Do Good or Do Harm?

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Mark 3:1-6 Jesus Heals a Man with a Withered Hand.

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Ethicists and philosophers will tell you that there are three main ways in which we make moral decisions. This is a gross oversimplification, but the first is called Deontology – or Rule Ethics. The premise is easy. The right thing to do is to follow the rules. The outcome doesn’t really matter as long as you follow the rules.

A second method is Teleology – or Goal Ethics. The premise here is that you decide what you want your goal to be and you choose an action which moves you toward your goal.

But Jesus seems to espouse a third position, that of Areteology – or Virtue Ethics. This method starts by asking the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?” Choices are made based on whether or not they practice the virtue you want to emulate.

We all use all three in any given moment, and all three can overlap to some extent.

Say for instance the speed limit is 45 mph. A rule follower would follow the speed limit because following the law is the right thing to do. A goal oriented person may desire to arrive at a destination safe and so they drive 45 mph which allows them to achieve this goal. And a virtuous person may want to be a safe driver because it protects themselves and others on the road, and so they drive 45 mph because it is virtuous. All are driving 45 but for very different reasons.

But sometimes these methods can conflict with each other.

In the text, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand on the national day of rest and asks the question, “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath?”

Here I can imagine the wheels turning in his opponent’s heads. Which is morally correct? To follow the rule even if it allows harm? Or to break the rule in order to do good?

Jesus doesn’t wait for their reply but demonstrates his way of doing ethics – he heals the man despite the rule, demonstrating virtuous living.

No doubt about it – this way of making choices is complicated. It is so much easier to have a solid rule in place to fall back on when confronted with a moral dilemma. No thinking required. Just follow the rule.

But here Jesus asks us to dig a little. He asks us if we might consider practicing the virtues of mercy, compassion, grace, restorative justice, selflessness, forgiveness, and love – even if it breaks the rules. Even if it places us in harm’s way.

For Jesus, the rules aren’t bad in themselves. Rather the rules act as a guide and tutor. The rules can help us make sure we stay on the path toward God’s goals for humanity (see what I did there?). But just one chapter prior Jesus explains, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), meaning: We aren’t slaves to the rules, especially when the opportunity arises to live virtuously outside of those rules.

Unfortunately we aren’t so far removed from those religious leaders that day. Like them we gravitate toward the easier path. We construct hard and fast rules from the Bible – even from the mouth of Jesus himself – and rather than put in the hard work of practicing the virtues demonstrated by our Lord, we simply follow the rules.

Who needs your mercy, compassion, grace, advocacy, selflessness, forgiveness, and love today? Who are those people who fall outside our comfortable systems and so, do not receive those good gifts which God so desperately wants them to have? The marginalized, the oppressed, the other? Righteousness – or right relationship with God – does not come by our ability to follow the rules. It doesn’t even come by our desire to follow the rules. It only comes by faith. And faith demands that we do the hard work of discernment. Faith requires breaking the rules from time to time.

Do good. Do no harm. Stay in love with God.

His Peddler of Grace,

Jimmy

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The Blessed Hope

In 2011 a tsunami struck Japan and caused complete chaos and destruction. Entire towns were washed away, homes and business were destroyed, and in an instant, life was changed forever for many people. Over 16,000 people died, thousands of them just simply disappeared, never to be seen again….

One particular town, Otsuchi, was hit very hard. A man in Otsuchi named Itaru Sasaki wanted to do something to help those who were grieving their lost loved ones. He found an old telephone booth and placed it next to the ocean. Inside he put an old broken rotary telephone and a note pad. He invited people to come either alone or with family members to use the phone booth and say the things they so desperately wished they could say to their deceased. He called it “Kaze no Denwa” or “Telephone on the Wind.” His idea resonated with with tens of thousands of people and a new grief tradition was formed.

tv_episode_201605200600_02_largeThe phone on the wind. Otsuchi Japan

I heard about the Otsuchi Wind Telephone on a radio broadcast last week. A journalist set up a microphone to record some of the conversations that were happening in the booth. I listened as a father wept over his missing son, apologizing for not being able to save him. A son cried out to his dead mother, “Where are you? I miss you.” And a little girl who had not spoken about her father’s death in 5 years broke into heavy sobs once inside the booth. I was heartbroken, listening to the pain in their voices as they picked up a phone receiver to nowhere and spoke candidly to dead family members. For most of them as Buddhists, the only glimmer of hope was that maybe their voices would carry on the wind to a loved one. I wanted to reach through my radio and hug them and tell them it would be all right. I wanted to tell them about resurrection.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a huge believer in resurrection. I think resurrection is a foundational and fundamental Christian doctrine that the Western church has largely forgotten. Even for Christians, death seems so final, so complete. We’ve heard the Easter resurrection story, but that was all about Jesus. We don’t see the connection between Easter and our future. So we’ve settled for this idea of a far away, eternal spiritual realm. Our loved ones are gone forever, and the only way to reach them is to come to the end of our own lives so that we might join them in Eternity. For some of us, that means living life apart from those we love for a very long time, which is causes great sadness.

