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Divine Violence, Part 2

 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… Mark 7:21a

Last week I reflected on how we can read the violent sections of the Bible in a metaphorical way that helps us reconcile a loving God with a sometimes violent text. This method of biblical interpretation is based on the foundational belief that our inner struggles not only mirror the violence recorded in the Bible, but also mirror the external violence we witness in our world today. These inner struggles occur between our ego-self – the part of us that is overly identified with our mortal, physical being – and our true-self – the part of us that is inseparably wedded to God, others, and the eternal. These two selves, both of which are us, find themselves in frequent conflict because their goals, values, and perspectives differ widely. Unfortunately, the violence in our world is not metaphorical. The murder of innocents, physical abuse, oppression, and the heartbroken victims and families left in their wake are all very real.

Let me restate the proposition that some will find silly or heretical: The world outside of our selves mirrors the world inside of our selves. As such, our eternal fate is inseparably tied to that of all others. Salvation is not an individual achievement; rather, it is a communal awakening. The traditional view of heaven would not be heaven if we were there alone. That would be hell. We have neither the wisdom nor the perspective to judge who is worthy of either glory or damnation. What we have is a commandment to love each other. Followers of Jesus, by definition, try to do what he did. Jesus reached out to and served those on the margins of society – prostitutes, tax collectors, widows and orphans, the sick and lame, immigrants, the blind. In no uncertain terms he told us to go and do likewise. This command was not simply because loving these people is a nice thing to do, but because bringing them into our circle of care is a necessary step for our own entry into the kingdom of heaven. Remember, our inner life mirrors what we witness externally as their life.

A common question I hear in discussions of mass tragedies like the Holocaust is this: Where was God? That question is as wrong as it is reasonable. We are far too quick to blame God for evil manifestations of human brokenness and ignorance. The correct question is: Where were we? Granted, most of us were not alive during the Holocaust, but where are we with the immigrants at our southern border? Where are we in the mass shootings occurring throughout our country? Where are we in human trafficking and the myriad of other continuing forms of human slavery and oppression? If we are God’s hands and feet on earth, where are we? We are an integral part of the fabric of this society and the communities where we live. We help perpetuate that which we do not oppose. What public action have I taken on gun control, global hunger, immigration, or human trafficking? Personally, I have done far too little.

So here is our dilemma: If the outer world mirrors our inner world, what are we doing about the senseless violence within? I think the answer begins with the degree to which we consciously identify with our ego self. The ego has no problem with personal gain at the expense of another. It has no problem looking the other way when someone else is being beaten or robbed, as long as the perpetrator does not come after it. Is it any wonder we live in a violent, self-centered society? The ego has no social conscience, and a lack of social responsibility is at the heart of mass human tragedies. Assuming personal responsibility for the suffering of others is lacking. The ego is very quick to assign blame elsewhere. And the first to suffer and last to recover are those at the margins – the ones to whom Jesus dedicated his ministry.

Once we identify more strongly with our true self, our connection to others becomes more apparent. We can no longer stand by and witness the persecution of others because their persecution is our persecution. Refusing to consider scripture and the life around us as a reflection of our inner world is like praying with one eye open. We allow into our awareness only those parts of reality that support our ego-self. And those at the margins pay the price for our ignorance.

I will attempt to wrap up the loose ends of this discussion next week.

This is the 33rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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You Give Them Something to Eat

 

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”  Mark 6:35-37b

The feeding of a large crowd is one of the miracle stories of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, albeit in slightly different variations. The core of the story has Jesus teaching to a crowd of about 5,000 men, plus women and children. The hour is getting late, and the disciples are concerned that the people will need something to eat. They ask around and find only a paltry amount of available food – five loaves of bread and two fish, in Mark’s version. It was far too little for so many. Jesus takes the meager offering, raises it to heaven in blessing, and tells the disciples to distribute it to the crowd. Everyone in the crowd eats their fill, and the disciples collect the leftovers, filling 12 baskets.

God miraculously multiplied the small amount of food into an abundance to feed the hungry crowd. The question is this: How did God do it? Did God take a little, apply the Word, and magically transform it into a lot? Perhaps. I do not question God’s ability to accomplish such a feat. My life experience, however, makes me think God may have worked in a different way. Imagine that the disciples had asked people in the crowd what they could contribute to feed the masses, but only a few were willing to contribute a small bit of what they had – five loaves and two fish. Once others saw that some people were contributing, however, their hearts opened and more became willing to offer what they had with them. When the little, which was first offered, was combined with the abundance that was actually in the crowd, there was more than enough for everyone to have their fill. Is this telling of the story any less miraculous than if God alone had created the abundance? I think not. In fact, I find it more compelling.

