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Saturday, August 28, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: James 3

Twenty-two years ago, I was fascinated with a cultural phenomenon that broke into the homes of many Americans.

That phenomena?

The television show "Roseanne".

I call it a phenomenon because it went places that most Americans were unwilling to go at the time. It showed people engaging in conversations – actually talking about topics that hadn't been discussed publically by most shows of the time. It helped put to rest the notion of the perfect, "Leave It to Beaver" family that had dominated the airwaves for decades. In other words, the television show was "real" in ways that other television shows hadn't been. For those reasons I loved the show and its controversial star.

While I loved many, many, many things about the show – there was one aspect of the show that I didn't necessarily love. The aspect had to do with the star of the show's propensity for saying the very first thing that came to her mind in order to get a laugh. There were many times when that first thought that came to her mind was appropriate – for it helped cut through the niceties and get to the tough work that needed to be done. There were other times, however, when the first thing that popped into her head was incredibly devaluing of other people and circumstances. If I were to summarize the problem I had with Roseanne's way of behaving, I would say I felt it undermined our ability to discern what was helpful and what was not helpful. Saying the very first thing that popped into your mind became the only thing that mattered.

In the past twenty-two years since the show first aired, folks have picked up on that theme and run with it. In fact, in many cases we have come to admire folks who always "speak their minds." As a result, we have individually and collectively paid quite a price for embracing such an across-the-board approach.

When we listen to talk shows, for instance, many of us are no longer bothered when shock-jocks feed us a steady stream of derogatory language about a person or a group of persons. We accept it as their First Amendment right to do so. When we listen to political programs, we no longer value information. Instead, we tend to fall prey to the individuals who simply talk the loudest or make the boldest claims. Even when we talk with friends or family members these days, our focus is now primarily – if not exclusively – focused on those unfiltered thoughts or feelings we feel as if we need to get off our chest. Little attention is given to what sort of effect those unfiltered words might have on our loved one. I could go on and on listing the effects of completing losing sight of our filters, but I won't. I'm sure you get my point.

Thankfully the book of James is there to invite us to think about the ways in which those filters can still be of value. As the author so wisely notes, "A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it!" Wise words indeed!

I don't think those words are encouraging us to completely censor ourselves and avoid anything that is difficult or uncomfortable talking about. Far from it! For I think words of truth-telling can be an incredible way of "accomplishing nearly anything." What those words do remind us of, however, is that those same words have the ability to "destroy anything" as well. We have to be wise enough to sit back and weigh the power of our words and ask ourselves, "Am I about to use these words to accomplish something or destroy something?" Once you ask yourself that question (and honestly answer it), that question can put the rest of the conversation on an entirely different plane.

Today as you go about your business and interact with people, ask yourself that question often: "Am I about to use these words to accomplish something in the relationship, or am I simply using them to destroy?" That question might save you – and your loved ones – a lot of grief.

Til next time …

Friday, August 27, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: James 2

The notion of connecting the faith one professes with how one lives took on special significance for me today as I read an article on the front page of Yahoo news. The story was about a gentleman named Ken Mehlman.

Mr. Mehlman gained some degree of fame during the 2000's because of two positions he held. He served as campaign manager for former President George W Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. The very next year Mr. Mehlman took the position of chair for the Republican National Committee.

While holding each of these offices is in itself a notable achievement, what struck me about Mr. Mehlman was that he used his position to oppose equal marriage rights for members of the LGBT community. Not only did he publically oppose equal marriage rights - he became a master at exploiting other people's fears in this area to garner votes for his candidates.

Guess what happened this week?

Mr. Mehlman disclosed that he is a gay man.

On some levels, the disclosure shouldn't surprise me. That's because the world has lots of people who say one thing and do another. The sad part, however, is how the disconnect that Mr. Mehlman lived caused untold pain to tens of thousands of people.

The book of James does a brilliant job addressing what happens when we allow ourselves to buy into this disconnect between one's faith and one's actions. "Separate faith and works," James says, "and you get the same thing: a corpse."

That imagery is indeed very powerful.

It would be easy for me to get on my high horse and attack Mr. Mehlman – but I shouldn't do that. That's because I - like everyone else on the planet - have moments in my life where there is a disconnect between the faith I claim and the life I live. Instead of wasting my time raging about Mr. Mehlman, I should re-channel that negative energy into positive energy by focusing on my efforts to bring my own faith in line with my actions.

