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The Pure in Heart

 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Matthew 5:8

This Beatitude raises two questions for me: What does it mean to be pure in heart, and what does it mean to see God? Is it even possible to become pure enough in heart to be able to see God in this life? Certainly, my early training in Christianity led me to believe not. The problem was sin, and sin was so deeply engrained into my human condition that seeing God was out of the question. While I no longer believe this, as taught, the roots of my early education still run deep in the subconscious recesses of my being and occasionally sprout little demons that whisper in my ear, “You will never be good enough…”

The initial question about what purity of heart refers to raises two questions of its own: What is purity, and what is heart? Purity is probably obvious – untainted, in a natural or original state, and virginal come to mind. The heart has a literal meaning, i.e., the organ that pumps blood, and a number of figurative meanings, including love, emotion, and the center of our being. Assuming Jesus is speaking of the heart in a figurative sense, purity of heart refers to a state where the essence of our being is restored to its original state, which for me means when it is consciously in a state of union with God. While I consider the separateness we experience as humans as an illusion, I confess it becomes a powerful, entrenched illusion long before we reach adolescence. This sense of separation, of being on our own and alone, is the foundational source of our earthly encumbrances and the foundational source of our impurity.

I suspect what Jesus refers to as purity of heart is what we might call an unencumbered heart – a heart free of earthly attachments and woes. Living a life separate from God and others leaves us insecure and grasping onto things to define us and give us worth and meaning. Granted, obtaining a freedom from such attachments is completely contrary to how we learn to live our lives on earth. Yet, how can we expect God-in-us to shine through when we are so heavily cloaked in the stuff of our material existence? An onion is often used to illustrate the peeling off of outer layers in order to reach the center. Perhaps we must peel away the years of accumulation of attachments, self-doubts, and insecurities in order to reach our pure center, the pure heart of our being. And like peeling an onion, it can cause a lot of weeping.

In the Old Testament, the belief was that to see God would result in death. In Exodus 33:20, God tells Moses, “No one shall see me and live.” Even John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God.” Yet, Jesus says the pure in heart will see God. This Beatitude seems to contradict other teachings and long-held traditions of scripture. In my opinion, our sense of separateness constricts our vision to where we cannot see God’s presence in our lives, and it makes our existence too small for God to manifest freely through. This sense of separation shapes our biases and prejudices and leads us to judge others in hurtful and unhelpful ways. In our attempts to improve our own self-image and sense of belonging, we often do so by tearing down others – at least I’m not as fat as him, or I would never gossip like her, or we would never raise our children like they do. We pit ourselves against others and, in the process, widen the perceived separation between them and us. Ultimately, we feel even more alone and isolated. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to an encumbered heart that has little chance of experiencing God’s love and acceptance, at least not until everything earthly is stripped away at death.

One who is truly pure in heart is able to see as God sees. And what God sees, looking out through us, is a creation that God pronounced very good. God sees through our human imperfections and inconsistencies to the center of our being,  which forever remains undefiled, pure, and beautiful. When we learn to see that pure essence in others, we attain the purity in heart to see God – in the faces and forms of those around us.

This is the 16th 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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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 32: Salvation is Communal

 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. Romans 12:4

One thing I despised about college was group assignments. The instructor would assign several students a task and, together, they had to complete and present the assignment as a team. Every member received the same grade, regardless of how much or little he or she contributed to the final product. Being fiercely independent, I wanted to succeed or fail alone and did not want my grade to be dependent on others.

My father was in the Army Air Force during World War II, and although he was not a part of the D Day invasion of France, I reflect on that action as if he were. The Normandy invasion was needed in order to break the German stronghold along the English Channel so the Allies could liberate France and, eventually, the rest of Europe. The problem was the concrete, machine-gun bunkers lined along the Channel. The Allies knew it would take a concentration of sustained force to break open a line in the German defenses so troops could enter and drive the Nazis out of France. They also knew many lives would be lost. Of the 24,000 men landing on Normandy that morning, nearly half were killed or wounded. There were similar numbers of German casualties. It was a bloodbath on all sides. Many individual lives were required to join together to accomplish a single goal. Thousands of those individuals – sons, brothers, and fathers – willingly served as bullet recipients so those behind them could eventually destroy and advance beyond the machine-gun bunkers.

The Bible seldom speaks of individual salvation. Salvation – the freeing and advancing to higher levels of existence – is communal in that its attainment is for the benefit of a group. The Hebrew people were saved, collectively, from their oppression in Egypt. Noah’s extended family was saved from the great flood. Organizations succeed when its members move together in the same direction. Marriages flourish when the union prospers both partners. Individual effort is required, but to accomplish great things requires many individuals working together toward a common goal.

Paul, in a number of his letters, describes believers as a single body, with each member having a specific function. All members work together and are necessary for the good of the body. Jesus’ comment that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13) is an expression of the willing subjugation of individual interests for the sake of something greater. Appearances aside, we are all members of a single body.

