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Posts Tagged ‘desire’

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Matthew 5:5

I wish to consider three parts of this passage. First, what does it mean to hunger and thirst for something? Second, what is righteousness? Finally, in what way and with what is one filled?

When I think of hungering or thirsting for something, I picture a desire so strong that everything else fades to the background. It is said that you cannot teach a hungry child because all he or she can think about is food. Indeed, many schools have breakfast and lunch programs to help assure that hunger is not an impediment to learning. The point is that when we hunger and thirst for something, the desire is all-consuming. In Revelation 3:15, the message to the church in Laodicea is: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” I read this as a message about doing what we do with passion and not settling for half-hearted efforts. As an even-tempered person, I worry that I too often react in lukewarm ways to the life around me.

It is perhaps overly obvious to say that righteousness is about doing what is right. What is right, however, is often subjective and differs among persons, cultures, and times. Some consider a law-abiding citizen to be righteous, which is probably true as long as the law is righteous. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed many times for protesting unrighteous laws. Yet, history has not judged him an unrighteous man. We could say a righteous person is one who follows the mandates of scripture. While I find the Bible useful for spiritual discernment and growth, I find it much less helpful as a rule book. Indeed, Jesus frequently criticized the literalist religious authorities of his day for applying scripture by its letter but ignoring its intent. It is far more fruitful, in my opinion, to strive to live as Jesus lived than to remold the laws and customs from thousands of years ago into something applicable today.

Based upon my understanding of Jesus’ life, what Jesus refers to as righteousness is social justice. In fact, I think we can reasonably translate this Beatitude as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” Jesus displayed a laser-like focus on the poor, sick, and disenfranchised of society. For much of my life, it has been difficult to recognize my responsibility for issues of injustice. Should I feel guilty because I was born white and male in a resource-rich, first-world nation? I have had a paying job every day of my life since I was 14. I inherited little or nothing from family and have worked and paid for everything I have. One can say I earned and deserve my life.

This is a tricky topic because yes, of course, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps would certainly count for something, if it were ever true. Being honest, however, every move up the social ladder for me has come because someone I knew, often a family acquaintance, opened a door for me to enter through. Consistently throughout my life, I have had opportunities presented that may not have been offered if not for the color of my skin, my country of origin, or the connections I had. What this has to do with justice is the realization that I am not a self-made person – not even close. Everything I have is a gift. A hunger and thirst for righteous on my part might begin with a passionate commitment to open doors and give a hand up to others who have not had the same opportunities.

The last part of this Beatitude is that we will be filled. We might better understand Jesus’ meaning by reversing it – that we will no longer be empty. When we are on the upper rungs of the societal ladder, we often possess an abundance of stuff, but we may be void of the love and fulfillment that genuine relationships bring. Our stuff distracts us from what is most important in life. Whenever we choose objects over others, our life experience becomes shallow, unstable, and empty. Perhaps a better contemporary translation would be to say, “Blessed are those who work passionately on matters of justice, for they will live full and contented lives.”

This is the 14th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 28: Tithing is not Enough

 But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Luke 11:42

Of all the expectations placed on the churchgoers among us, few cause as much discomfort and difference of opinion as the obligation to financially support our houses of worship. Tithes and offerings are spoken of regularly in both Old and New Testaments, although the expectation to tithe is more explicit in the Old. A tithe means a tenth; thus, the common understanding that we are to give a tenth of our income in support of our church. In previous generations, that may have been clear-cut, but not anymore. Are we to tithe on our gross or our net income? Do donations to other worthy causes count as part of our tithe? If we have an unusual expense one year, can the “tenth” be reduced? If we find $20.00 lying in the street, must we tithe on that, too?

Historically, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, the Levites, were designated as the keepers of the Temple. Because their livelihood was the business of the Temple, they could not make a living in other ways. The Levites were dependent on the people of the other 11 tribes for their support. The concept remains in place today, with members of a church providing financial support to pay the salaries of the staff and expenses of the church. Often overlooked is that the Biblical expectation for giving went well beyond the tithe. Separate offerings were also requested at various times, and those offerings could add another ten to twenty percent of income or wealth on top of the tithe. Today, I believe the percent of income given by the average church member is about 2%. Five percent is considered generous, although a tithe is still held out as the standard.

