Friday, September 4, 2015

Bad Thief, Good Thief

“Those crucified with him also heaped insults upon him.”                                                                                                 - Mark 15:32b
The gospels tell us that when Jesus was crucified, two bandits – sometimes called thieves but likely convicted as insurrectionists since crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the Roman state – hung on crosses to either side of him. In Luke's gospel one of them defends Jesus against the mocking of the crowd and the other bandit, but in Matthew and Mark they both join with the crowd.

Are we more inclined to prefer the version with the "good" thief? Which do we think is a more likely
scenario? Most of the time, most of us try to get through life the best we can. Some days – when our children are sick, our marriage is troubled, our job search is going poorly, our parents are ailing, our health is failing – that best doesn't look too good to other people. During those times we all could benefit from people cutting us a little slack. And very often during those times we need to remember (and sometimes fail) not to take our frustrations out on others. Though we aren't being crucified, own fears and frustrations can blind us to the struggles of those we think are behaving badly or worthy of scorn. The sad truth is we tend to lash out at others when we recognize our own failures in them.

None of us wants to be a bad thief, but before we can be the good thief we have to be honest about our own shortcomings. Once we find the strength that is present in true humility – not the kind that shames us but the kind that frees us – we are more compassionate with ourselves and others. Let's not wait until we come face-to-face with Jesus to find that humble strength. Today we can admit our burdens are sometimes more than we can bear with grace, and lay them at the foot of the cross. Without that weight, just maybe we can help lift someone else up too.

Evening readings: Psalms 25; 40

Thursday, September 3, 2015

More is Less, Less is More

Morning readings: Psalms 116; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 11:1-13, James 3:13-4:12, Mark 15:12-21

"To want what I have, to take what I’m given with grace...for this, I pray."
- from “For My Wedding” by Don Henley
Is it human nature to be dissatisfied with what we have? Some pop psychologists portray chronic dissatisfaction as a modern ailment, but nearly twenty centuries ago the Book of James chronicled it:
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts." (James 4:1-2)
The downfall of King Solomon, who was revered for decades as Israel's wisest king, was due to his desire for nearly countless wives from foreign lands; despite God's warnings, they eventually led him to worship strange gods and fall out of the Lord's favor (Kings 11:1-13).

Carp competing for food.
Perhaps we long for more material comforts, more lovers, or more power because we believe they will provide contentment. Maybe our desires are masked as virtues, and we become frustrated when we seek to find patience, wisdom, or kindness beyond our natural abilities. Whether we feel we lack possessions or attitude, whose standard are we trying to live up to? God has created and loves us just as we are. When we learn to accept that love and just be, our need to have and be more evaporates. Mysteriously that's also how we begin to learn to be more: more Christ-like, more content, more loving of ourselves and others.

Jesus expressed faith in our ability to rise above our acquisitive natures and seek that which is truly valuable. In parables about pearls of great price and hidden treasures, by asking rich young men to give up all they had, he revealed the truth of gaining everything by letting it all go.

Evening readings: Psalms 26; 130

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Broken Rudders

Morning readings: Psalms 96; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 9:24-10:13, James 3:1-12, Mark 15:1-11

The Book of James teaches the tongue is small but capable of great feats. James compares this smallest of organs to a tiny rudder guiding large ships through strong winds (Jam 3:4). For this reason he warns religious teaching is a perilous pursuit, as our tongues are difficult to tame and when used carelessly cause great misdirection and harm to ourselves and others. Teachers, James says, are held to a higher standard because a spring cannot produce both brackish and fresh waters (v 11).

The chief priests and other leaders appearing in Mark 15 would have served as teachers. When Pilate, who realized Jesus had been brought to him because these leaders were jealous (Mk 15:10), offered to free a prisoner, these leaders used their tongues to convince the people to instead free Barabbas. Historically Jesus and Barabbas would both have been guilt of insurrection and similar crimes, but according to Mark Barabbas was also a murderer. The chief priests used their powerful tongues to steer the crowd to free a killer instead of a messiah.

Even today many a preacher grows a flock by appealing to people's baser nature and focusing on the "enemies" of the church. In the Western world, authentic persecution of Christians is almost unheard of, and systematic persecution is non-existent. Yet some preachers insist on targeting a group (when one group is not politically viable for attack they will move on to the next) and claiming specific people are the enemy we need to fight, all the while twisting the message to seem like love.

We do have real enemies, but Jesus taught us to love them. He also taught us what to fight: poverty, injustice, oppression, and the planks in our own eyes. The best teachers and preachers do not spend their time closing ranks and vilifying others falsely. They know binding Christ's message to hate crucifies undeserving victims. They open our eyes to how Christ's love transforms us, and through us transforms the world.

Evening readings: Psalms 132; 134

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Faith Works

Morning readings: Psalms 12; 146, 1 Kings 8:65-9:9, James 2:14-26, Mark 14:66-72

Did you know the Book of James was considered suspect by many early Christians for almost 300 years? Or that Martin Luther wanted it out of the Bible? The center of the controversy is the ongoing debate over whether Christians achieve salvation through faith alone, or whether good works are necessary to attain (or maintain) salvation. In his letters, Paul wrote over and over again that faith alone is the key to the salvation God gives freely. James says faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Could it be possible this argument misses the point entirely? After all, the gospels themselves seem to be far less concerned with this delineation between faith and works. John's gospel is the most specific about justification through faith, mentioning several times only those who believe will find eternal life. But throughout all the gospels, Jesus speaks about faith as it is expressed through action. This message is loud and clear at the end of Matthew 25: in these verses the Lord welcomes into the Kingdom those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited in the stranger, and visited the imprisoned … and rejected those who did not. This passage makes it very clear works of mercy are integral – maybe inevitable – to a life of faith.

