Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
— Hebrews 10:24
Everyone's life is replete with provocations of many sorts. Typically, we may find ourselves feeling provoked by the words or actions of a friend or colleague that we feel treats us with negative regard. Of course we've also all known individuals who delight in pushing the buttons of others. "After all," they quip, "if God didn't want me to push their buttons, then God wouldn't have installed them or located them so conveniently!" The reality of life is that more often than not people provoke negativity and negative responses in one another, many times without even realizing what's happening.
The challenge for us is, as the author of Hebrews asserts, to live and interact in such a way that we provoke the best rather than the worst responses in one another. The early church understood this idea. It influenced their choices and behavior. It directed their responses. This is evidenced by the words of Aristides as he watched Christians living differently: "Christians love one another.... If they see a stranger, Christians take [that person] home and are happy, as though he were a real brother [or sister].... If one of them is poor and there isn't enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him [or her] the food he [or she] needs... This is really a new kind of person. There is something divine in them."
What Aristides saw in early Christianity is precisely what is needed in our own time... a new kind of person... with something divine in them. Enough fighting with one another over minute doctrinal differences! Enough protecting clergy who abuse children! Enough deciding who we dislike and projecting that onto God. It's time for all people of faith to stop defending their particular creed; it's time for them to rise up and really live it.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. — Matthew 5:4
— Matthew 5:4
Grief is a part of life. There are none among us who are exempt from its painful touch. There are none among us who can claim that we have never experienced a loss. Whether it was the loss of a pet or a life partner, we have all experienced the bitter sting of tears.
The good news is that the intense pain we often feel in times of such loss can be mediated. In the above verse from the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, we have the promise that those who mourn will be comforted. That promise is both an innate spiritual reality and a challenge to us as people of faith. And make no mistake, it takes faith to trust that the searing pain of losing a loved one will not continue forever with the same intensity with which we experience it in the present.
The challenging aspect arises when we consider that being agents of hope and comfort is part and parcel of this life of faith to which we have been called and drawn. The longer we live in a relationship with God, the more we find our capacity to feel empathy and compassion for others expanded and deepened. The challenge is often for us to move beyond self, to look beyond our own parochial concerns, and to see the larger vista that lies before us. Opportunities abound for us to practice random acts of love and senseless compassion. Are we open to seeing them?
The Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore the Lord will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of Justice; blessed are all those who wait for the Lord.
— Isaiah 30:18
I have been both amused and dismayed by the recent proclamations of Glenn Beck, which liken Christians who have concerns for social justice to both communists and Nazis.
The reality is that social and economic justice have been at the heart of our faith tradition (and others) from its inception. From the jubilee year of the Hebrew tradition, which required the mandatory return of all held property to its original owners (or their heirs) to the Beatitudes of Jesus, the image of God we see portrayed is undeniably a God of justice in all forms.
Many times throughout history, people have struggled with the radical nature of divine love, mercy, and forgiveness and its implications for us as human beings who seek to follow the example offered by the God we serve. Sometimes we have done better than others at living up to that potential.
Our faith requires that we always seek to treat others fairly and with both dignity and respect, for they too are children of our God. Too often in our world, people get treated like objects while objects--like fancy cars--get treated with the honor that is due to people.
As followers of Jesus, we can never forget that it was the imperial secular and religious power brokers of his day that were most threatened by the radical message of the gospel. It seems that they still are.
Jesus said to his disciples, "You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the [Human One] will be handed over to be crucified."
— Matthew 26:1-2
Jesus clearly knew that staying his course would cost him his life. In the face of implacable religious and civic power, colluding together to preserve their own positions, what else could Christ have done?
If Jesus had cut and run, or fought back, or pursued any of a thousand other courses, our faith would be the poorer for it. The zealots wanted to counter the violence of the Roman occupation with some violence of their own. In fact, that's what much of the hoopla associated with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was about. Jesus somehow instinctively seemed to know that violence countered with violence only begets still more violence.
