Is Jesus the Only Way? Sort of…but not really………(Psalm 25:10)

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Psalm 25:10 – 5/28/17

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,

For those who keep his covenant and his decrees.”

(Psalm 25:10, NRSV)

This is going to be quick and dirty….. Or at least quick.  🙂  My immediate thought upon reading this verse was, if “all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,” does that mean that all paths of steadfast love and faithfulness are of the Lord??…. If someone keeps God’s covenant and God’s decrees (which, in my opinion, “looks like” loving God, knowing oneself to be loved by God, and loving one’s “neighbors”…), is that person on “the [or at least, a] path of the Lord” regardless of what religion, if any, that person claims?  

In other words, can a person who claims affiliation with a non-Judeo-Christian religious tradition, or who doesn’t claim affiliation with any religious tradition, live in such a way that he or she is, indeed, walking on “the path of the Lord” (at least from the perspective of those of us within the Judeo-Christian tradition)?

I think so.

At the risk of being controversial, I do not believe that Jesus had, or has, the absolute corner on the market for the “correct way” of living a God-oriented life.  I do believe that for me, born when and where I was, into the family and culture I was, he was–and remains–the most accessible and clearest example of what it means, what it looks like, to live life fully and consistently and selflessly oriented to God, to Love.  And I believe that there are profound and timeless and transformative truths about how to live that kind of life, available to anyone, of any background, age, culture, religion, etc., should they choose to seek them and be open to them, through becoming seriously acquainted with the person and life of Jesus.

I do not, however, believe that it is only through the Judeo-Christian path that we can learn to live lives of steadfast love and faithfulness.  Nor do I believe that all who claim to be a part of that tradition are, in fact, living lives of steadfast love and faithfulness (although it really is not my place to make that determination!).

I am not of the opinion that what the world needs is more Christians, per se.  I am of the opinion that what the world needs is more persons, in all religious traditions, in all cultures, in all countries and communities and families, who live lives of steadfast love and faithfulness, knowing themselves to be loved and forgiven, and striving, then, to love and forgive their fellow companions on this journey.

“All paths of steadfast love and faithfulness are of the Lord,

God, help us all to keep your covenants and decrees…”

–a very liberal paraphrasing of Psalm 25:10 (DCW version! 🙂 )

 

Amen……

Humility: Some Thoughts…

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Psalm 25:9 – 5/8/17

As I reflect on Psalm 25, I find myself drawn to a couple of verses in the middle.  And while they are back-to-back, I find my thinking about them going in different directions; I am led, then, to reflect on them separately.  First, verse 9:

“[The Lord] leads the humble in what is right,

And teaches the humble his way.”

(Ps. 25:9, NRSV)

Just this morning I was talking with my kids about what it means to be modest, to be humble–which, it seems to me, can be a pretty difficult concept, whether you’re on the explaining side or the understanding side!  Our conversation began as a result of an exchange between John and Sarah, in which Sarah said to John, in reference to something he had drawn, “Wow, John! That’s really good!”  To which John quickly and emphatically replied, “No, it’s not! It’s awful!”  To which I quickly but less emphatically replied, “You know, John, that’s really not very attractive…” (he seems to be doing that a lot lately–denying his gifts, rejecting any proffered compliments–and I’ve wondered if it’s out of some sort of attempted modesty? or false humility? or perhaps a genuine disparaging of his talents?  Regardless, I felt like it was time to “call him on it”…) which was followed by a conversation among us all about the importance of being able to recognize and acknowledge our own gifts–without being obnoxious or arrogant about it; the challenge of graciously accepting compliments from others; and what it means to be truly humble.

So what does it mean to be truly humble?  Does it mean denying that you’re good at anything? Does it mean believing that everyone else is somehow better than you at everything?  Does it mean telling yourself you’re not important, and allowing others to treat you accordingly? Does it mean acting as though everyone else is somehow more important?  Does it mean feeling embarrassed, or unable, to acknowledge your gifts or talents or passions?  Does it mean living as though the gifts, talents, and passions of others are somehow more valuable and more worthy of recognition?

I don’t think true humility is any of those things.  And while I can more easily say what I think it is not than I can define it absolutely, I think some part of what it means is captured in the verse above:  

“[The Lord] leads the humble in what is right,

And teaches the humble his way.”

