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Rejoice and Be Glad

 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.  Matthew 5:12a

As this series on What Did Jesus Say continues, I will begin reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, as found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. This is one of the longer of Jesus’ discourses recorded in the Gospels. The initial part of this sermon is referred to as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), or the Be-attitudes, which provide a distinctively Jesus-way of processing our life experiences.

Rather than starting with the first beatitude, I will begin with what I consider the summarizing point of the series: “Rejoice and be glad.” Although one can say I am pulling this quote out of its context (rejoicing when others persecute us), I believe it is a reasonable conclusion to all of the statements preceding it. It puts the teachings into a greater context, giving them a worthy purpose. They tell us that life is good, regardless of occasional and apparent evidence to the contrary. Outside of this context, the statements can seem nonsensical.

Each of the nine Beatitudes follows an if-then type of format, i.e., if this, then that. More specifically, Jesus says, “Blessed are (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.), for (theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, etc.). So, a situation is named, and its accompanying blessing follows in a concluding statement. The ultimate conclusion, as revealed in Matthew 5:12, is to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” A condensed version of the same teaching is found in Luke 6:23, where Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Most of the situations named are not at all what we would consider worthy of leaping for joy, nor does our world encourage or reward them. This lack of short-term gain is how we intuit that Jesus is referring to a different depth of reward than any immediate response we may or may not receive. More accurately, Jesus is referring to a gain that we cannot realize when we remain on the surface of our lives. There are hidden blessings for going deep into the experience of any given moment. As long as we skim obliviously along from moment to moment, we cannot experience the depth and the beauty that lies beneath. It is under the surface of our moments that the blessings of the Beatitudes are found.

When Jesus says, “…your reward is great in heaven,” I do not believe he is referring to a post-death existence. Most of us have developed a limited understanding of heaven as an eternal paradise available to those who have been good enough in this life to warrant such eternal bliss when this life comes to an end. While I do not deny that such may be our experience after death, I do not believe that is the heaven to which Jesus refers. Rather, he is talking about a state of being, or a level of consciousness available to us in the here and now. This is the state Jesus calls heaven, where we can be one with Jesus, and through Jesus be one with the Father.

With this as context, we can begin to understand the Beatitudes as lessons from Jesus about attitudes for being, for diving beneath the surface of our life experience, and for harmonizing our lives into unity with God. Being poor in spirit, merciful, and pure in heart become key to our ability to find the heart-space where we can meet Jesus in the here and now, regardless of where or how we are. Sometimes, the behaviors and events least praised and admired by those around us are the very ways most conducive to experiencing heaven on earth. Whether we suffer, mourn, or are without the “advantages” others seem to have over us, we can rejoice and be glad, knowing that our disadvantaged-ness holds the key to the kingdom of heaven. Life is good, even now. This, then, is the direction in which the Beatitudes we will discuss in the coming weeks are pointing.

This is the 10th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 29: The Road to Nowhere…

 I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. Isaiah 42:16

Several decades ago, a friend and mentor introduced me to Eastern philosophy. Much of it seemed nonsensical at first. It was full of circular, impossible-to-fathom sayings that were intriguing, but seemed not to lead anywhere, at least not that I could see. Being a child of the West, I learned to discern fact from fiction, right from wrong, north from south. There were important distinctions to recognize and lines to be drawn between this and that. The great Eastern teachers’ lessons were mostly vague and noncommittal. What drew me to their words, however, was the way they grabbed something inside of me and held on until I engaged, like a wrestling match with one’s shadow. A paraphrase of one of my favorite sayings (from an unremembered author) is: “If you cannot find happiness where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?” In retrospect, that sounds exactly like the sort of thing Jesus would say. Of course, Jesus was from the Middle East.

Many of us feel we simply must change our physical location, our job, or our significant other in order to find happiness or personal fulfillment. Sometimes, as in cases of professional opportunities or abusive relationships, that may be true. If we have always dreamed of living near an ocean or in the mountains, staying in Kansas may not be a good choice. The point, however, is that happiness, fulfillment, and contentment are primarily internal states that have little to do with our external environment. Often, when we feel we simply must go somewhere else, we are only running from something inside ourselves that will follow us and manifest again, no matter how far away we run. At some point, we are better off to stay put, honestly and openly reflect on our life, and take the road to nowhere.

