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Peace! Be Still!

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Mark 4:39

Jesus had been teaching to a crowd on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Evening came and Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat when a “great windstorm” arose and threatened to swamp the boat. His disciples woke him up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus got up and rebuked the wind, saying to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stopped blowing and “there was a dead calm.” Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

How many times in life have we felt beaten and drenched by the winds and rain of life’s challenges and wondered, “Lord, do you not care that I am perishing?” Serious health issues, suffering loved ones, job insecurities, troubled relationships, bills piling up – name any issue and many people experience the feeling of drowning under that particular pressure. Difficult times seem to attract more difficult times. Old wife’s tails like “God will never give you more than you can handle” are discouraging, at best, if not patently false. Even so, Jesus looks out over our situation and says, “Peace! Be still!” In my experience, the seas have always calmed, although seldom on my timeline. During the calm after the storm, I hear Jesus patiently whisper, “Have you no faith?”

And yet, this is our journey. Iron is sharpened by iron, and our faith is strengthened by our challenges. Anyone can be faithful when life is easy. Life, however, is never smooth for long. Our emotions rise and fall like the waves, turbulent and rough one moment and smooth as glass the next. We tend to believe we have life under control during our moments of calm, only to experience something that sends us flailing in the waves again. We become victims of our emotions, unless and until we learn to rise above the turbulence of our surroundings to the dead calm of Christ.

A little-understood fact of life is that there is no security, no stability, and no calm outside of our total reliance upon the provision of God. There is no bank account large enough, no home solid enough, no body healthy enough, no relationship strong enough to stand against every storm that may come. There is no insurance policy comprehensive enough to assure the restoration of life to a previous state. Everything of the earth deteriorates and dies, as has been true for billions of years. Our world is in a state of constant flux as God creates and recreates new life in its stunning diversity. If we are unwilling to consciously change with our surroundings, we will be worn down like a boulder stubbornly fixed in the middle of a raging river. The wearing down over time, however, will not be the fault of the river or the rock – it is simply the nature of creation.

Perhaps when Jesus looked out over the stormy sea and said, “Peace! Be still!” it was as much a command to his frightened disciples as it was to the sea. “Trust me – I’ve got this,” may be another helpful translation. Yes, life will be rough. But it is our own resistance to what is that makes it so. It is our lack of faith that is on display, not God’s lack of care for who we are at our essence, which is eternal.

Some changes to our world – hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires – cause immeasurable suffering to many of the individual lives who inhabit it. But life, as a whole, survives and thrives. Individual life on earth was never intended to be permanent because the earth must continually redistribute the elements that compose our bodies and all of creation into new life forms. We are blind to the grace of every circumstance because we mourn what we believe we have lost instead of rejoicing in what is gained.

Jesus’ words, “Peace! Be still!” are a directive, calling us to trust God’s sometimes-raging river. When we strap ourselves in and commit to enjoying the ride wherever it takes us, we are less likely to be consumed by the seeming tragedies that occur along the way. We, too, will perish in God’s stormy sea one day. Paradoxically, only then will we truly know the peace of Christ. Until that day, faith is our best option.

This is the 38th in the 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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The Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

The first Beatitude of Jesus tells us the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. As he so often does, Jesus mixes metaphors in a way that many will reject as nonsense. For others, it is an invitation to explore the teaching in a deeper, deliberate way. The images of poor and kingdom seem a poor match for each other. Those who are poor are those who have little or nothing. Images of kingdoms, however, call to mind abundance and access to things considered good and beautiful – a large castle, an extended estate, servants, vineyards, and lavish banquets. Kingdom images often also include excesses, such as gluttony, lust, and all sorts of abuses of power and privilege, of lives built on the backs of the poor and oppressed.

Although the text refers to the poor in spirit, I think the lot of the poor was intentionally used by Jesus as an example. Poor people, by definition, do not have a lot of extra things. I often see homeless people with (presumably) everything they own in a paper sack. Some barely squeak by with life’s necessities, while others require assistance to live at even a marginally life-sustaining level. They are burdened by what they lack. The non-poor among us, on the other hand, are prone to become burdened by our excesses. I suspect what Jesus means when he refers to the poor in spirit are those with an unencumbered spirit. These are people who can move between places and life situations with ease because most of what they need is contained within. Their faith assures them of provision for their needs, and they trust that those needs will be met as they arise. This requires a level of faith I do not possess, but I understand how freeing it would be. For most of us, seeking a less encumbered life would be a reasonable and helpful beginning.

Those who have done mission work in third world countries have witnessed first-hand the unencumbered spirits and inherent joy of those who are poor in spirit. If the electricity goes out, the internet is down, the car stops running, one’s computer crashes – none of these first-world “catastrophes” impact their lives at all. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have directed his followers to work with and live among the poor of their time. The purpose was not, however, to “help” the poor folks so much as it was to allow the poor folks to help change his followers. I went on a mission trip to New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina decimated the area, and we were told to make sure we did not focus so much on the work that we did not spend significant time with the residents. In my arrogance, I assumed it was so we could serve as emotional, as well as physical support to them. In retrospect, I suspect the goal of spending time with these folks was so they could change and help us instead of the other way around. We people of “privilege” have much to learn about attaining the freedom to experience joy in the moment, which is the key to the kingdom of heaven. Our encumbered lives pull us out of our moments back into the past or forward into an uncertain future.

I do not want to be overly negative about the blessings of privilege. It is not that our stuff is evil, as much as it is that our attachment to our stuff stands between us and the experience of the presence of God. Many people misquote 1 Timothy 6:10 as, “Money is the root of all evil.” The passage actually says, “…the love of (i.e., attachment to) money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” So it is with our possessions – when they possess us, when they become the central objects of our desire instead of tools for our use, when we become dependent upon them, they stand as a barrier between us and the gates to the kingdom of heaven.