(Ps. 25:9, NRSV)

…and that “part” is that to be humble is to be able to be led, to be able to be taught.  Arrogance would lead you to believe that you will be doing the leading, that you will be doing the teaching, because you are the one, above all others, who knows what is right, who knows where to go, and who knows the best way to get there.  You do not need anyone to lead you, nor do you need anyone to teach you.  Not even God.  You know it all.  If only you could convince everyone else of that!  

Humility, on the other hand, allows you to acknowledge that while yes, you do know some things, you don’t know everything.  Humility allows you to recognize that no matter how much you know, there is always more you can learn–particularly if God is the one doing the teaching; that no matter how confident you are that you are going in the right direction, you are still open to being led in a different direction–especially if God is the one doing the leading.  

“[The Lord] leads the humble in what is right,

And teaches the humble his way.”

And what is right, what is God’s way, is knowing yourself to be of equal value as others…believing that no one else is more important, nor less important, than anyone else…claiming your inherent worth and belovedness while promoting the inherent worth and belovedness of every other person…and recognizing that everyone has gifts and talents and passions to be discovered and shared and valued.

Yes, John, your drawing is really good!  Does that mean you’re more awesome and more valuable than anyone else?  No.  Are you the most artistically talented ten-year-old on Earth?  No.  Does that mean you’re any less awesome and less valuable than anyone else?  No.  Your drawing is good, John…but what really matters is that you are loved and you are valued.  No more than, no less than anyone else.  Each one–each one–infinitely and eternally, based not on what we have done (good or otherwise!)  but on who God is.  Pure gift.  If that’s not cause for humility, I don’t know what is….

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Psalm 23 – Where are the green pastures??

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The 23rd psalm–such a familiar and beloved psalm–

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….”

Unlike many other familiar Biblical passages, it is, perhaps, a passage

that remains most familiar to many people in the language of the King James Bible:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,

For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me….”

Even the rhythm of the words seems to bring comfort,

In addition to the assurance that the words themselves convey!

It’s a psalm of trust, a song of comfort,

a declaration of quiet confidence in the power, the compassion, the benevolence,

and the Goodness of God.

 

There’s one verse in particular, however, that is speaking to me as I read this psalm today.

One part of one verse, in fact, that is calling me to deeper reflection:

“He makes me lie down in green pastures….” (Ps. 23:2a, NRSV)

 

“He makes me lie down in green pastures….”  What’s not to like?

Lush, green pastures, with pillowy tufts of grass inviting me to lie down and rest….

Lush, green pastures, ready and waiting for me to pause, sink down into them,

and be rejuvenated…

Of course, God would want, would invite, me to lie down in such a place

If God’s purpose was that my soul might be restored (cf. vs 2b)!

Would my soul be restored by, say, lying down in a barren, parched desert?  I don’t think so….

Would my soul be restored by resting in a crowded, noisy shopping mall?  Not so much….

Would my soul be restored if I tried to unwind in a foreign place

where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture?  Not likely.

So God, in God’s infinite wisdom, would understandably invite me to stop, to rest, to lie down

in a peaceful place,

a comfortable place,

a place of obvious restoration–

God would invite me to lie down in green pastures….

 

But wait–that’s not actually what the psalm says–

God doesn’t invite me to lie down in green pastures, as it turns out….

The psalm says that God makes me lie down in green pastures….

Hmm….

Why would I resist resting in a peaceful, comfortable, restorative place?

Why would I have to be made to lie down in green pastures??

 

Today, at the risk of beating a dead horse(!), I find myself considering the idea

of being made to lie down,

of being forced to rest,

of having no choice but to accept a period of inactivity and stillness….

…all of which seem to imply some sort of resistance,

some degree of reluctance,

some level of unwillingness on the part of, well, me….

Where might that resistance to “lie down” come from?

Does it come from me not wanting to stop doing what I’m doing?

Does it come because I’m afraid I won’t know who I am or what my purpose is

if I stop doing what I’m doing?

Where might that reluctance to rest come from?

Does it come from me being comfortable where I am?

Does it come because the place where I’m being made to “lie down”

Seems somehow uncomfortable?

Where might that unwillingness to be still come from?

Does it come from a feeling that it’s not okay to not be active?

Does it come from an impression that it’s a sign of laziness and/or selfishness,

or something similarly unacceptable,

to not be busy, or productive, or useful, all the time?

 

Why would I resist resting in a peaceful, comfortable, restorative place?

Why would I have to be made to lie down in green pastures??