So how about you? How consistent are you in living by the principles of the faith you profess?

Til next time …

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: James 1

I am SOOOO excited about hitting the book of James in my reading schedule – for James is one of my favorite books in the Bible! I like it because it takes an incredibly direct approach to resolving the old faith vs. works debate – so direct that it often makes many folks uncomfortable. As someone who understands his call in life to be that of "comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable" – the book fits right in with my walk.

As I was reading today's passage at the beginning of the book, I was reminded of what I believe is the quality that most reveals the depth and maturity of an individual's faith.

That quality?


Let me tell you a story that reveals why I think humility is so important.

Several years ago I belonged to a non-profit organization that was wrestling with a controversy. As is often the case in organizational life, the controversy involved money. More specifically the issue was whether or not the non-profit should adopt a deficit budget.

There was one of the leaders in the community who felt very strongly that being a good steward of God's gifts meant that an organization should never (I repeat, NEVER) adopt a deficit budget. There was another leader in the community who felt that being a faith-based non-profit meant that we absolutely should pass a deficit budget. Doing so – by its very nature – meant that the organization was stepping out on faith.

Let me hit the pause button for a moment in my story and make an editorial comment. I felt that folks in each camp had legitimate points in their favor backed up by solid theological grounding. So in the early stages of the controversy I felt comfortable that God would be present and work through whatever decision was made.

Now let's hit the play button.

Instead of staying focused on the issue at hand, over time the controversy took on a very personal nature. So much so that the participants began to believe that God could only work through THEIR side. Various expressions of anger and intimidation became the norm in the organization. Even more importantly, the energy around the issue began to shift until the primary focus become more about individuals getting their way and less about what was the more faithful response to the specific situation before us. The moment that shift occurred, a devastating sense despair kicked in for me – for now it felt like no matter what decision was made, we had lost our way.

In other words, I sensed what the author of James was talking about when he wrote: "God's righteousness doesn't grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life."

Ever since that controversy, I have been passionate about my commitment to cultivating humility in whatever community I find myself. In that time, I've noticed something interesting about the way I perceive the world. I no longer lead from a place that is focused primarily on WHAT is done. I now come from a place that focuses on HOW things are done (i.e. from a place of humility or arrogance). That is the lens through which I see the world.

Today, I would invite you to make that shift in the way you interact with/perceive of the world. Instead of placing your attention on whether or not you agree or disagree with someone, ask yourself to examine the ways in which the other person (and perhaps yourself) moves through the world. Do they/you move through the world asserting/demanding their/your way; or do you move through the world in a way that exudes the sort of humility that I believe is truly a fruit of the Spirit.

Til next time …

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Matthew 28

I've been introduced to the Buddhist concept of detachment by a number of my friends over the years. The first time I heard of it, I was a bit skeptical of its merits. I couldn't understand how the notion of cutting oneself off from what I considered normal connections to people and things could be helpful. It seemed as if achieving such a goal would make a person listless – totally devoid of the joy of life that I considered essential to being a well-adjusted person.

The older I've gotten, however, the more I have been able to understand (or at least entertain an openness to) the notion of detachment.

So what has my life experience taught me over the last twenty years that has made me more receptive to the notion of letting go of my attachments to things?

Well, I've learned that sometimes the things I become (overly) attached to are sometimes the very things that detract from my enjoyment of life. Early in my relationship, for instance, I found that if I wasn't careful my love for my partner could easily take me to places of jealousy and suspicion. The sports teams (Texans, Astros, Rockets, Cougars and Dynamo) that often bring me enjoyment can also be the very things that bring me to the brink of despair when they underachieve. Even my attachment to things that I project might happen in the future can sometimes be a distraction in that they cause me to lose sight of what is happening in the here and now. Those life-learnings are why I'm more open to thinking of detachment as a good thing.

That notion of detachment is contained within today's passage from Matthew. In that passage, we are told the story of the disciples encounter with the risen Jesus. When the women first encounter Jesus, they found themselves doing what virtually every one of us probably would have done in their circumstance: trying to cling on to their beloved friend whom they thought they had lost.

And how did Jesus respond to their show of affection?

Did he encourage them to hold on tight and lose themselves in the effort of trying to maintain the comfort of what they had already known?


Jesus said to the women: "You're holding on to me for dear life! Don't be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I'll meet them there."

In other words, he encouraged them to literally detach from the comfort of what they had already known/experienced so they could be freed to move on to the next stage of their journey.