I sometimes act as if I were self-made person, that whatever I have achieved has been by my effort alone. It is a self-deception of enormous proportion. When we fail to acknowledge others for what we accomplish together, when we believe our personal objectives outweigh those of the larger community, we may be prone to believe we can attain salvation alone. Could my right hand separate itself from my body and prosper? What sort of salvation do we think we will attain, a paradise of one? That sounds more like solitary confinement. No, life is a group project, a family undertaking, one body with all its parts working in harmony. In spite of what we may choose to believe, we sink or swim, pass or fail, together. We will succeed when our personal goals, desires, and actions are in accord with those of the greater family to which we belong. Too often we ask, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” instead of focusing on what is required to manifest heaven on earth – not just for me, but also for everyone, and not just for some distant future, but also for today.

Salvation is communal. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Love Bears All Things

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things… 1 Corinthians 13:4-7a

A vow recited in nearly every wedding ceremony I attend includes these words: “…for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” It is a promise we make as a married couple to bear one another’s burdens – together. The 12th trait of love, according to Paul, is that love bears all things. Of course, Christian love goes beyond the love and commitment of a married couple, but the expectation is the same. Serious followers of Christ will not stand by and allow others to suffer alone. When we are in a loving relationship with another – and Jesus emphasizes that love is the expectation for all – we assume responsibility for that relationship. A part of that responsibility is to provide assistance, support, and companionship as needed.

Assisting another with a burden should not be a hardship – it should be a joy! I think of the “barn-raising” events of the past, where a family would need a barn and neighbors and friends would gather for a weekend and build it together. They would work side-by-side, eat, talk, rest, and bask in the fellowship. Today, we hire a contractor. In our haste not to impose on others, we starve our relationships by not allowing space for the precious gift of giving and receiving one another. What greater gift can we give another than a portion of our being? Our material wealth and our overflowing schedules have led us to a state of poverty in our social relationships.

We lack an integrated, interdependent world-view, where we recognize that your burdens are my burdens, too. Bearing one another’s burdens is what we do in community, and it is what we do when we live a life of love. Robert Greenleaf, an early proponent of servant leadership, said we must bear “unlimited liability” for others. With the exception of abusive relationships, we are encouraged to bear all things, not just some things.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Life Notes

Love Does Not Rejoice in Wrongdoing

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing… 1 Corinthians 13:4-6a

The last of the unloving traits listed by Paul is to rejoice in wrongdoing. Most of the time when we do something wrong, we already feel ashamed. To have our mistake be the reason for someone else’s happiness just multiplies our frustration and sadness. Likewise, to rejoice in something we did wrong to another is equally unloving, especially if it was something we did intentionally. Rejoicing in the misfortune of others is cruel, and yet it is all too common. Much gossip is of this nature. The competitive part of me enjoys seeing someone else make a poor judgement that allows me an advantage in a game. I do not believe that, in itself, is wrong. It would be unloving if I did a happy dance in front of the other, however.

 Often, we rejoice in the wrongdoing of another as a way to lift ourselves up. Particularly when it is a person we believe has a better life than we have. We think, “Ha! Now you know what my life is like!” None of us, however, can know the life experience of another. It is too easy to judge the circumstances of another through our own biases. Easy, yes, but usually inaccurate.

The problem with lifting ourselves up at the expense of another is that we are intimately interconnected. None of us can truly rise above life’s circumstances unless and until we all rise. It is like being in a boat with someone and laughing at the hole in his or her end of the boat. Ultimately, everyone in the boat is going down.

In marriage, two lives become one life. One person cannot “succeed” in a marriage if the other is not also successful. That would be like saying my right hand lived a full, happy life, but the rest of my body failed miserably. In many of his letters, the apostle Paul refers to the church and its members as the body of Christ. He writes in Romans, “…we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Finally, on his last night on earth in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays that we all become one with him, just as he is one with God. Contrary to popular belief, our fates are tied. Acknowledging our interconnectedness can solve many of the world’s ills. Loving relationships require unity. If we rejoice in the wrongdoing of another, we cannot be in union with him or her. Love demands that we lift others up, not tear them down.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Life Notes

Love Does Not Insist on its Own Way

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way… 1 Corinthians 13:4,5a,b

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul provides a straightforward explanation of what love is and what love is not. The fifth trait that does not characterize love is insisting on its own way. Most of us have had experiences dating back to childhood with others insisting on their own way. It might be a sibling, a bully at school, or a bossy cousin, but there is often someone who insists that whatever a group is doing be done in his or her way. (If this does not ring a bell, that person may be you!)

