Monday, March 21, 2011

Jesus' Golden Rule

Greetings to each of you
                                                      The Golden Rule of Jesus
     We're now in the early days of another Lenten season which causes us to reflect on the quality and nature of our relationship with God and all humanity.  In the church's liturgy and prayers, we are reminded of our failings and need for forgiveness.  Often the Psalms for Lent speak of our need to live within the framework of God's commandments...the Law.  But many people say, "that's too hard...there are too many can I ever do that?"
     In Jesus' great "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7), he taught the principles which should guide our relationships.  In verse-after-verse, he developed a framework for our interactions with others.  Then in Matthew 7:12, he laid down the KEY with which we can obey God's law in our relationships with fellow humans..   "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is (God's) Law and the prophet's" (teaching).   In this verse Jesus distilled all of God's law and guidance for human relationships.
     But was this guidance "something new" from God?   Doesn't it sound like the "golden rule" of behavior which was taught by other faith leaders?
                   Confucius (551-479 BCE)..."Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you."
                   Buddha (470-390 BCE)..."Hurt not others with that which pains yourself or in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."
                   Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism (604 BCE)..."Rejoice at the success of others, and sympathize with their reverses, even as though you were in their place."
                   Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus summed the Jewish thought as..."What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow humans."
     So, a person might say that Jesus was simply asking his followers to obey an older rule of behavior for all human relationships.  Is there anything new in Jesus' teaching?  If I follow the ancient "golden rule" to do good to others, I am the judge of what I believe is "good".  Is my love for others always of the same quality?  Maybe, my "good" is more empoverished toward one person and richer to another?  Can I judge my love toward one person to be "adequate" even if it is inferior to the level of love I show others?  In that situation my personal desire can control and throttle my level of love to various people.
     However, when Jesus told his followers "to do to others as you would have them do to you", he made HIS LIFE and MINISTRY the EXAMPLE of how he defined the little verb, "do".  He taught those who follow him that we should "do to others" as Jesus did to Jesus accepted Jesus loved others.
     Toward the last days of Jesus' life, he taught his followers a more PROFOUND meaning of his earlier phrase, "do unto others", when he told them that the verb "do" is a manifestation of LOVE.     "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you HAVE LOVE FOR ONE ANOTHER."  (John 13:34-35 NSRV).  In the middle of this verse, there is a short sentence which settles the problem about my ability to judge how much love to much care to give others.  Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment that you love one another,  JUST AS I HAVE LOVED YOU, you should love one another".  It is no longer MY judgment about the "goodness of what to do" or the amount of love to be shown to others.  My love and care for others should follow the pattern of Christ's love which I HAVE EXPERIENCED.
     Here Christ raised the ethical level of this "revised golden rule".  The example of Jesus' love to others was always...
                                                  appropriately intense,
                                                  rightly directed
                                                  and available to all others (inclusive).
As a follower of Christ, this must be the pattern for my loving and caring relationships with all others!  No longer do I have the judgmental role which gauges the degree of appropriate "loving or doing".  I am to love others as Christ has loved me!  Now if that doesn't force me to my knees before God, praying for added love and strength, I don't know what it might take!  The Lenten season provides the opportunity for introspection to recognize that, in my love for God, I want to live more perfectly within the divine standards for all my human relationships.  Yet, as a human I realize that I can not do this alone.  It is essential that the Christ Spirit within each of us empower us to live according to the example of Jesus.  During Lent we make ourselves more vulnerable and open to God's work to create in us this divine love and to re-define our soul walk reflecting Jesus' amplification of the old "golden rule". 
     It is my prayer that each of us will use this season to honestly expose our hearts and minds to the Christ Spirit which will cleanse us...instruct us...stregthen and bless us in our spiritual journey.
God's peace and blessing to each of you,                           Donald Luke

