Archive for September, 2015

Matthew’s Gospel helped me understand and make sense of Jesus’ teaching and helped me to more fully understand Jesus’ life – his ‘call.’ Once I decided to take Jesus’ message and life (his ‘good news’) seriously it was as though I had found a way through a confusing labyrinth. Jesus teaching and his lived-example formed a complete whole for me.

Thanks to Matthew, it became clear to me what a follower of Jesus the Christ was called to be and do – and it scared the stuffing out of me (it still does). For me, Jesus teaching and his charge to anyone who espouses to be a follower of his is powerfully contained in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. The way is quite simple actually: Live into and out of the Beatitudes (the Be-Attitudes) and Jesus ‘5 Commandments.’ During my current re-reading and re-reflection of Chapter 5 I have been specifically drawn, once again, to Jesus ‘5 Commandments.’

In Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus clearly and concisely provides us with his practical advice. Jesus often taught in parables and parables are open to a variety of interpretations. When Jesus delivers to us his ‘5 Commandments’ he does not tell us a parable he is clear, concise and direct – and the result is that we, the recipients, frequently become quite disturbed.

A common response – one I have used and one I have heard many Christians use is: ‘You can’t take him literally; no one can follow these commandments. In fact, following them would be foolish at best and catastrophic at worst.’ If all Christians would follow these Jesus ‘5 Commandments’ the world, as we know it, would be radically transformed (transformation = a fundamental change in character and structure). Of course, this is what Jesus was calling us to: a Transformation. This is also what we Christians continue to resist individually and collectively (consider, gentle reader, that if ALL who espouse to be Christian would live into and out of Matthew’s Chapter 5 then that would be enough – this is the common ground for ALL who espouse to be Christians).

In delivering his ‘5 Commandments’ Jesus follows a repetitive pattern – repetitive patterns help us ‘get it’ (mostly). With each Commandment Jesus leads with ‘the ancients taught us’ and clearly, concisely and concretely states the ancient’s commandment. Jesus then says, ‘But I say to you. . .’ And then Jesus clearly, concisely and concretely provides us his Commandment. Jesus concludes the delivery of his ‘5 Commandments’ with a startling statement. This statement is also clear, concise and concrete (and I might add, ‘disturbing’). Jesus concludes with: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ YIKES!!! I am an imperfect human being – how can I ever ‘Be Perfect as God is Perfect’? Luckily, for me anyway, this is a topic for another time.

So what are Jesus ‘5 Commandments’?

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As I have mentioned in previous postings, I consider myself to be an Ecumenical Christian. I am a follower of Jesus the Christ – which makes me a Christian – and I also search and seek for the good, the true and the beautiful in all faith and humanistic traditions – which makes me an Ecumenist. I am also a member of what is known as ‘The People of the Book’ – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We – ‘The People of the Book’ – have been gifted by Yahweh-God-Allah with Ten Commandments.

For the past 53 years one of the most powerful ‘books’ for me has been – continues to be – the Gospel of Matthew. Recently I began to re-read and re-reflect upon Matthew’s Gospel. Early on, Jesus gifts us with the Beatitudes and shortly after giving us this gift he gifts us with his ‘Five Commandments.’ The Beatitudes and the ‘Five Commandments’ call us not to shift or change but to transform. These are so challenging and disturbing for those of us who espouse to be Christians that we have spent – we continue to spend – a great deal of energy re-interpreting Jesus’ words. ‘He surely couldn’t mean what he says; how absurd.’ Since I have been re-reflecting upon Jesus’ ‘Five Commandments’ I thought I would share some of my reflections with you, gentle reader.

Consider that each of us has a reason and a conscience that come to us from somewhere: we did not ‘make them up’ ourselves. These twins – reason and conscience – oblige us to differentiate between good and evil (or, if you will, virtue and vice or light and darkness); you and I must approve of some things and disapprove of others. This obligation (or ‘ought’ or ‘must’) is one of the common grounds upon which we all walk; we are all members of the same family and we are all daughters and sons of the same God (Note: For me, ‘God’ is all and is therefore both male and female – if God were only ‘male’ then God would not be all and hence God would not be God).