I think there is a lesson there for all of us. The passage invites us to examine those circumstances in our lives to which we have become overly attached. So attached, perhaps, that the things that once held great value and meaning for us is now preventing us from moving on to the next stage of development in our spiritual journey. If you find one such area in your life today, I would encourage you to open yourself to the possibility of detaching and moving on – to perhaps bigger and better experiences.

Til next time …

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Matthew 27

When it comes to explaining the role an individual's sense of perspective plays in recording events, lots of folks use the example of how two witnesses to the same car accident might describe the same event in completely different terms. It's easy for us to understand that point when using an example like that. It's much more difficult for some to apply the same concept to the sacred writings of our faith. They want to believe the sacred writings of our tradition were told in a way that was completely objective.

And yet if you read the Scriptures closely, you get lots of examples of the Gospels telling the same story from different perspectives. Take the final moments of Jesus life on the cross, for example. Today's passage from Matthew tells us that while Jesus was hanging on the cross, there were two criminals that hung near Jesus.

"How did those two criminals respond to the scene unfolding before their eyes?"

Well, the answer depends on which gospel writer(s) you ask. The 27th chapter of Matthew, for instance, tells us that "even the two criminals crucified next to [Jesus] joined in the mockery."

If you flip over to the 23rd chapter of Luke, however, you'll get a different version of those final moments. The author(s) of Luke wrote: "One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed [Jesus]: 'Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!' But the other one made him shut up: 'Have you no fear of God? You're getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him – he did nothing to deserve this."


"Why the difference between the two accounts of how the thief responded?"

There are lots of ways one could explain it. One way has to do with the theological agenda of each Gospel writer. The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, is most interested in portraying Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture – as someone who stands in the stream of a larger religious tradition. That's why they wouldn't suggest that either of the criminals – the ultimate outsiders! – would affirm Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, is more invested as portraying Jesus as a social reformer and advocate of the disenfranchised. It's no wonder, then, that the author(s) would be comfortable putting words affirming Jesus in the mouth of a criminal.

The point behind all of this is that the perspective from which we tell a story goes a long way in shaping how we tell that story.

Keeping that point in mind, I would invite you to sit back and examine your own past and your own social location today and get a feel for where you are coming from. Then ask yourself, "How does my story influence the way I tell Jesus' story?" Have fun exploring the various layers of that question.

Til next time …

Monday, August 23, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Matthew 26:31-75

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an approach toward understanding congregational life that impressed me a great deal. The approach was called Appreciative Inquiry. The method took traditional approaches toward analyzing congregational life and turned them upside down.

Here's what I mean by that statement.

For years, most folks thought that the best way to reflect on the health of a faith community was to look at the organization and find its areas of weakness. Once those areas were identified, church leaders were told to work on those areas and improve them. "Once you do that," the leaders were told, "your church will thrive!"

Along came the Appreciative Inquiry folks and said, "What a minute! Why should the members of a congregation devote their limited time and energy to those areas they aren't any good at? Why don't we reverse traditional thinking and ask our leaders to identify those things at which the congregation excels – and focus our energy on making those good areas even better!"

As regular readers of my blog already know, I'm a tremendously optimistic person who tends to be drawn to the positive. I suppose why this approach made sense to me. The only concern I have with this approach is that by focusing primarily on our strengths, we run the risk of completely losing sight of our weaknesses. That would be dangerous. For I believe very strongly that healthy individuals (and organizations) have a balanced sense of both their strengths and weaknesses.

Today's passage from Matthew reminded me of the importance of being balanced in our self-awareness – for in the passage we hear about Jesus experience with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus trusted the disciples enough to leave them alone in the garden not once, not twice, but three times! And each time the disciples let Jesus down by falling asleep.

Rather than focus his energies on berating the disciples for their shortcomings, Jesus instead pointed out the competing natures of the men. "There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God," Jesus began. "But there's another part that's as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire."

While Jesus was obviously aware of the limitations of his disciples, he made a point of seeing the good in them as well. That's an approach we would be wise to remember.

As you go through your day today and run into people full of wonderful strengths and frustrating weaknesses, remember Jesus' ability to hold the good and bad pieces in balance. In your good moments, aspire to do what Jesus did – identify the individuals' strengths and work to bring out the best them. In doing so, you'll have the added benefit of perhaps bringing out the best in yourself as well!

Til next time …