Thursday, July 29, 2021

How to Live with-and without- Anger: The Words of Jesus

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. James 3:6

Don't believe the tired old line that Jesus lays impossible teachings on us so that we would turn to God. God is God and is always there to help us, but that does not free or excuse us from Jesus' wisdom and direction on the matter before us.

Apparently Jesus called his disciples to exhibit a high level of self-examination. Much of Jesus' teaching (and above is the perfect example) requires that I be at least reflective enough to know how my angry words and actions affect others. How does anyone claim the faith and yet, become less thoughtful. Self-examination is parent to integrity and peace.

Following Jesus also requires honesty and courage. When wrong, promptly admit it. For Jesus, once it dawns on us that what we said or did was injurious, making things right between us and another person could cause us to exit worship- in the middle of the offering! 

Top priority is righting the wrong. And let's be clear, there's nothing here about telling someone their fault or waiting for an apology. No no and no. It's about going to the other party and making our apology- asking for forgiveness- for something we did or said- or perhaps something we neglected.

Here are some ideas:

1. Take Jesus at his word. It is in our power to make things right, to be reconciled. Realize that the process Jesus lays out will lead you to greater harmony in your relationships and movement to personal integrity and a less angry world.

2. In our attempt to right the wrong, we are not responsible for the responses of others. They are not required to forgive us, etc.

3. Do not use your apology as an excuse to manipulate or minimize or judge the other person.

4. In reflection and prayer:
  • Ask God for the wisdom to recognize one person you have wronged. What was done, what was said?
  • This may be for another time: ask God for the wisdom to know the best way to simply and honestly, admit your fault.

How to Live with -and without- Anger: Why It Matters

Don't confuse feeling angry with words spoken and actions taken in anger. We are not bad or sinful because we get angry. It comes with our being human. However, our bodies are not meant to maintain a perpetual fight or flight response. Anger may feel good for a short time as it floods our bodies with adrenaline. However, it’s not by accident that the Scripture gives this important distinction between feeling- and feeding on- anger. “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Ephesians 4: 22-25

When is anger no longer "fun?" For me, it's when I'm tired of being angry. There's depletion, exhaustion, depression, and fatigue.  

A family, marriage, or friendship is often damaged and sometimes destroyed by people acting or speaking in anger. Road rage between complete strangers seriously endangers freeways. Vehicles are used as weapons and bullets fly because of a real or perceived aggression. 

Too,  The Big Book of AA mentions  "resentment" or "being burned up" as not only very destructive to spiritual health, but the number one offender in drinking again. 

The physical costs of anger are well documented in the classic, Anger Kills by Redford and Virginia Williams.  In most cases, when our anger has been triggered, we have already told ourselves one of two things (or maybe both):  1) the situation is not fair and 2) it's out of our control. 

What can I do with anger?

1. Recognize anger’s danger and destructiveness- for you and others.

2. Admit and identify a trigger—only when you are not angry.

3. Instead of venting it out, walk it out. Venting often makes me angrier. Walking can help me release the toxic overload of stress hormones and come to my senses.

4. Is my anger justified? If yes, is there any way I can work to improve the situation? If not, how can I diffuse anger- with wisdom, and even laughter?

5. Own your anger. I can’t expect others to deal with something I want to avoid. If I have hurt someone in anger, it is mine- not theirs- to go to them and make it right- simply, honestly and quickly. 

6. Don’t lose sleep! Each evening, I can tell God my thanksgivings for the day, confess when I was ungrateful and dedicate my rest to God.

7. I can continue to choose what my spiritual legacy will be. What role will gratitude play in marking my life and character? What memories and words will describe my life?

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Sacrament of Ministry

No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father." John 10:18

I wonder if anyone can really claim to be a servant without the element of sacrifice. Caregivers have their "bill of rights" and if you Google "compassion fatigue," you'll find training programs dedicated to its symptoms and remedies.

I'm afraid that we've used the word sacrifice when it's convenient for us- and usually on others. We pull it out to manipulate others to give more, be more, and do more. 

For example, in focusing on the sacrificial death of Jesus, we often overlook the clear New Testament teaching that Jesus willingly and freely chose it as his way out. Take that away and Jesus is sub-human.  And so are we when our battles are not freely chosen. True sacrifice is not coerced but results from willing and loving letting go and surrender. 

It is in Philippians 2:7 where Paul teaches that Jesus "emptied" himself. What Jesus emptied himself of was "being in the form of God," not his humanity. 

Some ask whether we are called to servanthood- or friendship- with Jesus. Why not have the best of both without losing either one? No one is more concerned about your well- being than the Paraclete who stands beside us, with us, and for us. And being a true friend of Jesus will prompt us to act in ways so that the well- being of another doesn't have to be sacrificed.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

With friends like these...

