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

Monday, March 9, 2015

"I love you" is not "I'm sorry"

Today's readings: Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 7:1-15, Romans 4:1-12, John 7:14-36

Have you ever tried to apologize by telling someone: "I love you?" Has anyone ever tried that with you? It's a terrible way to end a dispute, because it resolves nothing. "I love you" is not an apology. It is not an admission of guilt. It is not a promise to change one's ways. At best it is an attempt to appease someone by exploiting their vulnerability in order to to avoid conflict. "I love you" precedes or follows an apology; it does not replace it. Trying to do so is merely lip service.

When the prophet Jeremiah  addresses the Israelites, they have been paying spiritual lip service to God. They have been profaning the Lord's name and committing all kinds of crimes and sin, but on the Sabbath they enter the temple and proclaim "This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord" (Jer 7:4). Like a lover who hears all the right words but observes all the wrong deeds, the Lord declares the words deceptive. They are not sincere enough to wipe clean the offenses of a people who utter faithful words  to cover their bases, but live otherwise unfaithful lives.

Love, whether of God or of a person, requires sincerity. When we betray that relationship repeatedly, declarations of "I love you"or "This is the temple of the Lord" do nothing but undermine and cheapen the meaning of those words. They  are like pretty paper wrapped around a gift of yesterday's trash. Eventually the contents leak through and even the paper becomes worthless. Only when we have demonstrably repented can we expect the relationship to mend. 

Actions really do speak louder than words. If the only proof of our love and devotion is an un-pology uttered in desperation, we must repent until words are unnecessary.

Evening readings: Psalms 121; 6

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Living Among the Tombs

Today's readings: Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 6:9-15. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Mark 5:1-20

Gospel stories sometimes raise more questions than they answer. When we read that Jesus healed a Gerasene man who lived among tombs and was possessed by two thousand demons calling themselves “Legion” … by driving them into a herd of pigs which then ran over a cliff into the sea … one or two tiny questions might bubble up. Was the man actually possessed? Why does no map of that area show a sea? Was anyone reimbursed for the loss of two thousand pigs and a livelihood?

Many people read this story as an allegory about Roman occupation, in which case those questions are less important. The use of “legion” – which is also a division of two thousand Roman soldiers – and other phrases in the story supports this interpretation.*

However we read this story, the reaction of the local people is telling. After Jesus exorcized the man (and drove up the price of bacon), they reported it to the authorities and “then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” (Mark 5:1-17). They treat him more as a threat than a savior. Despite his demonstration of power over the spiritual realm, fear of their occupiers is greater than their desire to be free. In retrospect we may call them foolish, but human nature often compels us to endure the hardship we know rather than risk the strange, however promising.

Freedom – from demons, from authority, from law – is a scary thing. Like Jesus, it can be wild and unpredictable and ask more of us than we realize we are prepared to give. It can bring down the wrath of those who feel threatened by our freedom, both political and religious. Does that sound overwhelming? When Jesus has presented us with difficult choices between the status quo and the unknown, have we ever asked him to leave the neighborhood? Do we prefer flying under the radar even if it means contributing to our own oppression? Those are the real questions.

Once we are truly free, like the Gerasene demoniac, we can’t imagine going back to life among the dead.

Evening readings: Psalms 42; 32

*For more about this topic, see this entry in Father Ted's Blog, which points to some additional references.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

King Incognito

Today's readings: Psalms 119:73-80; 145,g Jeremiah 7:1-15, Romans 4:1-12, John 7:14-36

Many cultures have legends and folk tales about a king incognito, that is, a king (or sometimes a prince or more unusually a queen) who disguises himself and roams his kingdom. The results of his secret adventure tend to depend largely on whether he is a just king or an unjust one. For example, a just king may uncover plots against him just in time to prevent them from hatching. An unjust king may be discovered and suffer – even die – as a result. When stories develop around this trope, they tend to reflect the people’s current feelings about their ruler.

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus arranged such an outing. The Festival of Booths (also known as Sukkot) was going on in Judea. He sent his disciples without him, saying: “I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” (John 7:8). After they departed, he went to the festival alone and spent time in the crowd. In that era, not having a crowd of disciples around him was disguise enough. He was the talk of the festival, and many Jews were looking for him. Some said he was a good man, and others said he was deceiving the people.

Have you heard the phrase: “What someone thinks about you is none of your business?” It may not be true when you’re getting evaluated at your job, but the rest of the time it’s pretty spot on. Knowing what the people thought about him had no ultimate effect on Jesus’s mission. Can we imagine he was surprised to hear both good and bad news? Realistically, what else could we expect? In the verses that follow today’s reading from John, Jesus reveals himself to the crowd and begins preaching. His time had come, and in the end the king is the king.

Other people’s opinions do not matter when we are carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God. While we remain open-minded and listen to what people tell us about their needs, we are to respond as Christ calls us to, whether it makes us popular or not. Some people may love us for it, some may hate us, and some of each may be fellow Christians. When we are following Christ, God’s is the only opinion that matters.

Evening readings: Psalms 121; 6

Friday, March 6, 2015

And now for something completely different ...

Today's readings: Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 5:1-9, Romans 2:25-3:18, John 5:30-47

Because the imagery is powerful and inspiring, a meditation on Psalm 22, verses 14 and 15.

I am poured out like water,
          and all my bones are out of joint; 

Great God without you my life has no shape, my soul meanders. Do not let me disappear into the ground, into nothingness. Gather me up, oh God. Scoop me into your palms. When you look upon me may you see your face reflected back. Let me rest in your cupped hands, held in your peace, until you see fit to pour my spirit into a vessel of your making.  Then will I stand tall and straight, for the Lord has given me form.

     my heart is like wax; 
          it is melted within my breast; 
          and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
          you lay me in the dust of death. 

Soothe my burning heart, oh Lord. It wilts from the heat of its own anger. It grows soft and weak as the flames of slander and gossip close in. But the breath of your Spirit soothes and refreshes me, and the working of your hand sculpts my resolve. If my heart is wax, press your seal into it so all may know it is my God who has restored me.

     my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

Without your living waters, my words stick in my throat like bitter ash. Do not leave me to thirst, to parch like a broken, leaking pot discarded on the side of the road. Even in the midst of life’s deserts, I pray you rain mercy on me, my loving God. May I catch your mercy on my tongue; may it wash the dust from my skin; may it pour all around me and water the seeds you would have me tend, until he deserts bloom with mercy.

I am water.
I am wax.
I am dust.

You are the vessel that contains me.
You are the seal that promises me.
You are the rain that refreshes me.

In you my weakness are made strong,
and my strengths are multiplied.

 For he did not despise or abhor 
          the affliction of the afflicted; 
     he did not hide his face from me, 
          but heard when I cried to him. - v 24

Evening readings: Psalms 105; 130