Those Who Mourn Shall Be Comforted

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The prophet, Jeremiah laments, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (Jeremiah 8:21 NRS).  Not just people, but animals are capable of mourning death and loss.  It is as if all of creation understands what it means to lose something which cannot be regained, and that loss is so profound and deeply felt that it is expressed externally.

(Image courtesy of strangeanswer.com)

(Image courtesy of strangeanswer.com)

In this image, one bird mourns the loss of another, possibly its mate, by standing vigil over the body and crying aloud.  We see similar behavior in all variety of animals, from lions to the great apes, to orcas to birds.  Perhaps loss is more universal than we often appreciate.  One of the greatest symbols of loss in the Bible is Rachel, a matriarch of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who is portrayed in prophetic writings as mourning the loss of her children, the death of the people of Israel.  We see this readily in the Book of Jeremiah, which states, “Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15 NRS).  God knows and understands mourning, for the Father mourned the death of the Son, and the Son mourned the loss of others during the course of his earthly ministry, including Lazarus and John the Baptist.  This may not feel like a well from which we can draw strength in our time of need, during our occasions of mourning, but it is.  God has great empathy for those who mourn, and mourns alongside of us.  God seeks to give us everlasting life, not revel in death and suffering it leaves in its wake.

To be understood is a great gift, a treasure in a world where we can feel lost, disconnected, and wholly misunderstood.  Yet even in those moments of overwhelming pain from loss, the Lord reaches out to us to swaddles us in the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit.  The people of God draw close to one another, to uphold and to mourn collectively, for the pain of one is amplified in Christ-like community.  We are not alone, even when a loved one dies and there is a vacancy in our lives and in our beings.  God is present in the movement of the Holy Spirit, and in those who bear the name of Christ to the world.  Whether we are the primary mourner or one of those united in Christ who are vessels of comfort and witness, we are children of the God who knows mourning, honors it, and seeks to fulfill the promise of the day when all mourning shall cease, because death and sorrow will be no more.  Our mournings of this world are temporary.  They may last until our final breath, but there will come the day when our lost loved ones shall be resurrected, restored to us.  May we live each day until that triumphant epiphany living lives that reveal God’s truth and grace, and embody God’s love, so that we may inherit the Kingdom Christ prepares for all those who love him.  In the promise is hope.  In the promise is our eternal comfort.

What is Required of You?

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A woman, who was a sinner, takes a form of supplication, weeps from mourning, and bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, then dries them with her hair (Luke 7:37-38).  There is such an incredible intimacy about her actions, her response to him.  Confronted with the presence of the Christ, this woman known not by her name or face, but her actions, honors him in such a public way, that those around her cannot help but take notice.  They do not understand, and so they attack both her and Jesus: her for being a known sinner, and him for letting her impure self touch him.  Yet this is who Christ is: the God of All that drew close to sin sick humanity so that we might become intimately acquainted with God, thus discovering and accepting our salvation from the very same sin that required Christ to come to us.  Out of her humility, the woman serves God Incarnate.  Out of her sinfulness, she seeks to honor the one who alone can save her.  Are we any different?  Should we be?

(Image courtesy of churchoftheincarnation.org)

(Image courtesy of churchoftheincarnation.org)

While the earthly ministry of Jesus the Christ drew to a close upon his ascension to heaven, the Risen Christ’s ministry in and through us is here and now, provided we are willing to have such a profound reaction to the grace of God as the woman.  We are a stiff-necked people, who hold disdain for the notion of bowing down before anyone, much less the Son of Man.  We yearn for our honor and glory, recognition of our acts when we are those who taint the world with our sin, and pervert the blessings of God with our evil.  Despite all of this, we are offered grace, abundantly and repeatedly.  Like the woman, we must have an intimate response to Christ, one that is personal and poignant in how it reveals the gratitude and love we have for our Lord.  We are not better than her, nor called to anything less.  God requires a relationship, for this we were created, for this we have been offered redemption, and for this we are called by the one who repairs our brokenness by his own blood.  Her tears of pain and sorrow blessed Christ’s feet, like waters of baptism.  Out of our burdens comes the ultimate blessing: relief from our sufferings caused by our sin and the sins of others.  If we are keeping Christ at arms’ length, and denying this intimate proximity of Christ, then we are the ones who suffer even more.  For those in agony do not reject the salve for their pain.  But too often our pride becomes a barrier.  Must we bow?  Yes, in prayer and praise.  Must we offer our most personal means of service?  Yes, as tribute and because of our gratitude.  What is to be gained by haughtiness that refuses to respond to the intimacy first shown to use by Christ?  There is more work to be done in us; the Holy Spirit, in its perfecting love, is not through with us.  There will always be more work to be done by us; the Lord has love and grace to rain down upon others, and we are the chosen conduits of that incredible blessing, and will be until Christ’s second coming.  By paying homage to the King of kings, we take the first step in being transformed by our relationship with our Savior, and freely join with the Lord in transforming the world.

