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Saturday, August 21, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Matthew 26:1-30

I never found the reading of plays to be easy for me. The inclusion of stage directions often made it hard for me to concentrate on the storyline and stick with the action. Every once in a while, however, I encounter a play that is so powerful that I am able to overcome those distractions.

One of the first plays I really connected with back in school was the play "Our Town". The themes were so universal that it drew me in and as someone who was raised in a small town, it was easy for me to picture myself in the community described in the story.

There was one moment in the play that has stayed with me for nearly 30 years. It was the play where the protagonist, George I believe, was asked to pick one day from his life to look back on. He was warned, however, not to pick a day that was too important – for such a day would be too painful to view. As it was, it was hard enough for George to stand back and view just an ordinary day as he was filled with regret at the way he failed to recognize the significance of each moment as it unfolded.

The notion that it is hard for us to live in any given moment and recognize its significance is an idea that gets played with in today's passage from Matthew. In that passage the disciples are gathered together in Bethany for what will be one of their final moments together. A woman steps forward to honor the moment for what it is. In order to do that, she felt compelled to anoint Jesus' body.

Instead of being impressed with the woman's ability to recognize the moment for what it was, the disciples did what many of us often do. They treated the moment as if it were like any other. In fact, they went one step further and criticized the woman for wasting resources. The perfume with which she anointed Jesus "could have been sold for a lot and the money handed out to the poor", they noted.

It would be easy for me to stand back and be critical of the disciples for failing to recognize the signficance of the moment. If I did that, however, I would be a huge hypocrite – for I am someone who frequently fails to live in the moment. As a result, I am prone to missing the significance of some moments as well.

So how about you?

Are you someone who can live in the moment and recognize the importance of what is happening to you; or are you prone to be like the disciples and myself – apt to be distracted by the past/future and therefore likely to miss the significance of what is happening around you?

Til next time …

Friday, August 20, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Matthew 25:31-46

There are lots of ways to characterize different types of Christian community these days. You could say some are "liberal" and some are "conservative"; some are "traditional", some are "contemporary" or "emergent"; some are "high church", some are "low church". The list of descriptors is seemingly endless.

Another way you could characterize churches is to describe them by where they place their emphasis. There are some faith communities, for instance, that their emphasis on their members having the right beliefs. These sorts of communities tend to emphasize a belief in things like the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus, the inerrancy of Scripture, etc. Communities organized along these lines are said to emphasize orthodoxy (or right belief).

There is another branch of Christian community that emphasizes something besides right belief as foundational; they emphasize right action. By this, I mean they put the emphasis on people who profess a faith going out into the world and actually put those beliefs into action (i.e. help the poor, educate those in need of education, etc.). The term for emphasizing right action is orthopraxis.

Of course the issue of right belief or action isn't as cut and dried as I just made it sound. Most of our actions, for instance, either stem from (or are informed by) our beliefs. The difference between the two types of Christian community, though, is what they emphasize.

In today's reading, Jesus' makes it pretty clear on which side he leans – and it might surprise some of the folks who believe that an emphasis on right belief is the only way. For when Jesus talks about the process of separating individuals into two camps (the sheep vs. goats), it wasn't the individual's beliefs that were used in the discernment process. It was the individual's actions that were used.

In explaining to the sheep why they were welcomed with opened arms, Jesus said: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me." He didn't say, "I was hungry and you (thought about feeding) me, I was thirsty and you (thought about giving) me a drink, I was homeless and you (thought about giving) me a room, I was shivering and you (thought about giving) me clothes, I was sick and you (thought about stopping by) to visit, I was in prison and you (thought about coming) to me." Big difference!

On some levels, it would be so much easier to live in a world where only our professed beliefs mattered. It only takes seconds to say the right thing after all. In the world that Jesus points us toward, however, we don't have the luxury of resting on our professed beliefs. We are challenged to live out our beliefs.

My question for you to ponder today is this: "If someone were to watch you today from a distance and simply observe your actions, what would those actions suggest about your faith?"

Til next time …

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Matthew 25:1-30

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I went back home for the summer and started searching for a summer job. The first week I was home I found an advertisement for a position helping an environmental activist group. The job was going door-to-door doing community education and outreach. I thought the cause was important so I started pulling together my resume to prepare for the application process.

When my father learned what I was up to, he went ballistic. He knew I planned on getting an education degree and working as a school teacher down the road. He was convinced that if I worked as an activist that I would get labeled by potential employers and be unable to get a job as a public school teacher. It also might hurt my cause in case I was ever nominated to a position on the Supreme Court – but I digress.

