Archive for July 2017
I have been thinking a lot about inner peace and happiness lately. Psalm 128 says that everyone who “fears the Lord” will be happy. In the context of the rest of the passage, I think the Hebrew word Shalom is more helpful here. It’s more permanent than happiness. It means real peace, as well as some other aspects of true happiness that we should focus on. But first, what about fearing God?
I thought fearing God was a no brainer until I considered the alternatives. There are those who are caught in addiction. The only way out is to walk a twelve step program which includes these two steps; 1) Admitted to ourselves that we are powerless over our addiction, and 2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. There are flaws in our character — dare I say sins? — that bind us to unhappiness. The only way out is to fear God and walk a path that is dependent upon our higher power.
The Hebrew word Shalom involves both inner and outer peace (see Psalm 128:6). Charity and justice are the pursuit of Shalom’s happiness through public service. Too often, however, the busy-ness of life forces us to lower our expectations. We seek for wholeness and settle for managed pain. We seek for God and settle for Likes on our Facebook page. We give up on real Shalom and attempt to grab fleeting happiness. God calls us back to the meaty things of life: compassion, mercy, justice, and being as generous as we can be to those in need.
Shalom and Psalm 128 also speak about the good life, having peace in our family and enough money to make it to the end of the month. We all struggle to pay the bills and keep our families secure. Our grandparents had a word for living peacefully within ones means. They called it providence and said it was a gift from God. Today, it is more fashionable to talk of luck. Our loss, for being lucky is not the same thing as being peaceful, living simply, or being honest with our soul.
Fearing God is not about making great sacrifices or attending church for hours on end. It is about walking our own recovery program, doing the good that we can do, and trusting in the providence of God.
Life is, in its simplest telling, a journey story. This is why our hearts are drawn to stories like the Hobbit, the Exodus, and Homer’s Odyssey. Psalm 139 tells us that the journey has purpose. It assures me that [God has] searched out my path and my lying down, and is acquainted with all my ways. Such knowledge is overwhelming.
As individuals on life’s journey we each have a unique calling or vocation (Latin word “vocare”). We soberly respond to God’s plan for our lives by doing things which make little sense without our faith in a transcendent component to life: some enter the military, others a monastery, many choose a career whose monetary rewards won’t match their sacrifice, most of us will still choose at to stand before an altar and promise lifelong fidelity to one partner. The fact that an increasing number of people are marrying multiple times doesn’t diminish the religious component of monogamy. Even young adults who are not religious will speak of seeking their “soul-mate.” The important thing to remember about vocare is not its various forms, but the one on one relationship with God that it implies. God intervenes in our life. He says, “I designed you for this.” We feel nudged.
Our faith provides our life with meaning, by stating that God has established both our beginning and our end, within his great loving plan. We as individuals have dignity. Spirituality is an unfolding process of discovering that the journey in between has both beauty and purpose. It all happens for a reason.
Imagine if I were to walk down the aisle of your church with a bag of M and Ms. Or if you prefer, Raisinets. Just like the sower in Jesus’ story, I throw the chocolate pellets out into the congregation. Some people would receive the treat eagerly. Others will let the candy just bounce right off of them.
Back in Bible times, farmers used to waste a lot of seed. It was called broadcast farming. Seed thrown everywhere, like M&Ms from a crazy preacher. I can’t begin to explain why they did it that way. I guess there are things that we do today that are just as crazy. Why do we watch hundreds of hours of TV for just a few moments of enjoyment? Why do we post hundreds of things to Facebook or Snap Chat or maintain a Twitter feed? It all seems pretty wasteful.
Is Jesus accusing God of being wasteful? I think this is one of the points of this story, God is not a fiscal conservative. He shares his wisdom into the world in a multitude of ways… but we are too busy answering our email to notice. He broadcasts his love day by day, but we are working too hard to notice. The Bible says, he sends rain upon the just and the unjust. In other words, he throws m&ms at people whom he knows will just let them bounce off. Why? Why does God allow himself to be rejected?
I like what Anne Dillard says about nature. She says, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is… Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” I was in Cleveland last month and the walls of every building were coated with mayflies. These little creatures that swarm up out of the lake and then die a few days later. Such wastefulness.
Has nature been made in the image of God? Jesus likens God’s evangelism to a farmer who throws most of his seed away (Matthew 13:1-9). Some of the seed falls where there is a beaten path. The hard ground doesn’t let the seed in. This could represent the atheist. Or it could represent the person who is just pretends to be religious. It could even represent the person who is stingy and slow to share with others. Because, I believe that God is generous to the point of being wasteful, because he wants to teach us to be generous and abundant in our giving to, and our forgiveness of, others.
Jesus breaks the rules. He comes from God like John the Baptist does, but he doesn't sit out in the wilderness eating locust and wearing wild animal skins. He is in the tradition of Isaiah and Moses, yet he doesn’t write long books or tote stone tablets with rules to learn. There are three rules that I have learned from watching Jesus:
1) Always be compassionate.
2) Awareness beats ignorance
3) The ends never justify the means (or always trust the process).
We use many rules each day to stay healthy. We brush our teeth religiously, schedule routine medical appointments, trim toenails, spray sunscreen, and perhaps, floss. Each of these has an embedded mental mantra. Just as we say to ourselves thirty days hath September, so we repeat trite rules to form virtuous habits. Yet, there is something in me that rebels against rules. To have physical health and spiritual shalom I need to intentionally embed a limited number of phrases into my subconscious. I need to make it a rule to keep certain rules.
The point of always be compassionate, is that shalom will lie, not in the place where others say that it is, but in the place our heart, that is fully invested in the rule, finds to be compassionate. So, the father in Jesus story about prodigals, is thought to be violating the rule of compassion towards the vegan village and the older brother when he kills the fatted calf for his lost son. But shalom favors this extravagant gesture of grace. Only when we have the first rule firmly embedded in our mind can we see this.
The point of awareness beats ignorance is to confound the authoritarian public institutions and workplace rules that discourage free thought. Shalom will not be found in a country where elected leaders meet in secret and pass legislations without the consent of the governed. Nor will shalom be found in an family system that keeps its legacy of addiction, abuse, and infidelity locked in a closet. The rules about secrecy aways need to be challenged.
The point of the final rule is speak about the relationship of well written rules and the processes that provide shalom for all. Consider how the democratic process in America functions within a framework of rules, which we know as the constitution. When Nixon obstructed justice following the Watergate break-in, he was setting aside the expected process for the public oversight of his office. He must have felt that the ends justified his means. They didn’t. Shalom could only be restored to Washington when the rules were elevated and shown to apply even to him.
In our individual lives there are also spiritual processes, such as the wilderness-transition process, which have their own rules. We, like Jesus, need to follow our rules in ways that are right for us, even when they cause others to question our sanity.