Meaningful Motivation

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I was at the drug store grabbing a few things, got in line, and waiting until it was my turn to check out.  A homeless man comes up to the woman in front of me and asks her something I could not quite make out.  She says sure, and he goes off down the food aisle.  She turns to me and asks, “Why not right?  It’s better than drugs or alcohol.”  I tell her that I didn’t hear what he wanted.  She told me he wanted cookies, and he comes back with a box of cookies, which she pays for and hands to him.  I smiled at her generosity.  Then she says to me and the cashier, “I need all the good karma I can get.”  Ahh, so her motivation was to sow good seeds for herself.  I get that.  We all want to be blessed, have good luck, experience positive vibes, or whatever the current colloquialism is this day.  Yet as Christians, we are supposed to have a very clear motivation: to serve and honor God.  We do what is right, because God has given us insight of what is right through Scripture, and we honor God by enacting God’s will.  If nothing good ever came back to us, then we would still do what is right according to the Lord.

(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

No matter what that woman’s reason for doing what she did was, she did a good thing.  I applaud her for her compassion that manifested itself in an act of kindness and mercy.  That poor man was hungry and looked broken down, but kindness from a stranger can uplift the lowest spirit.  I just think we need to be careful and clear as to why we do what we do.  She threw around the word karma, a concept from Hinduism and Buddhism that gets overused and misunderstood.  Karma, in its original and purest sense, is cause and effect.  What we do causes an effect, not judged good or bad, just an effect.  The earliest Hindus and Buddhists believed that reincarnation (rebirth after death) occurred when our effects had not been worked out.  The intention was to cease causing effects so that reincarnation would cease, and the being liberated.  Western culture has taken karma to be cosmic vengeance, payback for your bad thoughts and actions.  But, as Job discovered, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.  The only difference is whether you are a good person or a bad person, and for Christians that determination is made according to God’s commandments and only by Christ’s judgment.

When we throw out karmic terms, then we have to follow it through.  So did that homeless man do something awful to be poor and homeless?  That’s a dangerous assumption, and one that lets society off the hook for the kind of institutional sins that make such states of being not only possible, but pervasive.  No one deserves the kind of pain and suffering that extreme poverty and homelessness bring.  Jesus said that those people will be blessed in the Kingdom to come, because they have suffered so in this life.  No matter where we find ourselves socially or economically, we need to do all that we can to enact the will of God.  It is more than being good for the sake of being good, or because “it’s the right thing to do.”  We do what God says, because God loves us first and we love God.  That is causality, and yet it involves free will, the choice to receive and respond to divine love.  We do not just return it to God above, but radiate it outwards to all people.  We cannot pick and choose who will receive, but shower it upon every person, because God offers grace, the ultimate gift of love, to everyone.  Christ was here in our midst doing the best possible good during his earthly ministry, and look what came back to him: hatred, betrayal, dismissal, mocking, suffering, and death.  But knowing that would come did not stop Christ, he did what he did because it was good and just, the will of God, and we are called to follow that example.  Don’t love because you want to be loved.  Don’t give because you want to receive.  Give freely of yourself because God gives freely to you, and your doing so brings honor and glory to the one who redeems you with grace and love. That’s what this Christian discipleship is all about.

A Prayer from the Midst of the Struggle

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(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

Out of the raging storm, I cry out to you, O God.

Hear my fears, respond to my concerns.

All around me are obligations, conflicts and needs.

I struggle to stay grounded, keep my feet on the floor.

There is this up-welling of anxiety,

And then I remember your peace.

It comes from trust in you,

And the grace of the cross.

No matter what I do, nothing can separate me from you.

In the midst of my struggles, you are here.

On my darkest day, you are the light that illuminates in hope.

Help me to hold fast to you.

Let this assurance of your grace keep me buoyant when I feel I’m sinking.

No matter what comes, with you, I can overcome.

In deepest gratitude, I will sing your praises,

Even when I am afraid, even when I am concerned.

You are what keeps me going,

And because of you, I will go on.

