Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reflections on a Lenten Text

A recent Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was John 9:1-41. Jesus and the disciples met a blind man—blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Their question represents old wisdom: poverty or illness as a sign that somebody has sinned. Blame the victim! Jesus contradicts that wisdom: “It’s not the victim’s fault. It’s not anybody’s ‘fault’. But God can be glorified in and through any situation.”
And, Jesus heals him. Note: It was on the Sabbath.
The neighbors were amazed! “Isn’t this the guy that used to sit and beg?” “No! It can’t be! It’s just somebody that looks like him!” When they confronted him, they didn’t like his answers; so, they took him to the Pharisees, who immediately said, “Well, the healer can’t be from God, because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”
Maybe you’ve noticed: sometimes our ideologies—our beliefs and doctrines, both religious and political—get in the way of what’s right.
The Pharisees decided the man hadn’t been healed. It was a sham; so, they called his parents, who said, “Ask him; he’s of age.” (They were afraid of the Pharisees. Hmmm. Imagine: being afraid of religious leaders!)
So, the Pharisees called the man back in, and played the intimidation card: “Change your testimony! We know this man is a sinner; so, don’t say he healed you. Say God healed you!”
His response was simple: “One thing I do know, I was blind, now I see.”
So, they asked again, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 
He replied, “I told you already, and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” [Starting to seem like a Senate investigation hearing, isn’t it?]
They said, “You were born entirely in ignorance, and you’re trying to teach us?” And they kicked him out in the street.
There are several layers here: nobody in this story “gets it”! I wonder what I don't get. I wonder what we don't get.
I guess I’ve been thinking that the principle of an ideological system taking precedence over human need is a relatively new thing. Obviously, I was wrong. “The healer can’t be from God because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath?” Great Honk!
A human need has been met! A man has been healed! He once was blind, but now he can see! Why isn’t that the primary focus? Why isn’t it celebrated? “…he doesn’t keep the Sabbath? [Later, this healer who can’t be from God would ask the same Pharisees, “Is it right to do good on the Sabbath?”]
All these people were looking for—were longing for—the kingdom of God; and all the while, the healer who can’t be from God has been saying, “The Kingdom is here!” “This is it!”
They couldn’t see it, because it didn’t fit their expectations. It didn’t fit in their system.
A primary message of the Gospels is that this healer who can’t be from God is the very one who is bringing in the Kingdom of God; but he hasn’t come to restore the old kingdom of their creedal system; he’s come to bring a New Kingdom! The old kingdom was based on law and sacrifice; the new kingdom will be based on love and grace.
People whose lives are based on rules find it hard to understand and accept love and grace. “You don’t work, you don’t eat.” That’s law. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” (Matthew 25:35 NIV) That’s grace. It’s easier to respond, “Get a job!” or, “I don’t want to encourage their dependence.”
The Gospel readings in the Lectionary are preparing us and moving us toward the Easter celebration. Sunday-after-next will be Palm Sunday. Remember: many of those who cried “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday, cried, “Crucify him!” Friday morning, because he didn’t live up to their locked-in belief system. So, they judged him unqualified.
They didn’t get it. Had I been there, I wonder if I’d have “gotten it.” Do I really “get it”, even today? Is my own ideology—my doctrine—so rigid that I don’t recognize the movement of God unless it fits into what I already think I know? What don’t I get?
That’s the essence of walking by faith, not by sight.
That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I'd Rather Fight than Switch!

