Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘fruit’

Matthew 5:38-48

Are you a perfectionist?

A dictionary definition: a perfectionist is a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait of a person who strives for flawlessness and sets excessively high performance standards, often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and deep concerns about how others evaluate. To a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable.

Are you a perfectionist? Do any of these phrases ring true for you?

There is no room for mistakes. You quickly race to correct them.
There is a very specific manner in which things should be done.
If something feels out of place it’s not acceptable.
It’s all or nothing—either you do something well, or not at all.
It is about the end result.
You are really hard on yourself when something goes wrong.
Not achieving a goal makes you feel heavy.
You often ask: What if? After the fact.
Your standards are extremely high and you fear not being able to reach them.
Success is fine, but there is always another level to achieve.
You only start things when you feel ready.
You can spot mistakes a mile away when others are like: Huh?

You are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, and even well-being sometimes to achieve something in the way you deem right.

Do you relate to any of this? Personally, I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist in general, but I do relate to a few of these characteristics. So though I may not be a perfectionist in all areas of my life, in certain ways I am. I bring this up, because in Matthew’s Gospel we get a story about Jesus of Nazareth talking about perfectionism, or so it seems. On the surface, it actually seems even worse than the psychological perspective I just shared. Jesus seems to be saying that we as human beings must be as perfect as God.

As perfect as God? Hold the phone, Jeebus!

No way that Jesus is encouraging us to be divinely perfect, right, because that would be, well, impossible and also depressing. Talk about a self-image downer….

But let’s take a look at the word perfect in English, a translation of the Greek word telos. Telos has nothing to do with being morally perfect [or free from mistakes]. Telos is about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity that is…like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit. Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in personal growth. This concept, restated by Jesus in Matthew, is referring to the perfection/growth of nature. The growth of trees and plants is perfectly balanced. And as we know from prior Jesus comments in Matthew, we as human beings are compared to things like salt, light, earth, clay, and animals. Being perfect, in this context, is about growth in our love, compassion, and wholeness. Like a tree, we are made to grow buds that eventually bear fruit. That is Divine perfection.

treefruitHow can we love perfectly? How can we live love in a time such as this?

Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient and when it’s difficult.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways according to where they are in life.
Love with no borders, walls, limits, rules, or formulas.
Love and leave resentment behind.
Love those outside your social circles.

Love consistently, no matter what is happening in the world.

Let’s go back to the discussion about perfectionism. Having perfectionist traits is actually not all bad, you know. There is such a thing as a positive perfectionist, someone who is achievement oriented and not failure oriented. Positive perfectionism, which I argue Jesus practiced, is the lifestyle of noticing that there are things wrong in the world [injustices, suffering] and that helping to make things better gives life meaning. Positive perfectionists focus on how to make a lasting impact and they rarely give up because when they encounter obstacles, they shift to problem solving and see an opportunity. Failure is not the end of the world, because failure or mistakes lead to assessment and renewed brainstorming. Planning happens and there is a renewed commitment to pursuing that positive impact.

Friends, in a time such as this, when people are distracted by hate, and confusion, and manipulation; at a time when it may feel difficult to focus on loving and working for compassion; at a time in which it can feel overwhelmingly dismal and increasingly negative—we need to focus on cultivating the part of ourselves that is beloved, worthy, and good enough to make positive change happen. This is not a time to be overly critical of ourselves or of others. This is a time to be patient and compassionate both with ourselves and others. This is a time to reach out and build bridges, a time to surround ourselves with those who are trying to make a positive difference in the world and who recognize the importance of community.

Whatever level of perfectionist you are, bear in mind that you are enough; you are capable of living love in your relationships. You are capable of making a positive impact in the world. And the more we join together—all of us trees with compassionate roots and growing branches—the more fruit we will bear.


There’s Always Time for Mercy

Luke 13:1-9 

An assumption: bad things happen to bad people; good things happen to good people.

If a piano falls on your head, you probably did something to deserve it. If you win the lottery, you must have been some sort of angel or amazingly kind. Reward and punishment. Judgment eclipses mercy. Simple cause and effect with a sprinkling of God.

