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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger & Thirst


"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled," Christ announces in what we call the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). If you don't read this, or any of the Sermon on the Mount, and see it as counter-cultural, then you will miss that this is not some ethereal, other-worldly kingdom Christ is speaking of, but the sweat and soil of the here and now. For Christ, spirituality is always rooted in humanity, in community. This was not some teaching for a future time and some far off kingdom, but was meant to be lived out in the place where each and every one of his hearers were. This is a sermon for who you are and where you are, not for some by and by heavenly future kingdom. 

Christ was teaching predominantly Jews. Oppressed Jews under Roman rule. These were dire and poor people, who were taxed 90% of what they made (not only by Rome but by the Temple). They were desperate and hungry, literally. They barely had enough to eat. Much of them followed Jesus in the hopes that he would multiply loaves and fishes because they were starving.

Even among the Jews, they were spiritually diverse: Historians said that there were five sects in Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sicarii. And even among those five sects there were at least two dozen competing belief systems during the first century when Jesus taught. So among his listeners were people caught up among these competing belief systems. Each one was coming to Christ with a different take on even what Judaism was. How much of what Jesus taught was filtered through these belief systems?

Certainly, they would have been shocked by the Beatitudes, which upended the construct of how their religious and cultural life was structured. Even within our seemingly modern world, his words do not resonate with reality but challenge our idea of what reality and how things should work.

How many of them thought the knew and understood Yahweh only to have Christ telling them, "You have heard it said" or "You have been taught this about God, but I tell you" and find that their belief system is skewed and that they don't understand the character and nature of their Creator. How many of them understood law, but not love? How many of them were, unknowingly, starving and thirsting for grace and an unconditional love that never ends?

Were they shocked? Were they offended? Were they somewhere in-between? Did they struggle to fit this in with the religion they believed and held dear? In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard wrote, "The Beatitudes simply cannot be 'good news' if they are understood as a set of 'how-to's' for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism. They would not serve to throw open the kingdom - anything but. They would impose a new brand of Phariseeism." How did those who stood or sat there on the mount, could not work these words into the fabric of their faith? Could they hear what Christ was telling them or did they ascribe this into exactly what Dallas Willard is calling a "new brand of Phariseeism?" Were these words setting them free or simply baffling and confusing them?

The Emperor Constantine I made Christianity legal, though many falsely believe he made it the official religion. Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, understood that he could not be emperor and run an empire if he truly followed the teachings of Christ, specifically the Sermon on the Mount. He, himself, would not convert until he was on his deathbed. It was only decades after Constantine's death that Emperor Theodosis I make Christianity the official religion of Rome. But that's how serious Constantine viewed the Sermon on the Mount.

How many people who would refer to themselves as "Christian" honestly believe the Beatitudes enough to even begin attempting to live them out in daily life? I must admit that, in my own life, at times, any assemblance of a spiritual life is sporadic and a real struggle. During these periods there is definitely not a hungering or thirsting for anything remotely righteous. There are days when I don't pray, don't even have a fleeting wish to pick up my Bible and read it. It is in those times when I cannot even grasp, "You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat" (The Message).

Were there those in that crowd who were like me and these words fell on deaf ears? Were they thinking, "Jesus, we are literally hungering and thirsting because we don't have anything to eat and yet you offer us no bread, no fish but only words. We get enough platitudes from our religious leaders. Our empty bellies don't need more words, more religion." Did they walk away? As Gandhi once said, "There are people in the world so hungry, God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."

Jesus was not a people pleaser. Though he drew large crowds, he was not interested in keeping them (clearly from what he so often taught and did). How many left after each of the beatitudes he offered them? How many could not fathom this kingdom and the topsy-turvy way it worked?

How many were angry? "We want Rome gone! We want Israel to be a great nation again. We want a messiah who will rise up, overthrow our oppressors, and make us into what we once were under King David."

Hunger in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek means "famine, dire hunger" So when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger" he is not just saying, "Blessed are those who are hungry for a meal, whose stomachs are grumbling." He is drawing a portrait of someone who is going to die without this hunger being met, or this thirst being quenched. His metaphors paint a stark, bleak one that people in that crowd knew and understood just what real hunger truly was. Many of them were at the bottom of the political and economic ladder and were marginalized not only by the Romans but also by the religious leaders. They were not feeling "blessed" for they did not know abundance, except in sorrows, pains and trials. If I were among them, would I have stayed to listen or walked off in disgust?

The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote this verse as, "Blessed are they who hunger after truth and beauty, for their hunger shall bring bread, and their thirst cool water."I love the poetics of this translation. Gibran connects "truth and beauty" for the truth that Christ is proclaiming in the Beatitudes is beautiful in that he is telling those who are feeling left out, marginalized, forgotten, and oppressed that you are not unseen, you are not unheard, you are not forgotten. You are the kingdom of God.