Monday, March 7, 2011

Undeviating Constancy

January 11, 2011

     Many years ago while attending the University of Iowa, I took a course to study the Hebrew Bible which was taught by a visiting Jewish theologian, Leo Schwarz.  It was an interesting experience and from it I continue to reflect on his thought about the single most powerful word in the Old Testament writings.  In
Dr. Schwarz's view, it was the Hebrew word which is translated in English as  STEADFAST.  On almost every page of the Scriptures, we can find evidence of God's steadfast love, care and covenant with humanity.
     Now, steadfast is not a word which usually falls off of the tongue and to many modern listeners, it is an unusual word with a cloudy meaning.  My dictionary claims that this word means "fixed or steady in direction but chiefly is used to indicate an UNDEVIATING CONSTANCY or RESOLUTION".  (1)   At the beginning of a new year, it's a good time to think about this word and its implication to our spiritual lives and our ministry to other people.
     "I am resolved to follow Jesus" is a song phrase that speaks of our heart's desire to enter this new year in a state of deeper and more committed relationship to Christ and his service.  But we all recognize that it is easier to sing the words of a song than it is to live-them-out moment by moment.  God may bring  into our lives a special opportunity for loving service and the Holy Spirit may call upon us, as Christ's disciples, to act upon this situation.  In our desire to be responsive to God, we may enter this service opportunity in whatever manner which meets the need.  But sometimes the need is not fulfilled in a moment's time nor even in several of our interactions over a few days.  This is particularly true when God asks us to become loving support to another person in emotional, spiritual or physical need.  Often this type of Christian service to others is prolonged and complicated by factors that we can not fully control.  It is easy to become frustrated, tired or just-plain fearful as we continue our God-directed support to such an individual.  As our frustrations increase, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain constancy in our loving Christian support.  And it may require personal time, strength and resources which we fear may become depleted or simply inadequate for the task.  Yet, we are called to be "steady in our resolution" for service.   But, HOW??....
     First, I believe that it is important that we CLEARLY HEAR the divine wish which the Holy Spirit makes apparent to us.  A soldier responds to his commander's orders, but only those  orders directed to that particular soldier.  Sometimes we assume a task which was not directed to us.  It doesn't hurt your relationship with God if you ask God to affirm or clarify in your spirit the nature of what you are to do.  And in the same prayer, you can ask for the right opportunity, adequate resources and sufficient courage and love to complete the service. 
     The next matter for you to realize is that God will not send you out alone to do the divine work, but rather, God will always be with you in the task.  It is God's love, compassion and wisdom IN and WITH YOU which will be manifested in the service as you and God BOTH do the work.  If God is the primary "mover" of this work which engages both of you, never fear that there will be insufficient love, opportunity and resources for the task.  God adequately provides!  As you engage with the person-in-need, try to be a "vessel" or "channel" for the Holy Spirit in you to flow forth in words, care and wisdom.  Now, that may sound a little "too religious" and like jargon.  But it is a fact that the Holy Spirit is present in a Christian and is adequate for any given task.  Relax and let God's presence be expressed!
     We all wish that the other person's needs could be "fixed" with a simple word, smile or deed.  But unfortunately, often that is not the case.  Here is the place where the consistent and steadfast nature of Christian service is important.    The problems related to the other one's needs may be complex and multidimensional.  Oh, and did I forget to mention that often people don't respond well to help or become fearful and withdraw from your interaction.  Yet, does that mean that God "gives up on them and walks away" allowing them to struggle alone?  No, that is not the nature of God.  God wants to struggle onward to help them and God NEEDS YOU  to be the physical agent for such steadfast, continued service to the individual. 
     The degree of "success" which BOTH you and God have in this service interaction depends upon the other person's free will to accept this help or change behavior.  Neither God nor you can force their decision.  And when this type of relational interaction becomes stalemated by unresolved blocks, it is easy for us to want to walk away from the task to which God called us.  But, I remind you that God's Spirit can be " quietly persistent" in ministry to us humans.  Often it persists by the means of our STEADFAST out-reach to that person.  In such a situation, it may be necessary for God to "whisper" to the individual and, therefore, we must "tone-down"  or reduce some of our effort;  but it is important that we not give-up in our effort to reach the other one in need.  There is a variable degree of urgency expressed in the nature of the Holy Spirit's communication with us.  Sometimes, God seems to shout at us to serve the needs of someone, while at other times the Spirit quietly whispers the message to us.   And certainly in those times, we must persist in steadfast, even if quiet, effort to help.
     Our task is only to follow the Divine Commander's orders.  WHEN, HOW and IF the ministry succeeds is not fully in or control.  Many stories in the life and ministry of Jesus illustrate these principles and should remind us that "success" is not always an immediate or recognized matter. I hope that this reflection will be helpful to you as you initiate (or continue previous)  ministries with God's children-in-need.
         "Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine." (2)

