Day 15: Matthew 5:13

No matter how hard you try, you can’t unring the bell.

Day 15: Matthew 5:13

You are like salt for all mankind. But if salt loses its saltiness there is no way to make it salty again. It has become worthless, so it is thrown out and people trample on it.

With this scripture Jesus continues his “Sermon on the Mount” to encourage, motivate, equip, and coach his disciples. He takes his disciples up on the hill away from the crowd so that he can motivate and prepare them for the difficult journey ahead.

Jesus tells his disciples that they are important to all mankind. They are as essential to society as salt is to the human body. He has called his followers to be fishers of men. He wants them to be leaders. He wants to prepare them to help him teach, preach, and heal. It is Jesus’ desire that his disciples should change the world and be a blessing to all mankind. He declares, “You are salt.”

Jesus then warns them about the consequences of moral failure. Jesus says that when you are a leader, integrity matters. He says you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube or the genie back in the bottle. You can’t turn back the clock. You can’t unring the bell. Once you mess up you can’t take it back when you are a fisher of men. You can never regain your credibility and your moral authority. It will never be the same. You can’t be salty again.

Look at some of the religious leaders, heroes, and political figures who haIve given in to some kind of temptation and suffered the consequences – Bill Clinton, Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, Ted Haggard, General Petraeus, Michael Jackson, Richard Nixon, or the sex abuser priests to name just a few. There can be forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, and acceptance; but things are never really the same. Yes, over time they will all probably be remembered for their achievements rather than their indiscretions. But in the short term their movement or career loses its momentum because of their bad decisions. These people damaged their ability to lead and inspire people. They have lost the essential quality, the integrity that inspired and attracted people to them in the first place; they have lost their saltiness.

I was so upset with Bill Clinton. He was such a good president. It was so disappointing that he would do something so incredibly juvenile and stupid and selfish and impetuous and in so doing jeopardize both his presidency and his marriage. He knew everyone was carefully scrutinizing his every move and yet he still risked everything for a little casual sex. I still think he is a really exceptional person – smart and good-natured and politically savy – but I will always see him as a bit of a fool. His accomplishments will always be somewhat overshadowed by his indiscretion and his failure to take full responsibility for his actions. It would have been better if he had just admitted it and took responsibility for his actions, like David Letterman did when he was the target of a blackmailer. In my mind Clinton’s judgment, his credibility, his sincerity, his honesty, and perhaps even his sanity, and were all called into question. He lost his saltiness as far as I was concerned.

I’m sure that some people would say my attitude about Bill Clinton is “un-Christian.” I’m not angry with Clinton. It’s not a matter of forgiveness. I have compassion for him. I believe that God loves him deeply, but my personal perception of him changed. A lot of Christians would object to this. They want to believe that people can do whatever they want as long as they confess their sins and believe that Jesus is their Lord and Savior. They think that if we do these things it will magically erase the consequences of our actions. They want to believe that saltiness can be fully restored. I know I’d like to think that, too, but Jesus says otherwise. And having spent many years talking to people who have been in abusive situations, both my head and my heart know that what he says is true. I know that we are all connected, and everything we do has an effect on everyone else. When we mess up we don’t just hurt ourselves. We hurt those who trust and believe in us, so we need to live our lives carefully and consciously, treading lightly, making every effort to do no harm.

In this scripture Jesus is warning his disciples about the pitfalls of fame and the responsibilities of the leadership role he is offering them. He’s expressing the essential truth that some bad things just can’t be undone, that leadership is a privilege, and that the world is depending on them. Salt is important, but worthless if it loses its flavor. If we are followers of Jesus we need to make an effort to stay salty by representing him accurately with both our words and deeds. The most dangerous lie that we can tell ourselves is that it doesn’t really matter what we do. Quite the opposite. Just ask Bill Clinton.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 14: Matthew 5:10

It takes more than a few trolls to stop the will of God.

Day 14: Matthew 5:10

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you because you are my followers. Be happy and glad, for a great reward is kept for you in heaven. This is how the prophets who lived before you were persecuted.

Persecution. Once again, this doesn’t seem like something that would bring happiness into a person’s life. It brings to mind images of Christians being tossed to the lions or governmental torture of innocent victims. The word is tossed around a lot in Christians circles I find myself wondering if I know what persecution actually means. The Greek word that Matthew used is “diókó, which means “to put to flight, or pursue.” The modern English word is defined this way by Merriam Webster: “to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs.” The Greek word sounds more like “harassment.” Anyway, persecution is society’s way of bringing its strays back into line.