In her book the Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper writes, "If this news would not lead my oppressed ancestors to shout with joy, then maybe it's not good news at all - or at least it's not good enough." Would this gospel, would this Sermon on the Mount, be heard as good news to those who were enslaved in this country? Or how about to the indigenous people who were brutalized, butchered and had everything from their land to their language to their culture taken away from them? Would they hear the Beatitudes and find what Jesus had to say as good? Would they hunger and thirst for these words? Would they hear truth as beautiful?  Would they hear these teachings as what Frederick Dale Bruner called "God-bless-you's to people in God-awful situations?"

So I ask myself: Do I hunger and thirst after righteousness?

And what did Christ even mean by righteousness? Was he referring to holiness?

Righteousness in Hebrew is sedeq and is not some abstract idea relating to virtues, but is connected to community and a right standing within it. Righteousness is right standing within a court system, in which one has found favor. Do we view righteousness as our right standing before God because we have found favor with Him? Too often, I think we view righteousness as a kind of self-righteousness best portrayed by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live as the busy-body, Church Lady. Do we see righteousness through the lens of God's grace and love poured out on us through Christ Jesus? Righteousness means to be in covenant with, that we are justified and vindicated. Righteousness or right-standing is bestowed upon us.

In the kingdom Christ is speaking of, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness because they will be filled. Just as one is filled after a great and sumptuous meal (of how we eat at the holidays), so too one can be filled by the desire to seek after right-standing with God, in community. This also means that we seek after the right-standing and justice of all. It means we put ourselves in solidarity with those who are poor, oppressed, marginalized, and suffering injustice. John Dear writes in his powerful book The Beatitudes of Peace, "Most translations use the word righteousness as in 'doing what is right before God,' but that usually is seen as referring solely to one's personal integrity. Instead, the word speaks of the pursuit of universal social, economic, racial and political 'justice' that God demands of us."

But do I hunger and thirst after such things in my own life or do I go along with the status quo, even within the Church?

Am I awakened by the Beatitudes so much that I cannot slumber or rest until I am filled? Do I attempt to fill myself with other things? Comfort? Possessions? Popularity? The approval of others? What am I hungering and thirsting for?

Or do I, as John Dear wrote, pursue a righteousness of self that does not concern itself with community? If so, then I am not truly working towards what Christ is calling me to here with "as on earth as it is in heaven." As I wrote in the beginning of this post, Jesus is not interested in merely some philosophical or metaphysical argument, but in practical day-to-day, lived out practice that does not neglect the least of these or those who are trapped within their socio-economic situations of dire poverty, human trafficking, modern day slavery, or the racial bias that goes on within our own political and justice systems.

"Whatever you've done for the least of these," Jesus reminds us. If we attempt to disconnect "hunger and thirsting after righteousness" within the context of our world, then we are not honestly living out the gospel of Christ but merely our own personal religious doctrines that satisfy our safety, comfort and self-interests (none of which is where Christ said he would be found).

So, as I reflect and meditate on Matthew 5:6, I find myself, once again, challenged by Christ. I find myself condemned, not by him, but by my own lethargy and neglect to actually live out what I proclaim to follow. That is why I so desperately need the Beatitudes to remind and awaken me to the call of Christ to be poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness because all of these things make me more like him and, in my reflecting him, living out the gospel to those who most need good news in a manner that honestly makes this news good because it does transform the community around me.

This is why I pray that I will hear and heed the words of Jesus and that I hunger and thirst to live them out for all, without regard to race, creed, social or economic standing. That I align myself with those who are poor, broken, hurting, oppressed, marginalized and the least of these because it is there and there alone that I will find the Christ who sat down on the mountain and began, "Blessed are those . . ."

Lord, help me to be one of those who are, indeed, blessed because others (no matter who I am with or where I am) can see you in me. That is my hunger. That is what I thirst for. At least today.





Friday, July 14, 2017

Belief, Doubt & James Joyce


I have grown tired of ideologies (political, religious). It's exhausting to watch as people constantly draw lines and ask, "Which side are you on?" I get tired of the "Are you for us or against us?" stance that so many take. Even in my own faith, I am often uncertain and am filled more with questions than security. There are times that my belief soars over mountaintops and, at other times, hangs tenuously by a psalm. There are times when my prayers flow like streams and rivers, but there are also times where my throat is so dry and the words seem to choke in my throat like sand.  There are periods when I cannot imagine not reading the Bible and, still others, where I want to toss it aside in disgust at the concept of a God who would call for the annihilation of a people and that others would agree to enact such horrific violence in the name of a God.