In this Holy Week, we remember the life of Jesus, a life lived for others, a life that poured itself out so completely in deep love that it began to show people that there was another way to be in this world.
To Jesus' disciples, his death seemed like the end of everything, all that they had begun to dream and build. Three days later, as they experienced the reality and power of Christ's life continuing beyond death, they would begin to understand that it was merely the end of the beginning. Each generation that followed has sought to extend our understanding that love is more powerful than hate, justice is greater than oppression, and life is about much more than avoiding death.
The way of the righteous is level; O Just One, you make smooth the path of the righteous. In the path of your judgments, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul's desire.
— Isaiah 26:7-8
Living with authenticity has often been a challenge for many people in our world. The demands of our relationships and our culture often require that we function in a particular mode in order to fit into the larger system.
The challenge that confronts us is the challenge to be real, no matter what. Sometimes, we can be accommodating without compromising our integrity, but other times, we must make a stand for what we believe is right. Being able to discern the difference between the two is a key in making good choices. After all, we are the hands, the eyes and the ears of the risen body of Christ in the world.
As Sarah Miles puts it in her book, Jesus Freak, "Jesus is real, and so, praise God, are we. Every single thing the resurrected Jesus does on earth he does through our bodies. You're fed, you're healed, you're forgiven, you're pronounced clean. You are loved ... Go and do likewise."
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
— Acts 2:43-47
The value of real community in the lives of individuals cannot be overstated. For each of us, the experience we share with others in a community of faith can serve to challenge us, inspire us, and reinforce our resolve in the face of life's trials and difficulties.
I have known several people over the years who thought to practice their faith on their own, essentially in a vacuum. When all we have to rely on is that which we carry within, any faith tradition can prove a daunting path to tread. Community provides us with much more, including a reality check when we need one.
When spiritual community goes beyond the superficial, beyond merely smiling, nodding and exchanging pleasantries, when others become an integral part of our lives and we of theirs, we all benefit. Also, the synergistic effects cannot be overlooked either. The good we can accomplish in numbers is far greater than that which we could accomplish alone.
Being a real spiritual community means caring and sharing. It means having real concern for the welfare of others as though it were our own. It gives us someone to challenge our self-serving ideas and our entrenched preconceptions. In short, it affords us the benefit of discipline, strengthens us for our journey and provides us an accountability system to check our progress. It's what we attempt to describe when we talk about the church in terms of being a spiritual family.
In Psalm 6:2-3, we find these words: "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul is also struck with terror ... O Lord — how long?"
In the Star Wars trilogy, Yoda teaches Luke that "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering." Yoda, I would assert was quite correct. The fact is that unbridled fear makes even rational people behave in ways that can be totally squirrely.
In Frank Herbert's epic saga, Dune, we learn that "fear is the mind-killer." In my experience, that thought has also been proven true.
Most people harbor fears about a thousand things that never come to pass. In fact, much of the time and energy that many of us pour into worry is both needless and pointless. So, why do we do it?
Sometimes, it is because in our own minds the worry gives us a sense of control (even though it really does not affect the outcome). Sometimes, we fear those who are different from us, those who have a different culture, religion or tradition.
In my experience, the prejudices and fears that people harbor about each other often begin to evaporate the moment they actually begin talking with one another. In his book, The Four Agreements, the author, Don Miguel Ruiz, points out the hazardous nature of the assumptions on which most people operate in most areas of life. He also suggests that rather than making assumptions we should cultivate the habit of actually asking questions. Then we would not have to assume anything about each other. We would actually know the truth, and that truth can serve to powerfully liberate us from whatever fear would threaten to debilitate us.
In Psalm 7:8 we read these words, "The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me." We all know that many religious folk, particularly religious leaders, have painted dire portraits of divine judgment, drawing heavily on a handful of apocalyptic passages. This verse from the psalms offers us a somewhat different portrait of divine judgment.
