Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Getting to the Good Stuff

[James said] "Grant us, therefore, not to be tempted by the devil, the evil one."  The Lord answered and said, "What is your merit if you do the will of the Father and it is not given to you from him as a gift while you are tempted by Satan?  But if you are oppressed by Satan and persecuted and you do his (i.e. the Father's) will, I [say] that he will love you, and make you equal with me, and reckon [you] to have become beloved through his providence by your own choice.  --  from The Apocryphon of James 4:29 - 5:6*
I have been encouraging a few friends lately to read the books of the Bible without using any outside sources:  no commentaries, no references, and no one else's opinion -- "Let the words themselves speak to you first."  Since I have learned so much more about God and myself this way, I think it's the best way to read the Bible.

It's not that I'm against knowing the history or the cultural context, or the literary and linguistic background of these writings.  I think all this can add to our understanding.  But if we immediately jump to that background stuff or to what someone else thinks a passage means, we will miss out on what the words have to say to us personally.  We will then be reading the Bible more for information (i.e. history, culture, theology, etc.) than for enlightenment; we will then be examining faith as an object rather than becoming subject to it.  

These last couple of weeks, I have become interested in learning more about the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Nag Hammadi Library.  After listening to and reading several interpretations of specific passages in some of these texts from the scholars, I thought I should take my own advice, and go directly to the source.  So I found a copy of "The Nag Hammadi Library" at the local used bookstore, and read the first book it contains.

The Apocryphon of James describes an interesting dialogue between Jesus and James and Peter.  The specific words attributed to Jesus are unlike any I have read in the four biblical Gospels, but maybe that is because those words have become so familiar to me over the years, and these words are new.  I imagine that the more I read these words, the less strange they will seem to me.  Even now, having read the dialogue several times, I can see that the meaning is often not that much different from what I have read in the Bible.

The language used did, however, present some challenges.  I personally don't think of evil or temptation as being personified in the form of Satan or the devil.  But that is how ancient people thought about evil (and how many faithful people today think about evil).  So when I come to language like this, I'm learning to make accommodations for the unique perspective of the person who thinks like this, and not let that get in the way of what I can learn from them.  I know that if I let little differences in understanding like that get in the way, I would miss out on a whole lot of good stuff.

For many of the passages in this tract resonated with specific questions and concerns I have been having lately.  This often happens to me when I read, so I shouldn't have been surprised.  But this was like having every question I've had for the past several weeks answered in one conversation.  I can't help but wonder how much guidance I would have missed if I had just continued listening to or reading what someone else thinks it all means. 

The passage I quoted above speaks to me about living a faithful life.  I sometimes think that such a life should be easier than it is.  If God wants me to do something, then it should go well; it should be easy and successful.  If it's not easy and I'm not successful, then I begin to wonder if I'm really doing what God wants me to do.  Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there are plenty of stories in the Bible that attests to the opposite:  of godly people who found following God's word to be extremely challenging. 

In fact, we have just been reading about Elijah in Eugene Peterson's "The Jesus Way," in our Tuesday morning book study.  Elijah had a very difficult calling:  he had to convince the people of Israel that they were worshiping the wrong god.  They should have been worshiping Yahweh, not Baal.  His message was so unpopular that his life was threatened on more than one occasion.  At one point, he felt so unsuccessful that he sat under a broom tree and gave up.  Needless to say, I could relate.  I was having my own "broom tree moment" just the other day.

But God sent an angel who fed him.  Like Jesus who was tempted in the wilderness, God sent angels to sustain him.  Now I've never seen personified goodness in the form of an angel anymore than I have ever seen personified evil in the form of a devil, but that doesn't mean we don't experience both.  We do.  I experience temptations, serious difficulties, and my own inadequacies, all the time.  I also experience being fed, sustained, and uplifted by God's guidance and grace, all the time.  Reading this text was one of those times.  

Living a faithful life is not easy, but it is filled with very good stuff, indeed.  So, do you take the difficult road or the easy road?  For me, though I may sometimes be tempted otherwise, there is really only one choice.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
 be with you 


*from "The Nag Hammadi Library," James M. Robinson, General Editor, Revised Edition (1988)

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Live each day as if it were your last.