Back in Biblical Days it seems that persecution was a huge problem. Jesus reminds his disciples that throughout history the prophets, or those who speak God’s truth, were persecuted and sometimes killed by religious or political authorities. Today the church doesn’t have the authority to kill people for disagreeing with its rules or refusing to obey like it did in the past.

While persecution is less institutionalized, it still exists. Society continues to try to make free thinkers and social reformers to give up their unorthodox ways. Today we call it bullying. There is an organization called “The Christian Left.” Here is how they introduce themselves on their website:

Ed Schultz asked on his radio show recently, “Is there a ‘religious left’?” Yes, Ed. There is. We are The Christian Left. We’re all around you. We’re among the people. Take a look. We’re part of the Body of Christ. We’re Christians. We’re Liberal. We make no apologies. In fact Jesus’ ways are “Liberal.” That’s why He was killed. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the conservatives of their time… Stemming from egalitarian values (and what Jesus Himself said), adherents of the Christian left consider it part of their religious duty to take actions on behalf of the oppressed… Adhering to the standard of “turning the other cheek,” which they believe supersedes the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye,” the Christian Left often hearkens towards pacifism in opposition to policies advancing militarism… We’re not ‘Communists’ or ‘Marxists’ either. We reject all such labels. We will not be profiled or pigeonholed and we will not ‘Be Quiet.’ We’re Christians. We’re Liberals. Please get used to it. Thank you. ;>)

Here is their official tee-shirt:

As a result of their support for politically-charged things like universal health care, welfare provision, subsidized education, foreign aid, Affirmative Action, gay rights, etc. their Facebook page has been targeted by Christian conservative “trolls” who bombard their page with negative, argumentative comments and sanctimonious sermonizing. Trolling is considered by the Internet community to be the height of bad manners. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of an Internet troll:

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

This sense of the word troll and its associated verb trolling are associated with Internet discourse, but have been used more widely. Media attention in recent years has equated trolling with online harassment. For example, mass media has used troll to describe “a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families.”

Harassment. Another word for persecution. But the Christian Left is not about to back down. They are not about to be intimidated. They just keep deleting all of those comments that accuse them of being “godless” and “communist” and “un-American” and “plotting to ruin the country” and all of the rest of it.

Personally, I’ve never experienced persecution. All I’ve ever experienced is a little minor discrimination here and there.   While the kind of persecution that results in murder is of course evil, I agree with Jesus that a little persecution can be a good thing. Persecution is resistance, and, as is the case with weight lifting, a little resistance can be a good thing. It can build you up. It can force you to examine and test yourself. It helps you flush out your real feelings and level of commitment to your ideals. It helps you define who you are and what you believe. It can spur you into action and launch you into ministry. This blog is neither political enough nor popular enough to have attracted any trolls, but if one showed up I would consider it a measure of success. It would be a sign that I’m making someone nervous. As someone who would like to be an agent for change, that would be a good thing.

Persecution rarely works. You can force people to change what they say and do, but it’s almost impossible to make people change their minds. Persecution is often received as vindication and affirmation, because persecution and bullying are increasingly considered to be inappropriate behavior.  Persecution itself is wrong and so the ideals of the persecutor must be wrong as well. The general perception is that the person with the best behavior has the best values and motives. Of course this is not necessarily true, but we tend to see things this way.

One of the areas where I’ve seen a lot of persecution and bullying in Christian circles is Bible studies. Very often one dominant person in the group tries to harass and bully people into sharing their personal doctrines and Biblical interpretations. Like Internet trolls, they want to argue and stir up trouble. Years ago I started avoiding Bible studies for this reason. I love to pray with other people, but I prefer to study on my own. I’m more interested in being conformed into the likeness of Jesus and I want to avoid being subliminally influenced by some nasty troll. It can happen.

So once again I think Jesus is right. Persecution can make us happy and urge us on to do the work that needs to be done. Jesus himself was a pacifist with the resolve of a warrior. In this scripture he says, “I’m here to start a revolution. Up with the lowly! Down with the proud! Don’t like it? Bring it on. I know you will hate me. What do I care? I’m here to speak for my father in heaven and make his will known here on earth. I don’t care what you do to me”.

