Monday, May 2, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 2, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Psalm 77 verse 19:

Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.

God goes before us. Into the sea of death, through the great waters of tumult, into the pit of fire.

Mortal eyes cannot see God there. He is not visible with cornea or pupil. A picture would prove to the world that we are all alone.

But the eyes of faith behold what the aperture cannot capture -- the footprints of one who goes before us, the image of one beside whose face is like the Son of Man.

No eye has seen it. No photograph can prove it.  But she who follows the earth's inescapable way into the sea knows that she is not alone.

"When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
When you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you come through the fire,
the flames will not consume you,
and you shall not be burned . . .
Do not be afraid, for I am with you."
(Isaiah 43:2,3 & 5)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Daily Lesson for April 29, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Matthew chapter 7 verse 6:

"Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you."

At home we've been watching "Eyes on the Prize", the superlative, and award-winning 14-episode documentary on the Civil Rights Movement from the death of Emmett Till all the way to the rise of Southern black mayors, congressmen, and other civic leaders.

One of the most challenging parts of watching this film is to see my daughter Gabrielle's reaction to so much of the documentary footage where segregationists decry the mixing of races. As a bi-racial child, she takes every mean-spirited and cruel thing said with a degree of deeply felt personal pain. Even at 60 years distance the words still sting.  Perhaps I should not be surprised given that she is 9 years old and entering the time of life when identity becomes such a powerful influence over us.

"Why do they say those things?" she asks with her head hung down and a drawn look in her eye.

"They didn't know any better," I tell her. "Remember what Jesus said on the Cross, 'Father forgive them because they don't know better,'?"

I want her to have compassion on these people -- to seek to understand and love them even if they would not have understood or loved our family.  I do not want her to grow hard-hearted toward anyone.

And yet, I also want her to learn to protect herself and her heart. This is a lesson that goes beyond race and racial politics. She will have to learn that there are people out there of all different races and places and creeds and genders who just aren't very nice. In fact, they're mean -- perhaps just as mean in spirit as the segregationists in the film.  Part of the task now -- and part of the reason why we are watching this documentary -- is because I know Gabrielle will have learn to protect herself and her own spirit from the abuse and ridicule of people who simply don't like who she is and what she stands for.

Jesus says in today's Lesson, "Do not cast your pearls before swine lest they trample them underfoot and come and maul you."  The pearl of great price is the soul of who we are -- our true identity.

And what I'm trying to teach Gabrielle is that she is not to give that away to anybody.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Daily Lesson for April 28, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson is a TBT Lesson from Matthew chapter 6:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"

I read these words from Jesus to my daughter and in her seven-year-old naïveté she takes it all in on such a simple level.  In fact, she takes everything Jesus says at face.  "God feeds the birds. And look how pretty the flowers are - God clothed them.  Don't worry; the LORD will provide."

But she doesn't pay the bills or have to worry about insurance. The real world and all its struggle haven't hit her yet. She sees how the birds of the air are fed and the flowers of the field are clothed, but it hasn't dawned on her just how short the lifespan of a bird or the season of a flower really is.  I read to her Jesus' words and in my anxious and somewhat cynical adult mind I think (though I don't have the heart to say), "Yes, sweetie, look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field; but don't look too long - for they won't last.  Soon they'll be gone."

But then it dawned on me not long ago - perhaps that's just Jesus' point.  The lives of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field are but a hair's breadth in length.  And yet, they make the most of the time they have. The birds set off in flight, dancing left and right, swooping down towards the earth, ascending towards heaven.  And the flowers dance in the field, blazing with a purple, even a king cannot afford.  The birds soar.  The flowers dazzle.  They live!  And they spend all day worrying about tomorrow.

"You must become like a child again," Jesus said.  In other words, I must learn to think like my daughter once more - open to hear Jesus' words at face value and to look with open and wondrous eyes to the birds of the air and to the flowers of the field in order to learn how to live.

The Mind of the Child: "Look at the birds and the flowers - how God provides for them."

The Mind of the Adult: "Birds fall.  Flowers fade.  It doesn't last long."

The Mind of the Adult Born Again as a Child: "Yes, birds fall.  Flowers fade.  And it doesn't last long. But they sure seem to enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Daily Lesson for April 27, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Leviticus chapter 19 verses 9 through 18:

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Today's Lesson is a set of instructions for community. As the Israelites make their way out of Egypt, through the Wilderness formation, and into the Promised Land they must be prepared to live together as a people in community with one another. They do not already share the practices which make for community. Living under Pharaoh for 400 years, the people were taught to look after themselves and not the weak and to be at enmity with and suspicion of their neighbors. Pharaoh's society was cutthroat, every man for himself, win or die. This was intended to break any sense of communal spirit or cooperation within the slaves. It was the way Pharaoh divided, conquered and ruled.

Today's Lesson is a description of the practices necessary for building community: care for the poor, the disabled, and the sojourner. Respect for others rights to property. A fair shake in trade and labor. An honest and impartial court system. All this, summed up by the command to love neighbor as one love's oneself, and by extension then treat the neighbor as one would wish to be treated.