It is reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus that whatever we do "for the least of these" we, in reality, do for him. The only thing we need to concern ourselves with, then, are those times when our poor choices are at odds with those divine expectations. But the really good news is this: even in those times, there is grace and forgiveness.
It is truly shocking (and some would say scandalous) just how great the true depth of divine love for humanity really is. Divinity is expressed as Love, and Life, and Truth. As we each grow toward spiritual maturity, we ideally begin to embody these traits (and others) to a greater extent. Divinity finds expression in and through our humanity. The full embodiment of both divinity and humanity is traditionally regarded as one of the most awesome characteristics of Jesus as Christ. But it was never meant to stop with him.
In 1 John 4:11-12, we read these words, "My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and [God's] love becomes complete in us — perfect love!
The authors of the entire New Testament spend an inordinate amount of time reminding Christians to demonstrate their love of God through their love of neighbors and of each other. Why is that? I think that often we have a tendency to equate love with an emotional sentiment, a sort of sappy, greeting card sentiment that we are supposed to feel. We assume that as Christians, that feeling is a given.... it's supposed to just be there by virtue of our acceptance of God's grace.
The reality is very different. In fact, it can be quite difficult to love others, as anyone who has seriously taken up the challenge has in all probability quickly found out. Yes, we are called to extend that love to all people, regardless. It is, in fact, most likely the toughest spiritual discipline any of us can adopt... and the most rewarding. Loving your enemies is not only problematic in practice; it can be quite risky. Yet the divine call on our souls is to love God, neighbor, and yes, self too. And that is not just a feeling to sigh about; it is an activity in which we must engage in an ongoing way.
Real love for God can be powerfully expressed in how we treat this world that God has given us, working to establish truly sustainable lives for everyone and for the planet itself. The current environmental rape of the earth, through pollution and climate change, speaks volumes about who we human beings really are and how we look at things. We dwell on the only planet yet known to support life, and as a species, we are killing it. It's time humanity turned in a greener direction and lifestyle.
Real love of neighbors requires that we pursue real economic and political justice for ALL people. It requires that the welfare of others is important and significant for us. Are we concerned about justice or just us?
Real love of self, not surprisingly, requires that we relinquish those habits and behaviors that are unhealthy or self-destructive. Smoking, obesity, excessive drinking and even unhealthier addictions are all behaviors that sabotage our love of self. If we truly perceive that our bodies are each temples of the Holy Spirit, then how do we treat that temple?
In Galatians 5:1, we read, "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
The freedom that we receive from God through Christ is truly the most awesome gift anyone could ever receive. To be truly free of all that would hold us back or hold us down is also perhaps the most enlightened state in which human beings can find themselves... to be a free agent of God in the world. So, why is it that many seem so willing to give up that freedom and be led by the nose by demagogues with their own agendas who seem to have some mistaken idea that if they garner enough support that they can turn back the calendar? The arrow of time flies in one direction.
We have seen it happen repeatedly. With the pronouncements of people like Pat Robertson, people seem willing to surrender their spiritual freedom and accept the quick, easy, and certain answers of others. There also seems to be a willingness to embrace hatred and/or judgment of others as a core value. Having received the gift of true freedom, why do so many immediately surrender it? Perhaps the responsibilities that go along with that freedom are too daunting? The responsibility too much? Perhaps it is easier to cultivate a paternalistic dependency on a leader who then is responsible for us while we take responsibility for less and less.
Unfortunately, that path does not lead to a life that is either full, abundant or free. As challenging as it may be, the eternal choice is always uniquely our own. On the last day, when God asks why we made the choices we made in this life, saying, "I just did what they told me!" will not be an adequate answer for any of us. Each person is accountable for their own choices. It is time for all of us to become adult children of God in the world. It is time for each of us to accept responsibility for ourselves. Scripture tells us that each of us must work out our own salvation. That's work that no one else can do for us.