Residing in each of us is a higher or better nature – a spiritual and divine nature. As Lincoln noted in 1860, there resides within each of us ‘the better angels of our nature’ and it is our charge to call upon these especially during times of challenge and adversity. Because we are endowed with a higher nature we can, if we open our hearts and minds discern good from evil (or virtue from vice or light from darkness); we can monitor our own choices and our own conduct.

My hunch is that most of us human beings know that our purpose here on earth is to serve others rooted in our higher nature; we are to call forth the ‘better angels’ as we live our life. Jesus identifies himself with his higher nature (consider that if Jesus were truly fully human then he, too, would have a ‘lower’ nature – perhaps this is the nature that tempted him three times). Jesus speaks of himself and of us as ‘Sons of the Father’ and bids us to be perfect as ‘our Father’ in heaven is perfect.

Perhaps this is the answer to the question: ‘What is the meaning and purpose of my life?’ There is a ‘Power’ enabling me (and you) to discern what is good – my reason and conscience flow from it and the purpose of my conscious life is to do its will – that is, to do good. What is the ‘good’ I am called to do? Jesus provides us an answer when he gifts us with the Beatitudes and when he gifts us with his ‘Five Commandments.’

What are Jesus’ ‘Five Commandments’?

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Over time I learned that when I began to be too impressed by my accomplishments I embraced an erroneous conviction that ‘life’ is one gigantic game being watched over by a large scoreboard. A variety of people list the points I have accumulated and these points measured my worth. My self-esteem, my worth as a person and as a professional was determined by these many point-givers (or grade-givers). I found that I was not only in the world; I was ‘of’ the world – I was becoming what the world named me to be.

I was intelligent because I received ‘good’ grades. I was helpful because someone said ‘thanks.’ I was likeable because someone(s) like me. I was important because someone said I was ‘needed.’ In short, I was worthwhile because of what I accomplished. I found that the more I allowed my accomplishments – which were the results of my actions – to frame and name my self-esteem the more anxious I became. I would ask myself: ‘How am I ever going to continue to live up to the ‘grade-givers’ and their expectations of what I am to accomplish?’ The more ‘successful’ I became the more anxious I became.

Our culture is a success-oriented culture. Our lives are dominated by superlatives. We brag about the highest building we construct. We brag about the super-star athlete. We brag about the . . .well, gentle reader, you can certainly fill in the blank many times over.

There is a darkness to our light. In spite of our successes, how many of us suffer from a nagging fear that we are not, in the end, good enough or bright enough or successful enough? How many of us are fear-full that someday we will be ‘found out’ – someone will unmask us and we will be seen as we truly are – inadequate or incompetent or worse? Perhaps, we fear, that we are not as loveable or as smart or as successful as we believe we are. Perhaps we have heard another say – in a moment of transparency – that: ‘People think I am full of self-confidence; oh, if only they really knew the truth.’

We are also a culture of ‘self-doubters’ and so ‘depression’ flourishes; at times it seems to me to be running amok among us. Because we have sold our soul to the ‘judges’ our insecurity continues to increase (for example, depression and suicidal thoughts and alcohol and prescription drugs too often manifest themselves in our over/high achieving high school students).

There is little room in a culture of success for the person to reveal his or her ‘hidden self.’ It is as if each of us is confined to an isolation room and are left alone to encounter our own anxieties, fears, and demons. The result is catastrophic.

I am thinking of the musical refrain: ‘When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?’

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In our culture we are inculcated with a desire to ‘Act’ and to ‘Accomplish.’ In our culture some of us think in terms of ‘great actions’ and ‘great accomplishments’ – in the 1960s, for example, the 20-somethings (of which I was one) wanted to change. . . make that ‘transform’. . .our society. Others are not so grandiose – they just want to build a house or write a book or invent something or just ‘win.’ Still others seem content to simply be of help to another; a simple ‘Act’ and a simple ‘Accomplishment.’