We see this at church with potluck dinners. The church provides a little and everyone else brings something to contribute to the common meal. The amount of food always exceeds the hunger. Perhaps the feeding of the 5,000 is the biblical version of the story of Stone Soup. In that story, a traveler stops in a town at dinnertime, but can find no one willing to feed him. He takes his pot to the river, fills it with water, and places one round stone in the bottom. He builds a fire in the town square and starts heating the water. Curious townsfolk stop by to see what he is making. He says, “Stone Soup. It’s delicious!” He tells one person it would be better if only he had a few carrots. She says, “I have a few carrots I could bring.” He tells another that onions would be nice. Another person offers seasoning, and others bring potatoes and meat. In the end, they share a delicious and abundant community meal to which everyone contributed, in spite of their initial reluctance.

Here is why I believe the story seems more plausible along the lines of the Stone Soup legend than that God performed a miracle alone: I believe God works through us as much or more than God works for us. God provides the inspiration and the nudging for us to perform generous acts we might not otherwise perform. In the current example, one clue lies in Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” It is a directive to personal action. It reminds me of Jesus’ parting instructions to Peter in the Gospel of John (21:15-19). Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and Peter assures him he does. Jesus responds, “(You) Feed my sheep.” God relies on our hands and hearts to do the physical work of God’s will on earth. Very often, as in the case of the feeding of the 5,000, that work requires a handful of people to begin contributing something, inspiring others to follow suit. There is plenty for everyone when faithful people trust God’s abundant provision and share what they have.

Who should feed the hungry? You (and I) should. God reveals the need and gives us the opportunity to take it from there. God, acting through and with us, is the initiator of miracles.

This is the 33rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 35: Anger is a Secondary Emotion

Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. Ephesians 4:26

There are too many times on too many days that I experience anger. Sometimes, it is my own anger; other times, I am the target of the anger of another. Anger crops up at work, at home, in traffic, in politics, and yes, even at church. Some people are quick to get angry, but then calm down in short order. I am the opposite. Usually, it takes quite a lot to arouse my anger and, once angry, I can stew for days or weeks.

Our anger, however, is not a primary emotion. Although anger commands a lot of attention, it always masks something else. We may consider someone an angry person, but he or she is more likely a person whose anger is stimulated easily, quickly, and often. If we want to get to the heart of anger – ours or that of another – we must look deeper. It starts with an event that we interpret as threatening. It is the threat, real or perceived, that generates the anger. Once we are angry, any number of consequences may ensue, many of them unpleasant. To effectively deal with anger, we must first identify the threat preceding it and understand why it triggers feelings of vulnerability. In identifying and examining the threat, we may realize we have exaggerated the risk, often to the point of absurdity. For example, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we may lay on our horn and yell, “What are you trying to do, kill me?” The triggering event is the car pulling in front of us, the threat is our perceived imminent death at the hands of a homicidal maniac, and the result is anger.

Anger, once aroused, can lead to acts of verbal, emotional, or physical violence, and therein lays the problem. Many everyday events threaten us. When we examine the event and our initial reaction to it we can recognize our fear, humiliation, indignation, annoyance, or any of many emotional responses, and we can begin to understand that none of these events require us to become angry. The anger, the secondary emotion, is a choice, albeit often an unconscious and unhelpful one. The challenge is to become consciously aware enough to allow ourselves to decide whether to react in anger. Too often, our anger bursts out uninvited, leaving a mess we immediately regret.

Relationships are fertile ground for anger because no strong relationship is possible without a willing and shared vulnerability. What would not be a triggering event in other circumstances can lead to an emotional explosion between people in close, regular proximity to each other. A dish not rinsed before going into the dishwasher, dirty clothes left on the floor, a car left nearly empty of fuel – all can leave us feeling unappreciated, belittled, or invisible. If we are not intentional and measured in our response, anger will ensue.

The challenge for me, as with most of the choices I make, is to take the time to assess my reactions to the countless stimuli around me. Why do certain things threaten me so? What am I afraid of? Will this matter a year from now? How does this compare to the challenges faced by those in third-world countries, or to the parent whose child has cancer? I find perspective helpful when analyzing emotions, just as analyzing the triggering events and my initial responses are helpful in exploring my anger. When I am the object of someone else’s anger, it is sometimes helpful to ponder, “What have I done that this person perceives as threatening?” Writing him or her off as just an angry, unpleasant person is not helpful or instructive – something is hurting them. Questions like these help me accept responsibility for the anger around me, which is important because I cannot improve a situation until I accept at least some responsibility for its creation.