Through Jesus God wanted to change the social order and power balance within society by empowering and bestowing his blessing on the weak and powerless. Jesus said that God wants to encourage the spiritually poor, the mourners, the humble, the sincere, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers….and now, in this last beatitude, the persecuted. People on the margins of Jewish society.

Jesus warns his new followers that there will be persecution. There will be trolls. Like Bette Davis in the movie All About Eve, he says to his followers, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”   Am I ready to follow Jesus on this bumpy road? It really doesn’t seem like the road has gotten much smoother over the last two thousand years. When it comes to this Christianity thing, amI willing to step out, speak my mind, and shake things up? Or do I pretend to agree with things that are going on just to keep the peace and blend in? Am I willing to defend the Good News of the Gospel against those who turn it into something else – like a ticket to heaven, or a way to put other people down, or an excuse to do whatever they want, or a vehicle for cultural imperialism, or mindless set of rituals and incantations, or a soulless institution that sucks up people’s resources and gives back nothing in return? Am I able to do it in a kind and loving way? And then, am I willing to be shunned or ignored or treated unfairly and suffer the consequences?

Well it may be a bumpy night, but like it says in the Psalms, joy comes in the morning. In the end, Jesus says there will be a great reward because goodness always shows up and shows out in the end. It takes more than a few trolls to stop the Kingdom of God from unfolding. Ready or not, here it comes.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 13: Matthew 5:9

What about Hitler?

Day 13: Matthew 5:9

Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children.

When you read the Old Testament it seems like our God is a God of war. God repeatedly instructs his people to go to war and kill their enemies. Many of the Biblical heroes – especially the judges and the kings – were mighty warriors. Victory in war was considered to be a sure sign of God’s favor. But this scripture says that God doesn’t want us to work for war. He wants us to work for peace.

The Law of Moses, handed down directly from God, was an attempt to get people to get along with each other and also to create a sense of unity for the Hebrew people. Disobedience to the law was serious and in some cases punishable by death.  Doesn’t seem like a very peaceful way to achieve peace.

Many years later the prophet Isaiah forcefully clarifies God’s position on war and peacemaking by predicting that the coming Messiah – God’s chosen one – will not be a man of war.  He will be called the “Prince of Peace.” Isaiah describes the new kingdom that God wants to establish as a place of peace, joy, and happiness. Isaiah 2 says that that God himself will settle disputes among nations, and that “Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again.”

In this scripture Jesus says that God himself is a peacemaker, a pacifist, one who is working actively for peace.  To most of Jesus’ students this was a new and unsettling concept. Then, as now, peacemakers were considered to be “weak” while warriors were perceived as “strong” so this image of God was not particularly well received. Then, as now, the people of God expect him to be strong, and they expect their savior to be a warrior.

Peacemaking is hazardous work! Look at Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lennon, John Kennedy, Chico Mendes – all murdered. Look at all of the people who have been killed in peacekeeping forces around the world in the last 50 years.  Everyone wants peace but they don’t like pacifism.  Go figure.

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. (George Orwell)

Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which a man accept the benefits of the social group without being willing to pay-and claims a halo for his dishonesty. (Robert A. Heinlein)

The pacifist is as surely a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer. (Theodore Roosevelt)

The absolute pacifist is a bad citizen; times come when force must be used to uphold right, justice and ideals. (Alfred North Whitehead)

From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence – and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified. (Gloria Steinem)

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. (John Stuart Mill)

Pacifists have always been the object of scorn and resentment. If you want to get a lot of people angry just suggest that we Americans should all get rid of our guns or dismantle our nation’s military industrial complex or ban violent film entertainment. Become a conscientious objector and see how your friends and family react to it. To be a peacemaker is “un-American:”

Americans have a warrior’s mentality, most of them. That’s how this society was built. The fact that you own a gun and shoot to defend your life is a very American way of thinking. (Isabel Allende)

I have noticed that when people are confronted with Jesus’ pacifism, they often respond with, “What about Hitler?” Well, I say, what about him? He attacked and the rest of the world responded with military retaliation. What if we had all retaliated with love? How would it have all turned out? Would there still have been 60 million deaths? Or would Hitler’s army have become disillusioned in the face of pacifism and love and turned on him, as is often the case with unbalanced dictators who build up powerful armies. But the world chose to fight back with savage weaponry and brute force, so we will never know.

