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Posts Tagged ‘humble service’

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Weightier Matters

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 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

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Life Notes

Love is Patient

Love is patient… 1 Corinthians 13:4a

There was a popular saying not long ago that went, “Be patient with me. God is not finished with me, yet.” I am not a fan of maxims that oversimplify or trivialize complex or important concepts, or of those that seek to shift individual responsibility elsewhere. This saying, though, expresses a profound truth in simple terms – God is not finished with us, yet. In that sense, we are equal because we are all in various states of becoming. No one is complete; no one is perfect.

Whenever someone is in a process of becoming, patience is called for. Of course, with each earthly breath we take, we are in a process of becoming, so patience is always warranted. In parenting, this is obvious. We do not expect a two-year-old to possess the conversational skills of a 22-year-old, so we are patient with their limited dialogue. We do not expect a child in Kindergarten to be able to understand Algebra, so we patiently teach them basic numbers and counting, first. There is a point in a child’s growth, however, where we begin to lose patience. With adults, our patience is often very short indeed. We forget that the process of becoming is life-long.

Impatience is a product of unmet expectations – not meeting our own expectations or not meeting those of others. People simply do not behave in the ways we always wish them to behave. Sometimes we show tremendous patience with some people and very little with others. The person we typically have the least patience with is our self. Most of us are aware of what we are capable of becoming and how we wish to always behave, so when we fall short we forget we are in the process of becoming and are simply not there, yet. Sadly, the other group we are frequently impatient with is those we love the most.

Speed, or lack thereof, is often a trigger for impatience. Someone is simply not moving or becoming as quickly as we believe they should. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” The same can be said of love. Step one in becoming a more loving person is to become a more patient person – patient with ourselves, patient with others, patient with God. We have our earthly lives to become what we can on earth, and we have eternity to finish what remains. There is really no hurry. Where love is the goal, there is always time for patience. A life of love is a patient life.

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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Life Notes

 

Cures That Do not Heal

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Matthew 10:8

On the afternoons of my recent mission trip to Honduras, several of us led Vacation Bible School for the kids. It was a blessing to have fun with the children, even though we could not understand most of what they said. For my daughter, Grace, and me, the interactions with the children were among the most enjoyable.

Honduran homesThe picture on the left is of three Honduran homes located beside the church where we worked. On the left, above and below, are two homes, with a third under the tin roof on the right. More homes are in the background. Although the condition of these homes is worse than some we saw, this scene is common. There were two boys in Bible School who lived next door to these houses. Angel and Daniel, aged about 6 and 4, were happy, cute, well-behaved, slightly ornery boys, not unlike typical youngsters in my hometown. They did not appear undernourished or under-loved, and I have no reason to believe they were. They lived in conditions like those pictured, however. I did not see the inside of their home, but it is likely they had little of the “stuff” we consider necessary for a normal upbringing in the U.S. Did they have TVs or Internet access? Could they watch movies or play video games?

Grace and I talked about how easy it would be to “rescue” one or more of these children into our home, where they would have access to our abundance. Wouldn’t their lives be improved? As the week progressed, the answer seemed clear: No, probably not. Different, yes; better, no. One of the many realizations I made in Honduras is that our “first world” lives are largely lived vicariously in the past and the future. We relive the past and dream of the future, often missing the present moment. Many Hondurans do not have that luxury. The realities of their environment force them to live in the moment, focusing on the needs of now – food, water, work, togetherness, etc. – so there is little energy left to regret the past or ponder the future.

We worry about the future of Angel, Daniel, and the other children. Will they become victims of the prevalent gang violence? Will they be sold into sex trafficking? Will they live their entire lives in housing conditions like these? We cannot know. We also rejoice, however, in the pure joy Angel, Daniel, and the other kids found in the moments of Bible School. Singing, coloring, jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball – they savored moments fully. Their depth of being and their joy in fellowship with us and the other children was beautiful and inspiring. I doubt that could be duplicated here.

