Sunday, March 26, 2023

Lenten journey: Doubt, bitterness (and theodicy)

"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (Martha to Jesus, John 11:21)

This is my second week considering Martha. Last week we saw her being anxious and troubled about many things. This week we see her in the bitter devastation of an unanswered prayer. She had asked Jesus to come when she was worried about her brother's health and Jesus had not answered -- or not in time, as she saw it. Now her brother was dead. The normal grief and loss at a death was made more bitter by the knowledge that a request for help had gone unanswered. These are the things that make people question God's goodness: we ask for help, we pray for help, we beg for help, and help does not come. Few people get the chance to say it in person: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (One way to see the subtext: This is on you.)

Jesus explains to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life," and after explaining more fully he asks her, "Do you believe this?" Interesting question because on one level the question is pointless: its truth doesn't depend on her belief. But the truth doesn't do any good to her, in the here and now unless she believes it. 

I was in a similar situation a few years back with an unexpected health problem. I had some friends who were absolutely sure that it would pass, that within a year it would be behind me. After finally getting a correct diagnosis and a good few months of physical therapy, they were right. And it was always likely that they were right, considering my age and general health. All the same, their words of comfort did me no good because I didn't believe those words. The anxiety and stress -- or doubt and bitterness -- that I felt at that time were not strictly because of a medical problem; it was because I expected the worst, and couldn't believe otherwise. And so much of that distress was preventable. 

So today I hope to remember that my own frame of mind can make a big difference in how stressful things are. Even in times that are legitimately bad, a certain mind-frame can make it worse. And the truth only does me good here and now if I believe it. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lenten journey: Anxiety and resentment

But Martha was busy with serving, and came to him, and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her therefore that she help me." And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things "... Luke 10:40-41 

Normally when I read this passage, I rush past Martha and look at Mary: Mary who sat and listened as Jesus spoke, Mary who (as Jesus says) chose better. But during Lent, I can see that sometimes I resemble Martha. It looks like she resented her sister, or resented the lack of help, or resented the burden of the chores, or was jealous of the chance to sit and rest, or of the chance to be included in the conversation. There are a lot of possibilities. Did she mind that she was busy, or did she mind that her sister wasn't? Jesus calls Martha twice -- did she need a moment to slow down and breathe, to hear his voice and see his face? He says Martha is "anxious and troubled about many things." Being anxious and troubled about many things can lead me to miss what is important. Being anxious and troubled can tempt me to resent those who are not. Anxiety and fear do not bring out the best or kindest in us. Our frantic efforts to make things right can cause us to miss out on what is better. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Lenten self-examination: The disciples disputed among themselves ...

And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that you all disputed among yourselves along the way? But they held their peace: for along the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and said to them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. (Mark 9:33-35)
There are a few times where the gospels show the disciples arguing amongst themselves. It's human nature; divisions occur. And disputes over the top spot, the MVP, the prestige, the leadership -- things haven't changed much since the disciples' day. 

In my self-examination this week I found that I'm determined to be the best. That's not quite the same thing as determined to be excellent, or determined to be the best that I can be. There's a competitive edge to it. When other people are recognized and honored, do I rejoice for them? Or do I wish it had been me? I find it reassuring that the disciples went through the same thing, so common a human temptation. I find it reassuring that Jesus addressed it. Jesus lived his own words: he made himself servant of all, found himself a convicted criminal. That kind of "best" is not at anyone else's expense, and does not covet another person's position or reputation or recognition. That kind of "best" is the kind that meets the needs of others. That kind of "best" is compatible with loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Lent Self-Examination: put away "evil speaking"

Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance. Here I would like to focus on part of Paul's instructions that also came to mind last week: 
Ephesians 4:31   Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.  
The "evil speaking" that I do tends to stay inside my head. That does not make it good. And Paul's observations are on-point: the evil speaking tends to grow out of anger. If someone has caused harm to me or my children, if something or someone threatens my livelihood or attacks my good name, it is natural to feel angry -- and it is good to stop the harm. Fuming inside myself increases the anger and does not address the harm. 

Paul's comments are much like Jesus' own comments on that: 
Matthew 15:18   But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.
So the words may stay inside my head and heart, but that's far from the clean heart that we pray for. 

For this week, I plan to focus the self-examination on when any kind of "evil speaking" is on my mind. 
Luke 11:39   And the Lord said unto him, Now do you Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the plate; but inside ...