Passions are high, but solutions are rare, whether the subject is terrorism, health care, public education, the arts, personal morality or the role of government in any or all of the above; whether the concern is for the needs of the many versus the needs of the one; whether the question relates to the causes of poverty or the degree to which “the market” should be free or regulated.
It’s just easier to call somebody a liberal (or a conservative or  radical or wacko or whatever) and point fingers of blame, than to set aside personal or party ideology and engage in effective problem solving and collaboration.
Remember the cigarette ad from the 60s? "I'd rather fight than switch!"
The word, ‘paranoia’ is being tossed around a lot these days. From where I sit, however, the dominant cultural reaction looks less like paranoia and more like scapegoating. The aim is to redirect responsibility and accountability. As a result, whatever it’s called, not only are solutions rare, but so, also, are viable initiatives for new directions.
The recent health care program presented by the Republicans was said to have been a slipshod, hastily-thrown-together mish-mash that was no better—perhaps worse—than the Affordable Care Act it was intended to replace. Some even said it was primarily an act of revenge against Liberals.
I wasn’t there, and therefore don’t have first-hand knowledge[1]; however, what came across in the creation of both the Affordable Care Act and the American Health Care Act was the absence of any attempt at bi-partisan collaboration. Neither party acknowledged validity in the other party’s input, and each party engaged in efforts designed solely to undermine whatever the other party initiated.
The result is two “better than nothing” health care plans, neither of which is sufficiently comprehensive. Nobody’s happy; and most are angry and scapegoating (again, the act of redirecting responsibility and accountability.
Remember your childhood sibling squabbles: “It’s your fault!”
What we have here is a collision of values! On the one hand, conservatives believe “That government is best that governs least”[2] and attempt to enact that dictum through legislation. On the other hand, while I don’t think anyone really disagrees with the dictum, liberals tend to focus more on specific human needs that go unattended and see government involvement as the only viable alternative at a given moment.
Both perspectives are valid; indeed, most issues are both/and, rather than either/or, concerns. What is missing is a workable strategy of application—a strategy to reduce government involvement while making “other arrangements” for meeting human need. Theories and opinions abound. Passions are high. But workable strategies are rare.
Eliminating welfare fraud and dependence are valid, worthy goals; but going “cold turkey” destroys people, especially those who are most vulnerable and who, in reality, constitute a much larger population than those who manipulate and abuse the system.
Like everyone else, I have strengths and weaknesses. Among my strengths are training in group dynamics and conflict resolution. Whenever I begin any conflict resolution, whether it’s a marital conflict, a conflict between teachers and administration, or a church fight, I always open with a question: “Do you want to resolve the issue between you, or do you just want to win the fight?”
Maybe it’s just me; but, in my observation it seems obvious how most politically-involved people would answer.
It’s beyond sad. It’s tragic and dangerous.
That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] Nor am I privy to any other person’s mind; therefore, I am unable to judge a person’s intentions or motivations. I am, however, relatively capable of reading people’s behavior, body language, voice inflection, choice of vocabulary, etc., all of which give credible evidence into people’s intentions and motivations. Even so, it’s a tangled web of assumption when we presume to judge another’s mind.
[2] Henry David Thoreau opened his pamphlet, “Civil Disobedience” with this phrase. It has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, although it is not found in any of his writings. (Source: )

Friday, March 17, 2017

Weightier Matters

Matthew reports these familiar words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...” (Matthew 5:6 NRSV)
It is crucial that we understand “righteousness”. In the original language, that same word in other contexts is translated, “Justice.” Too often, “righteousness” is understood as devoutness, virtue, piousness—qualities of personal devotion. And too often, “justice” is understood as retribution or punishment.
Qualities of personal devotion are important to any life of faith, and there are biblical words that represent those qualities. Further, retribution has valid application in civil law, and there are biblical words that represent that. But when Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” he didn’t use any of those words. And the word he used[i] doesn’t refer directly or necessarily to those qualities.
The word Jesus used relates to relational, rather than personal, contexts—qualities revealed in the ways we relate to people and social structures. I’m not sure how the English understanding of the word got separated from a concept of justice and tied so tightly to personal devotion; but, its fundamental meaning is simply “what is right”, whether it is translated “justice” or “righteousness.”
A crucial dilemma today is the disconnect between human need and some ideologies, both political and religious. Some things simply are more important than any philosophy or dogma: things that simply are “right.” And when the neglect of those things is justified in favor of any system or philosophy, such neglect becomes unrighteousness—things like Jesus outlines clearly in Matthew 25: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Many find ways to back out of those things, justifying their neglect with political or religious ideology. I often concur with the ideologies[ii]; but some things simply are more important than political ideology!
The gospels portray Jesus and the Pharisees at odds over many issues, not the least of which fits the concerns of this discussion: Moses said, ‘Respect your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone denouncing father or mother should be killed.’ But you weasel out of that by saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to say to father or mother, ‘Gift! What I owed you I’ve given as a gift to God,’ thus relieving yourselves of obligation to father or mother. You scratch out God’s Word and scrawl a whim in its place.” (Mark 7:10-13 The Message)
Even though the Pharisees used religious, rather than political, terminology, the principle remains, viz., they were giving precedence to an ideology over persons and relationships. And Jesus said they thereby were voiding God’s Word.
When ideology trumps people and people’s needs, then neither justice nor righteousness is enacted!
The effort to absolutize any ideology, philosophy, creed or theology is counterproductive to the gospel—in every way! “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics![iii]—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?” (Matthew 23:23-24 The Message)
Jesus, in keeping with the message of the later Hebrew prophets, reserved his harshest criticism for those who mistreated the poor and justified their neglect by cherry picking specific portions of their law, misapplying those portions and then absolutizing them. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NRSV).
Bottom line: whether your ideology is Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist or religious, there are some things more important that your ideology or mine. And to use any ideology to justify neglect of those “weightier matters,” is indefensible from a Christian perspective.
That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk

[i] Δικαιοσυνην (dik-ah-yos-oo'-nay) Strong’s Concordance defines the word thus: (usually if not always in a Jewish atmosphere), justice, justness, righteousness, righteousness of which God is the source or author, but practically: a divine righteousness.

[ii] For example, I believe most of us want smaller government; but, we also want just enough government to enact and enforce the values and policies we advocate. I believe most of us prefer that private charities, churches, non-profits and individual philanthropists, rather than government, take care of the poor. The sad truth is that the government got involved in the first place because those entities abdicated their roles in the helping ministries. Until that sad condition is corrected, who will take care of the poor? Moreover, some of those non-government entities are as corrupt as any government, and their high overhead (including 6- and 7-figure incomes for CEOs) demonstrates extremely poor stewardship. Among those that are not corrupt, most have limited resources. The overwhelming majority of churches in America have fewer than 200 members, and struggle to pay salaries and utilities, while maintaining their facility; therefore, their participation in ministries of compassion is limited. In other words, available non-government resources probably are inadequate to take care of all human needs. Some would justify neglect of the poor by way of accusations of fraud and laziness and irresponsibility. Those are valid concerns, but represent a significant minority of human need situations. Finally, there is validity to the argument that charity breeds dependence. There is a great need for an effective strategy for eliminating poverty. Even with such a strategy in place, it probably would take a generation or longer to accomplish the task. “Cold Turkey” is not a part of any effective strategy.

[iii] KJV, RSV, NRSV et al render the phrase, “weightier matters of the law”.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Making Room

Today I attended our community Lenten Lunch, and was blessed by the brief message shared by a colleague. He told a story from Henri Nouwen about a man who went for counsel from a spiritual director. The spiritual director began pouring a cup of tea for his visitor, and when the cup was full, he continued to pour. The cup overflowed, making a tremendous mess; but, the spiritual director continued to pour.

Finally, the visitor shouted, “Stop! You’re making a mess!”

The spiritual director replied, “Like the cup, our lives become so full of our own opinions and judgments and dogmas that there’s no room for new understandings and growth.”

My colleague summed up the metaphor as an act of “making room for the Holy Spirit.”

I guess the application of the metaphor depends upon whether one believes he or she already has all truth, and that his or her understanding of truth is flawless. I don't buy it.

I worship and attempt to serve a God who is “always making all things new (Revelation 21:5);” thus, truth is never static. Truth is a living entity, always on the move, breathing, growing; and it is relational and responsive, adapting to circumstances emerging from God’s gift to humanity of free moral choice. I do not have the mental or spiritual capacity to comprehend truth absolutely; indeed, my understanding of the One who is the truth is, at best, incomplete.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NRSV).

I need constantly to be letting go of some things to make room for the Holy Spirit's correctives to the errors nurtured by both my free choice and my incomplete comprehension.

