"But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy."
— James 3:17
Our sacred texts affirm for us overwhelmingly that even "the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor. 1:25). Yet that has seemingly never stopped individual human beings from thinking that they had a better idea.
It's a theme we see recur again and again. We see that flawed reasoning at work when Joseph's brothers tried to forestall the realization of his dreams. We see it Abraham's attempt to force God's promise of a child. And those are but two of many such examples. If fact, it's precisely when we get to thinking that we have a better idea than God that we often seem to get ourselves into troublesome situations.
It's when we human beings begin to get in touch with the Divine, when the finite touches infinity, when the mortal communes with immortality, that we see our human perspective begin to shift and to align with with God's point of view. It is an experience that affects us to our core. It's then that we are able to perceive the underlying, fundamental unity of all creation, including ourselves.
A friend of mine once quipped at me, "You act as though you trust that the universe is going to take care of you, and the odd thing is... it does!" It really is nothing short of learning to trust God, fully and without reservation that shifts everything--including our sense of identity--and allows us to open ourselves to the true fullness of life that God has always wanted for us.
"Prudent people don't flaunt their knowledge; talkative fools broadcast only their silliness."
— Proverbs 12:23
As a young person, I remember hearing that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and thereby remove all doubt. In my years of ministry, I have encountered both people who have something to say as well as people who just have to say something.
In any discussion, some folks seem to feel that they must offer an opinion of every subject, regardless of whether it's one that they know anything about or not. We've all known the know-it-all in our own experience who has the definitive word on any and every subject. We've all known people who just seem to be in love with the sound of their own voice and drone on incessantly. The fact is everyone has a right to hold their own informed opinion, but no one has either the right or obligation to defend ignorance, prejudice or bigotry.
Personally and professionally, I take issue with any position that does not acknowledge and respect the full humanity of other people, who may be different in some way or other from the person spouting off. Some proceed from the assumption that the only people in our society who should be fully recognized are others exactly like themselves, as if the pool of civil liberties is a somehow limited one. I believe that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (aka the Denial of Marriage Act) was a knee-jerk reaction that enshrined bigotry with the full force of law, and I was overjoyed to hear this week that no more resources will be expended to defend something that, on its face, is so indefensible. Perhaps, as a nation that is still young compared to others, we are starting to grow up. Of course, people will talk; they always do. But consider the source, and ask yourself, "Would Jesus discriminate?"
"The young man said to him, 'I have kept all these; what do I still lack?' Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'"
- Matthew 19:20-21
Over the years I have known several people who seemingly held onto every item that ever came into their possession. This behavior, which is strange and foreign to many, caused those people to feel embarrassment and shame. But try as they might, they were never able to willingly let go of anything until they obtained some help.
The young man whose story is recounted in the verses above suffered a similar affliction. Much like the folks on the cable show Hoarders whose behavior causes them to miss out on so much of life, his attachment to his possessions was the source of his missed opportunity to personally follow Jesus, as Jesus taught around the country.
Unfortunately, some people engage in the same sort of behavior when it comes to emotions. Sadly, some choose to hoard negative feelings, stockpiling them for some unknown need in their life. It is unfortunate because, just like people who hoard material things, those who track and catalog each perceived slight are often unaware of the high price that they pay for doing so. Unable to let go of the pains of the past, they drag their pain along into the present, much like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens' classic tale, A Christmas Carol. Through the choices of his life, Marley, unaware, forged the chain which as a ghost he then was compelled to drag along for eternity.
Indeed, sometimes the possessions which cause us the most difficulty in life and in our relationships with one another are not the tangible ones that we can reach out and touch but rather the intangible ones we carry deep within. Forgiveness not only benefits the one forgiven; it benefits the forgiver too, relieving him or her of an otherwise ever growing burden. G.K. Chesterton once stated emphatically that,"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." It's the same for the human soul too.
"After three days [his parents] found [Jesus] in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions."
– Luke 2:46
The verse above recounts the time that Jesus' parents lost track of him as a child on a trip to Jerusalem. After searching for him for three days, they finally found him in the temple, as the verse states, "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions."