I am convinced the solution to the dilemmas in Honduras is not to (north) “Americanize” the people. Rather, we must find ways to preserve the uniquely beautiful parts of their lives and culture, while moderating the violence and poverty that so endanger them. Otherwise, the cures we export may be worse than the illnesses we attempt to heal.

Come home to church this Sunday. Join with others to heal our broken world.

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Life Notes

Where Are You?

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”  Genesis 3:8-9

After eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were so ashamed they tried to hide from God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had unfettered access to and a direct relationship with God. When they ate the fruit of that tree, which God had prohibited, Adam and Eve committed what today we call the Original Sin. It was the first recorded act of direct defiance of God’s will. They were banished from paradise and became self-conscious beings – conscious of themselves as distinct from others.

Intellectually, we know God is omnipotent – all-knowing – and omnipresent – present everywhere – so there is no logical way for us to hide from God. Even so, in the Genesis story, God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” While Christians disagree about the factual nature of the stories of the Garden of Eden and Original Sin, the recorded experiences are intriguing and enlightening. Today, humankind remains a self-conscious species. We go to great lengths to display our individuality, emphasizing that which sets us apart and deemphasizing that which we share in common.

I believe the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegory, recorded to help us understand our human condition. Our perception is that we are separate beings – independent from each other and independent from God. That perception of separation is an illusion, and that illusion is the source of most, if not all of our suffering. When we understand we are interconnected, we realize we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. We get serious about solving society’s problems once we recognize them as our issues and not someone else’s problem. Intolerable conditions like starvation, homelessness, war, and many preventable illnesses will be eradicated once we take responsibility for the care of our neighbors, as we do for ourselves.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of separation and deny their communion with God by hiding. Today, we convince ourselves the universe is here to serve us, and we act accordingly. God, desiring our return to fellowship, calls out “Where are you?” Intuitively, we know God has plans for our lives that are inconsistent with our desires. We know God specializes in uncomfortable and insecure paths. Therefore, we hide by pretending not to hear. Obviously, we cannot hide from God, but we do have the free will to ignore God. Either way, we perpetuate the illusion of separation – separation from God and separation from each other. God’s love perpetually calls us back to unity.

Come home to church this Sunday. God is calling, “Where are you?”

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Life Notes

 

What Time is it?

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. Mark 13:32-33

Earlier this week I thought, “It is time to start writing a Life Note for this week.” It was about 7:00 PM on Monday evening. I do not routinely begin a Life Note at 7:00 PM on Monday evenings, but that was not what I meant. I meant that it was about time to begin this week’s Life Note. Confusing? Yes, the English language is full of words, like time, with multiple meanings. In general, I like to begin writing my weekly blog several days before publishing it on Thursday mornings. That gives me time to reconsider, refine, and review my writing on a particular topic. Thus, it was time to begin.

There are at least two Greek words that describe time. The first, chronos, refers to the actual time, such as “It is now 7:00 PM.” The second, kairos, expresses a less specific aspect of time, sometimes referring to a stage of life. “It is time to write my will,” is an example. Expressing our final wishes in a will is not an urgent task for most of us, but completing it before we pass from this life is important. Beginning a Life Note is not an urgent task for Monday evenings, but it is important (at least to me) to start thinking about what and when I will begin writing.

From a whole-life perspective, what time is it for you? The context for the passage from Mark, above, is about the second coming of Christ. There is much disagreement about the nature of that appearance, but one thing is clear – no one knows the time. Therefore, the time to prepare is always now. We are not guaranteed another moment of physical embodiment beyond the current one. There are experiences, learning opportunities, accomplishments, and relationships that each of us is specifically gifted for. While I believe our life’s work continues beyond death, there is much to be done while we are physically manifested. What unfinished tasks need your attention at this time in your life?

This is the fifth week of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. Lent is a 6-week season, so for anyone planning to follow one of the many Lenten practices, it is time to begin! This Sunday is Palm Sunday. Next week is Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. For those who have not begun, it is time.

Come home to church this Sunday. It is time.

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