My colleague does that by swimming laps. Before he gets into the pool, he gives that time to God; then, as he swims, he feels his spirit and his mind releasing the clutter that needs to go. In a very real sense, his swimming becomes a form of meditation.

I hope it’s obvious that times of prayer and meditation not only become direct channels of release, but also prepare one’s spirit so other activities can help clear the attic to make room for new understanding. I've not been a lap-swimmer; but I’ve experienced that release when I’m jogging, hiking, fishing or practicing guitar.

I think this whole idea of “making room” is what Lent is all about. I was blessed by the new perspective, as I hope you are. How do you "make room?"

That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lent Again

It’s Lent again. Day six. Lent is a forty-day season in which some churches focus their worship on preparing for Easter.

 The forty days represents Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness immediately following his baptism by John. There in the wilderness he struggled with his sense of identity and method in his life of obedience to the call of God. He was tempted to answer God’s call in several ways, but resisted those ineffective and counterproductive temptations, choosing instead the path of obedience.

Thus, for the Christian who observes Lent, it is a season of prayerful self-examination, repentance and recommitment to God’s call and claim upon his or her life.

In the oldest traditions of Lent, the Christian gives up something during the season: desserts or some other favorite food or drink, television, the Internet, etc. For the last three years I’ve chosen, rather than giving something up, to take some additional act of discipline: some topic of study or reading or writing. Last year I chose to read the gospels and write a daily blog on what it meant to follow Jesus. My intention was to take ten examples from each of the four Gospels, but by the end of Lent I was still in Matthew; in fact, by the end of the year I still hadn’t finished with Matthew’s Gospel (although I have to admit my writing slowed down significantly after Lent was ended.)

This year my wife and I are leading a study of Tim Cameron’s book, The Forty-Day Word Fast: A Spiritual Journey to Eliminate Toxic Words from Your Life. Cameron approaches his thesis through six categories of what he calls “toxic words”: judgments, criticism, sarcasm, negativity, complaining and gossip. In retrospect, I realized that in our first session we spent a lot of time describing how others (including absent spouses) were bad about using those toxic words. I suspect it will be a struggle for each of us to own up to our own impulse to use those words.

Cameron urges his readers to choose, instead, words that encourage and heal and restore. It’s the same song I’ve been singing through these blogs and on social media for some time; so I was drawn to the book.

I’ve not completed reading the book, yet; but, already I find myself wanting to say, “Yeah, but…” It’s true: Jesus used words to heal and restore and reconcile; and yet, he also confronted hypocritical religious leaders, corrupt politicians and apathetic people of faith. He used sharp words, and even physical force.

If I truly desire to follow Jesus I also will confront hypocrisy, corruption, injustice and cruelty—all those things called “sin” in the Scriptures. So, where is the line, and when do I cross it from Christ-like confrontation to destructive, counterproductive words that are antithetical to the love of God as manifest in Christ?

Today on social media I saw a video that may provide the solution to my struggle. The video demonstrated how a school stopped issuing detentions and other forms of punishment, turning instead to teaching students how to meditate—to find a calm center in their lives. As a result, the school’s environment changed completely. Here's a link: []
I call that a manifestation of Grace. Grace is not permissiveness (although sometimes it resembles permissiveness), and it’s more than forgiveness (although it includes forgiveness). Grace makes punishment irrelevant, because grace is transforming.

In permissiveness, something is overlooked. In grace, something is overcome.

Nor does grace always come wrapped in religious liturgies and tied with a holy bow. God is not confined to our understandings or expressions of faith. Grace transcends all our doctrines and ministries.

What if, as I eliminate toxic words from my life, I replace them, not just with sweet-sounding, uplifting words (although there’s absolutely no reason to avoid those kinds of words), but more importantly, with words that will build up—words that will make a difference.

What if I work to identify words that will confront and challenge, not with judgment, criticism, sarcasm, negativity, complaining and gossip, but rather with words that demonstrate and accomplish grace?

As I pray for God’s strength to eliminate those toxic words, may God’s grace be extended to me, that my words may edify and point to “a more excellent way.”

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,