It is perhaps a shocking idea for some to realize that issues of faith and doctrine have never been beyond either debate or question. Yet in our own time, some religious traditions have adopted an aloof and doctrinaire attitude toward accepting the questioning of their positions. It always makes me nervous when anyone claims to have the absolute truth about anything. Such proclamations are usually followed by actions which are often decidedly un-Christian.
As a progressive Christian, I am among those who "find more grace in the search for understanding than ... in dogmatic certainty - more value in questioning than in absolutes" as it says in one of the Center for Progressive Christianity's eight key points. Of course, it is still important to listen throughout that process too. But we must never be afraid to question anything. Such fear has the power to paralyze the intellect and oppress the spirit.
Whether we approach life with questioning or acquiescence is often determined by the experiences we have in childhood. As Dorothy Day states, "An individual can march for peace or vote for peace and can have, perhaps, some small influence on global concerns. But the same individual is a giant in the eyes of a child at home. If peace is to be built, it must start with the individual. It is built brick by brick."
"Here comes that dreamer!"
- Genesis 37:19
In the wake of another incident of massive violence in Tucson this past week, it can be difficult at best for the nation to hold onto and believe in the dream of what the country can be. When Joseph's brothers said, "Here comes that dreamer!" it was as a term of derision. In a world where many live in crushing poverty and real need, or surrounded by near constant violence, dreams are sometimes perceived as a luxury they can ill afford. Yet the scriptures tell us that without a vision, the people perish. The difficult times in our lives are precisely the times we must hold fast to the God-given vision of our best selves and what we as a society have it within us to become.
Sometimes, we think we can only turn to God when we have our lives together enough to make an impressive showing. To that idea, Louie Giglio counters, "Christianity is not a story for [those] whose lives are all together. It is the opposite of that. Christianity is the story for people who can never get their lives together and a story of a great God that holds it all together." Exactly! It is God who holds all things — and all of us — together. Even in those times when it seems the world around us threatens to unravel.
Author and theologian Peter Gomes puts it this way, "We do not live to win. We do not live even to finish. We live to persevere and to endure. Nothing more than this is necessary, but nothing less than this will do...." In the face of life's pains, in spite of--or perhaps because of tragedies like the one in Tucson, we as people of faith must hold fast to the dream of a more just and civil society, one in which even children need not fear. Realizing that dream will take time and it will take effort, and it will not be without cost for any of us. But still, dream on!
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
- Matthew 6:19-21
Jesus taught his disciples to value people and relationships more so than either material wealth or symbols of status. Unfortunately, in an increasingly material world, it can become difficult not to lose our focus on the the things that are of enduring significance and get pulled off course to crash against the shoals of prestige or materialism.
As we turn the corner into the final week of our Advent journey toward Christmas, many of us will be recalling the archangel Gabriel's visit to a young peasant girl named Mary. We would do well to remember what Emmanuel Katongole observed about this young woman and her child Jesus:
"Mary represents the 'rebel consciousness' that is essential to Jesus' gospel. Wherever the gospel is preached, we must remember that its good news will make you crazy. Jesus will put you at odds with the economic and political systems of our world. This gospel will force you to act, interrupting the world as it is in ways that make even pious people indignant."
Over the past two millenia, humanity has tried to mainstream the Gospel, to smooth off its rough edges that all too often pierce our consciences. As Fannie Lou Hammer once put it, "Christianity is being concerned about your fellow [human], not building a million-dollar church while people are starving right around the corner. Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it was happening. That's what God is all about, and that's where I get my strength." I agree!
"Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.' The woman said to him, 'Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.'"
– John 4:13-15
Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty." If we're paying attention, we can see what a subversive message this is.
In fact, our entire economy rests on the reality that people can and do become hungry and thirsty again; products and clothing items break and wear out, or are just replaced with a new latest and greatest must-have object du jour.