Works do not save us, but they are a thermometer indicating whether our faith is cold and dead or burning with the flame of the Spirit. If we are not inspired to the work of the Kingdom, we may want to consider that a sign our faith has been uttered from cool intellect rather than an impassioned heart. As James says: "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" (vv. 15-17). A faith that cares for nothing but our own personal salvation is a hollow and selfish thing, the good china we refuse to serve food on no matter how hungry our guests may be.

Evening readings: Psalms 36; 7

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Truth Will Set Us Free

Today's readings: Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 10:11-24, Romans 5:12-21, John 8:21-32

Where do we find truth? Do we know it when we hear it?

We'd like to believe most people are truthful, but from earliest recorded history through up-to-the-minute reporting, deception runs rampant. Journalism has become propaganda. History has been revised and textbooks politicized. Facts are reduced to opinions and then dismissed. Information is more widely available than ever, yet it is notoriously faulty. If, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, "the truth will make you free" (John 8:32) ... what is the state of our freedom?

In this age of moral relativism and political correctness, it is important to know what we believe and why. Luckily - or perhaps providentially - some truths are eternal and immutable. Chief among them is God's love for his creation. As we sort through the information overload that threatens to overwhelm us, that love can be our barometer for evaluating many kinds of truth, such as matters of justice or compassion. Truth will move people toward freedom and inclusion, not away from it.

Sometimes truth is not something that can be expressed directly. We may need poets and composers and other artists to point us to it. Rationalism and materialism are not the only paths to truth. What is right and good may not make empirical sense. Sacrificing ourselves for others is quite counter-intuitive, yet the person who spoke the most important truths to us believed in it with all his being. The truth of the cross and resurrection exist somewhere beyond facts and historical accuracy, somewhere within our hearts. Truth is never manufactured, but unearthed by those with ears to hear and eyes to see. It makes us free when it is free.

Evening readings: Psalms 126; 102

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lifting Weights

Today's readings: Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 8:4-7, 18-9:6, Romans 5:1-11, John 8:12-20

"And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…"
- Romans 5:3-4

"I did not put you here to suffer. I did not put you here to whine.
I put you here to love another and get out and have a good time."
- The Rainmakers, "Let My People Go-Go"

Suffering, while an inevitable part of the Christian journey, is never meant to be the destination. We are assured that, through the glory of God, all suffering can be transformed for good. Let's not for a minute assume this is a passive process which requires nothing of us but curling up into a cocoon of self-pity and waiting for divine metamorphosis.

The steps in this process all require conscious choices on our part. Using suffering to build endurance is something we seem to embrace in sports, but rarely in other parts of life. Can we teach ourselves to view suffering as a form of spiritual training which develops our spiritual muscles? What about character? We romanticize the idea of sports building character, but not every top athlete is an upstanding citizen. Our spiritual training needs to be tempered with humility and mercy. The best coaches – and their best players – embrace being part of a greater story. It's that type of character – the type that recognizes our greatest glory does not begin and end with our personal achievements and failures – which opens us up to hope. Hope is only present when we can see the big picture, the picture that tells the story of God's kingdom becoming reality.

Athletes build endurance through difficulty. Butterflies nearly die before leaving the cocoon. Neither of them are victims of suffering; they use it to transform themselves into something miraculous.

Evening readings: Psalms 27; 51

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Innocence By Association

Today's readings: Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 7:21-34, Romans 4:13-25, John 7:37-52

When we talk about peer pressure, we are usually talking about school age children. We worry their friends will pressure them into drugs, alcohol, or smoking. We offer them overly-simplistic methods of dealing with peer pressure, such as "Just say no." We repeat sayings from our parents - "If your friend jumped off a bridge ..." - that had little if any effect on us in our own young lives. Peer pressure concerns us not only because so much of it happens beyond our sphere of influence, but also because in our hearts we know it is something we never escape.

When Jesus was accused of blasphemy and sedition by Jewish authorities, a man named Nicodemus came to his defense and suggested the Pharisees honor their own traditions and give him a fair trial. In response, the Pharisees asked Nicodemus: "Are you from Galilee too?" They knew he wasn't, but the implication was that if he demonstrated sympathy toward Jesus, he would meet similar accusations. The Pharisees employed the ever popular tactic of defending the indefensible by deflecting attention from their own bad behavior through implied accusations and threats. They were pressuring Nicodemus to conform to the group (John 7:50-52).

When Joseph McCarthy conducted his communist witch hunt, he silenced the opposition by implying anyone who challenged him must also be a communist and subject to humiliating  investigation. For years anyone who publicly supported gay people would be subject to speculation about his or her own orientation. In today's debate over immigration policy, words like socialist and racist are used to deflect and bully when legitimate arguments fail. Guilt by association is a powerful tactic of adult peer pressure, especially when we show compassion to the marginalized.

When we experience this form of peer pressure, let's stay strong and remember Nicodemus. In the end, he was present at the crucifixion and helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus' body. Our true peer group is not made of co-workers, friends, or even family, but of the saints - living and dead - who usher in God's realm of justice and mercy.

Evening readings: Psalms 25; 91