The sentiment in the passage above is so frequently heard in a multitude of versions nowadays, in words and songs, that I don't really know to whom I should attribute it.  But it's something that has been much on my mind lately.  It can be viewed both positively and negatively.  On the one hand, there is wisdom in the idea of living each day as if it were your last.  If you did, you might appreciate everything more; you would surely hug and kiss and tell people you loved them more; and, maybe, you would indulge yourself more -- like, eat that very rich dessert.  Things that aren't really important in the grand scheme of things, like watching that television show, would be dropped without a second thought.  On the other hand, you would have to leave some loose ends.  For you wouldn't be able to finish things that might be important but that would require more time than you have.  And you would certainly not make plans for the future.

This reminds me of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which have also been much on my mind lately:  For I surely know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.   When I think of these words, I envision a future in which my children are loving, compassionate, and thriving adults, my husband and I are growing closer together, the book I'm working on is published and helps many people, and I would accomplish many things.  I believe this is the future God wants for me, as well.  For God has given me these blessings and these passions, and has guided me in these areas.  But, and here is the key, none of this will just happen without my involvement.  I can't just sit back and expect them to happen on their own.

This is the dichotomy between "living in the now" and having a "future with hope."  If you are too focused on one, you will lose the other. 

My twelve-year-old son was telling me a story about a guy who was going to ditch school to play video games all day because "YOLO."  YOLO, meaning You Only Live Once, is a frequent saying of his hashtag generation -- who also like to abbreviate most things.  It's generally given as a reason for self-indulgent behavior, for living "in the now," instead of considering a longer view of the future, like the importance of going to school in order to get an education in order to someday get a career in order to support yourself.   In many ways, it takes the laudable idea of living today as if it were your last day, to the extreme.

And recently, I watched a movie called "The Spectacular Now," which is also about this dichotomy.  The main character is a charming high school senior named Sutter, who would much rather party than study.  He is continually buzzed, whether from alcohol (which he sips continually) or from life, it's hard to tell.  He meets a girl who, in many ways, is his opposite.  She is shy and hard-working, a good student, and has very specific dreams about her future.  She falls in love with Sutter, but as graduation approaches and his friends make plans, Sutter longs to keep things fixed in the same place they have always been.  Finally, he wakes up to what his future will look if he continues to live "in the now," when he meets his estranged father, a man who would rather hang out at the bar with people who will pay his tab than get to know his only son.  

For me, these musing translate into some significant self-examination.  I have always been a terrible procrastinator.  "Always put off today, what you can do tomorrow," has essentially been my motto.  "Do now only what absolutely has to be done now, everything else can wait."  Very often, this means that it can take me an inordinate amount of time to get something done, as other, more interesting, things take precedence -- I'm quite good at thinking of other more interesting things to do.  As long as everything gets done by the time it's due, I rationalize, then no harm done.  Right?

But what if something doesn't have a "due date"?  Like guiding my kids in "the way that they should go," or spending time with my husband talking about more than just family business stuff, or actually working on that book, or doing all the other things that will make the future I envision a real possibility.  Well, then, my tendency to put things off means that these things may not get done for a very long time, if ever.  

If by YOLO we mean that we'd better make ourselves happy first, essentially "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die," then we are being very short-sighted, if not dangerously selfish.  But if we take a longer view of YOLO, then we have a life of great opportunity ahead of us.  This is the only life we have.  What do you want it to look like?  Do you want to leave this world better off because you were in it?  I do.

Yesterday, my pastor said, during Ash Wednesday services, that the cross of ashes she makes on our forehead is to remind us of our mortality.  It's a good reminder.  The beginning of Lent is in many ways like the beginning of a new year.  It's a good time to make changes for the better, to be more intentional about how you live your life.  For this Lent, I promise to make each day count as much as possible, so that this life, the only life I have, will be lived abundantly, now and in the future.  What will you do?

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you