The road within may not be an actual road; but it is a journey – a journey of self-discovery. Eastern philosophy helped me understand the importance of looking within for the source of love, strife, strength, and life in ways that my Western upbringing seemed to disavow. Virtual roads to happiness extend in every direction from where we stand at any given moment. These roads are internal, and we find them as we face our own demons and learn to be content with what we have, even as we strive for more. Happiness and contentment are not out there, somewhere; they are always in here. Our creator planted them where they lurk closer than our next breath. It may seem bad news that we cannot run from ourselves. The good news is that we take the road to happiness with us wherever we go.

The road to nowhere is the road to everywhere. How did I miss that?

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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

When God Answers

I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Ecclesiastes 3:10-11

A businessman, late for an important meeting, could not find a parking place. Finally, in desperation, he cried out to God: “If you’ll help me find a parking place, I will start going to church again.” Immediately, a car exited in front of him. While pulling into the now open space the man said, “Never mind. I found one!”

What is our response when God answers prayer? Honestly, I think most of us are reluctant to believe God answers prayer because it is safer to believe things happen randomly. Who am I that God would bless my life? We are more likely to note when God does not answer prayer – at least not in the way or the time we wished. Even the most optimistic of us find it easier to believe the unfortunate occurrences in life are more the “norm” than are the good things. It is as if we believe the good in life is an anomaly that will be paid for with bad – a self-fulfilling prophesy that seems to prove its own truth. In his book Immortal Diamond, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “Humans find it easier to gather their energy around death, pain, and problems than around joy…It is joy that we hold lightly and victimhood that we grab onto.” Why would that be true? Why do I focus on the weeds in my flowerbeds instead of the brilliant colors shining out through the weeds?

flowers and weedsWhy am I surprised when good things happen to me? Why would I question whether the hand of God is at work in my life? As a father, it is expected that I care for my children in good ways – why would I expect less from God. If we are children of God, as the Bible says, why would we receive anything short of extraordinary blessings from God?

We cheat ourselves by not stopping to enjoy a beautiful sunset or by marveling at the dahlias peeking out through the crabgrass. We do others and ourselves a disservice by submitting to pessimism, under the guise of “realism,” expecting the worst. We are to be co-creators of beauty, not prognosticators of doom. Sometimes, we must force ourselves to find the blessings of every moment, believing they are there. Where we focus our attention is a choice. The writer of Ecclesiastes follows the verses above by saying, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live.” These are still solid words to guide our days, thousands of years after they were written. God has made everything suitable for its time. Looking for a blessing in life? Look closer – blessings are all around us, all of the time.

Come home to church this Sunday and be blessed.

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Fully Human

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Luke 1:35

For those of us with a religious or spiritual bent, there is no doubt we are an uneasy mix of earth and spirit. Our bodies are made from elements of the earth, and when we die, those elements remain with and return to the earth. Essentially everything that is visible to us is also of and belongs to the earth – our clothes, our cars, our homes, our money. One can say there is a clear distinction between what is of the earth and what is of the spirit because that which is of the earth is made from the earth and belongs to the earth. The common phrase about death, “You can’t take it with you,” applies only to the stuff of the earth. When Jesus tells us not to focus on treasures that “moth and rust” consume (Matthew 6:19), he is warning us not to become too attached to the stuff of the earth. Which is not to say our earthy incarnation is not without importance.

We all know people whose lives have a consuming focus on earthly matters – most of us fall into that category, at least occasionally. We become caught up in an obsession for a new car, a home, a pair of shoes, or a different job, and we grow inattentive to the spiritual matters around us. We spend less time in personal prayer and study, our relationships suffer, and we lose any sense of a stable, spiritual center.

For us to become fully human – to reach for the highest state we can attain – we must acknowledge that we are a physical and spiritual being. Not only must we acknowledge our dual nature, in my opinion, we must also celebrate and develop accordingly. Focusing too completely on our physical nature leads to perversions of our good and beautiful earth. We become gluttonous, greedy, and narcissistic. Focusing too completely on our spiritual nature, however, leads to detachment from our earthly incarnation. We risk becoming aloof, out of touch, and inaccessible. Either way, we are only developing part of our capacity.

