Sunday, April 27, 2014

Spoiling Miss Annie

April 27, 2014

Dear friends,

When people ask, “What are you doing?” I have learned to answer cautiously. 

For the most part, when people ask this question they are asking me to explain a physical act (or failure to act) that they have observed.

If I answer the question by explaining events occurring in my inner world, experience has taught me that major confusion is likely to occur.  Social interactions proceed more smoothly if I keep things simple and respond in terms of the questioner’s probable view of what my body is doing. 

Last week was rich with people—friends and family shared their time and lives with me, and I experienced a King-Midas kind of reality—I had more relational gold than I could count.  And in the midst of that rich interaction there was one of those “What are you doing?” kind of questions that can deepen self-awareness when we are willing to live into them.

My body was standing motionless holding the front door open for Annie who was sitting on the threshold apparently immobilized by indecision. Both Annie and I held this posture without moving for what seemed a ridiculously long time to my friend who was observing the scene.

“What are you doing?” she asked at last, a hint of exasperation in her voice. My friend is a sensible organizing person who gets breakfast on the table without interruptions. “The toast is getting cold.”

“I’m waiting on Annie,” I said, taking refuge in the obvious, “but I’m coming.” As I closed the door (Annie having elected “in” over “out”), my friend added with gentle disapproval, “You certainly do spoil that cat.” 

Later when people had returned to their homes and my house was quiet, I re-visited that interaction in my mind.

“What was I doing?” I asked myself.  “Was this an example of unwise cat-indulgence? Was I simply ‘spoiling’ Annie?”

I thought at length about the matter, and came to a conclusion that surprised me.  

Actually, seen from the inside out, the whole event was about humility.

I grant immediately that this reality was not one my friend could have seen with physical eyes. I doubt that this explanation would ever have occurred to her even if she had thought twice about Annie and me at the door. But here in the quiet of my study, I want to say something about the meaning of the incident and my sense of what humility entails.

Humility is a deeply underrated virtue in our culture, and is widely misunderstood and poorly defined. 

Contrary to cultural stereotypes, humility does not involve distortion of truth. Humility is not demonstrated when a beautiful woman says (or believes) that she is ugly, or highly intelligent persons describe themselves as stupid. 

In a parallel sense, humility does not entail self-depreciation, self-condemnation, nor devaluation of personhood.  It is not a calculated sacrificial move in the relational chess-game of one-up-man-ship by playing one-down. 
What then is humility? 

How do you define humility? Do you think it is a virtue? If so, how do you practice it? What barriers do you find to the practice of authentic humility?

I think humility is relevant to both Annie at the door and the tending of a sustainable faith.  I plan to explain both more fully next week.

In the meantime, here is my basic presupposition: knowing ourselves is a life-long complex process that requires both self-awareness and the perspective gained through context.

Thinking with you about the paradox that I can never truly know what is about me until I understand what is not about me.

See you next week.



Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Sunday Travelers

April 20, 2014

Dear Friends,

There were two of them.

They were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a village about seven miles away. It was Sunday, the first day of the week. As the two men walked together they puzzled over the tumultuous events that had occurred in Jerusalem over Passover.

Story-teller Luke makes clear the men’s destination (Emmaus), and the subject of their conversation, but he identifies the two travelers only as followers of Jesus. He does not tell us their names. 

Then as the two walked toward Emmaus, a third man caught up with the Sunday travelers and walked along with them.

Luke at this point reveals to his readers that this Third Man is Jesus Himself, the newly resurrected Christ, but the two Sunday travelers did not recognize Him. They saw Him simply as a stranger, supposing, perhaps, he was a Passover pilgrim on his way home.

The Third Man entered into the conversation with a comment and a question. 

“You seem to be in a deep discussion about something,” he said. “What are you so concerned about?” *

The two men could hardly believe their ears.

They stopped in astonishment.

“You must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has happened the last three days,” said Cleopas (here Luke identifies one, but only one, of the Sunday travelers by name). 

