Monday, November 29, 2021

Invite the Poor

 “When you give a lunch or a supper, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbours, in case they also invite you in return, and then you have your repayment. But when you make a big meal, invite the poor, the injured, the disabled, the blind, and you will be blessed that they can’t repay you, because you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

There is a commanding quality in Jesus’s words. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know this might not make total sense to you now, but trust me this is important. Do what I say, and you will see what I mean.”

Jesus is recommending that we throw parties for those in need rather than our friends and family.

When we do anything with the expectation of being repaid in the forseeable future, we are working to advance ourselves in this world. That means we are accumulating perishable rewards. But Jesus tells us to accumulate only imperishable rewards.

He never tells us not to seek rewards. He says what matters is the kind of reward our heart is set on.

Sometimes we are told we should be selfless and give up wanting any reward.

But Jesus tells us to accumulate treasure in heaven—and to seek the blessing that comes from being repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Jesus himself is fully alive because he does what’s right. Being fully alive is the natural reward for doing what’s right. And so, we can expect a reward for every act of justice.

And for Jesus, giving to those in need is justice.

Jesus wants us to give freely—meeting someone’s need because that need matters to us—without any expectation or demand that they will repay us.

Jesus wants us to give as God gives.

One of the rewards for generosity is learning to care for others in a pure and simple way. Being able to truly care for others is an imperishable reward, and I cannot imagine a better one in this life or the next.

I’ll be happy to spend quality time this Christmas with friends, family, and acquaintances, including some who I know are especially in need of connection and belonging.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

No One Could Bind Him

“And when [Jesus] had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an impure spirit, who lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him any longer with a chain since he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains had been torn apart by him, and the fetters broken in pieces. And no one had the strength to control him.” (Mark 5:2-4)

I was once in a foreign city, walking along a lonely street. Through a door across the way, a man came out. He was in a violent rage. He kept up with me as I walked. Some woman had done something, and the man was spitting out angry judgements about her and all women. Even as a man, I was scared.

We don’t talk about demon-possession any longer, except when we do. We say things like, “that man has his demons,” and everybody knows what it means.

The Gerasenes lived with such a man, and they tried to control him. Repeatedly they put him in chains, and repeatedly he tore the chains apart. He was strong and violent and terrifying.

Imagine what it would be like to live around such a man every day.

What did Jesus do differently? Did he bring a bigger chain?

No, he saw the poor man, and being unafraid, he helped him. Jesus commanded the unclean things inside the man to come out, and they came out. The man was restored first to his right mind and then to his family.

How do we imitate Jesus, cleansing ourselves and others of the unclean things that invade our hearts and minds?

I’m not talking about exorcism. There are ordinary, non-miraculous ways of freeing people from impure spirits. How can we learn these ways?

The world has its demons. Few tasks are more urgent than training ourselves to cast them out.

Let’s start with our own impure spirits.

With trust in God, with prayer and reflection, some small meaningful step is always possible.

It’s not about chains and fetters. It’s not about force and condemnation. One day, we’ll have the compassion, clarity, and power, and we will tell our impure things to leave, and they will go.

 

Monday, November 22, 2021

I Will Give You Rest

 “Come to me, all who are worn out and weighed down, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

I burnt out three times before I was forty. I worked harder than I could sustain, I accumulated unhealed emotional wounds, and I didn’t take proper care of myself.

After my last burnout, I made a solemn commitment to attend to my heart. And what my heart needed was rest.

Putting into practice Jesus’s teachings gave me that rest.

The work Jesus sets us to do is a light burden. It is restful work. It is good for the heart.

And the rest Jesus offers is something we can enjoy right away. We don’t have to wait. Even now, we have access to this rest—rest that renews our strength, that lifts our spirits, and that heals our wounds.

That this rest is already available means we don’t have to always be struggling and toiling. There is already a beautiful goodness in the world. We can just relax and let it in.

Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.”

Have you learned yet how to go to Jesus? Being quiet helps. Solitude helps.

I like to go out for a walk, leaving my phone and all distractions behind.