There are plenty of impediments to faith within the community of believers, the church. Chief among these is toxic theology. Shame-based theology usually begins with our unworthiness of God's love and acceptance, instead of the first biblical witness  that all humankind is: (1) created in God's own image and likeness, (2) crowned us with glory and honor, (3) wondrously made (Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 8:5, Psalm 139: 14).

One of the most ancient stories from the Bible is about Job. Remember the frequent references to "the patience of Job" in our popular speech. To see the story through contemporary Jewish eyes, A Serious Man is a film worth your time, for both its comic relief and catharsis.

The book by his name is as much about Job's friends and Job's God as it is about Job himself. Job's infamous friends speak outrageous and blasphemous words about God. Elaine Heath's retelling of Job's story in her book, The Healing Practice of Celebration, calls this practice of Job's friends theological malfeasance:
Job's friends had to repent. They were guilty of theological malfeasance. In their haste to explain away Job's suffering, they had presented a damning vision of God. So then they had to bring costly sacrifices and ask Job to preside over the ritual... Job, who like his friends, had many ignorant words about God, now knew God, now had seen the mystery of God that is too deep for words. He offered the sacrifice for his friends. He prayed for their forgiveness. It is at this point that his life was restored. (p. 77)

We are quick to jump to Job's restoration of material prosperity and new family, etc. Job's soul-- his community with both friends and the Holy One- was restored first, through repentance and forgiveness. The work of restoration is, in large part, rethinking what kind of God, God is. It's understandable that words spoken by unthinking Christians are not erased easily- especially because they are spoken in the name of Jesus. 

For me, repentance and restoration is choosing to begin and end each day with the One who created me and everyone out- of love- not out of need, with no hidden agendas. This One gives all living things breath and creates humankind in God's own image and likeness. 

There will always be voices that insist that the God of all the creative processes of the universe also has a hair trigger temper, a vengeful, violent, and abusive figure whose rage is justified. The petulant child who can never be pleased. 

Job's story challenges us to reflect on our own malfeasance in the name of God, to repent of the harm our words have caused, and to pray for forgiveness and restoration.


Thursday, May 27, 2021

Well Being According to Gallup

In Well Being: The Five Essential Elements, authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter coalesce the data on what makes for a good life. From myriad studies and surveys polling populations in the U.S. and in many other nations, their best work is in summarizing how people are finding happiness in the areas of career, social, physical, financial, and community well-being.

Published by Gallup, it's typical self-help in that the focus is limited to whatever changes the individual can muster in order to move toward greater well-being. You would expect this when we are taking about health, job, money, and social life. Thus, I was a little surprised, when the book takes up the topic of community well being, even then it was all about my involvement in it, not justice or common wealth or harmony or shalom. It was more about how my altruism in civic, even church affairs, can raise my own sense of feeling good. But isn't altruism a little more than my feeling good about myself?

There is some drop off from other books in this vein, such as Now, Discover Your Strengths, and How Full Is Your Bucket? ; Rath has co-authored the later as well. Like these, Well Being provides a helpful online instrument called a "Wellbeing Finder," which can be used multiple times to note your progress in well being through time. There is also a daily resource to journal how the small changes you're choosing are improving your well being. Because so much in this book we have either heard before, or just makes good sense, it may be easy to miss the research that is truly helpful. In career well-being, I appreciated the emphasis on using a personal strength every day and finding a person at work who encourages your growth. In matters of health, I learned that even 20 minutes of exercise can boost your mood for up to 12 hours. In the area of finances, the theme is not about buying goods and services, but rather, providing experiences-lasting memories- for yourself and others. 

The social aspect of well being was interesting. Researchers have found that, not only our friend's happiness boosts our own, but a friend's friend's happiness does too. Even your friend's friend's friend's level of happiness has an improved positive effect (+6%) on our happiness, compared with an increase of $10,000 in income (+2%)! The authors advise to get six hours of social time per day (including online and emails), and spend more time with friends, people you enjoy. 

The book drives home the idea of setting certain "defaults" for ourselves that will equip us to make healthy choices. In the area of nutrition, researchers found that in order to eat a healthy meal while dining out, go to an eatery that has many, many healthy choices. Why? Because when fast -food drive-ins offer their one healthy choice, people almost never choose them but opt for the burger and fries. When you go to the grocery store, stock up on all healthy choices. Automated deductions from your pay check for savings and tax payments are financial defaults we can make to live under our means. When choosing an exercise or diet regimen, the chances of success are multiplied when "positive peer pressure" is the default. 