Regardless of whether one accepts the factual nature of the Immaculate Conception (where Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, resulting in the birth of Jesus), the symbolic message is instructive. The perfect mix of earth and spirit – Jesus – is the result of the impregnating of earth by spirit. It is when we grow our spiritual nature along with our physical nature – allowing the spirit to impregnate us – that we begin to become fully human. Prayer, study, reflection, fellowship, relationship-building, and humble service to others – these are food and exercise for the spirit.

Come home to church this Sunday. Awaken your full nature.

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Life Notes

 

Getting Here

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. Luke 17:20-21

Several decades ago, I read something that recurs to me regularly. I do not remember who wrote it, but my paraphrase of this memorable line is: “If you cannot find happiness where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?” The point is that happiness originates from within. People can wander the earth in search of happiness and never find it, because they carry their discontent with them. Abraham Lincoln said, “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” If we are unhappy where we are at, we always have all the power required to change our level of contentment without ever leaving. There are obvious exceptions – abusive relationships, for one – but the key to success is in figuring out how to get there without having to leave here.

Jesus taught frequently about the kingdom of God, which he also referred to as the kingdom of heaven. A subtle, but important point contained in Jesus’ words about the kingdom is that he speaks of it in the present tense, not as a future state. There is a lot of confusion about the kingdom of God, and understandably so. I want to propose, however, that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, that he was referring to a state of being available to us right now, right here. It may or may not be a place we go to after we die. It is, however, a state of existence available to us at any time.

In the passage from Luke, above, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed.” There are several interesting parables about the kingdom of God/heaven in Matthew 13:10-50. In Luke 9:27, he says, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” He issues a warning in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Finally, in Mark 4:11, he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” These are not descriptions of the traditional “heaven” we were taught as children. These tell of a kingdom that is very near, as well as a kingdom accessible to all who follow Jesus – not someday, but today.

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to contemplate the kingdom of God in the present tense – as a present state of being that is always near and available to us. The challenge then becomes how to get from where we are to here?

Come home to church this Sunday. Where are you?

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Life Notes

 

Taming an Ego

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4:22-24

There is an obstacle between spiritual enlightenment and me. It is not a wall I can tear down, nor is it a body of water I can swim across. This impediment is not an intellectual puzzle I can solve by logic. My nemesis is closer than my next breath. It is the me I most closely identify with – my ego. My ego has evolved over the course of my life under the influence of my family, friends, and experiences. Actually, an ego is not a bad thing to have. In fact, it is necessary to develop a strong sense of who we are as individuals. All of us are endowed by our Creator with specific gifts and talents to be used in service to others. We need to know what those are, and our egos shout out our uniqueness.

Consider that I or me appear 12 times in the first few sentences of this Life Note. Most of us believe the universe revolves around us from a very early age. Our perception seems to confirm it, too. Unfortunately, that perception is wrong, or at least is a misleading truth. We are all special and unique persons created in the image of God. When everyone is special, no one is special. When we seek our uniqueness apart from others, we risk becoming narcissistic, selfish, and wretched beings. When we find our distinctive niche alongside others, our value is defined as part of a larger body, as we were created.

My epiphany about ego as a stumbling block to a fuller life occurred sometime after my 30th birthday. I grew weary of my self-styled life, and my existence lacked the joy of rich fellowship with others. I had a modest following as a solo musician – something that not only defined me, but also consumed my weekends. I also had a group of friends I enjoyed being with. Of course, the times they typically gathered were over the weekends when I was away, performing in clubs.

As I learned to wrestle my ego’s grip from my life, I married, had children, and developed a web of close and dear friends. Years ago, I would have considered my life today as indistinguishable from the masses. Fine, I was wrong. I make music with others, now, instead of by myself. The music, like my life, is exponentially richer. An ego becomes an impediment when we do not balance it with a social life. As Christians, we believe the body of Christ is us – all of us working together – not me, standing apart. I have discovered I am the best version of myself in fellowship with others. Taming a strong ego is hard work. For me, the optimal solution has been in find my special place within, not outside of the others in my life. A good church can help.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your place in the body of Christ.

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