And as I go out my front door, I greet Jesus, acknowledging his presence. There is no need for many words. I just say, “Hello, Jesus, thank you for being here with me. I am worn out, and I’m coming to you. Please give me rest. I need it.”

And then I walk without thinking much about anything, letting my mind wander, and letting it also return from time to time to Jesus, remembering his presence and his compassion and his kindness to me.

The prince of this world wants us to work to exhaustion.

But Jesus gives us both good work and good rest, knowing we need both.


Thursday, November 18, 2021

My Father Works

“Jesus answered them, 'My Father works even up to the present, and I also work.'” (John 5:17)

Jesus is telling us about his Father. He wants us to know about his Father. If we understand the Father, we understand Jesus.

The Father works. He engages in purposeful action.

Is this just a personal preference? Does the Father just enjoy keeping himself busy? No, it is part of God’s nature to be purposefully, faithfully active.

Reality seems to be such that purposeful activity is a necessity—at least for human beings and other living things. Life and work go together.

And our God is a living God. And so God has work to do.

Some devout people have found a stillness in God’s heart. I suspect this stillness is not stationary, like a boulder sitting on the ground. Rather, it is the stillness of a deep river flowing smoothly, quietly. Always flowing.

God’s being is in purposeful action. His existence is that he works. His power is his movement. He is God because he does what a faithful and worthy God does, unceasingly, inexorably.

Jesus knows God in both time and eternity, and knows God to be the same in both realms.

God works in eternity as he works in time. He acts as the source, maintainer, and perfecter of all that is and all that could possibly be.

This sounds abstract, but it is simple to Jesus. Jesus sees his Father working and so works also. He does this because he wants nothing more than to remain united to his Father.

I see Jesus working, and so I work too—because I want to be united to Jesus and, through him, to the Father.

Like Jesus, do good work. What work did Jesus do? He healed, spoke truth, forgave, ate, slept, and a thousand other things. Go and do likewise.

All genuine work is a participation in God’s work.

 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Like His Teacher

 “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40)

I try to always look at Jesus with fresh eyes, aware that I have something important to learn from him.

What can Jesus do for me if I already know everything he might teach me, or think I do?

Everything I’ve learned from Jesus has been rewarding. It’s made me more human. It’s made me more real. And I think I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the things Jesus can teach me.

I’m convinced that what Jesus still has to teach me is more wonderful than anything I can imagine.

I am the student and he is the teacher. And this relationship makes me happy.

There is an inequality between us, but it’s not because Jesus wants me to be lower than him. Quite the opposite. Jesus wants me to be like him. He wants to teach me what he knows. He wants me to understand what he understands. He wants me to be able to do what he can do. His goal—and my goal—is a more equal relationship.

If a teacher wants to transmit her skills and knowledge to her students, she doesn’t tell them, “Your understanding is already perfectly fine and just as good as mine.” That would not be true. The teacher knows what her students don’t. She acknowledges this difference because she wants to raise her students up to her same level of attainment.

To receive what our teacher has to share, we must be willing to learn. Being willing to learn requires a kind of trust, or rather two kinds.

The easier kind is trusting that the teacher has something to teach us. The harder kind is trusting that we need the understanding that our teacher can provide.

Jesus wants us to be teachable. He knows learning to become like him will make us happy.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Every Good Tree

 “Every good tree produces beautiful fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17)

How do you know whether to trust someone?

I was once in a bad situation beyond anything I could deal with myself. A woman—not someone I knew well—helped me. She gave me support, understanding, and good advice.

To this day, I trust her. I know her actions come from a good place.

Another time, I was talking privately to an acquaintance, and he spoke about a mutual friend with a viciousness that stunned me. After that, I knew to be wary of him.

People show you whether they are coming from a place of goodwill or a place of malice—a place of truth or a place of untruth. Just pay attention to what they say and do.

This is especially important in religion. Not everyone who speaks of God is godly.

Far from calling for blind faith, Jesus wants you to use your innate capacity for discernment.