Yes, let’s talk about Hitler.  It is said that Hitler was devastated that he was rejected from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts at the same time that his mother was dying of cancer. Maybe if one person would have taken the time to minister to him and help him forgive and forget he wouldn’t have felt the need to do something as futile as trying to take over Europe. Maybe he would have been healed and married a nice girl and had a couple of kids and led a quiet life. Maybe he would have been become a committed Christian. Maybe he would have taken the words of Jesus to heart and become a pacifist. But that isn’t what happened, so once again we will never know.

Hitler during the First World War.

What if World War I hadn’t existed? After the death of his mother and rejection from art school he enlisted in the military during World War I. That was when Hitler learned how to fight. He was praised and highly decorated and he called his military service “the greatest of all experiences.” It was in the military that he received true praise and acceptance for the first time in his life. What if this war had been avoided and Hitler was never exposed to bloodshed and battlefield and military strategy?   Would he have become a warrior without exposure to war? We will never know.

I think all violence is a manifestation of evil. It’s just bullying on a large scale. Might makes right. Survival of the fittest. I think war is an utter waste of time and valuable resources. One side can impose its will on another by force, but it’s only a temporary solution and the hatred simmers below the surface and erupts at the first opportunity. Ultimately wars end when people get sick and tired of being sick and tired – and poor and scared and homeless and hungry and unproductive. When anger burns itself out (which is inevitable), the violence loses its allure and the process of reconciliation and negotiation inevitably begins. Why not just cut to the chase and settle our differences in the first place and avoid all the nastiness? Like we used to say in the ‘60s – What if they had a war and nobody came?

It’s hard to put aside all of the American militaristic propaganda that we are force fed. Even the Catholic Church has a “Just War Doctrine” that endorses military action under certain conditions. But when you set aside the traditional ideology and think about it objectively, it’s pretty illogical to think that war brings peace. To me it’s like thinking that you can make people healthy by sneezing on them. Or make them free by enslaving them.  Or make them chaste by raping them. When you make people go to war you make them warriors. You instill, nurture, and release the seeds violence within them.

We have been taught that war is a necessary evil and that those who engage in it are doing God’s work. There is the illusion that fighting makes us safe, when in reality fighting results in untimely death and needless suffering. The only way to achieve peace is to restrain from fighting. It’s a tough pill to swallow. It just doesn’t feel right, and yet deep down in our hearts we know that Jesus is right.

Despite the indoctrination to the contrary, not everyone is a hawk. There have been a lot of very vocal and influential doves over the years – both Christian and otherwise:

How vile and despicable war seems to me! I would rather be hacked to pieces than take part in such an abominable business. (Albert Einstein)

It would be better for our country and the world in general, if at least the few people who were capable of thought stood for reason and the love of peace instead of heading wildly with blind obsession for new war. (Hermann Hesse)

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today. (John F. Kennedy)

Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me. (Jill Jackson and Sy Miller)

War, huh, good God, y’all. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing (Edwin Starr)

If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal. (John Lennon)

Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding. (Ralph Waldo Emerson),

And perhaps my favorite:  No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war. (Eleanor Roosevelt)

The dialogue continues. Personally I don’t think there’s much to discuss if you are a follower of Jesus. Jesus is pretty clear on this subject but people are ridiculously stubborn about accepting it. Jesus says, “Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children.”  Jesus says here that if we want to be happy we have to work for peace. Maybe that’s why so many soldiers return from war messed up and desperately, devastatingly unhappy. Maybe that’s why the reality is that takes societies decades or even centuries to recover from the wounds of war – regardless of whether they win or lose.   Yes, the first part of this scripture says that we can be happy only if we work for peace. And then, in the second part of this scripture, Jesus says that when we work for peace we are acting like God’s children; we are acting like our Father God. So when we glorify war who are we acting like? Think about it.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 12: Matthew 5:8

 They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. ~ Zora Neale Hurston

Day 12: Matthew 5:8

Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God!

See God? Wow, how awesome is that! Who wouldn’t want to see God?

Well, back when I was in college in the early 1970s we would joke about people eating too much acid (LSD) and seeing God. Most of the people I knew at that time thought seeing God was a sign of either mental illness or too many drugs or both. Back then I definitely didn’t want to see God.

Later as I became more familiar with the Bible I learned that “God sightings” are not necessarily the result of mental health issues.