When we insist on our own way, we imply that we know best or that we are the smartest (thus, everyone else is dumber). It is selfish and narcissistic, in most instances, to insist that our ideas are always superior. Certainly, we can and should express our opinion, but when we demand others always comply is when we cross the line into unabashed vanity. We become like the boss with the philosophy of “My way or the highway!” or the child forever threatening to take his or her toys and go home. At least in a work setting, one is getting paid to put up with that sort of disrespectful, unloving behavior. In general, when we always insist on getting our way we are telling others they are neither important nor are their opinions valued. That is not a solid basis for a loving relationship.

Love does not insist on its own way because love is other-focused. Even though there is often a return to us from our acts of love, that return is not our motivation. Genuine love is not conditional. It does not have to be earned or repaid. We act in loving ways toward another because we care about them, and because we love to love. Love is its own motivation, and acts of love spring from an internal abundance that longs to express.

A common cause of tension in relationships is the need to be right, which is a form of insisting on one’s own way. Recently, I saw a post that said, “Would you rather be right or happy?” Being right and being happy are not always mutually exclusive, but when our need to be right tears down others in our key relationships, happiness will be difficult to achieve. When one person is right, by definition, another person must be wrong. It sets up a win-lose situation, which is not the ideal for a relationship. It is much better for us and for our relationships to swallow our pride and seek the greatest good for all involved. If the relationship or group we are in does not respect or recognize that which is important to us, it is probably time to find better company.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Life Notes

Love Is…

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Love will be the theme for Life Notes in the coming weeks. I will use Paul’s familiar words from 1 Corinthians 13 as an outline. In these 4 verses, Paul lists 8 characteristics of love, and 8 traits that do not characterize love. Love is not something we achieve on our own; rather, it manifests in relationship to and with others. Most importantly, love originates in God.

To introduce the theme, however, I want to back up to the verses preceding the ones quoted above. To begin chapter 13 Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I can identify a number “noisy gongs” and “clanging cymbals” in my life (too often, one stares back at me in the mirror). Paul continues, “And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Finally, in verse 3, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul’s message, clearly, is that nothing we do or accomplish – in 2016 or ever – will amount to anything worthwhile if love does not motivate it. It does not matter what we learn, what heights we attain, or what we give away. If love is not at the heart of whatever we do, it will ultimately mean nothing. It makes sense, then to begin the new year with a study of what love is and what love is not.

We tend to define love in a too-restrictive manner. The traditional Chinese character for love, Ai, according to Wikipedia, contains the symbol for a heart surrounded by acceptance. Love is described as a graceful emotion. It can be interpreted as “a hand offering one’s heart to another hand.” Many languages have several words that represent different manifestations of what we, in English, lump into the word love. It is a common mistake to limit the broad, inclusive reality of love to only one of its manifestations – romantic love. Because many of us are disillusioned by romantic love one or more times in our lives, we may avoid a serious consideration of the sheer practicality and breadth of love. Understanding what love is and what love is not, we learn to live better – not just for others, but for ourselves. We are happier, freer, and richer by living a life in love than in any other way.

My song, Love Never Ends, can be heard at www.ContemplatingGrace.com. Go to the “Music” page, to “Finding Grace in an Imperfect World,” to “Love Never Ends.”

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Life Notes

A Reverse Mission

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen writes, “I have become aware that wherever God’s Spirit is present there is a reverse mission.” He refers to the common realization that those whom we believe need our help – our mission field – often have more to offer us than we have for them. Nouwen continues, “The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the ‘normal,’ the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made into victims, God has chosen to be bearers of good news.”

I first heard about reverse missions on a mission trip to Honduras. While my church sends mission teams to Central America every year, I was surprised to learn that Central American churches send missionary teams to the United States, too. This was an easier idea to process once I spent time with some of the people of Honduras. Were they poor? Certainly. Did they lack some fundamental needs like clean water? Yes, they did. Did I return home feeling I had done God’s work in Honduras? No, I did not. I came home feeling like God’s work had been done to me in Honduras.

When we feed the hungry or house the homeless, we perform acts of mercy – meeting a need that another cannot meet on his or her own. Jesus says those who are merciful – those who give mercy – will receive mercy. This is exactly what Nouwen writes. And it fits perfectly with what I experienced in Honduras. What I gave, what I accomplished on behalf of those I went to serve paled in comparison to what I received. My first hint of a reverse mission occurred at the church services I attended the day after I arrived. There was energy and joy beyond anything I had experienced in church before. Congregants praised God with abandon, and reached out in loving fellowship to others (including our mission team) as if we were long-lost members of their own family. I was perplexed that people lacking in so many basic necessities could be filled with such joy. But they were.

I went to Honduras on a mission – to give some of what I have in the United States to the people of Honduras. I left Honduras with the knowledge that much of what we value in the United States is of little or no lasting value, and much more valued here than it should be. We are distracted from our true blessings of love, relationship, and fellowship, by the sheer abundance of our dominating distractions, like perpetual internet access and cell reception. Our relationships become shallow and impersonal. Deep, loving, and healing connections happen face-to-face, not text-to-text.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be a blessing; be blessed.

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