We went round and round for hours the night I told him I was applying. He expected me to defer to his judgment since he was my father (and an expert on public schools since he was on the local school board); I expected him to respect my commitment and passion for the cause.

As it turned out, I ended up getting another job – so in some ways our conflict that night was a moot point. In another way, however, the conflict represented a turning point for me. Here's why I say that. My father represented a rather tradition approach toward life (i.e. get a long-term goal in life, prepare assiduously to obtain that goal, and don't let anything stand in your way). I represented a somewhat unconventional approach (i.e. pursue your passion, take a risk, and let the chips fall where they may). That conversation was one of the first times in my life when I stood up to my parents and quit trying to write a script for the future. I was willing to take a chance and let the future unfold the way it would.

This issue of risk-taking plays a prominent role in the second of two parables that Jesus puts forward in today's reading. The reading contains a story about a man who leaves money with three different individuals. The first two individuals took a risk and ended up doubling the original amount. The third man didn't take a risk (i.e. he buried the sum he had been given) and simply maintained the original amount.

The more I read that story, the more I realize what's really going on in the parable. The parable isn't simply about trying to increase our resources or advocating a particular approach toward life (i.e. a risk-taking approach is always better than playing it safe). No, the story is about the assumptions we make behind the scenes that cause us to adopt the approach we do toward life.

The man who buried the money, for instance, assumed that the "investor" was a rigid, perfectionist who would hate to be disappointed. This belief produced a fear-based approach toward life that prevented the man from being able to take risks. The two men who took a risk and doubled their original amounts assumed that the "investor" was a generous soul who would support them regardless of the outcome. These perceptions encouraged the individuals to feel confident in taking such risks. That – I believe – it what the story is about: how the way we think of God influences the choices we make in life.

With that in mind, I would ask you how you perceive God. Do you see God as a rigid, perfectionist who instills fear in you and causes you to play it safe; or do you see God as a supportive, encouraging investor who would want you to take risks in life? That is a question for you to explore today.

Til next time …

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 24:23-51

For a long time, there has been a stream of conservative Christians that have been totally obsessed about the Second Coming of Jesus. They have written dozens of books interpreting the signs and speculating about when such an event will occur.

Every time I see one of these books, I can’t help but smile. I wonder to myself, “For a group that publically prides themselves on how well they know Scripture, how can they be so clueless?”

You see there are lots of statements that suggest no one will know when those “end times” will occur. There are at least three explicit statements to that effect in today’s reading alone!

• “But the exact day and hour? No one knows….”
• “You have no idea what day your Master will show up…”
• “Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up…”

I don’t think Jesus could have been any clearer in his language. And yet the industry (and I use that word very intentionally) of those who try to predict that time persists. Ugh!

All of this got me to wondering why some folks are so drawn to the notion of a Second Coming and the end times.

There are a lot of ways I could answer that. There is always the “these folks are unhappy in their current lives and are focused on finding a way out” train of thought. There would also be the “knowing a secret that no one else knows makes me feel more powerful than others.” I could go on and on speculating about reasons why some are so drawn to this concept.

For me, the notion holds no allure because I try to live in the moment and be fully present in my relationship with God. I don’t have to worry about when God might show up – for I believe God is already here! I figure by focusing my attention on my relationship with God in the here and the now, the rest will take care of itself.

All of this talk about the Second Coming and the end of days gives us the opportunity today to think about what verb-tense you spend most your time thinking about in regards to your relationship with God. Do you spend most of your time in the past tense – replaying past moments; do you spend most of your time in the future tense – anticipating what might happen; or do you spend most of your time in the present tense – cultivating a practice of awareness of God’s presence?

Til next time …

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 24:1-22

On most days, I am an extremely positive upbeat person. I’m the kind of person who can typically find a silver lining in any grey cloud. “Bring on those gray clouds, baby,” is my usual response.

This morning, that ability is seriously being called into question. Let me tell you why that is.

You see my partner Mike and I have been on an emotional roller coaster for the past 10 days. Ten days ago we got excited when a federal judge lifted the ban on same gender weddings by declaring Proposition 8 unconstitutional.

For the first time in our 9 years together, we thought we would have the opportunity to get married. A week later, things got frustrating when the same judge who lifted the ban decided not to immediately allow same-gender marriages to resume in California; he gave opponents a week to make their case.