Can any of us imagine a state of being in which all our needs have been met in an ongoing, lasting way? What then would be our motivation for getting out of bed in the morning, much less going to work or any of the countless things that fill our days?
Perhaps the answer lies not in getting everything we desire but in learning to desire less. The myth that more "stuff" makes people happier is still widely accepted, and for so many people in our nation and our world, survival is the totality of life. For some of us, our survival needs are basically assured. So, what then becomes our purpose for living. Acquisition and accumulation? To earn more money so we can buy more possessions?
Maybe if we can learn the gift of simplicity we can get to a place of peace, a place where we are not tyrannically ruled by our desire for ever more. In time, we can experience what Jesus described as living water: a state of lasting, spiritual contentment.
"Get up and pray for help all through the night. Pour out your feelings to [God] as you would pour water out of a jug."
– Lamentations 2:19a
I can't tell you how many times over the years I've been told by people that they couldn't come to worship anymore because of some painful event in their lives for which they have blamed God and were holding a grudge. It's not surprising, really. Many people have been raised with a skewed image both of God and of the sorts of things that concern God.
Often, in the common view, the image of God becomes little more than that of a giant heavenly thumb, just waiting for us humans to get out of line so that God can squash us for being unruly. If that's our perception of God, then it's no wonder that so many people nurse secret grudges against the Divine.
Instead, we need to entertain a more mature understanding of Divinity. When we are hurt, God feels the pain right along with us, and God journeys with us through the difficult places on life's journey. God is the One to whom we can "pour out our feelings" in the sure and certain confidence that we will not only be heard, but also listened to and understood. We must learn to let go of our hidden resentments (the ones we think no one else knows about), lest over time they poison our souls from the inside out.
That's what the Advent journey in the Christian faith is all about: clearing out the cobwebs and the junk that accumulate in our hearts and minds over time. It's like a spring cleaning for the soul. We release and let go of anything and everything that would in any way hinder our experience of the joy of God's gift at Christmas.
"Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful."
— Colossians 3:14-15
For any follower of Jesus love is the highest and deepest of virtues. It's the glue that cements our relationships with others, that bonds us in community, and that ties us together with others in one human family. It really is the force that "binds everything together in perfect harmony." But it's not as easy as it sounds.
Living a life that is firmly rooted in love makes demands of us, of our time and of our energy, that many times we wish it wouldn't. In his book, With Open Hands, Henri J.M. Nouwen, puts it this way: "[Praying] demands that you take to the road again and again, leaving your house and looking forward to a new land for yourself and your [fellow human]. This is why praying demands poverty, that is, the readiness to live a life in which you have nothing to lose so that you always begin afresh."
It is finding that new land--and new life--that tasks us repeatedly, and it is never solely for our own benefit but always for the greater good of all. Love is the virtue that brings unity to a community, evokes peace and purpose to life, and cultivates a sense of character in us that emulates the character of the God experienced in Jesus.
Clothed in love, our daily lives become unending prayers infused into each moment and each breath. It allows "the peace of Christ to rule in [our] hearts," and it draws forth from us a profound sense of gratitude, not only for blessings we have received but also for the opportunity to be a blessing to those around us.
"Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."
- Isaiah 40:31
Let's be honest: life is sometimes hard. Difficult, painful events and circumstances eventually visit us all. Sometimes though, we make those times in life harder than they need to be. Even while divine strength and courage are always present within us, sometimes we like to act as though we're doing it all on our own, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Joan Chittisler expresses it this way, "Once upon a time, the story goes, a preacher ran through the streets of the city shouting, 'We must put God into our lives. We must put God into our lives.' And hearing him, the old monastic rose up in the city plaza to say, 'No, sir, you are wrong. You see, God is already in our lives. Our task is simply to recognize that.'"
That's the reality to which so many people need to awaken. Good or bad, we experience nothing in life alone, for God is always with us, seeking to enlighten and to strengthen us, steadfastly renewing us inwardly. So even in those times when we feel the most alone or isolated, we have a constant companion who knows us better than we know ourselves, one who loves us with the care of a parent and the joy of a friend.