Anger is a secondary emotion. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 9: Non-Violence is Non-Negotiable

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Matthew 5:38-39

I do not know how I missed it, but Jesus modeled unwavering non-violence. That would not be an issue for me, except that Jesus’ most frequently repeated directive was “Follow me.” Based on Christian teachings, as recorded in the Gospels, if we are to be followers of Christ, non-violence is non-negotiable. I cannot imagine any way that we can justify violence of any sort as being consistent with Jesus’ teaching.

We were born into violent times, however, so what are we to do, turn the other cheek? Apparently so. What about wars?  What about those in our military, charged to protect our national interests in sometimes-violent ways? Let me assert that I do not condemn those serving in our military, past or present. These faithful and brave servants do what is necessary for the rest of us to live as we do, and God bless them for it. Even so, how do we reconcile any sort of violence with the Christian teaching of non-violence? I think the key lies within us, as individuals, in our personal lives. Soldiers do not create the conditions that lead to violence; leaders do that. And we elect those leaders. Ultimately, the responsibility is yours and mine, and in more ways than one.

Violence is a daily occurrence on our streets, in our workplaces, and in our homes. I am told that a shared characteristic of essentially every violent person is a violent upbringing. Typically, a violent or absent father (who himself likely experienced a violent childhood) demonstrated that violence is how one gets what one wants. If things are not going as one wishes, a few loud, nasty words, a punch, or a weapon may help bring the desired outcome. Road rage, bullying, name-calling, and gossip are all current examples of violence. We justify them as not really hurting anyone, but is that true? At the very least, our violent reactions – even if they are not physically violent – contribute to the violent environment of our world.

Violence begins at home. If we are to manifest a non-violent world, it must begin with us. Widespread non-violence will not happen in my lifetime, and probably not in my children’s lifetimes, either. But it can and must begin with me – and you. When I feel my anger or frustration beginning to build, I need to examine my choices prior to reacting. What is the most appropriate response that does not do or perpetuate violence? How can I serve to end what is likely the latest in a long string of violent acts, possibly dating back many generations? In what ways can I commit to physical, emotional, and intellectual non-violence in my own part of the world? Within my heart is where non-violence incubates.

Non-violence is non-negotiable. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 3: The Way Out is Through

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34a

                       “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.”

Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

We live in a violent time. Pundits of every persuasion speak with certainty about the causes and cures for the current violence. I am unconvinced. What I am listening for, but not hearing, is anyone recognizing and accepting personal responsibility for a solution.

Long ago, I was taught that one cannot solve a problem without accepting some level of responsibility. Once I recognize my part in a problem, I am able to begin making meaningful changes that may actually have a positive impact. The change, however, must begin within. If not, I join the legions of complainers, finger-pointers, hand-wringers, pontificators, and other reactionaries that only perpetuate the problem. As Christians, we have the audacity to claim Jesus took the sins of the world – past, present, and future – to the cross to purchase our salvation. But do we understand the nature of that sacrifice? Do we know how to apply it in practical ways? One lesson of the cross is how to participate in the reconciling of social ills. What Jesus modeled for us is this: The way out is through.

Jesus, an entirely innocent victim, knew a horrible death he did not deserve was waiting. He would endure the worst torture that humanity knew how to inflict at the time. The social systems of Jesus’ day, like today, were unjust and violent. They wrongly believed, as we believe, that progress – however the culture defines it – comes by force. Jesus recognized the corrupt underlying system and, in his humanity, refused to participate in or perpetuate it. Once accused, he did not get defensive, or try to shift the condemnation onto others. He knew the only way out of the situation – to begin a social healing process – was to accept his condemnation, take up his cross, and go through it. And in that act of civil disobedience, Jesus modeled what happens when we go through a difficult challenge – we come out the other side changed. All efforts to avoid, go around, or deny a problem leave it for another day.

What are my roles in today’s issues? Where are my actions toward others discriminatory and unjust? Which of my cultural assumptions are repressive? How do my words exclude others from kinship as fellow children of God? Specifically, what am I doing, or not doing, that is contributing to the problem? As a Christian, American (the only category of American without an ethnically-based prefix), heterosexual, white male, I have no meaningful experience with discrimination. I am near the top of the socio-economic ladder by accident of birth. Until I understand and accept my role in perpetuating a violent, discriminatory culture, I remain firmly a part of the problem – without ever pulling a trigger.

From the cross, Jesus looked with mercy on those who inflicted the horrible injustice upon him and asked that God forgive them. They did not know what they were doing; and neither do we. The spiral of violence we find ourselves in will only be solved when a critical mass of people accept responsibility for their part, say “Enough,” take up their cross, and go through the problem, including acceptance of its inevitable consequences.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that.” In these dark times, only love can carry us through to the other side. We underestimate how rare that sort of love is, however, let alone the level of sacrifice and focus it requires. Not all of us will survive, at least not physically, but deeply-imbedded social ills require much sacrifice for the future good. Jesus showed us the way. Non-violent leaders like Dr. King and Gandhi gave their lives for it. They faced evil head on, absorbed the worst evil could throw at them, and came out triumphant on the other side.