The first people to see God were Adam and Eve, but they damaged their relationship with God and “lost sight of him” by eating an apple. After this fiasco in the Garden of Eden, the next person to see God was Moses. He spent a lot of time talking to God. When he asked God to show himself, God said that no one could look at him directly and live to tell about it. So God made a deal with Moses and let him see his shadow as he passed by. Here are some other subsequent God sightings:

  • David describes an encounter with God in Psalm 18, although this seems to be more metaphorical than physical.
  • The prophet Elijah had a conversation with God because he was upset that everyone was trying to kill him. Again, Elijah didn’t actually see God – but after a lot of wind, an earthquake, and a fire he heard God’s “still, small voice”.
  • The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel saw God when they were called into a prophetic ministry. Isaiah saw God in the temple, and Ezekiel saw him outdoors when “the sky opened up.”
  • Daniel had a prophetic dream where he saw God seated on a throne and presiding over a heavenly courtroom.

All of these people saw God, so they must have had perfectly pure hearts, right? They are all certainly Biblical heroes, but were they pure of heart? Adam and Eve messed up, so their hearts must not have been pure even from the beginning. Moses certainly knocked himself out trying to do the right thing, but on the other hand he killed an Egyptian guard. He was also banned from entering the Promised Land because he lost his temper. David was responsible for orchestrating Uriah’s death. Elijah spent a lot of time worrying instead of trusting God for his safety. Isaiah made a lot of predictions but only some of them came true. Daniel was very courageous in many ways, but was he somewhat of a traitor to the Jews for being so chummy with their oppressors’ kings? All of the heroes in the Old Testament had their virtues and shortcomings, just like the rest of us. So if you want to see God, you apparently do not have to be perfectly pure of heart.

In John 14:9 Jesus declares that he is the exact representation of God, so everyone who saw Jesus saw God. A lot of the people who saw Jesus were sinners, so this is further evidence that you must not have to be all that pure. But then again not everyone who saw Jesus saw God. Most of them, like the Pharisees and religious leaders, probably just saw a man – an awesome prophet, but just a man. It seems that only a few of the many who looked upon him saw him as God. If the people in power had seen him as God they would have undoubtedly treated him more respectfully.

Maybe purity of heart refers to sincerity, desire, and single-minded focus. Maybe to see God you simply need to desire it, and then look without any preconceptions. In the time of Jesus some of the ordinary people recognized that he was the Messiah, but the religious authorities didn’t see that he was God in human form. Maybe their hearts were closed. Maybe their vision was clouded by their expectations and preconceptions about what the Messiah should look like.

I saw a cloud once in a religious gathering and I believe it was God’s glory. It happened when we were at a giant Benny Hinn revival at the United Center. It was actually quite a story. For more than a year my foot had been bothering me. There was a good sized hard bump on my instep, which I thought might have been the result of a stress fracture or something. It was annoying and made walking kind of difficult but I tried to ignore it.

On the morning of the revival I heard a voice in my head say, “Wear the pink suit.” I didn’t want to do that because my pink suit was very fancy with sparkles and it required wearing dress shoes. I didn’t want to wear uncomfortable shoes, but I decided to go along with it and wear the suit.

When we got to the United Center we had bad seats and it was hard to see. All of a sudden a woman who was serving as an usher called us to move up front. I think it was because they televised these gatherings and they liked the looks of that suit I was called to wear. Those Benny Hinn people were snappy dressers.

At one point they said that people could go up on the stage and Benny would pray for them. Of course thousands of people wanted prayer and they all rushed for the front. Many of them were turned away, but because we were seated right in the front we were able to receive prayer. We didn’t go forward for any particular reason. It was just part of the experience and we always figure that prayer never hurts.

When it was my turn to receive prayer something strange happened. A giant cloud seemed to engulf the whole stage, and I saw Benny Hinn’s funny-looking head coming at me through that cloud. He grabbed my head with both hands (consistent with his style of prayer) and I fell over laughing. It was hysterical. He then prayed for me one more time and I left the platform and went back to my seat. While I was sitting there, I realized my foot didn’t hurt anymore. I reached down and felt it and the bump was gone. I showed it to John and we were both amazed. We could both feel that the bump was gone, and so was the pain.

My foot got healed in that cloud. I don’t know why or how such an unexpected thing happened. I would have preferred to have been healed of my migranes, but it was awesome nevertheless. Of course seeing God’s glory is not the same as seeing God, even if you get healed. I have never seen God, but I would be thrilled to have the experience. At this stage of my life I wouldn’t be afraid I was losing my mind. I would look at it as a sign of spiritual health as opposed to mental illness. But I think seeing God is kind of like seeing a UFO or Bigfoot. You can’t expect other people to believe you. It’s all somewhat socially unacceptable.