No matter where we reside on the ‘Act-Accomplish’ continuum it seems that we all think about ourselves in terms of the ‘contribution’ we make or are called to make. As we age we begin to reflect upon our ‘Acts’ and ‘Accomplishments’ and we experience a range of feelings when we do so (I have been doing a bit of this type of reflection). Our feelings range from ‘contentment’ to ‘frustration’ from ‘satisfaction’ to ‘sadness.’ We ask: ‘Is our/my world better because I have inhabited it?’ ‘What is the difference my actions and my accomplishments have made in our/my world?’

As I have mentioned in other postings, I am an ‘Ecumenical Christian.’ That is, I believe that all faith and humanist traditions have ‘truth’ and ‘value’ (for example, the ‘Golden Rule’ appears to be universal). As an Ecumenical Christian I am called to ‘comfort’ the other; I am called to be a peace-maker; I am called to ‘live’ the ‘Good News’ and I am called to ‘forgive’ seventy-times-seven. Simply stated: I am called to bring more ‘light’ than ‘darkness’ to the/my world.

I am not alone. I have experienced thousands of ‘faith-rooted’ and ‘humanist-rooted’ folks who are deeply rooted in a desire to serve others and to care for others – to bring more ‘light’ than darkness’ to the/their world. Their desire (and their ‘Actions’) are often a sign of mental and spiritual well-being. Because of my own ‘desire’ to serve and to care I also know that I can be hindered by – if not paralyzed by – a lack of positive self-esteem. What does this mean? For me (and I do not believe I am alone here) it means that not only do I have a desire to serve and to care in meaningful ways I also have made the ‘results’ of my serving and caring to be the criteria for my ‘self-esteem.’ My being ‘effective’ is more important than my being ‘faithful.’ At my worst (is this the correct word?) I ‘become my success.’

What does this mean? What are the implications?

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When Tolstoy was lying dying at the Astapovo railway station, he repeated over and over during the last moments of his life: ‘I do not understand what it is I have to do.’

What should I do? How many times do we ask ourselves this question every day? How many times during a given week, or month or year? How many times over the course of our lives?

Consider that it is the question we ask ourselves more than any other question. The context changes. We ask it when we are faced with making major decisions: Where should I go to college? What should I major in while I am in college? What is my career path? Should I take this job? We ask it when we are faced with powerfully personal decisions: How should I treat my aging parents? How should I respond to a friend who is in crisis? Should I discipline or punish my child? How should I talk to my spouse about a difficult issue?  This common question also applies to less important or less stressful encounters: What should I do about my neighbor’s yappy dog? What should I do about the kid who leaves his toys in our yard?

We also know that decision-making involves more than the ‘shoulds.’ Decision-making concerns our simple wants, our deepest desires, or our spiritual longings. If we are also self-reflective folks we also ask ourselves other questions: Who am I? Who am I choosing to become? What am I called to be in this world? What is God calling me to be and do? Who is calling me – is it God, or is it my inner guide or is it the ‘universe’ or is it a need that exists in my world?

For me, the self-reflective questions comprise what I call my ‘Essential Life Questions.’ For me, these questions are the most challenging and at times the most anxiety and stress producing. At times they have been so powerful that I have felt I was paralyzed when it came to responding to them. I was paralyzed by the tyranny of the ‘should’ and the ‘ought’ and the ‘must.’ At times I have found these questions to be so powerful that I used a great deal of energy distracting myself so I would not have to engage them. I did not want to think about them. I did not want to respond. I did not want to decide.

Decisions, we know, can whelm us over. The ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ we encounter on a daily basis can wash over us like a tsunami run amok. No wonder that our culture is distraction rich. We retreat to the distractions of work or technology or food or drugs of all types. This is a personal and a cultural issue: We (individually and collectively) have become addicted to speed and busyness and distractions of all types. Yet, we cannot escape this simple, recurring often haunting question:

What should I do?

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