 

Maybe, from my perspective, the place where God wants me to “lie down,” to be still,

doesn’t look like green pastures at all, but more like an empty, parched desert–

lonely…uncomfortable…too quiet…devoid of water and life…

Or maybe, from where I stand, my assigned place of inactivity appears more like a shopping mall–

noisy…crowded…overflowing with too much stimulation…

Or maybe, the place that God knows will be “green pastures” for me

feels for all the world like a foreign land–

a place totally unknown, with practices I’m not familiar with

and a language I don’t understand….

Perhaps it feels like God is forcing stillness and inactivity on me, that God is making me lie down,

in a place that does not seem peaceful,

that does not feel comfortable,

that does not fit any notion I’ve ever had or could even ever imagine

as being the least bit restorative to my burdened soul….

 

Yet here I am, being made to lie down in green pastures,

so that my soul might be restored….

 

“Clearly, God, You don’t know what You are doing, if You think this

[desert/shopping mall/foreign land…health crisis/job loss/loved one’s death…

whatever it is that forces us, reluctantly, into a period of inactivity and stillness…]

–is a ‘green pasture’!”


…or could it be that we don’t know what God is doing??…

and that “this” is, in fact, in spite of what it may look and feel like to us,

a place of green pastures,

meant for the restoration of our souls??….

Psalm 22 – Part 2 – Forsaken…and yet…

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Psalm 22 – PART 2 – 4/15/17 – EASTER!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

And by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,

Enthroned on the praises of Israel;

In you our ancestors trusted;

They trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

In you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

–Psalm 22:1-5 (NRSV)

Where are you, God??  Why have you left me all alone?  I pray to you, God…and nothing.  I can’t sleep for the anguish in my soul, and in my restlessness I pray again…and you are nowhere to be found!  Where are you, God??  Maybe you’re not even there….Maybe I’m just a fool for thinking you’re real, for thinking you care about my pain…. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me???

“Yet…,” David says.  Yet….

You’ve abandoned me in my suffering, God!…and yet…

You’re completely ignoring me in my pain!…and yet…

I’m utterly alone, anxiety consuming my days and sleeplessness taking over my nights!

        And where are you??  Not here!!…and yet…

“Yet,” David says, “you are holy….”

        Perhaps it’s not all about me and what I’m going through,

                But about you and who you are…

        Perhaps your goodness is bigger than my hopelessness…

        Perhaps your plan is bigger than my anxiety…

        Perhaps your Love is bigger than my pain….

“Yet you are holy….”

“In you,” David says, “our ancestors trusted;

They trusted, and you delivered them.”

        You are not some fly-by-night, flash-in-the-pan, here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of god,

                But the here-all-yesterdays-today-and-all-tomorrows kind of God,

                the God who was and is and is to come,

                the God of our ancestors,

                        and of our descendants as yet unborn….

        And our ancestors, who were deeply flawed and experienced great suffering,

                Were even more deeply faithful, and experienced great deliverance….

        Our ancestors, who lived tens and hundreds and even thousands of years ago,

        put their trust in you, in spite of everything that might have persuaded them not to–

                outer disparities in power and strength?

                inner struggles with fear and doubt?

                intellectual arrogance?

                plain old stubbornness??–

        And you delivered them!  

        You saved them!

        You led them ever closer to wholeness

                and freedom

                and fullness of Life….

                        Perhaps it didn’t happen when they wanted it to…

                        Perhaps it didn’t look like they expected it to…

                        Perhaps it didn’t feel like they thought it would…

                                But they were freed from their fears,

                                They were saved from their suffering,

                                They were delivered from their despair,

                                        Because they trusted in You.

“In you,” David says, “our ancestors trusted;

They trusted, and you delivered them.”

“To you they cried,” David says, “and were saved;

In you they trusted, and were not put to shame.”

        You are real, you do care about our struggles, and you will deliver us;

        We can cry to you, we can pour out our hearts to you,

                You can handle our anger and our anxiety,

                You will hold us in our grief and our despair….

        We will not be put to shame;

        We will be saved–

                Saved from self-absorption, self-doubt, self-hatred,

                Saved from fear and guilt and regret…

                Saved for freedom and peace and wholeness,

                Saved by Goodness and Hope and Love….

“To you they cried,” David says, “and were saved;

In you they trusted, and were not put to shame.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me??” David cried out,

full of anguish and pain…

“Yet…,” he continued, with a glimmer of hope

and just enough faith to keep from him from falling into a bottomless pit of despair….