(1) Random House College Dictionary, revised 1975
(2) a closing statement from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer

Praying in those 'Odds & Ends' Moments of Life

Feb 3, 2011

Greetings to you all,
                                         Meditative Prayers
     In your busy life, do you sometimes find yourself wishing for some extra time for quiet meditation about the mystery and wonders of God?  Maybe you've bought a book of daily devotions and soon discovered that successful use of it demands that you develop a SPECIFIC time period to read it.  After such disciplined study, you feel better about your spiritual walk.  However, there are other times during your work-a-day world when you'd like to "re-charge" your spiritual batteries but don't have the devotional material with you or the "window of opportunity" may be rather brief.  Other times may be times of tedious activity like the commute home from work or short periods of waiting for someone or something to occur.  Instead of just letting your mind wander into day dreams, this is a great "little opportunity" for meditative prayer.
     So, what is this type of prayer?  One way to describe it would be the use of a short, memorized prayer which you EXPAND as you say it...phrase by phrase.  An easy place to begin is with the Lord's Prayer (the Our Father).  If you haven't memorized it, this is a good time to start.  (You may plead that it is hard for you to memorize things but I'd just remind you of how many passwords, phone numbers, etc. you  can produce in an instant's notice!)  The Lord's Prayer has several versions, so it is best to choose one version to memorize.  Write it on a piece of paper or card which can be placed in your pocket, wallet or on the dash board of your car.  Carefullly read it for the purpose of memory several times each day and in a short time you'll have all of it (or at least parts of it) committed to memory.  It's really not that difficult.
     In the early years of the Franciscan brotherhood, many of the men who joined Francis were not educated and could not read from the Gospel Book or the daily office of prayers.  Francis often had them pray the Lord's Prayer in place of the standard monastic prayers for morning prayer, vespers,etc.  And it happens that Francis sometimes taught them some "expanded phrases" added to the prayer's lines.  I've placed his "expansions" in parentheses.
              "O Our Father"   ( our Creator..Redeemer..Consoler)
              "Who are in heaven"   (with the angels and departed saints)
              "Holy be Your Name"  (may knowledge of You and your Name become clearer in us, teaching us about your characteristics ..your promises, blessings and your majesty).          (1)

     Do you see what he did?  Francis took a short phrase or even a word from the prayer and let his mind meditate about it.  As his mind expanded on the phrase (or word), additional spiritual insight or thoughts of the Divine worship and praise entered his consciousness and his speech.  This is not a corruption of some "holy" prayer, but rather, it allows the memorized prayer to become the "backbone" support for your spontaneous, associated thoughts and praises toward God.  During these brief interludes of time, you may meditate on only one word or a few of the lines of the prayer.  That's OK!  The words which were used from the memorized prayer have well served your spiritual growth by lifting into consciousness other words or praises which heighten your attention and relationship to God.
     A personal example often  used by me originates from the final doxology line of the Lord's Prayer which is..."For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen"    I often meditate on this prayer line in the following manner.       "For You, O God, reign (are, continue to be) in the glory which is the power (of your love, your steadfast and merciful love, your loving all-goodness). Amen (be it ever so, Amen)."
     As I meditate even on these few words from that prayer line, I often get "hung-up" in thought about the ecstasy of that GLORY which is characteristic of God...or how God's love is so steadfast in comparison to my love...or God being "all-goodness" with no shadow of less-than-perfect, whole goodness.  ((The phrase that God is "all-Goodness"  is very much a part of Franciscan spirituality and is a phrase often spoken by Francis.))
     By now I hope that you have  a fair idea of this spiritual experience of "meditative prayer".  I have suggested use of the Lord's Prayer as a good starting point for your introduction to this devotional practice for those "little moments" throughout the day.  But I append here two more prayers which can be richly used in this same way.

         Our love prayer of Adoration to Christ Jesus....
     "Both here in my heart and in the hearts of believers throughout the world, O Christ Jesus, I bless and adore you.  Because of your Incarnation,  your Life and Ministry,  and your Death and Resurrection, you have revealed God to me,  you have redeemed me for God   and you draw me unto God.  Blessed be your Holy Name, Christ Jesus, my Redeemer and my Lord."