It shouldn’t be hard. Just as we can easily tell a fresh orange from a rotten orange, we can tell the difference between beautiful actions and ugly actions. It is the beautiful actions that reflect God’s presence in a person’s heart.

We are not to judge others, but we are to judge whether to place our trust in them.

When I was in my early twenties, I heard about a spiritual teacher. Though I had never met her, I thought she could help me. I sent her a foolish email expressing my desire to be guided by her. I knew almost nothing about her. Thankfully, she never replied.

So, instead of handing over my spiritual life to a stranger, I began to develop trust in that inner sense that knows the difference between good fruit and bad.

Be honest and clear-headed. Use God’s gift of discernment. Who you trust determines who you become.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Proving the World Wrong

 “And when [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and about righteousness and about judgement.” (John 16:8)

When Jesus returned to the Father, he sent a Comforter and Advocate to us—the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit’s mission is to show us our mistakes concerning morality—about what is wrong, about what is right, and about how to tell the difference—sin, righteousness, and judgement.

The Comforter upends conventional morality.

Why? Because conventional morality is often not moral at all. For those harmed in the name of conventional morality, it is a comfort to have an advocate in God.

Conventional morality is sometimes right, of course. But when it is wrong, it is terribly wrong.

Slavery is one example of what the Holy Spirit has proven the world wrong about. In ancient times slavery was almost everywhere considered a perfectly respectable practice. Now it stands condemned.

And morality has improved in many other ways.

The work of the Holy Spirit is slow, but it is thorough.

We've all been wrong. We all have work to do. The Holy Spirit is working in all of us, bringing clarity and generosity to the extent we are willing to receive it.

Whether we are left or right, religious or secular, moderate or radical—there is almost always something in our moral code worth holding onto and something else worth scrutinizing carefully and rejecting.

Because, beyond our opinions and the opinions of all the world's moral authorities, there is righteousness that is genuinely lovely, and there is sin that is genuinely lamentable, and there is judgement that genuinely brings justice and mercy to all.

Holy Spirit, please help us to seek true righteousness.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Joy in the Presence of God's Angels

 “Thus, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner changing his heart.” (Luke 15:10)

A woman through hard work saves some money. Not a great fortune, but enough to give her some security in hard times.

One day she opens her purse, and something is wrong. She counts her money. A large bill is gone!

She goes through her whole house, first looking in the most likely places, and then more slowly, room by room, searching in every crack and corner. For a long time she cannot find it, and then finally there it is, the money she lost!

She is so relieved and so overjoyed that she goes out into her front yard and tells her neighbour all about it. Then she calls her mother, her sister, her friends, and tells them all about it. It was lost, and now it’s found!

God has lost something that is unspeakably precious to him. He searches for it doggedly, ceaselessly until it is found.

What is lost? We are lost.

Lost in complicated thinking. Lost in doing only what is easy. Lost in not knowing and not finding out. Lost in knowingly doing what is wrong. Lost in rage, fear, and resentment. Lost in stories that are not true, or only partly true. Lost in thoughts we can’t get rid of. Lost in inconsistency. Lost in shame. Lost in self-satisfaction.

Lost in trying to hold onto anything except the one solid thing a person can hold onto, namely the living God.

It is our nature to be simple, to do what is right because it is right.

And having lost this simplicity, we are lost both to ourselves and to God.

But when we do what is right—not because we are right, but because it is right—our primordial simplicity is recovered. God has found us.

And his angels jump around in their joy.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Not One Stone

 “There will not be left here one stone upon another.” (Mark 13:2)

The Roman army destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70. According to a contemporary account, more than a million people died during the conflict. Tens of thousands were enslaved. Jesus seems to predict this disaster in the gospels.

He also predicts wars and other catastrophes. These events, he says, will culminate in the coming of the Son of Man in power.

When the Roman army came, it established order through massive violence and destruction. When the Son of Man comes, he will establish peace through the power of peace.

The power of peace is not magical. It is the same power that holds the world together even now. Every healthy, enduring community exists by virtue of this power.

