in cases such as these is the place deep within that longs to be brought to conscious awareness where it can be acknowledged and brought to completion. Again, this may require therapy. Often, these hurting places have their origins in our childhood. In order to develop as whole persons we must “forgive” ourselves over and over again.

None of this is to say we should not forgive the other person, too. Jesus makes that clear. We should make every effort to also release them from the tyranny of the event. Forgiveness must begin within, however, or it will not be a lasting forgiveness. If, when someone sins against us, we discover a hidden and hurting part of ourselves that can now be healed, we will have turned an unfortunate occurrence into a personal blessing. How often should we forgive? Always.

This is the 32nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Do You Want to be Made Well?

 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” John 5:5-6

In this scene, Jesus is passing by a series of pools near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. There was a belief that when the water stirred, the first person into the pool would be healed. People with various afflictions surrounded the pools. One man had been there many years but had no one to help him into the water at its stirring, and so he remained on the sideline, unhealed. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” At first glance, this question is a head-scratcher. The Bible tells us he had been ill for thirty-eight years. Why would he not want to be healed?

As a college student, I worked at a nursery that occasionally hired people just released from prison as laborers. One man, Harold, was in his fifties and seemed like a gentle, good-natured soul. After a couple of weeks, Harold stopped coming to work. I was shocked to find out he had borrowed a gun, held up a liquor store, and returned to prison. Never mind that the gun was not loaded and that he waited outside the store for the police to pick him up. Apparently, Harold did not want his freedom if it meant hard, physical work and low wages in return for a meager existence. While I could not fathom why anyone would willingly go back to prison, he must have felt life was better there. Sometimes, we gain comfort from what is familiar. Some people, like Harold, may not have the support system required to transition to a different life.

There are numerous examples of people working hard to maintain a status quo that is neither helpful nor forward-moving, let alone one that reaches a fraction of what is possible. For example, our political system is dominated by two parties seemingly more interested in preserving the issues that define them than in finding solutions for those issues. I suppose the fear is that without abortion, taxes, immigration, a border wall, or the myriad of perpetual issues that divide us, politicians would have no purpose. They might lose not only their identity, but also their jobs.

While that may sound ludicrous, I do not believe it is far from the truth. In fact, my guess is that most of us hold onto certain traits because they have become part of our identity, no matter how painful or limiting those traits might be. Our desire for uniqueness is so strong, we may hold onto whatever sets us apart, ridiculous or not. In this context, Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” is not a crazy question at all. There are many reasons why we may not want to be made well. More generally, what is it that we really want? Do we want to hold onto our afflictions? Do we prefer imprisonment to freedom? Are we afraid that letting go of a toxic identity will leave us in anonymity?

I associate these questions with those who have yet to find their identity in the family of God. We have a perfectly unique, never-to-be-duplicated identity at our core, just as we are, without any of our imprisoning afflictions. In fact, the more we hold onto unhealthy, but defining qualities, the more deeply our true self is hidden. On the other hand, the freer we become, the more our true self shines through. Contrary to how it may sound, we do not lose anything worth keeping as our true self emerges; rather, we become more like the person we always imagined ourselves to be – secure, helpful, loving, and loved.

When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well,” he is really asking, “Do you want to be made whole?” Is not wholeness at the heart of every longing? I think we fear wholeness because we feel safe with what is familiar. We fear change. Wholeness cannot assure a comfortable, predictable life, but wholeness does assure inclusion into what is. Do we want to be made well? Are we ready for Christ to transform us into the image of God we were created to manifest? If we wish to reach for our potential, we must risk what is comfortable and familiar and, like the man beside the pool, make a conscious choice to be made well.

This is the 31st in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Your Will Be Done

 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10

This passage comes from the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us repeat it, often mindlessly, on Sundays in church. The sentiment for God’s will to be done is found throughout the Bible. One memorable usage occurs when Jesus, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asks God to spare him the agony of the crucifixion. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The traditional understanding of this thought is that circumstances can go either our way or God’s way. In this sense, when we say “Your will be done,” we affirm that we want God to turn events as God would have them, not necessarily the way we prefer.

There is another way to interpret these words, however, which is to treat them as an acknowledgement that God’s will will be done, instead of as our willing submission to God’s wisdom. In other words, it does not matter what we desire, what we plead for, God’s will will be done, regardless. If God’s will is what is, then God’s will is playing out all of the time. If God’s will is always being done, then what we experience, moment by moment, is the unfolding of that will, although not necessarily the completion of that will. I do not believe it is God’s will that we suffer, whether from cancer, depression, or a broken heart. Rather, hurting is a natural part of our human condition, as is joy, and we cannot have one without the other. Likewise, death is a natural part of life in an earthly body. Everything on earth is born, lives, and dies, and its earth-bound elements are remade into something new. Death must happen to allow new life because the earth is a closed system. Whatever and whomever we have or love that is of the earth will deteriorate and die. Only the spirit that animates life is immortal.

Accepting that pain is a natural part of life, particularly in the context of God’s will relentlessly being done, it is helpful to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain happens to all of us at various times throughout our lives. Physical and emotional wounds are part of our being. Suffering is different, however. How much we suffer from our pain is, at least in part, a choice we make. We often exacerbate our pain by mentally and emotionally focusing on a perceived loss of control because of the pain. We feel someone else is pulling the strings of our lives; we get frustrated, we feel life is not fair, and we suffer. Indeed, someone else is pulling the strings. Rather than a fatalistic fact, however, the good news is that God invites us to co-create the direction and experience of our lives, but we must first submit to co-creating in a way consistent with the will that we are resisting. Our resistance causes us to suffer.

Discerning God’s will in our lives is a challenge for anyone seeking to align their desires to God’s. We can discern the unfolding of God’s will by what we see happening around us. We cannot, however, so easily discern the direction of the unfolding, nor the specifics of how the course of events will develop. That is where we can step in as co-participants – in the specifics of the unfolding of God’s will. A daily prayer practice is vital in aligning our will with God’s. A significant portion of that practice may be spent in silence – not petitioning God for what we want, but opening ourselves to God, surrendering to God’s purposes, and listening for God’s subtle guidance. We may not be in ultimate control, but we can become intimate participants in what is becoming, as opposed to being a helpless victim.

It is inconceivable that a loving God would will us to be miserable – we do that to ourselves. When we can place our painful moments in a larger context, trusting that this too is God’s will unfolding into something new and beautiful, we can reduce our suffering. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “…all things work together for good for those who love God.” As we learn to surrender to and recognize God’s will working all things together for good, we honor and acknowledge the place where God resides within us. We reveal who we truly are in Christ.

God’s will will be done, with or without our conscious participation.

This is the 30th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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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?”

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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?”

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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?”

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