But the early believers had a very different outlook. Paul described what he called “The Blessed Hope,” a hope that separates our faith from all others. What is this hope? It is the appearing of our Lord Jesus and subsequent resurrection of the whole world. Titus 2:13 says, “Watch for His return; expect the blessed hope we all will share when our great God and Savior, Jesus the Anointed, appears again.”

And listen to 1 Corinthians 15:52-54,

“It will all happen so fast, in a blink, a mere flutter of the eye. The last trumpet will call, and the dead will be raised from their graves with a body that does not, cannot decay. All of us will be changed! We’ll step out of our mortal clothes and slide into immortal bodies, replacing everything that is subject to death with eternal life. And, when we are all redressed with bodies that do not, cannot decay, when we put immortality over our mortal frames, then it will be as Scripture says: Life everlasting has victoriously swallowed death.”

You see, we will receive our loved ones back from the grave. The lost sons will return. The daughters that were taken too soon will be brought back. The spouses who were parted at death will be reunited. Can you imagine the rejoicing, the tears of joy on that day? And no one knows when this will happen. Jesus says it will come like “a thief in the night.” This was what those early Christians looked for. They trusted in the faithfulness of Jesus to do what he promised when he said,

“I tell you the truth: a new day is imminent—in fact, it has arrived—when the voice of the Son of God will penetrate death’s domain, and everyone who hears will live…… If this sounds amazing to you, what is even more amazing is that when the time comes, those buried long ago will hear His voice through all the rocks, sod, and soil and step out of decay into resurrectionWhen this hour arrives, those who did good will be resurrected to life, and those who did evil will be resurrected to judgment.” John 5:25-29

As amazing as that sounds, I want to be very clear. Grief is a natural, healthy, and perfectly acceptable response to the death of a loved one. Even Jesus grieved the deaths of his cousin John and his friend Lazarus. Jesus felt sympathy for his mother as she grieved his impending death on the cross. But my prayer is that our grief might be infused with Hope.

1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “Brothers and sisters, we want you to be fully informed about those who have fallen asleep in death so that you will not be overwhelmed with grief like those who live outside of the true hope.” Notice it doesn’t say that hope replaces grief, but that we shouldn’t grieve without hope. That kind of overwhelming grief leads to despair. I believe even a misplaced hope, that someday we will see our loved ones again in a disembodied eternity, can lead to unnecessary suffering. Easter is more powerful than an eternity in the spiritual realm. True hope is that at any moment, we might hear that trumpet, Jesus will appear, and we will see our loved ones again, in the flesh, just as Jesus was raised on Easter morning.

Jesus is faithful. He will return for us. He will overturn death and the grave. What if today is that day? May we continually watch in anticipation of the Blessed Hope.

Isaiah 61:3 God has sent me to give them a beautiful crown in exchange for ashes, to anoint them with gladness instead of sorrow, to wrap them in victory, joy, and praise instead of depression and sadness.

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Lessons from the Labyrinth

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I had the chance to walk my first spiritual labyrinth yesterday at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston. If you aren’t familiar with this practice, let me explain. A labyrinth is a space like the photo above. It is designed for meditation, spiritual formation, worship, contemplation, or relaxation purposes. They can be indoors or outdoors. They can be walked alone or with a group of people. They can be made out of stone, granite, grass, or any number of things. There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth and every time you walk, you might have a completely different experience. The path leads to the center which is shaped like a tree or flower where you can spend a moment, and then you follow the path back out.

My walk was outdoors, in a busy part of the city, with a group of people. St. Paul’s labyrinth is built out of stone in a courtyard surrounded on one side by the church and busy streets on the other. Since this was my first time, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew I wanted to walk barefoot so that I could feel the stones and try to connect to the ground in a different way. I took a moment to pray before entering and then started. Here are a few things I perceived and how someone might connect them to spiritual disciplines or practices in their own faith journey.