The book's appeal? To those who find the subject of well-being itself interesting, you will learn from how the good, solid data is presented. However, the well-being for the sake of well-being theme is tiring and tedious. Human wholeness and healing does not exist in the vacuum of facts and statistics from Harvard studies, and is not founded on entirely individualistic categories. In a world of so much social upheaval and suffering, this book falls short. It just doesn't help me with what I need most: transcending my own world to see, and even embrace, with healthy and holy compassion, the pain of others.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Art of Pentecost: A Reflection

The descending Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles

Simon Haider, Descent of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descends on Mary and the Apostles

This wood relief sculpture, courtesy of Vanderbilt University, portrays Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, the Sunday that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. The story of Acts 1-2 describes what it means when the power from on high rests on the followers of Jesus. Mere disciples become apostles. They are sent out, to Jerusalem and beyond, to proclaim the good news of repentance and forgiveness.

The sculpture of the gathered disciples is a lesson that Pentecost is continuing. It is a picture of the church at prayer. To pray is to wait on God the Holy Spirit. God, who renews the face of the earth, is also the One who refreshes, remakes, and redirects God's people.

Pentecost cannot be a one time event heard once a year, like a textbook on ancient Egypt. That kind of reading can lead churches to reenactments of Pentecost, complete with readings in many languages, or dressing in red, the liturgical color signaling the Holy Spirit. Interesting, however, not much use when I'm too tired, bored, sick, depressed or disillusioned to pray.  To be sustained in a long and searching journey, I don't need more spectacle. I need to renew my strength from a Pentecost that shatters the walls I have constructed and the limits I have imposed on God, myself, and others. One that is over-abundantly supplied by the Lord, the Giver of Life. 

What remains for us because of Pentecost? How can it be that redirection comes as I wait on the Spirit in prayer. For me, waiting is listening, remembering the words of Jesus, quieting my mind, noticing small insights, blessing others as they come to mind. Continuing to forgive myself and others. I find endurance by asking God for it.  God, lead me to what is enduring and sustainable. What is a waste of time? What are things I need to wait out? Or act on? 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Reflection: The Ascension of Christ

Like the Easter accounts in the Synoptics, the Ascension narratives provide good soil for reflection. The larger part of reflection is asking questions of the various texts before us. An important question is: what do we find the disciples doing and what does that mean for us? It is not, which one do we like or prefer, but, how does each teach us about discipleship after the Ascension. 

Luke- Acts
Luke 24:52-53
And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1: 10-11
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

What I find in Acts is an elaboration of Luke. The disciples find themselves "continually in the temple blessing God." It forms a symmetry with the Luke 1-2, where the temple is prominent in the stories of Zechariah, Simeon, Anna and the Circumcision-Dedication. The disciples are filled with wonder and praise. They are staying inside the temple in one case, and in the other, caught gazing into heaven.  In what ways does hanging out in church (the temple) provide an examination of my preference for safety, insulation?  The deliverance (exodus) from slavery to sin and death challenges my preoccupation with the familiarities and comforts of church worship. 

Gazing in wonderment at the ascending Christ can hinder my communion with the living Christ. Wondering where Jesus is can prove as fruitless as seeking the living among the dead. (Luke 24). This is at least a comment on a sign-driven spirituality, one that quickly germinates in shallow soil but cannot be sustained for long without better soil and deeper roots.

Matthew 28:16-20:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The disciples gather on the mountain to be commissioned as apostles, "sent out." Matthew is a missionary Gospel.  The distinction from Luke-Acts is the promise of a continuing presence of Jesus- forever. Maybe that's the reason Matthew omits the departure of Jesus, the Ascension. There is no waiting on the Spirit in a temple, or, wondering-gaze to find the whereabouts of Jesus. We are told to go and do, knowing we are doing it with Jesus. 

Mark 16: 9-20 Mark's longer ending includes, like Matthew's, a command to go and do, with the presence of the Lord: "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it." 

Mark 16:19-20  As the earliest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20, the writer must have had the benefit of early Mark as well as Luke-Acts, and Matthew. The disciples follow- through in Mark. Not only do they go and proclaim, but also, the Lord "works with them" and provides, with their proclamation, accompanying signs. 

Out of the these comparisons, more questions can be considered: 
1. What are the promises and pitfalls of the disciples' various responses?
2. What is the value of each account in telling the story of Jesus' departure (exodus)? The value in reading them together?
3. In what ways is my practice of Christian spirituality redirected as a result of the Ascension of Jesus Christ?
4. In what ways is the Lord absent? Present?

How to Live with-and without- Anger: The Words of Jesus

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I...