I will never forget that day. You will never convince me that divine healing isn’t possible. As for that pink suit, I sent my mom off to heaven in it. She didn’t have many nice clothes and it fit her perfectly. I thought she would like to be buried in a pretty, sparkly suit that had spent a little time in the cloud of God’s presence.

I just saw a post on Facebook that said, “Those who joyfully leave everything in God’s hand will eventually see God’s hand in everything.” Maybe that’s the way it works. Maybe God shows himself all the time and we just miss it. I only know that I would like to see God and it makes me happy that Jesus says that it’s within the realm of possibility.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 11: Matthew 5:7

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Day 11: Matthew 5:7

Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!

To be merciful is to offer amnesty as opposed to demanding justice. It is about extending forgiveness instead of imposing punishment.

In Jesus’ time the Jews believed that God was merciful as long as they obeyed the Law of Moses. They believed if they sinned and then offered the atoning sacrifices prescribed by the Law that God would be merciful to them and that he would forgive them. That was the purpose of the Law – to establish social order and make God happy.

In the beatitudes Jesus introduces a new concept: God’s mercy is extended not just in response to our obedience to the Law of Moses; it is also dependent on the degree to which we become imitators of God and extend mercy to others. Jesus is saying that the way we treat others directly affects the way that God treats us.

Be merciful to others because God has been merciful to you. Forgive as you have been forgiven. What goes around comes around. You give as good as you get. The love you take is equal to the love you make. Basically, this is the same as the Buddhist concept of karma. It’s a universal truth.

The Amish are one of the few Christian groups that are fully committed to the spiritual discipline of forgiveness. In 2006 gunman Charles Carl Roberts came into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten girls, killing five, before committing suicide.

The Amish response was quick and decisive. Hours after the shooting the community gathered together, went to the family of the gunman, and offered forgiveness and comfort. Their actions were based on their deeply held belief that as Christians this was the only appropriate response. In fact, they stated that this response was imperative. Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.” Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” The Amish do not normally accept charity, but due to the extreme nature of the tragedy, donations were accepted. Richie Lauer, director of the Anabaptist Foundation, said the Amish community, whose religious beliefs prohibit them from having health insurance, will likely use the donations to help pay the medical costs of the hospitalized children.

Some commentators criticized the quick and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil, while others were supportive. Donald Kraybill and two other scholars of Amish life noted that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture, which remembers forgiving martyrs including Dirk Willems and Jesus himself. They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.

Is this what I would do if someone murdered my child? I know that the Amish were right and that this is exactly what God wants us to do. It was a tremendous act of faith for them to live out their faith in this way, and an awesome witness to the rest of the world. I honestly have to say that I couldn’t do what they did. I have to ask myself why. And then I’m pretty sad. I still have a long way to go.  But I’m encouraged by the actions of the Amish and very grateful that they responded the way that they did. It gives me a lot of hope.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 10: Matthew 5:6

Thy will be done. Whatever it is.

Day 10: Matthew 5:6

Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!

Another, perhaps more familiar translation of this is, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  If we really, really want to do the right thing, then God will help us make it happen. If we want to do the will of God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, he will point us in the right direction and give us what we need to make it happen. He will show us the way.

It’s important to note that this does not say, “Happy are those who do what God requires.” It says, “Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires.” We only have to want it and God will do it. We just have to be willing to let go and God will make something cool happen.

So what does God require? God’s original requirements were given to Moses and recorded in the first 5 books of the Bible. The 613 laws recorded in the Books of Exodus through Deuteronomy were as specific as the 10 Commandments and as broad as the command to love one another in Leviticus 19:18. Many of these original laws are no longer considered requirements by today’s religious authorities (both Jewish and Christians) because they were appropriate only for those living in the time of Moses. For example, we don’t do animal sacrifices anymore, everyone wears blended fabrics, and we don’t destroy our houses when we get a little mildew.