“We’re talking about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet and a great teacher,” Cleopas explained, “and did wonderful miracles. We thought he was the Messiah. But the religious leaders and temple authorities turned him over to the Romans for execution, and they crucified him,” Cleopas concluded sadly. 

“But listen to this!!” Cleopas continued. “Early this morning some of the women went to the tomb where Jesus was buried and it was empty!! Angels were there and they told the women that Jesus was alive!! 

I know—I know. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

But here’s the puzzle: when the men went to investigate this empty tomb story the women were telling, sure enough: Jesus body was missing just like the women said. What do you think about that?”

Then Jesus told them what He thought.

He told them that He thought that they had been remarkably slow to understand what Scripture had taught about the Messiah, His sufferings and death, and His resurrection. 

Jesus then explained the Messianic prophecies at such length and in such detail that the trio had reached Emmaus by the time His lecture was complete. 

It was late, so when the Third Man acted as though he intended to walk on further, the two Sunday travelers protested, and took Him home with them to eat and rest and spend the night.

Then as they sat together at the table, the Third Man took a small loaf of bread, blessed, and broke it, and in that moment their eyes were opened to see what their hearts had already sensed: this was indeed Jesus, their blessed teacher, their maker of miracles, the Messiah they had welcomed until that terrible day when (they thought) that death had taken Him away. But in that moment of their recognition, Luke tells us, He disappeared.

Then, tired or not, the excited two, certain of their new data, started back to Jerusalem to report to the other disciples that they had seen Jesus, that He was alive! 

When at long weary length they reached Jerusalem again (that’s a fourteen mile round trip), they found that others had also seen Jesus (“He came to Peter,” they reported excitedly). Then while the two Sunday travelers were reporting that Jesus had come to them too on their way to Emmaus, Jesus Himself appeared in the middle of the room.

Understandably, the disciples felt frightened, confused, overwhelmed with joy and filled with wonder all at once.

Meeting them where they were emotionally, Jesus said, “Here—touch me. I have a real body—I’m not a ghost. See my hands and feet.” 

They hesitated. Jesus seeing their hesitation responded with understanding and compassion.

Back from His incredible journey through death, Jesus now had a body different from those gathered there in that room, but Jesus re-engaged with them in their world for a gentle moment of reassurance.
He asked simply, “Do you have anything here to eat?”

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, Luke tells us, and watched Him while he ate it.
Luke does not tell us what Jesus's followers thought then, or felt. But he tells us what happened. They sat together and Jesus explained again those Scriptures which had taught from the beginning that Messiah must suffer and die and rise again from the dead.

Thinking with you this glorious Easter morning not only of the Christ, the risen, glorified Messiah of whom the Scriptures testify, but of that Messiah Who, risen, remained the compassionate Jesus of Nazareth who walked with His disciples and ate with them.

Like those Sunday travelers to Emmaus, I know He is risen—He has taught me on the journey, and I have seen Him in the breaking of the bread.

See you next week,


**I have paraphrased Luke 24:13-46, New Living Translation.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sent? Then, What's This Spit About?

April 14, 2014

Dear Friends,

This year the gospel readings during Lent included John’s account of the incident when Jesus gave sight to the man who had been born blind.

Observing the man sitting by the path begging, the disciples raised the question frequently debated by the rabbis of that time.

“Whose fault is this?” the disciples asked Jesus (Hubbard paraphrase). “Who sinned here—the parents or the man himself?”
“Neither,” Jesus answered bluntly. 

Then, as Jesus often did, He re-framed the issue. This man’s blindness has not occurred as evidence of wrong doing, Jesus explained. Rather this man’s blindness provides opportunity for God to reveal Himself, a situation in which God can make plain His power and love. 

Then, demonstrating His point, Jesus spit on the ground, mixed His saliva with the dirt, and making a kind of poultice, placed the clay pack on the blind man’s eyes. 