        An adaptation of a prayer composed by Cardinal Newman
     " Dear Jesus, help me to spread your sweet fragrance everywhere I go.  Flood my soul with your spirit and life.  Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that my life may be only a radiance of your life.     Shine through me and be so in me, that every soul with whom I come into contact may feel your presence in my soul.    Let them look up and see not me but only you, Jesus, and give you glory.  Stay with me and then I will begin to shine as you shine;  so to share as to be a light to others through me.  Let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force, the symphathetic influence of what I am, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears for you."

     It is my hope that you will fill your moments of tedium and waiting with this spiritual exercise rather than simply "putting your mind into neutral" and drifting into day dreams.
(1) "Prayer inspired by the Our Father" in Francis of Assisi-Early Documents, vol I, eds. Armstrong, Hellmann and Short, New City Press, NYC, 1999, p.158.

Peace to all! Donald Luke

Francis Embraces A Stranger

Feb 23, 2011

Greetings to all,
      "EVERY GOOD FRIEND WAS ONCE A STRANGER" -Steve Barry, The Paris Vendetta, 2009

     Try to disprove that statement!  It's always true...but unfortunately, most of the time we are not consciously aware of the INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY which it opens up to our lives.  In our life experience we quickly learn to identify individuals as either "like-us" or "not-like-us"  and we are taught to be suspicious of those who are out-side of our charcteristics and values.  Humans have always been fear-filled and cautious toward those who were different in skin color, language, culture, religion,etc.  However, when adults reflect back over their lives, most of us find that we have enjoyed good friendship and loving support from individuals who, strange enough, would have fit into our earlier perception of someone "unlike-us".  But through some event in our lives, we successfully related with each other in a meaningful way which disregarded our differences.  Yes, these differences continued to exist in each of us, but they were ACCEPTED; and any earlier fears related to them were neutralized by the good qualities of our relationship.  Thus a friendship was created even though both individuals came into it with many personal differences.
     The life of St. Francis was filled with many friendly relationships which developed with people whose characteristics were very different from those of the Saint.  Yet, he could always call them "brother or sister" and friend because Francis EMBRACED them as individuals who were lovingly created by the same God who had created him.  In Francis' mind, these differences were suppressed by their commonalty as part of the Divine creation.  In modern times, the blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta would frequently say that when she looked upon a sick or dying person - whether Hundu, Muslim or Christian - she could always see the same face...the face of the suffering Christ. 
     Fear related to our differences can be neutralized if we recognoze that we and the "other-one" are all part of the great Web of Life.    
                    All created by the same loving God....
                    All woven together to relate in harmony within a "cosmic tapestry" which glorifies the Creator.
     But in that cosmic tapestry of life, our "life thread" must connect to other threads...must interact with and rest peacefully with other that the great universal plan for which God created us can be realized and "held-together" as a beautiful and colorful work.
     In the 21st century, we live in a world which has experienced enormous change within just a few decades.  Our world has become a small, blue ball within a huge universe; and from that perspective no national boundries are seen.  Global transportaion and communication bring people of "any and all" cultures into "neighbor-like" existence and potential relationship.  Yet, this global shrinking does not remove from each of us those cultural,ethnic and religious differences.  The great question for this century is whether or not we, who have collided together in this globalization, will continue to behave as if we are strangers to each other...locked in a pattern of separation, fearful distrust, and ignorance of each other's values.  Our only option to such a dismal end will be found as we embrace opportunities to learn about each other, discover "common ground", and interact with each other in a meaningful manner.
     As followers of Christ Jesus, it should be easy for us to appreciate the necessity of universal brother(sister)hood because we, like Francis, understand that the one God created all of us.  But unfortunately the ego-protective behaviors, which are fear and separation based, are strongly placed into our awareness during childhood.  Therefore, we must ACTIVELY seek ways to over-come these fears which produce separation and make strangers of others. 
     Ironically this same globalization process has made more readily attainable ONE portion of the solution.  Communication and relaiable information about the various human cultures, religions and beliefs are available via media, books, cultural performances, etc.  But these opportunities for better understanding still require another element for problem solution.  And that, my friends, is  OUR INDIVIDUAL WILLINGNESS to enter into dialogue with the stranger and embrace them.  As we begin to appreciate our commonalty with each other, it is then that we can embrace each other - not as strangers - but as potential friends and fellow creations of God.
     As Christians we acknowledge that God created EACH OF US ...each of us in ALL of our variations, cultures, beliefs, and characteristic backgrounds.
              Part of that Divine Love, which is is essence of God, was given to ALL OF HUMANITY in all of its variations.
                        The FACE of the suffering Christ is visible in EVERY HUMAN FACE - even those distorted by pain and sin...and even those which at first look strange to us.
     The loving acceptance which we have already experienced from God should become OUR EXAMPLE to embrace others.  That compassionate and Grace-filled love, which Christ first expressed toward us, is like a GREAT RIVER whose "loving waters" must not be dammed-up and restricted only to us.  As St. Francis threw open his heart to embrace the whole of creation, may we also strive to become more accepting and loving of those around us who are different in culture and value...Maybe some of those strangers will become our friends!