In the centuries after the original 613 laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were handed down to Moses, God sent various prophets to clarify God’s will for the people in their own time.   The newer rules were generally less specific. For example, God’s new, broader requirements regarding social justice were given to the people through the prophet Isaiah:

“Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives. Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.“ (Isaiah 58:1-9)

Another set of requirements is listed in Psalm 15:

Those who obey God in everything and always do what is right, whose words are true and sincere, and who do not slander others. They do no wrong to their friends nor spread rumors about their neighbors. They despise those whom God rejects, but honor those who obey the Lord. They always do what they promise,    no matter how much it may cost. They make loans without charging interest and cannot be bribed to testify against the innocent.

And here’s one of my favorite ones from the prophet Micah:

No, the LORD has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God. (Micah 6:8).

If you combine the words of Jesus in today’s scripture with the words of Micah, you could assume that if you are honest, loving, and humble you will be happy. If you are corrupt, unloving, and prideful you will not be happy. If you live in harmony with others you will be happy, but if you initiate discord you will be miserable.

So these are all good guidelines, but what does God specifically require of me today in Woodstock Illinois in the 21st century? What do I have to do to be happy and blessed? Is the Bible a definitive source of God’s requirements for all humanity for all time? I used to think so.   When I made a serious commitment to live the Christian life I would read the Bible looking for secret encoded messages that would give me specific answers to the issues I was struggling with in my own life.

As I matured in the faith I came to the realization that the Bible isn’t about me. I realized that the Bible is about God, the history of the Jewish people, the story of Jesus, and the birth of the church. It is only an introduction that invites us to a real, interactive relationship with “The Great I Am.” It is profound, but it isn’t magical, and it isn’t an oracle. The Bible is helpful, but it is not God. The answers I was seeking could only be found through prayer and contemplation and listening to God.  I needed inner healing and spiritual maturity and self-acceptance.  I needed signs and wonders and encounters with the supernatural power of God.  I needed to grow in love.  And while the Bible promotes all these things, it is not a substitute for these things.

And, in the spirit of today’s scripture, I have realized over time that I don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, I don’t have to have any answers at all. I just have to desire, with all of my heart, for God’s will to be done.   God can somehow transform that desire into something that makes the world a better place, even if I’m not aware of what’s going on. Because it is apparently not about doing and achieving and obeying laws and being perfect. That’s a pretty prideful concept when you think about it. It’s about having desire for God’s will to be done in all things and an expectation that it can actually happen.

What does this scripture say to you?

 

Day 9: Matthew 5:5

Every dog has a place in the pack.

Day 9: Matthew 5:5

Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised.

So what are the promises that Jesus is referring to here at the beginning of his ministry?  If you read the Old Testament from beginning to end, you find that God’s promises just keep getting better and better. 

God’s first promise was given to Noah after the flood was that he would never destroy all life on earth again (Genesis 9:11). That’s something to be grateful for, but it’s not exactly lavish. He promises to put up with us. That’s about it.

God gives Moses a list of more expansive promises in Deuteronomy 7:12-15. These promises are given only to those who obey the Law:

“If you listen to these commands and obey them faithfully, then the Lord your God will continue to keep his covenant with you and will show you his constant love, as he promised your ancestors. He will love you and bless you, so that you will increase in number and have many children. He will bless your fields, so that you will have grain, wine, and olive oil…No people in the world will be as richly blessed as you…The Lord will protect you from all sickness, and he will not bring on any of the dreadful diseases that you experienced in Egypt.”

A full list of all of the blessings of obedience and consequences of disobedience are listed in Deuteronomy 28.  One common thread is that God’s Old Testament promises are almost exclusively about this world, not the next.

I have a little book called The Bible Promise Book that I often refer to for comfort and strength.  It’s an inventory of scriptural promises!  Here are a just couple of good ones from later on in the Old Testament:

God says, “I will save those who love me and protect those who acknowledge me as Lord. When they call to me, I will answer them; when they are in trouble, I will be with them. I will rescue them and honor them. I will reward them with long life; I will save them.” (Psalm 91:14-16)

“In the time of Noah I promised never to flood the earth. Now I promise not to be angry with you again; I will not reprimand or punish you.   The mountains and hills may crumble, but my love for you will never end; I will keep forever my promise of peace,” So says the Lord who loves you. (Isaiah 54:9-10)

Happy are those who have the God of Jacob to help them and who depend on the Lord their God, the Creator of heaven, earth, and sea, and all that is in them. He always keeps his promises; he judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free and gives sight to the blind. He lifts those who have fallen; (Psalm 146:5-8).