Jesus then told the man, “Go wash this off in the pool of Siloam.”

Siloam means ‘sent,’ John notes in passing. Given the controversy that swirled around Jesus’s identity, it is possible that in His instructions to the man Jesus was making in advance the very point which He knew His critics would raise when the miracle became public.

However that may be, the man obeyed the directions Jesus had given him. He came back, John reports tersely, “seeing.” 

Uproar immediately erupted. The commotion consisted, for the most part, of surprise, disbelief, and angry criticism of Jesus and His action.

His critics leveled their furious reoccurring charge: this man is a sinner—He cannot be one who has come from God (i.e., sent from God) since He does not keep the Sabbath according to the rules. Do not pay attention to this man’s ability—and willingness—to give sight to the blind, unasked and undeserved. The significant thing to take into account is His refusal to live by the Sabbath rules as we understand them. 

The story ends with the man insisting that Jesus had indeed healed him. The man refused to alter his story: he had been blind, and could now see. He continued to insist on the details as well: Jesus had made this happen by smearing spit-based mud on his eyes and sending him to the pool of Siloam, and the result was unarguable: when the man washed the mud off the miracle happened—he who had been blind could see. 

When Jesus’s critics insisted that the man tell his story again (clearly seeking some kind of a loop hole), the man retorted that not only could he see the world around him, but that he could, additionally, see something those judging Jesus refused to face: that what Jesus had done established who He was—one who was indeed sent (Siloam) from God.

The authorities rewarded the man’s insistence on his story by ejecting him from the synagogue.

This is an amazing story: Immanuel, God with us, the Light of the World Who made the blind see. 

But think with me about the details. 

Here was Jesus, concerned about his disciples’ confusion, anticipating his critics, faced with the tragedy of the man’s life-long blindness, and what does He do?

He spit on the ground.


Then He mixed His spit and the earth His spit had landed on and made a mud pack for the blind man’s eyes. 

Anyone thinking about this may, I think, be forgiven for raising an objection:

Now, really, Jesus.  If you are trying to make the point that you are indeed Messiah, the One sent by God, what is this spit business all about? Besides—this isn’t the only time you’ve used your spit as a part of miracle-making. Couldn’t you do something a little more elegant—a little more “royal” or king-like, or at least something not quite so gross? Sent-from-God to put spit on people, particularly blind people who may not be clear about what’s happening to them—Jesus, the results can’t be argued—those who were blind see—but Your method? 



When we read this story it is not difficult to understand the point. In His life on earth, Jesus answered the questions about who He was by what He did. 

And I think one of the reasons John recorded this story for us is the way the healed man focused so clearly on this truth. Spit poultices or broken Sabbath rules are irrelevant, the man insisted impatiently. Here is the crucial fact: I know that this man Jesus is come from God—once I was blind and now I see.

In retrospect the issue seems quite plain, doesn’t it? 

Nevertheless, I am slow to criticize Jesus’s critics too severely. If we are honest, most of us are aware that, like Jesus’s critics, we too can—and likely have—had times when we have been more concerned about spit and rule breaking than exchanging our blindness for the sight that Jesus can (and will) give.

Theology (systematic ways of thinking about God) is helpful, and carries a proper, respectable reputation. “Spit baths” may sound gross, but, inelegant as they sound (and are) many of us have received (and/or given) them under “emergency conditions” in which parents and grandparents found them the most readily available remedy for a dirty face or a stain on a shirt. 

I need to learn to think properly about God, and to practice spiritual hygiene in a way that makes “spit baths” unnecessary. I need to learn to know God, and to practice personal purity. Rule-keeping and religiously approved solutions to human problems certainly have their place.

Thinking with you today, however, that I want my life to speak from the source of truth on which the blind man stood when he said, “There are lots of questions I can’t answer, but this one thing I know: once I was blind, and now I see.” 

How’s your eye-sight? 

See you next week.