Amen.

Re-Writing What We Have Not Really Read

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I am a Bible nerd.  I love the Hebrew Bible, known to most Christians as the Old Testament.  I studied it with Jewish scholars, including a Rabbi, and they opened my eyes to this often set aside portion of the Christian canon.  Many Christians rush through the Old Testament just to get to the New Testament, but that is to sell ourselves and God short.  Just think about how many thousands of years of interaction and relationship God invested into making the content of the Old Testament possible.  It was that important to God, and it should be shown much more respect by us.

(Image courtesy of thecripplegate.com)

(Image courtesy of thecripplegate.com)

Now that is not to say that I love everything in the Old Testament.  Some of the content is horrific, and it should be.  It reveals to us just how far we have descended into the abyss of sin, and just how much evil our sinfulness perverts the creation God so carefully, and intentionally brought into being.  Every time I read the Rape of the Concubine in Judges I cringe, and I wonder why God does not just leave us to annihilate ourselves, because we can be that evil.  And then I read a Gospel account, and marvel at the love and compassion Christ shows to we who are so unworthy.  My gut wrenches at the thought of what he endured even before they nailed him to the cross: all the public torment, the hostile accusations, and backdoor plotting to have him killed.  Yet God is so good, and so in love us with that God was willing to endure this so that we could try again in grace.  I know that my reaction to the New Testament is that more more heightened and profound because I know what we had to go through to get there, and that journey is only recorded in the Old Testament.  The stories recounted in the Scriptures are compelling, if we are willing to really read them, not just skim them for the basic gist.  We miss so much of the fascinating detail when we do.  That is the problem with so many of our stories that are made into movies: we know the basics, but not enough to see how interesting they really are, so we go about messing with them to jazz them up for mass market.  Well, I have news for Hollywood, the narratives in the book beat what you’ve put on the screen every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

Look at The Ten Commandments (1956) by Cecil B. DeMille.  I actually like this one, but it still loses some of the best parts of the biblical account by throwing in diversions that don’t make sense, much less drive the story, like Queen Nefretiri.  She is not in the oirginal story, and she ends up being an odd presence in the movie.  But even Mr. DeMille was unwilling to be as harsh as the original text.  He softens the blows of the Lord advising Moses that God will kill the firstborn of Egypt before Moses even returns from the burning bush (Exodus 4:23), and that it is the Lord God’s self that does the killing, not some angel of death or a strange green smoke (Exodus 12:12).  Now that is something with which to wrestle.  The other night I watched Noah (2014), and it was so obviously intent on making an action packed, exciting film that someone figured there was not enough juiciness in the Bible version.  Wrong.  The movie really lost continuity and even caused problems that were handled in the Scripture.  No one is around to seal Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark, so Noah risks his life hanging around on the outside deck, but in the Bible, God seals them in (Genesis 7:16).  Problem solved, and that would have been cool to depict!  There is all this melodrama with Ham about not having a wife for life after the flood, because Noah does not take on any women for Ham and Japheth, but Scripture clearly says that Noah, his wife, his three sons and their three wives all entered the ark (Genesis 7:13).  God managed to think this through better than the screenwriters.  I could make all the same complaints about other biblically based fictional movies, including Son of God (2014), and its wonky take on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.  The bottom line is that we would be better served, and probably a great deal better entertained to really read, and read well!, the Bible accounts themselves.  We need to end the false notion that the Old Testament is boring.  There is so much that would be rated NC-17 in those hallowed pages.  Hollywood couldn’t get them shown, much less come up with something better.  They’ve tried, and their improvement always fall flat.  They may be entertaining, but more often not, and they will never have the power and authority of the original to compel us to be transformed.  There is a saying: “The book is better than the movie,” and, in this case, it is certainly true!

In The Exchange

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A student sneezes in class.  A fellow student says, “Bless you.”  Somehow the student who uttered the blessing is suspended.  How do we go from point A to point B?  When I read about the incident in several online news sources, I was immediately confused.  You can read about the events here: School Suspends Teen Who Said, “Bless You.”

(Image courtesy of patheos.com)

(Image courtesy of patheos.com)

All over the world there are cultural responses to sneezing, and the vast majority of them are verbal.  Just because they lack the words “God” or “bless” does not mean that they are not blessings being offered to the one who sneezed.  Many articulate wishes for good health, speedy recovery (assuming the sneeze was a sign of illness), and long life.  While I personally wish we did not need a sneeze as a catalyst for such interactions, I am grateful that people still wish good things for one another, even if it comes out perfunctory.  To respond is to show concern, to acknowledge presence, and to open space for interaction.  Most times the subject of the good wishes is thankful for the response, even replying “thank you” in some form.  Is it an evil to show interest in another person?  Let me assume that you want nothing to do with my God or my God’s blessings, but does that mean that you want to be isolated and ignored?