The way out is through. How did I miss that?

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The “I” in Faith 

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs on your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:6-7

We often hear the saying, “There is no “I” in team.” The thought conveys that the performance of the team is more important than the performance of an individual team member. Sometimes, what one must do to make his or her team successful is not that which will bring the most glory to the individual. Likewise, one of the most common setbacks for team success occurs when individuals perform in selfish ways that hurt the team. We say, “He (or she) is not a team player.”

Having faith, however, is not a team sport – having faith is an individual decision. While people often give credit to others for instilling a strong faith in them, faith can only take hold when a person makes a personal decision to believe. For example, I could easily say my faith was handed down to me from my grandparents, through my parents. Although my parents and grandparents were people of strong faith, my decision to believe – to develop a faith of my own – had to be mine. Furniture, property, pictures, life stories, and life lessons can be passed from generation to generation. Examples of lives of strong faith can serve as models, but for me to be faithful, I must decide to have faith.

So what, exactly, does it mean to have faith? Among the dictionary definitions are “confidence or trust in a person or thing” and “belief that is not based on proof.” For me, faith is a decision to believe there are forces at work that I cannot see, touch, hear, smell, or fully understand. For example, I do not understand electricity, but I use and rely on it all day, every day. I do not understand how the earth remains in its orbit around the sun, but every morning I believe the sun will rise. Having faith in a person or thing means we do not have to micromanage, or otherwise be in charge of or worry about them. We trust their functional design or their good intentions or their competence, and we rely on them – our faith instills confidence in their dependability.

Because faith is an individual decision, we can choose to have faith in different things and/or people, not all of which will be beneficial to us. Having faith establishes a connection that empowers both ends, meaning both the believer and the believed in. Once we believe in a benevolent God, we acknowledge and empower our connection with God and begin to see evidence of God working in our lives. Until, however, we establish that connection – develop that faith – we cannot see the evidence. If we chose to believe life is a random series of unrelated events, however, we establish a connection that will provide evidence for our faith in the chaotic nature of life. The choice is ours. And our choices impact how we experience life. Faith is not just about church, but about life.

Come home to church this Sunday. The choice for a life of faith is yours.

Finding Grace tag

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The Trouble with Church 

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” Revelation 3:1

I have issues with the church – not only the church I am a member of, but other individual churches, as well as with the church as a whole. Granted, if the church is the body of Christ on earth, it has a high standard to attain. Regardless, I find how far and how often the church falls short of its reason for existence troubling. Some churches have charismatic preachers, with congregations who attend more to be entertained by the delivery of the sermon than to be enlightened by the content of the message. Churches are always asking for money, but many churches divert so much money to facilities and staff they have little left over for missions. Some churches are not welcoming of newcomers, and others offer few opportunities for individuals to become a part of small groups for study and fellowship. I know of churches that routinely allow their children and youth to be loud and disrespectful. Like more than a few other charities, some churches seem to focus more on their own survival than on their stated purpose for existing.

Yes, I have serious issues with today’s church. I have concluded that the trouble with the church – both individually and collectively – is that it does not always serve as I believe it should. I want my church to be informative, engaging, and spiritually enlightening. I want to hear sermons that confirm my understanding of God and the world, and I want to hear the types of music I most enjoy – and I want the songs done well. I have passed along a number of great ideas to the pastor and others, only a handful of which have ever been implemented. I want to be involved in my church, but on my own terms; so I want to help with activities that are fun and that fit my schedule and that are done with people I enjoy. The trouble with church is just that: me, and what I want.

Obviously, the church does not exist solely for my purposes, so I should expect there will be times it leaves me feeling irritated, unappreciated, and even angry. Church often frustrates my desires – which is exactly the point! The church does not exist for me, except to draw me closer to God. The church is a community of believers seeking to do God’s will in community. If my life were perfectly in tune with the will of God, there would be no personal need for church or spiritual disciplines. Therefore, there is tension between what I want, what I need, and what the church provides and requires of me.

My wife and I were married in the church. Many of our closest friends are members of our church. It is our church family that reaches out to us in our times of greatest need with help and support. It is in church we have said our final goodbyes to loved ones. Our church sheltered and nourished our children. The church is not about me, but about us. I guess the trouble with church is not about the church at all, it is the trouble with me…

Come home to church this Sunday. Without you, it is only ch rch.

Finding Grace tag

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