Jesus, however, held a much different measure for giving. He did not request a simple tithe; he wanted followers who willingly and happily gave everything. A rich man (Mark 10:17-22) tells Jesus he has followed every commandment and asks what else he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. The man walks away, disappointed, for he was not willing to give up his many possessions. In a parable found in Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells of a field with treasure such that someone desires to sell everything he or she owns in return for that one field. In the next verse, he tells of a pearl of great value such that one desires to sell everything else in order to obtain. For Jesus, the important matter is not how much we have or give, but of where our heart is – what do we most desire? Do we prefer our “stuff” to the life Jesus offers? The treasure-filled field and the pearl of great value represent the kingdom he encourages us to seek. When our heart is in the right place, nothing else will matter.

Far be it from me to imply churches are the only organizations worthy of financial support. Actually, I think that line of reasoning misses the point. Where is our heart? Where is our desire? Tithing – supporting our houses of worship – is a good start, but it is not enough. The key is to find ways to make every act of every day an offering for God to use for good. Whether we are eating, exercising, playing, getting ready for bed, or working, offer everything to God’s purposes. Whatever we do, our actions and decisions impact others. Making our life an offering is recognizing that God is with us all the time, in every circumstance, whether we want or sense God there or not. God will not be locked in a church. God is an active presence in our lives, no matter how mundane or profane some of our moments may be. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of Luke that we cannot neglect justice or love. Jesus tells us when we willingly dedicate our heart and life to following him, the rest will fall into place. It is not that where our money goes is unimportant, but it is more important to examine the desire of our heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Tithing is not enough. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 1: Faith Heals

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak., for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. Matthew 9:20-22

The relationship between healing and faith is difficult to understand, impossible to predict, and a connection Jesus mentions many times throughout his ministry. He often healed someone, only to give credit to that person’s faith. I used to believe Jesus was being modest. After all, he was a humble man. He credits faith with healing so many times, however, that I find myself rethinking his modesty. Dare we believe that faith truly does heal?

I have tried to apply faith with instances of serious illness in people I know, but with ambiguous results. I remember praying hard for my mother’s recovery from a stroke. She had been a healthy, determined woman, and I could easily visualize her fighting her way back to health. But she never did. Rather, she slipped into a steady decline and passed away 10 weeks later. The times when an unlikely healing has occurred, and there have been a few, I find myself wondering if it was a God-healing or a talented physician. Clearly, God works through the hands and hearts of God’s people. If I were keeping score, however, of the number of times I believe my faith brought the outcome I prayed for, faith would be losing by a landslide. Is this due to my weak faith, or my lack of understanding about healing?

Not all healings are equal, nor all they all physical. When we pray for healing, we are generally praying for restoration to a prior state of being. We pray for what we, in our limited understanding, believe to be the best outcome. Do we possess the perspective to know what is best in any situation? There are numerous examples of physical healings in the Bible, but we can assume all those people died of something, eventually. There are also instances where God does not heal the physical ailment of a faithful person – Paul comes to mind. Paul used his infirmity as a reminder of his total reliance on grace. Even Jesus, the night before his crucifixion, prays for God to “take this cup from me.” Ultimately, he yields by saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I have often wondered why God did not rescue Jesus from the cross. But wait – Jesus was rescued, just not in the way we humans would have requested.

If faith truly does heal, there is a lot of pressure on us to be well. Wellness comes under our control, instead of our being victimized by illnesses we can do nothing about. Faith is our connection to God – it is the thread by which the human meets the divine. Faith assures us there is more to life than what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell – there is more beyond our human knowledge and efforts. Would God grant us a desire contrary to our ultimate good? There were many times, as a parent that I refused to grant a desire of my children, knowing they were better off without having their wish granted.

What is out there, and how and when it may or may not bless us remains a mystery. Dare we believe that faith heals? Dare we believe it does not?

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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

The Rat Race

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and (rats) consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor (rats) consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

With apologies to self-respecting rats everywhere, we humans often refer to life – particularly our work lives – as a rat race. I suspect the term is intended to represent a large group of self-absorbed, desperate beings doing whatever they can to survive, often at the expense of each other. I imagine a group of starving rats fighting over meager scraps of garbage on the subway tracks of New York City. Many of us spend the majority of our waking hours trying to get ahead in life, in whatever way we define ahead. Unfortunately, for too many of us, getting ahead in life means getting more stuff than our friends and neighbors – a battle we can never win. Lily Tomlin is credited with saying, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

A cancer of discontent eats at us from the inside. The stuff of the earth – cars, nice homes, guitars, clothes, flowerbeds – is tantalizing. Someone at work upgrades to the latest iPhone, and we believe we must upgrade ours, too. Someone else shows pictures of their tropical vacation, and we charge our way to a similar trip. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is one way we express this obsession with laying claim to as much of the earth as our desperate attempts allow. We focus on what we lack, instead of the abundance we already have. One problem with comparing ourselves to others is that the comparison is not with one other person or family, but a conglomerate of persons and families. Typically, it will appear we are significantly lacking, when compared to the combined abundance of many.