Far from a call to vagrancy and homelessness, Jesus’ invitation is to let go of our earthly attachments and dependencies, which is an altogether different kind of poverty. Blessed is the unencumbered spirit…for he/she will freely enter the kingdom of heaven while yet on earth.

This is the 11th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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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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Great Joy

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

The theme for the third week of Advent is Joy. Happiness is often used synonymously with joy, but the two are significantly different. Happiness is a transitory state of mind, but joy is an underlying orientation to life. We can be happy one moment and sad the next, not unlike the ups and downs of an emotional roller-coaster. Joy, however, remains relatively constant regardless of the immediate circumstances. In Luke 2:10, the angel tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (emphasis added). The angel’s message clearly refers to something greater than momentary happiness. The incarnation of God on earth as Jesus was and is intended to be a life-altering, joy-inspiring occurrence.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes that God fills us with joy and peace in believing (15:13). In other words, it is our belief – our lived faith that God is real and present in our lives – that leads to joy. Like a self-perpetuating cycle, faith makes hope possible, hope brings joy, joy renews our faith, and so on. Those who lack the optimistic hope that life is defined not by its challenges but by its blessings cannot live with joy. The pessimist only sees life as one set of catastrophes after another and lives in constant fear and dread of the next disaster. A joyful person knows that great blessing lies just beneath every difficulty and waits expectantly for it. The difference is subtle, but powerful. One scriptural reason for hope is found earlier in Romans (8:28) where Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”  Nowhere in scripture are we promised an end to the troubles and heartaches of this life. Rather, we are assured that God will work through our suffering and transform it into something good. Those of us who have lived long enough and awake enough have seen this proven true repeatedly. Indeed, this is the good news of the Gospel.

One can be happy without joy for a time, but only a joyful orientation to life will bring lasting happiness. The first step is to develop our faith, and this is a personal choice. No one, including God, can force us to believe. Becoming faithful requires a willingness to trust that which we cannot see or prove exists. As we surrender into a stronger faith, we cannot help but become more hopeful about life and the future. Our faith teaches us there is nothing that can possibly happen to us that will happen beyond God’s ability to mold it into a blessing. Once we know that even death cannot separate us from love, our fears dissipate. As we worry less about the future, we become capable of experiencing joy in the present moment. This is the great joy spoken of by the angel to the shepherds. This great joy is not about some future reality in a faraway land we may see when we die, nor is it about some obscure event that happened two thousand years ago. This great joy is here, it is now, and it is available to everyone. We must position ourselves to receive it, however.

So, when I wish you a joyful Christmas season, I am not hoping you will receive lots of nice presents (not that there is anything wrong with that). My wish for you is for a life transformed by the birth of the Christ child within you. That is the path to a true and sustained joy; and from that great joy, all good things will flow!

 

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The Face of Calm

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:39-41

When we think about the faces of God shown by Jesus, we must consider the face of calm. Many times in the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid. This is consistent with the numerous Old Testament writings where those having an encounter with God or angels were told not to be afraid. When something well out of the ordinary occurs, one natural reaction is fear. If I were to come across a bush that was burning and not being consumed, I would be curious. If and when that bush began speaking to me, I would probably be afraid. In the passage from Mark, above, Jesus is crossing the sea with his disciples. Jesus falls asleep and a great windstorm hits, threatening to swamp their boat. The disciples are terrified and wake Jesus up, accusing him of not caring that they are about to drown. Jesus tells the wind and the sea to be still, and they obey. He then turns to his disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Tying fear and a lack of faith together is profound and an often-overlooked connection. Did Jesus think it was not appropriate for the disciples to be afraid when the waves were crashing over the sides of their boat? Was he criticizing them for their lack of faith in his ability to keep them safe? Did he think they should not be afraid to die for his ministry? These questions are not answered in the Gospel story, but there are other ways to understand the story aside from a literal reading.

If we look at the chaos from the windstorm as a metaphor for the chaos sometimes caused by the circumstances in our lives, the story takes on a very personal meaning. When I work myself into a frenzied state over something that may or may not happen in the future, when I become frustrated with traffic, or when I feel shame over something I did or said in the past, I can almost hear Jesus whispering over my shoulder, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The most obvious answer, whenever I succumb to these manifestations of fear, is that my faith is very small. I have lived far long enough to experience problems being solved – stormy seas being calmed – in ways I could never have imagined and that clearly were initiated by a power beyond anything I am capable of exerting.

There are several elements to this story. The first is that Jesus displayed power over the wind and sea. That, in itself, would cause both fear and wonder. Indeed, the disciples respond, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Perhaps they were still uncertain about the divine nature of Jesus, or even unaware of what a divine being might be capable of doing. I think one lesson of the story is that we cannot know or predict how God may intervene in our lives on our behalf.

A second element in the story is Jesus criticizing their fear of the situation, their lack of faith. One can make a good argument that we have nothing to fear, ever! If we truly believe God is lovingly present in our lives and that God can transform whatever is evil in our lives into something beautiful, what could we possibly be afraid of? Our fear, like that of the disciples in the boat, simply shows our lack of faith in God’s care.

Finally, and most instructive to me, is the need to become quiet enough to hear the voice saying, “Do not be afraid.” It is counterintuitive that we must silence the chaos in our own minds before we can hear and know the still small voice of God that has all situations well in hand. And yet, that is exactly what the calm face of God in Jesus encourages us to do.

Note: this is the 26th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God. 

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