In American culture and social etiquette, the “bless you” response is almost innate.  Many times I have said it even while preaching before I could help myself.  Looking back on it, it helped me to look beyond myself and look to another person who might be struggling with illness or allergies.  It makes me focus outside me and upon another person of significant worth in God’s eyes.  That is a good and joyful thing, not to be so self involved.  We may never know exactly what transpired in that Tennessee school room, and I accept that.  What disturbs me is the notion that we are truncating the relationality of being in close proximity and living in community.  All over the world our actions elicit reactions.  If the worst reaction one of my actions induces is a blessing from a deity or for good health, then I count myself lucky indeed.  In a world where people respond all too readily with violence and offense, a well wish is a welcome relief.  If a Buddhist blesses me, then thank you.  If a Hindu offers a prayer for my long life, then I am honored to be acknowledged.  If an Atheist wishes me to feel better soon, than I rejoice in our drawing closer even for just a moment.  The response is not the issue for me, but the intention.  If we desire to stop our activity to connect even for a few syllables, then God bless that.  If that is unacceptable to someone, then I pray that God blesses them anyway.

The Holy Humble

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 “Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the LORD’s wrath” (Zephaniah 2:3 NRS).


 

(Image courtesy of ignitumtoday.com)

(Image courtesy of ignitumtoday.com)

There is a quote about humility from C.S. Lewis that says, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”  Jesus modeled humility in his ultimate selflessness upon the cross.  Countless times he would have been justified, and even applauded in our minds, for opening the heavens and raining down the fire of heaven on those who stood against him, but no.  That was not his will, nor his way.  He thought less of his status, and more of raising up those forced to their knees by a society that was bent on sinning.  He did not ask to be heralded, but to bring honor to the Father.  He never demanded tribute for himself, but love for the least of these.  The humility he revealed and modeled for us was indicative of his holiness, his divine ability to look beyond his wants and desires, to the needs of us all.  Jesus was homeless and accepted the generosity of others to survive, rather than require offerings for himself.

So we are, his people, living in a world that thinks humility is for suckers.  It thinks that those who are humble are naive, and ripe for being taken advantage of by the more assertive.  Yet humility attracts the Christ-like heart and mind.  We stand in awe of the profound humility of the likes of Mother Teresa, and countless others who go without to give to those who have nothing.  We feel our hearts warmed by the sight of such power and authority vested in Pope Francis with his unwillingness to utilize it, much less abuse it for his own comforts.  Secular culture parades around celebrities dripping in diamonds and couture clothing.  It spends infinite hours filming inside their multimillion dollar mansions and touring their lifestyles of lavish spending and extreme decadence.  People buy magazines and surf endless websites to look upon their wealth and gaze upon those of high status.  We elevate further those who already have a heightened sense of self.  Yet the King of kings and Lord of Lords got down on his knees and washed the filthy feet of the men whom he called into the greatest service of all time.  The Lord says, “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4b), and we readily see the glory of God when we seek to be humble.  We live lives that are filled to overflowing when we set aside the things of this earth and seek God in Scripture and in others.  We find fulfillment in drawing closer to our Lord, making God’s ways our own, and discovering the joy that only being redeemed can bring.  Humility gilds all of that.

I mourn the loss of humility in our world.  It is not totally gone, and it can be rekindled.  The Holy Spirit is always ready to partner with us in taking on the mantle of humility, and being humble servants of Christ.  We can reveal humility when we apologize, when we offer up what we have so another can be blessed, and when we are intentional about granting dignity to another.  We can discover the incredible blessing of being known by God and loved, not because of what we have accomplished in worldly terms, but being beloved in heavenly ones.  Our humble service and gracious love is the mark of Christ on us, in us, and upon our hearts.  Our attitude of humility and gratitude honors the God we serve and love.  Then we find that same God evermore, and more readily.

Prayer:

Humble Savior, Gracious Lord,

Hear my prayer for your guidance.

Cultivate in me humility,

That I may be modeled after you.

Let me serve and speak with gratitude.

Allow me to experience the depth of your love by loving others.

May my choices, my actions, and my intentions honor you,

As you came humbly to me.

Amen.