“That’s okay, it’s for the best,” we told ourselves. “It will allow opponents to be heard so that marriage can really resume on August 18.” We started making plans to file the paperwork for our marriage on Mike’s birthday (August 27).

Then, just yesterday, the Federal Appeals court decided to suspend the decision indefinitely. This means the earliest any action can be taken will be next year. There’s a chance that it might take longer as the case works its way to the Supreme Court. Ugh!

As someone who has been out for 18 years, I have lived through many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many frustrations and setbacks in the struggle for basic human rights. Sadly, I’ve had to get use to the fact that while members of the LGBT community are expected to contribute to society in the same ways everyone else is expected to contribute (i.e. jobs, taxes, and civic responsibilities/duties) we get a fraction of the legal rights. I don’t like that reality, but it’s one I’ve learned to live with. And yet no matter how patient I try to be, I – like everyone – have a breaking point. I felt like I was teetering very close to that breaking point last night when I first heard the news.

And what words lay before me this morning as I brought my anger and frustration to my time of devotion?

Words from the 24th chapter of Matthew that point its audience toward the culmination of days. The culmination of times won’t be pretty, the author(s) of Matthew suggest. “It will be dog-eat-dog, everyone at each other’s throat…” As one of the dogs who has felt attacked, I can certainly relate. And expressions of love? There will be “nothing left of their love but a mound of ashes.” This morning I know all too well how that must feel.

Just as I was about to lose myself into the darkness of the clouds, along came the very words I most needed to hear. “Staying with it – that’s what God requires. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry…”

While a part of me could have used warmer, fuzzier language that reminded me of the depths of God’s love for all of God’s children, I realized those words are enough. That’s because those words are grounded in the sort of stark reality I (and tens of thousands of other Californians) are feeling this morning. The words are not Pollyannaish words that would overlook our pain or frustration. Not at all! In fact, they recognize the presence of that pain – and yet tell us to hang on through the pain. Something better is ahead.

Perhaps you have been facing your own experience of debilitating pain. The pain could be emanating from any number of directions (i.e. the recent loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, economic frustrations, etc.) If that’s the case, hold on to those culminating words from the passage: “stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry.” By enduring the pain and setbacks, you will find a way to let something else besides the pain and suffering be the end of your story: hope and love!

Til next time …

Monday, August 16, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 23

As our nation grows increasingly diverse, lots of historical practices have been called into question. That’s because those practices were based upon the assumption that our country was homogenous (i.e. people of European descent who were Christian). This process of calling long-held practices into question makes some people extremely nervous.

One such practice is asking people in civil situations to place their hands on a Bible while taking an oath. This practice is used in several different circumstances. Public officials – like Presidents of the United States – are often sworn into office using a Bible. Individuals testifying in court cases have also traditionally been asked to place their hands on a Bible as they promise to tell the truth.

More and more folks are calling these practices into question as the number of individuals in our country who are not Christian continues to increase. “How appropriate is it for a person from another faith tradition to be asked to take an oath using a resource from outside their faith tradition?” some have asked.

In addition to that valid question, there are reasons for questioning such a practice that come from within our Christian tradition as well. Today’s passage provides a good example of one of those reasons. “You say, ‘If someone makes a promise with his [or her] fingers crossed, that’s nothing; but if he [or she] swears with his [or her] hand on the Bible, that’s serious.’ What ignorance,” Jesus is quoted as saying. “Does the leather on the Bible carry more weight than the skin on your hands?”

”And what about this piece of trivia: ‘If you shake hands on a promise, that’s nothing; but if you raise your hand that God is your witness, that’s serious’? What ridiculous hairsplitting! What difference does it make whether you shake hands or raise hands? A promise is a promise.”

The Jesus concluded: “God is present, watching and holding you to account regardless.”

That teaching reminds me of how often we human beings get caught up in all of the rituals and trappings in our daily lives, and completely lose sight of what’s really important. What if, for instance, all those individuals who get so worked up at the prospect of public official not using the Bible to take oaths diverted all of the energy they expended into protesting such possibilities and redirected those energies into living lives of integrity and truth themselves: in their business practices, in their families, in their hearts. What a difference that would make!

Today, I would encourage you to spend time to see if there is a practice or routine that you engage in that has become more about the routine than about what it was meant to represent. If you find such an area, try changing up your routine and seeing if that helps you get back to those things that really matter.

Til next time …