  1. Like the photo above, I was walking on light-colored stones with gray stones in between. Several times my mind would start to question whether I was supposed to be on the light or dark stones. After collecting my thoughts, I was quickly able to determine that I was on the right path and I kept moving forward. At times I think we all question, “What the hell am I doing? Am I even on the right path?” But if we pause to collect our thoughts, remember our original mission, and think about what God has called us to, we can continue in confidence on the path He has laid out before us.
  2. Because of the way the path moves and winds, sometimes I was very close to the center and I would think, “Oh I’m almost there!” But then just as quickly, I would be moving away from the center. I quickly realized that I had no idea how long it would take to reach the center and that I could not use what I perceived as my location on the path to determine where I was in the overall journey. Our faith journey may have similar goals, a center to reach. But truly, you never quite know how far you have to go. At times you may seem close, at other times very far away. But if you trust in God and the path He has you on, your perception doesn’t matter. There are other things to learn along the way. Just relax! You’ll get there in due time.
  3. I found that some stones were slightly damp, others dry. Some were cool from being in shade, others were warm from the sun. Some were smooth and yet at other times, I stepped on smaller painful rocks that had found their way onto the labyrinth. God never promises the journey to be free from pain, but He does promises variety and adventure! Don’t get mad at the inconveniences and set backs. If anything, they help remind you that you are alive and moving forward.
  4. Because we were walking in a group, I felt pressure to keep moving. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. Some people like to pause throughout to contemplate. I didn’t feel like I had the liberty to do that. I’m sure it was self-imposed, but I knew there were people behind me wanting to move forward. So rather than being in the moment, I was trying to get to the center. Don’t let people bully you. Or rather, don’t feel self-imposed pressure to perform one way or another. Your journey is between you and God. He set you on your path and He is the one guiding you. It’s ok to stop and collect yourself occasionally. Chances are, the people around you are watching and taking cues from how you live out your faith journey. Who knows, they might appreciate a break too.
  5. At one point my friend Katie got off the path. Because of the way the labyrinth is built, it’s impossible to tell which direction goes to the center and which direction goes out. Katie and I were both headed out and she was able to see what line I was on and which direction I was going. This enabled her to get back on track and walk the rest of the way. Continuing the thought from above – People are paying attention. Not to put pressure on you, but you might be just the person that someone else needs to get back on track. We are all journeying together yet each experience is unique. Support your brother or sister if they need it. Identify those around you who might help should you lose your way. Let’s help each other grow in faith and finish the course. 
  6. Because we were in an urban setting, there was a lot of traffic and noise. At one point, an ambulance went by. At another time, a vehicle with a loud radio drove past. I quickly found that if I looked up at the source of the noise, I was disoriented when I looked back down at the path. There is a tremendous amount of noise in the world. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and the path set before you. Taking your eyes off Him might cause momentary confusion. It’s ok to acknowledge life happening around you, it can even be beautiful. But don’t let it derail what you know you are supposed to be doing.

All in all, I was quite pleased with my first experience. I hope to walk some different labyrinths in the future. I might try alone or in a quieter setting if I get the chance. If you haven’t tried, I encourage you to find a labyrinth near you. Here is a link to a worldwide labyrinth locator. http://labyrinthlocator.com/home. God bless and may God give you the grace to journey with Him and others!

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Delivering Light for the World

It’s Christmas time! Or Advent as my more refined brothers and sisters would say…. Definitely one of my most favorite times of the year. I love seeing family members I haven’t connected with in some time. I love the surprise of gifts that are given. I love the music and food and traditions. I also love to contemplate new ways to look at the Christmas story that is so familiar to all of us.

I saw a post a few days ago that was urging Christians to say “yes” to God like Mary said “yes”. This got me thinking about different parallels between those that confess Jesus and the Virgin Mary. This morning I woke to a wonderful thought: we ARE Mary. Her story is our story in almost every way and I’d like to share some of those thoughts….

Mary was chosen by God and told that she would bear a son. She was told that this child would bring light into the world. He would be a blessing to all people. Mary responded with “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” We can assume that Mary cared for her unborn child, eating the right foods, drinking plenty of fluids, doing all she could to ensure that he would grow healthy and strong until it was time for him to come. And indeed he was born healthy and brought incalculable blessing into the world.

We like Mary are chosen for a great work. We are given the gift of faith and the Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell in us. If we nurture that faith, if the Spirit is fully formed in us, we will bring light into this world. What God will do through us will be incalculable if we continue in the faith. If we will in essence say “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” then the gift we have been given (that we have been ENTRUSTED with) will bless many people. God is using us to deliver his light into the world and gives us everything we need to accomplish that task!

Advent is a time when we think about those days when people of faith were waiting for the Messiah and how we too are waiting for His return when the children of God will be revealed and all things will be put to rights under the leadership of Jesus. Jesus the Anointed – who dwells in man today because he dwelt in a young girl so long ago. May we consider that our task is of similar importance to that of Mary as we enjoy this Christmas. We have been entrusted with so much, because God is insistent that His light comes forth in an otherwise dark world. Lord may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, beginning in me! Amen

Colossians 2:6,7 Now that you have welcomed the Anointed One, Jesus the Lord, into your lives, continue to journey with Him and allow Him to shape your lives. 7Let your roots grow down deeply in Him, and let Him build you up on a firm foundation. Be strong in the faith, just as you were taught, and always spill over with thankfulness.

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