Jesus warns us, in the Gospel of Matthew, against storing up treasures of the earth – those things that can be stolen or that wear out over time. Our hearts reside with what we treasure. When our hearts are invested in that which does not last, our hearts will be broken over and over again. Like a cancer spreading within, we simply cannot out-buy our desire for more stuff. Learning to be content with what we have requires a significant change of heart and mind. We can be happy with another’s nice, new car without feeling the need to buy one for ourselves. When we believe we will be happy with one more possession, we fall into the trap of consumerism – that happiness and things are directly related. The truth is that more stuff never brings more than transitory happiness. True and lasting happiness is a product of gratitude and contentment.

Come home to church this Sunday. Leave the rats and join the saints (and the sinners)!

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Life Notes

 

Beyond Words

Be still, and know that I am God!  Psalm 46:1a

Be StillI am a man of too many words. I think in words, I speak in words, and, too often, I experience life through the filter of words. I attempt to capture beauty in words and in doing so I invariably lose much of the wonder I try to describe. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I experienced the sunset in this picture a couple of weeks ago at the Lake of the Ozarks. I would only detract from the splendor by trying to describe it. Even the picture does not capture the experience, however. A picture is a two-dimensional recreation of a single moment. A sunset occurs in four dimensions, the fourth being the 30 or so minutes it requires to manifest fully.

I enjoy using words to share the insights and wisdom I occasionally find. A part of me knows, however, that the more words I use, the farther I stray from the essence of what I attempt to share. Consider a finger pointing at the moon, where the moon is truth and the finger is its description. The purpose of the finger is to point, to lead others to experience the moon for themselves. Unfortunately, we too readily focus on the words – the finger – instead of the truth – the moon – to which they point. I fall into this trap regularly. I tell myself if I can only find the right combination of words, I will capture an experience for eternity. Certainly, the written word can be beautiful, inspiring, and artful. But words cannot capture the totality of a beautiful experience.

Words are symbols we create to represent something else. The word rock describes a part of creation. Adjectives can make it more precise: a small, smooth, round, brown rock. Even so, the rock and the description of the rock are not the same. We simply cannot capture reality in words. Reality is experiential, and words are just marks on paper. Like the sunset above, reality happens in space over a span of time. If we want a description of an experience, words are great. If we want the experience, however, we must be present. Words can lead us to believe we have experienced something we have only read about.

Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century monk, wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In general, we talk too much, and our words can actually inhibit understanding. The Psalmist tells us to “Be still” if we wish to know God. We cannot find God in a dictionary. Neither does God live in books, including the Bible, even though that text is our primary resource for learning about God. We experience God by seeking and listening, not to the words of the voice in our head, but by responding to the pull on our heart. To find God, we must eventually move beyond words.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be still and know.

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A Disturbing Intruder

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  –James 2:14-17

A gift of grace is something positive received that is not earned or deserved. I often consider God’s grace to be like something nice I do for another who cannot respond in kind. Certainly, there are aspects of God’s grace that fall into that category, such as salvation. There are, however, gifts and graces from God that may not be so free. In his devotional, Seize the Day, Dr. Charles Ringma writes: “Grace always calls us to a response. God’s action toward us is never meant to leave us as we are, but is a challenge to move us forward. Grace is thus never a convenient gift, but a disturbing intruder.” 

I love the life God has granted me. I am comfortable and relatively secure, certainly more so than most others in this world. I am not motivated to change my life, even for the better, if it means risking my comfort and security. While I give God the glory for my many blessings, is that enough? The writer of James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, people of faith cannot retain their blessings by hoarding them. I am reminded of the lyrics of an old folk song: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more!” Gifts of grace are meant to change us and move us forward. When we commit to making the lives of others better, our own lives also improve because our gifts multiply by being shared.

Certainly, we have the free will to determine the purposes for which we will share what we are given. Indeed, we have a responsibility to pass along our gifts in intentional and responsible ways. But our gifts are to be used for purposes beyond our own selfish desires. In that respect, as Dr. Ringma writes, gifts of grace may not be such a convenient gift after all, but a “disturbing intruder.”  They are like doors inviting us out of our comforts and into new experiences in community with others. Acknowledging and being thankful for our gifts of grace is important, not because we hope to be loved more (which is not possible), but so that love and grace can flow through us to others. Like a faucet that must be left open for water to flow, grace is made new by flowing through us. Our cup remains full, even as the waters of love and life flow to others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Accept the invitation of this disturbing intruder.

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