Until this power comes in force, violence remains a temporary necessity (Mark 13:7).

The world, with all it beauty and promise, is not now a safe place. Disasters will happen. Jesus is clear about this.

He is equally clear that his followers are not to participate in the violence of this world (Matthew 24:48-51). We are accountable before God for any violence we participate in.

These disasters are birth pangs. They don’t reflect the ultimate nature of existence. They are part of a process that needs to unfold before the true nature of existence can be revealed.

When we see injustice and violence, Jesus wants us to remember that a Kingdom of peace and justice is coming. And he wants us to prepare for it.

A follower of Jesus is not surprised when the world disintegrates in violence. Jesus warned us it would. But we look forward to the day it is put back together the way it was meant to be.

And while we look forward, we place our hope not in the future, but in the God who is eternally present.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

These Things Will Be Provided

“And all these things will be provided to you as well” (Matthew 6:33)

The Father cares for the wildflowers in the field. Jesus tells us so. He gives them soil to grow in. He waters them and shines on them. He fills them with life and makes them beautiful.

He cares for the sparrows, even as they fall. He does not give them up to death, but holds them in life.

God cares for them, and he cares for us even more.

All suffering is an encounter with death. When a friend ghosts us, that is death. When we lose a job, that is death. When we hate ourselves, that is death.

All loss is death. All pain is death. All evil is death.

Just as the Father remains with the sparrow, he remains with us in every encounter with death. He is present, infusing us with life.

However bad external reality is, there is an internal reality just as real and more real—the reality of God’s presence and our ability to turn to him.

But what makes this real? What makes internal reality real is that it transforms external reality. Jesus promises that if we turn to life inwardly, our external necessities will be provided. Anyone can put this into practice and find out for themselves whether it is true.

Does that mean a godly person will never die, suffer, or experience injustice? No. The sparrow falls. The flowers of the field are thrown into the furnace. Jesus was crucified. We too inevitably will meet our end. Death will have its seeming victory. The external conditions of life will run out.

That is all the more reason to turn to life. Those who turn to life have their necessities provided for not only here in the midst of death, but also there, on the other side of death’s hollow victory.

Monday, October 25, 2021

I Am the Life

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

What does it mean that Jesus is the life?

I can only find the meaning of what Jesus says in my own experience.

I notice there is a fear in me about what might happen when I’m older. I want to retire comfortably. I don’t want to worry about paying my bills.

When I observe this fear, I find what I’m really afraid of is incapacity—the loss of control over my body, feelings, and thoughts.

Incapacity seems to me like death itself overtaking me by slow degrees.

The terror of this creeping death is never far away. I’m not always conscious of it, but it’s there. It’s like a dark emptiness in my heart.

But what is this emptiness? Isn’t it the recognition that I have a need for life that the universe cannot satisfy? Everything in the universe is by nature perishable. There is nothing in this cosmos to hold onto. I need to live, but I don’t see how I can live, and so I’m afraid.

Jesus says he is the life. What a thing to say! Either it is nonsense, or the essential truth of reality. But is it true? Is it true that where life is, Jesus is, and where Jesus is, life is?

If it is true, and if it is true that Jesus is with us always, then even in death there is life.

Jesus’s presence changes the quality of emptiness. It does not change the perishable nature of the universe, but it imports something imperishable into the perishable.

And this is how Jesus could say to the rich young man, forget about financial security, take me instead.

Why not go to Jesus and see for yourself whether he is the life you need?

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Good Teacher

 And a certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what, when I’ve done it, will result in my inheriting the life of the Age?” (Luke 18:18)

There was a young man, powerful by the standards of this world, who was wise enough to know that the standards of this world are not the final and ultimate standards.

He learned about a teacher who, by all accounts, could speak about that other world, that other age. Having mastered the standards of the present age, he wanted to master the standards of that other one as well. That way he could be rich and secure there and then as well as here and now.

He approached the teacher, addressing him as “good teacher.” Why was he a good teacher? Because surely he could explain how to enter into the ownership of the good things of that other age without giving up the good things he already had.