Am I neither hot nor cold? Yeah, sometimes.

Am I closer to the doubters, the deniers, the questioners? Definitely.

I take hold of the fact that, at his ascension, as he gave out the great commission, that the Gospel of Matthew included in his conclusion, "And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted." What a glorious inclusion that Jesus welcomes the believers and doubters alike in his mission. Why? Because so often we are inconstant and swing like a pendulum between belief and doubt. The most honest prayer in all of scripture is, "I believe. Help me in my unbelief." Yet, as much as Jesus so often welcomes this, I find that so much of the Church prefers either not to, gloss over or ignore struggle, or they offer up verses and prayers in an attempt to keep from the honest baring of souls.

There are many who might even label me an unbeliever or lukewarm. Over the years I have been labeled a great many things and have lost friendships because I have attempted to honestly write about my eternal wrestling. I lay bare my soul and can offer only, "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy). Is it any wonder that the Psalms are so often what tethers me to God? Like David, I cry out: When I call on thy name, listen to me, O god, and grant redress; still, in time of trouble, thou hast brought me relief; have pity on me now and hear my prayer.." (Psalm 4:2).


One of my favorite authors, James Joyce wrote to Lady Gregory, "All things are inconstant except faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills the inconstancy to light." He was poor, in Paris, knew no one, unable to raise the money for his tuition and desperate. He wrote to her for help. His letter was a mixture of ambition and despair. "I am not despondent," he wrote, "however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine." He would go on to leave his pursuit of medicine to take up literature and his name forever celebrated as one of the greatest writers and his novel Ulysses to be one of the most important. Joyce left the Church, but his work is riddled with theology. In a letter to his brother, Joyce wrote: Don't you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of Mass and what I am trying to do?...To give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own."

In Dubliners, he wrote, "Jesus Christ, with His divine understanding of every understanding of our human nature, understood that not all men were called to the religious life, that by far the vast majority were forced to live in the world, and, to a certain extent, for the world."

All of this reveals that, unlike so many self-professed believers, Joyce wrestled and struggled and seriously considered and questioned and infused his work with his intellectual and spiritual striving.


In my own life, I have connected with Joyce's alter-ego Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as he desires to rise above his background with its constraints of religion, nationality, and politics. As Stephen says in Chapter Five of that novel, "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

Joyce writes honestly of the struggle between obedience and disobedience, of the discovery of self that comes through such a struggle. In my own life, I have been in flux, in an ebb and flow of belief and unbelief, doubt and faith. And, yet, each time I find myself wandering away, I find myself pulled back by the simple and undeniable and unshakable love for Christ.

No matter how much I tire of the Church and so-called believers, I am drawn in and by Jesus. Christ and Christ alone. I return to his Sermon on the Mount and his vision for the way the world should be and discover time and time again that it is rooted deeply in love. It is a call to love. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." This I cannot reject. This is what I cling to when I find myself unable to hold tightly to any of the rest of it.



In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce writes: The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Whenever I find myself considering God in such a manner (unconcerned, distant, removed), I must look to the source of my belief: Christ. Christ is never distant, never removed, never callous or indifferent. When I feel myself at the margins, I must remember that it is exactly there that Christ made his home. He seated himself with the doubters, the marginalized, the forgotten, the broken, the hurting, the hopeless, the deniers, the unbelievers. Those who realized they were, at best, shaky and desperate, Jesus loved and reminded them to not be afraid because he would always be with them. It was only for those of such religious certainty that they were secure in their own belief that Christ has no time. Their rigid belief made no room for him. The walls of their self-assurance in their own perfected holiness kept Christ out.

For the misfits who struggle, wrestle, doubt, question, cry out, wane, wonder and wander, know that you are not alone. Know that you are welcome to the table and will find yourself embraced by a God who loves you. As Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 4:10, "We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around" (The Message). I love that! The Messiah's misfits. What a humble, rag-tag bunch that is. And I feel welcome there. I feel that my weakness is his strength. I cannot embrace my own virtues any more than I can my own vices, but lay them all down and proclaim, "In Christ alone." And, know, that this will always be followed by, "I believe. Help me in my unbelief." Why? Because I am not rooted in myself, my own certainties, my own strengths and weaknesses. I love how Eugene Peterson describes this, "All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us."

So, you can label me or love me as you wish. You can judge me or join me. You can exclude or embrace me.

But no matter what, you will find me at the table with the beggars, the battered, the bruised, the hurting, the humble, the marginalized, the lonely, the oddballs, the misfits, the weirdos, the freaks, the poor, the doubters, the deniers, the questioners, the outcast and the peculiar. Why? Because that is the table of our Lord. That is where Christ is found. That is home.