God's Peace and Love to each of you!          Donald Luke

Working With The Best

March 3, 2011

                           "It is not the religious act that makes a Christian,  but it is participation in the suffering of Christ in the life of the world."   (Bonhoeffer)

     I'm frequently amazed by the results of opinion polls which seem to litter the news and talk shows on the media.  In some of these surveys, the respondent categories are divided by religious affiliation.  Have you ever wondered what is required to check the category box marked "Christian" for these polls?  I'm sure that many of these respondents believe that occasional church attendance is adequate to be named as a Christian by our cultural standards.  But it would be more productive for our spiritual lives (and the society in which we live) if GOD's standards were used to determine the label "Christian".
     The adjective "Christian" implies that the individual has chosen to live in a manner which reflects the life example of Christ Jesus who called people to leave their "culturally normal" lifestyle and to follow his example.  And what was the living example of Jesus?  Sure, he attended synagogue services, and participated in the Jewish feasts and rituals...but he also spent his life in COMPASSIONATE service to those who were poor, sick, lost and socially out-cast.  It's true that not every person to whom Jesus ministered was poor or an out-cast.  However, they all had deep personal and spiritual needs from which they suffered greatly.  In fact, when followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked "Who he was?", Jesus defined himself by the nature of his compassionate care for the poor and sick.
                   ..."John the Baptist summoned two of his disciples and sent them to ask"...(if Jesus was the promised Messiah for Israel) and when they came to Jesus..."he had just then cured many people of diseases...and Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."            (Luke 7:18-22    NSRV)
     Jesus did not define himself as as a "religious superhero" sent by God to Israel.  Rather, his spiritual role was understood by his ministry to those suffering and in great need.  Christ, the Messiah from God, stooped and bent down to get into the midst of the suffering poor... to be WITH THEM  and to bless them with healing and comfort..  His action toward them was a loving expression of his "com-passion"...with them in their suffering.
     The quotation from Bonhoeffer which started this reflection was written in the early 1940s in a Germany marching deeply into war.  The Nazi war machine was creating unbelievable levels of suffering and destruction while German protestants and catholics were quietly ignoring the chaos around them.  It was a time when men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer cried out to their fellow German Christians that church attendance or a nominal "label  of Christian" was inadequate to be a follower of the compassionate Christ.
     It's very easy for us to look back on that dark time in Christian Europe's history, when the witness of Christ was severely dimmed by human fear and the effort focused on self-interest and self-preservation.  However, even today I believe that it would be valid for we American Christians to hear and respond to Bonhoeffer's cry to awaken to the FULL MINISTRY of Christ in this current world.  Our worship of Christ Jesus is INADEQUATE if we do not CO-PARTICIPATE WITH CHRIST in ministry to fellow suffering humans in our nation and in the world.    How can we Christians quietly ignore the political and social forces which fail to alleviate the causes of so much poverty, pain and human suffering?  In future years our generation of Christians may be judged to be as "spiritually weak" as that earlier generation of German Christians.
                         How will our Christian life be described?   Will we be able to respond to those who ask about our faith by letting them witness our "co-ministry" with Christ to the poor, suffering and lost around us?...or will they see our witness to be a "shadow ministry" without involvement (com-passion) in the relief of human suffering? 
                         There's no doubt where Christ can be found in our may be in our churches but you can stake your eternal life  on the fact that Christ is still found in ministry to the poor, sick, homeless and out-casts!   Where will you be found?
    "It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but it is PARTICIPATION in the suffering of Christ in the life of this world."    (from Bonhoeffer's chapter (p.656) in Ethik, ed Heinz Todt, 1940.)