And in the New Testament the promises are even better – like eternal life, for example. A pretty good promise indeed.

So this beatitude says that these wonderful promises of God are available to the humble. But what does it mean to be humble?

Relative to this scripture I always assumed that “humble” means being obedient, compliant, and submissive. It’s being dependent, not self-sufficient. It means that you don’t take yourself too seriously. It means that you aren’t afraid to admit you are weak and that you need help. It means you don’t look down on others or try to impose your will on others. It’s not the same as low self-esteem; it’s simply living a life that reflects the reality that the universe is big and you are very small and doesn’t revolve around you. It may also mean that you don’t have a lot of material possessions to rely on.

Actually, the Webster’s def is “not proud; not thinking of yourself as better than other people” or “ranking low in a hierarchy or scale”. Not exactly the same as what was going on in my head, but pretty much the same. My definition is more submissive, I think.

But the Greek word that Matthew actually applied to paper is praus, which means to be “mild and gentle” (according to Strong’s).  Let me repeat that.  Mild and gentle. Not the same as my definition, for sure. According to the Book of Matthew, to receive God’s promises we should be mild and gentle. To be humble in the Biblical sense is to be mellow. To be humble in the Biblical sense it to be “chill”.

Bubbles and Chico_1

Chico (left); Bubbles (right)

We have two dogs, Bubbles and Chico. We got Bubbles first, but we decided she needed a companion so we got Chico. Bubbles fits her name – outgoing and Bubbly. And Chico is chill. Bubbles is a manipulator. Chico is a lover. Bubbles is a go-getter. Chico is humble, mild, and gentle. Chico is a little nervous, Bubbles is fearless. Bubbles likes to be in control, and that’s fine with Chico. What Bubbles does, Chico does. Even though she is the little one, Bubbles is the leader and she’s always looking to expand her territory.

But sometimes things get out of balance. Sometimes Bubbles isn’t feeling well. Sometimes we start cuddling Chico a little more than Bubbles. Sometimes we inadvertently encourage Chico to be a little more aggressive. Sometimes we feed him first, or let him go out the door first. And when these things happen, trouble ensues. He starts getting puffed up. He starts chasing Bubbles and knocking her down and

John teaching Chico about humility.

John teaching Chico about humility.

intimidating her and even nipping at her. He gets stubborn and resists putting on his harness for his walk. He starts lunging at people or other dogs when we walk him. He stops playing with his toys and scampering around the house and doing runs in the yard and rolling in the grass. He just sits around and sulks. The only cure is to give him the cold shoulder, reestablish our authority as pack leaders, and lavish attention on Bubbles. Then Chico falls back in line and returns to being his happy, loveable self.

Bubbles is a natural leader. She is a happy dog when she is in control. While Chico feels compelled to step up into a leadership role when thinks things are falling apart, it doesn’t seem to make him happy. It seems to stress him out. Chico is only at peace when he is humble – mild and gentle. When he starts trying to control his world he becomes a very unhappy little dog. The burden of responsibility doesn’t suit him.

I think most of us are like Chico. We are closest to God when we are humble, mild, and gentle. When we start trying to step in and take over we become unpleasant and mess things up.   The more we try to control our circumstances and manipulate those around us, the unhappier we become.  God’s promises seem to move farther and farther out of reach. When we surrender, relax, let things go, roll with the punches, and allow ourselves to enjoy the journey of life, God’s promises become a reality. We find peace, we begin to love and be loved, we are healthier and happier. We are in better spirits when we give up worrying about the future and learn to appreciate our lives as they unfold. And because we are in a better state of mind and heart, we also become more effective in our ministries to the world.

So in this beatitude, or blessing, Jesus points us in the right direction. When Jesus praises the virtue of humility it’s not that he wants us to fixate on our deficiencies and flaws. Humility isn’t the same as self-loathing or shame. God loves us and wants to help us and build us up. But not too much. God doesn’t want us to feel like we are totally responsible for everything that goes on and that we have to step in and take over every time we think he isn’t doing his job. When we do that life will stress us out and knock us down. We need to recognize our limitations. God wants us to have faith in him and also in humanity and all the rest of his creation. He wants us to live gentle lives, calmly doing his work as we are able and trusting in him to do the rest.

As Jesus says a little later in Matthew 6:33, “Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things.”    Yup. All God’s promises are “yes and amen” – especially to those with humble, mild, and gentle hearts.

What does this scripture say to you?