Interesting in this lesson is something that is said over and over again after each section.  Five times these words: "I am the LORD."  It is as though the LORD is trying to tell the Israelites again and again that they are no longer under Pharaoh's whip; they have a new Master now. And He is very, very different from the old Master, and so too will His people be.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Daily Lesson for April 26, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Leviticus chapter 16 verses 20 through 22:

20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

In the tradition of ancient Judaism on the Day of Atonement the priests would lay the iniquity of all the people onto a single goat and then the goat would be led out into the wilderness to "Azazel".  Azazel was a demon or, alternatively, a place where the demonic resided. The idea was that all the iniquity of the people would be cast into this one goat and then driven back to the place from which it came. We are told in the Mishna, an important 1st and second century Jewish oral tradition commentary, that sometimes the scapegoat would not only be led into the wilderness, but in fact driven off of a cliff in order that it would not return bearing the sins of the people along with it.

The goat is now commonly known as the "scapegoat", a term which came from William Tyndale who was the first to translate the Hebrew Bible into English. The word "scape" comes from English "escape" which comes from the Medieval Latin "ex-cappa", which meant "out of the cloak". The purpose of the scapegoat is to cast off the sin of the people as one might cast off a cloak.

It is sometimes said that guilt is the knowledge that we have sinned and the willingness to take responsibility for it. Shame, on the other hand, is the psychological sense that we are at one in our very being with our sins; it is the heavy and burdensome cloak -- too burdensome to bear.  To bear the weight of this cloak is to die a spiritual death.

At center of this idea of the scapegoat is the deeply spiritual need we have to be set free from the heavy and burdenous cloak of our sins and its sentence of death. The cloak is indeed too weighty and too much for us to bear. And the profoundly good news is that we can escape from it -- that we can be set free, that our iniquity is not forever a part of us but can in fact be cast off and cast out.

This is the purpose of atonement -- the sense that we can live again in "at-one-ment" or at peace within ourselves, with each other, and with God.  This is the gift of forgiveness -- the gift of being spiritually alive and free.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Daily Lesson for April 25, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Leviticus chapter 16 verses 6 and 7:

6 "Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting."

There is an old Midrashic story which tells of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai walking with his disciple, Rabbi Y'hoshua, by Jerusalem after the Temple was destroyed. Lamenting over the rubble, Rabbi Y'hoshua said "Alas, the place that atoned for our sins lies in ruins!" Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai said: 'Do not grieve, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of compassion. For it is written in the book of Hosea, "I desire compassion, not sacrifice." (Avot D'Rabbi Nathan 4:5)

I read a story like that and take delight, but wonder if it is true, why then did God command the Isrealites to offer sacrifice in the first place?  The 12th century Jew Maimonides answered that God commanded sacrifice not for God's sake, but for ours. Maimonides's understanding was that the Israelites lived in a culture where there was a deeply-ingrained psychological need for sacrifice, going all the way back to the human sacrifice in the days before the patriarchs.  God did not need the sacrifice, but accepted it as a part of the condition of living in atonement (at-one-ment) with the people.

There are aspects akin to Maimonides's thought in some Christian thinking as well -- including my own. I do not believe God demanded blood to be shed in order that God's wrath would be satiated. That belies all we know about forgiveness, which is always an alternative to wrath and vengeance and the demand for blood.

The sacrifice then that we see in Jesus on the cross is sacrificial love -- God's son willingly dying on the cross, not to satisfy God's wrath, but to prove God's love.  And surveying the cross from even this distance of 2,000 plus years, we hear Jesus' final words and know them to be true: "It is finished."  Our sense of estrangement from God is finished. Our need for sacrifice is finished. Our demand for the blood of vengeance (human and animal) is finished.

It is finished. Our atonement is complete. Our at-one-meant with God and all others has been accomplished.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Daily Lesson for April 22, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from The Diary of Anne Frank:

"That's the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it wall all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out."

I have always preferred it when the Jewish Passover corresponds with the Christian Holy Week.  It seems a bit odd that the two should ever be separated -- as if you can separate Jesus' death from the week of his death, and all the expectation and fear which surrounded it. We should never forget that Jesus was executed on charges of political dissidence by an oppressive and cruel governor amidst a holiday commemorating deliverance from an oppressive and cruel government. There was more than irony to this.

But this the Passover and Holy Week did not fall at the same time and, actually, I am enjoying getting the chance to reflect on the meaning of Passover without it being overshadowed by all the Easter preparation. The Exodus story calls the Jewish people to remember that they were slaves in Egypt. This year gives to us Christians a particularly good opportunity to remember with them.  It is a particularly good week for Christians to reflect upon the universal themes of deliverance, freedom from oppression, and the ultimate triumph of the forces of light over the forces of darkness, all of which we find in the Exodus story.

On Wednesday night our church invited Norm Shulman, my Jewish cousin and dear friend, to come and teach us about the Seder, the order of service for the Passover meal. As a part of the evening, Norm included readings from the Haggadah, the book which Jews use to guide the Seder. And at a very poignant part of the service, Norm asked one of our teenage girls at church to come and read from his Haggadah an excerpt included from The Diary of Anne Frank.  What she read in sum was the quotation above, which includes these famous words: "In spite of everything I still believe . . . "

As the Jews enter into this Passover week, it is an especially good time for all people everywhere to reflect upon its meaning. Passover, theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, is an event that took place "once and for all".  This means it was a salvation event for the Israelites first, but also for everyone else who are trying to hold on, hoping against hope, who in spite of it all still somehow believe.

"Tell your children," the Scripture commands the Jews.  And we are grateful that they have chosen to tell us, and our children also.