He asked that teacher, “I know the age to come will involve an enhanced kind of life. What do I need to do to achieve that enhanced life?”

The teacher said, “It’s a great start that you’ve observed the commandments. But this is not yet perfection. You are still clinging to your money and possessions as if they can offer you real security and happiness. You must give them up and be with me from now on. Being with me will be your security and happiness.”

And the young man was not willing to hear it. It was altogether too great a demand to place on him. Of course he needed his money. Of course he needed his possessions. He would keep them, and also serve God.

And so, having been offered the opportunity to be in Jesus’s bodily presence day and night, he turned away and went home to his things.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Smallest of All Seeds

 "Like a grain of mustard, which when sown on the earth, is the smallest of all seeds..." (Mark 4:31)

What is new about the good news? We read in Mark that Jesus proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). What is new is that the time has come and the Kingdom is near.

How is this news good? It is God's Kingdom that is near--as opposed to the Kingdom of a human tyrant like Caesar or an angelic tyrant like Satan.

Who is king? It is the Father's kingdom, but the one serving as king is Jesus. Jesus says after his resurrection, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18).

His kingdom is not like others. Jesus is at pains to explain these differences with parables that seem simple but are hard to understand.

One difference is that the Kingdom is not organized as a country, government, or institution. Rather, the Kingdom is a seed sown in the soil of a human heart.

As such, it begins tiny, like a mustard seed, and grows large, like a mustard plant. In neither case is the Kingdom overwhelming in size or power. It is manageable enough that an ordinary person can meaningfully relate to it. We can nurture the Kingdom just as we can water a seed. And we can make it grow like we grow a plant.

Jesus says the Kingdom will come in power--which sounds dramatic--but this power turns out to be the power that a leafy shrub has to provide protective shade to the birds of the air.

Jesus teaches in order to plant this seed in the good soil of our hearts, where it might be met with understanding and joy and where it might bear fruit.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Treasure in Heaven

"Do not accumulate treasures for yourself on earth." (Matthew 6:19)

Whether in this life or in the next, we will have the experience of everything we have worked for in this world being taken from us. We will be left with nothing but our treasure in heaven.

What is this heavenly treasure?

I'm sure you already know--the good heart we have cultivated, the relationships we have nurtured--our honesty and kindness and responsibility and faithfulness. All the ways God is reflected in our lives--this is the treasure we can keep forever.

Jesus has heavenly treasure and shares it. That is probably the best thing about heavenly treasure--when you have it, you can give it away freely without losing it.

It does not seem to me that Jesus despises the things of the world--he himself was a carpenter and worked for money and provided for his family. He sees some value in the world and its ways. But he knows it is something outside this world that is the real source of his security.

When I read about Jesus, I recognize that he is different from other people. Part of this difference is that he is willing to lose all the things this world offers--reputation, respect, even physical safety--for the sake of his continued close relationship with his Father.

And strangely, in giving up the world, Jesus inherits the earth. All the things around us belong to the Father, and as a faithful child, Jesus is heir to them. As faithful children of our Father, we too can inherit the earth.

We are told--start a side hustle to make more money. But how about this instead?--start a side hustle to heap up treasure in heaven.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Nothing for the Journey

And he instructed them that they should take nothing for the journey except a walking stick, neither bread, nor knapsack, nor money for their money belt.  (Mark 6:8)

Jesus knew how to begin things--with simplicity, with lowliness, with the barest immediate necessities.

Is there something you want to begin? Sometimes people decide they will begin exercising and buy expensive exercise equipment or an expensive gym membership. Then often enough, they use them a few times and give up.

Anything worth doing has some simple, humble way to begin.

Do you want a relationship with God? What is the simplest way to begin? Is it not to go into your room, sit down, and start talking to God?

You don't need money to talk to God. You don't need a fancy Bible. You don't need to understand theology. You don't need guidance from a priest, minister, or spiritual director. You just need a little privacy, and a little humility.

All true beginnings have this character of simplicity, humility, and directness. Trust that if you make a beginning, God will provide what is lacking.