And yet….

God, when we cannot help but cry out to you, full of the pain and anguish, the abandonment and betrayal that David felt, please, please, please give us the strength to utter his “Yet…”, with just enough hope to save us, with just enough faith in the promise that you will indeed deliver us…. And we will not be put to shame!  Amen.

Forsaken By God… [Part 1]

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Psalm 22PART 1 – 4/13/17 – MAUNDY THURSDAY

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

And by night, but find no rest.

–Psalm 22:1-2 (NRSV)

Despair…abandonment…anger…bitterness…suffering…impatience…anxiety…desperation…. It’s all there.  And more!  Certainly David is not the only one who has ever felt these things, nor the only one who has ever had the courage to voice them.  Jesus, in fact, claimed those first nine words as his own when he was hanging on the cross; and many others, without a doubt, have cried out similarly throughout the ages.

Where are you, God??  Why haven’t you shown up??  Why have you left me all alone?  Don’t you care how much I’m hurting??  I pray and pray and pray to you, God…and nothing.  Nada.  A big fat empty silence.  I can’t sleep at night for the anguish in my soul, and in my restlessness I pray again, and then I pray some more…and you are nowhere to be found!  My God–where are you???  

Does God really not care when we’re suffering?  Can it be that God abandons us in our pain?  Does God simply turn a deaf ear to our cries when they become too difficult, or too heart-wrenching, or too honest, to hear??  Because sometimes, as David voices, it can feel like that.  Sometimes it can feel exactly like that.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

When the pain feels too much to bear, and the isolation, too much to handle; when the confusion is overwhelming, and the hurt is paralyzing; when suffering has replaced joy, and despair has taken the place of hope–from the depths of our souls we cry out:  Where are you, God??  Why have you abandoned me??     

And sometimes…maybe…if we’re honest…it might even feel like we’re praying to a big empty void, praying to the emptiness and making fools of ourselves in the process, believing in our heart of hearts not only that there is a God, but that that God knows us, that that God cares about us!  How bold of us!  How audacious!  And sometimes, it may seem–when we pour out our souls to that God, and trust in that care, that love…and get nothing but radio silence in return–how foolish….   

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Where are you, God??  And why aren’t you making things right??  …Maybe you’re not even there….Maybe I’m just a fool for thinking you’re real, and an even bigger fool for thinking you care about me and my pain….Ahhh, what’s the point…

                                                                                             …to be continued…

Can We Genuinely Rejoice Over Another’s Success? Only if We Know Ourselves to be Loved…

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Psalm 20 – 4/7/17

“May [the Lord] grant you your heart’s desire,
And fulfill all your plans.
May we shout for joy over your victory,
And in the name of our God set up our banners.
May the Lord fulfill all your petitions.”

–Psalm 20:4-5

Devoted family.  True friends.  Genuine community.  In other words, people who really, really love you and want what’s best for you.  Those are the people I can imagine saying those words–and meaning them.

Because I feel in them a sincere desire for the well-being of the “you” who’s being spoken to here.  I sense a profound genuineness behind the prayer that God will grant that person’s deepest desire, that his or her plans will be fulfilled.  When the hope is expressed that “we” (those represented by the speaker) will “shout for joy over your victory,” the sense I get is that of an eager anticipation of that joy, an excited and almost impatient expectation of celebrating with that person, for her or his triumph….

What I’m not getting is any sense of jealousy, or resentment, or competition, or comparison….  I don’t get a sense of half-hearted joy, dampened by unspoken feelings of “Well, that’s great for her, but why didn’t I get my heart’s desire??”  It doesn’t feel like the “shout[ing] for joy over your victory” will have any undercurrents of “I deserved it more than she did!” or “Do you know what I heard he did to get that?” or “It’s nice that she got what she wanted, but it’s even nicer that he didn’t get it!”  There’s none of that.  This feels completely genuine.  It seems deeply sincere.  It strikes me as the kind of thing found among loving families, true friends, authentic community.

I’d like to think it’s the kind of thing that marks a group as being followers of Christ–people who can truly rejoice with you when there’s cause for rejoicing.  I’d like to think it’s the kind of thing that sets followers of Christ apart–not only the genuine rejoicing, but even, as in this case, truly hoping and praying that you will have cause for rejoicing, that you will get what you are hoping for in your heart of hearts!  And not necessarily because they’ve gotten all they’re hoping for, and they hope you do, too.  Not because there’s anything in it for them if your plans are fulfilled.  Not even because it’s the “right” thing to do or the “right” way to feel.  But simply because you are loved, truly and deeply.  And because they know themselves to be loved, truly and deeply.  That is what allows them to love without jealousy, without envy, without competition or comparison.  That is what allows them to love genuinely, sincerely, authentically.  That is what allows them to love, and love freely.

As he sent them out to minister, Jesus said to his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give.” (cf. Matthew 10:8b).

Only when we have freely received God’s love can we freely give God’s love.  Only when we know ourselves to be truly and deeply loved can we truly and deeply love others.  Only when we truly and deeply love others can we sincerely pray, like David, for their profound well-being and the granting of their deepest desires; and only then can we genuinely rejoice at their victories!

God,  in the claiming of our identities as people walking in the path of Love-Above-All, as lived and taught by Jesus, open us to freely receive so that we might not only freely give but truly and deeply rejoice!
Amen.

Hidden in the Shadow of God’s Wings: Can Darkness Reveal God’s Presence?

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Psalm 17:8-9 – 3/24/17

“Guard me as the apple of the eye,

hide me in the shadow of your wings,

from the wicked who despoil me,

my deadly enemies who surround me.”

–Psalm 17:8-9 (NRSV)

These two verses seem to mark the midway point of this psalm not only in number but also in “theme.”  In the seven verses leading up to these two, David seems to be reminding God of his (David’s) faithfulness, his righteousness, his steadfastness in his relationship with God.  In the six verses following, the emphasis, in contrast, is more on the wickedness and depravity of his enemies and his prayer that God would deliver him from them.

In the middle, though, are the two verses quoted above; and I was struck by something in the middle of that middle:

“Hide me in the shadow of your wings….”

(Ps. 17:8b)

And what struck me is this:  in the shadow, it’s dark.  When you’re in someone’s, or something’s, shadow, whether God’s or anyone/-thing else’s, you are not standing in the light.  Perhaps the person or thing causing the shadow is over you, perhaps it’s in front of you, perhaps to one side or the other.  Possibly, depending on where the light is coming from, it’s even behind you.  But regardless of where the person or thing is that is causing the shadow or even how bright the light is that is creating it, when you are in its shadow, where you are is dark….

Now, if you are David and you realize that the darkness you perceive around you is caused by God’s “wings” and is a result of your being under them, then all is well and good.  You can thank God for the darkness and praise God for the protection it provides, and bide your time, patiently and quietly, until the comfort and safety offered by God’s wings are no longer needed and you are able to boldly step out again into the light.

But what if you are not David, and you do not realize that the darkness you perceive all around you is caused by God’s wings and is a result of your being under them, protected and safe?  What if the darkness all around you simply feels like…well, darkness? And rather than offering any feelings of comfort or safety, it bestows instead anxiety and despair?  What if your prayer has not been that God hide you in the shadow of God’s wings in the presence of your enemies, but that God get you the heck out of there and put you someplace where your enemies cannot even find you, let alone surround you?!

Because sometimes–let’s be real–darkness is, simply, darkness.  Sometimes darkness is the absence of light, and it can be painfully dark.  And sometimes our prayer needs to be that God would get us the heck out of the darkness and back into the light, with our efforts geared toward that end as well.

But maybe sometimes, the darkness that seems to surround us is something else.  Maybe sometimes, the darkness that seems to be all that we can see, is a darkness caused by God’s presence rather than God’s absence.  Maybe, just maybe, sometimes, when we find ourselves surrounded by darkness, that darkness has been created by the protective cover of God’s wings over us….

Certainly I can be more like the above-described “not-David” than David on occasion–seeing darkness as darkness, feeling anxiety rather than safety in that darkness, praying desperately for deliverance back into the light rather than patiently biding my time in the shadow….

But what if?…. What if I could be more like David, more often?  What if I could see the darkness in my life, when it occurs, as being caused by the protective cover of God’s wings? or at least consider that possibility?…. What if I could wait patiently and quietly in that darkness, trusting that when the time was right, I would step confidently back into the light?  What if I could trust that sometimes God’s very Presence may look a lot to me like darkness, and that in those periods of darkness God might be closer than I’ve ever known, close enough that I am being hidden, and protected, and cared for, in the shadow of God’s wings?….

Hmmm….