An assumption: bad things happen to bad people; good things happen to good people.

We try to believe this–probably because we want to the world to work like that.

And then it doesn’t. There are shootings and they never seem to stop. People [even children] suffer. There is famine. People of all ages don’t have something to eat, even though the world is full of food. One family has kids who grow up in a neighborhood that is safe and attend good schools. Another family has kids who grow up fearing for their lives and their schools are a joke. Neither of those families did anything to deserve either neighborhood.

Some stand with signs and flags on the Texas/Mexico border protesting against immigrants entering the United States, yelling slurs and awful things at Native Americans or anyone who even looks brown or speaks Spanish. The Native Americans and others who speak Spanish have lived on those Texas lands for generations, long before those protestors ever stepped foot on that soil. Yet no one yells slurs and awful things at the protestors. No one makes signs and waves flags in their faces if they even look white or speak English.

A family lives in Tel Aviv, Israel and another family grows up in the Gaza Strip. Both families practice their faith respectfully and simply live their lives peacefully. One day, a car bomb goes off in the market in Tel Aviv and the dad of the family doesn’t survive. In Palestine, a bomb from Israel hits a supposed Hamas target but also hits the school where the two boys attend.

And meanwhile…the CEO of the company that lied to its investors [most of them paycheck-to-paycheck folks] is making millions of dollars [still] and won’t go to jail after all. Meanwhile, the woman who is working 3 jobs in order to take care of her 2 kids after her husband got laid off due to injuring his wrist gets sick but cannot go to the doctor because none of her jobs offer health insurance. Meanwhile, two companies merge to make a mega company, cut a bunch of jobs, and four people out of 20,000 employees split a bunch of money and cash out. Meanwhile, a young woman has ovarian cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. She’s twenty-four. The cancer spreads; she doesn’t make it.

The assumptions don’t make sense anymore. There is bad and it’s happening to good people. There is randomness. Life is unfair.

So we ask questions now.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are there many injustices in the world? And where is God in all this?

These questions appear in a well-known book written by Harold Kushner, a conservative Rabbi. The book, published in 1978, is entitled: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

whyDoBadThere are some who have criticized the book for not offering concrete answers or ways to deal with suffering. From my perspective, this is precisely why I find Rabbi Kushner’s work to be relevant. He doesn’t try to offer answers, but a perspective that begs for action. Kushner writes:

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.

 Okay, Rabbi, but does God care?

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.

So God does care and even is as outraged as we are, but then what is the point of all this injustice and suffering? Is it all just random cause-and-effect?

Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But we can give them a meaning. We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them.

The Rabbi continues:

The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”[1]

Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?

It’s a shift in questioning—not relying on the assumption that God punishes and blesses people for being “good” and “bad.” It’s a shift from “Why God, why?” to “What now will I do?” And this is the story Luke’s Gospel tells us. Jesus of Nazareth encounters sad, angry people who have experienced senseless tragedy. They want answers. They want to know why God would allow such a thing. Galileans were slaughtered by Pilate—their religion and culture desecrated. But instead of giving them a cookie cutter, theological answer, Jesus mentions a falling tower that took 18 lives. Were those people deserving of death? Jesus says repent [literally, turn around]; he shifts their questioning from God’s justice to God’s mercy. It’s not: why do bad things happen to good people? Instead, it’s a parable—a story.

A farmer and a vineyard and a fig tree. The farmer is getting impatient, or so it seems. This tree that he planted is just not bearing fruit. So he says to the gardener who is tending the soil: This darn tree, for three years, doesn’t give me any fruit. Cut it down. Get rid of it. Why waste the soil?


 The gardener replies: Leave it alone for another year. I’ll dig around it, put fertilizer on it. If it bears figs next year, great! But if not, then we will cut it down.

The people hungry for answers to the most difficult questions freeze in their tracks. Their questions of why did God allow this to happen? and why do bad things happen to good people? are not the right questions to be asking. It’s time to stop blaming. It’s time to start bearing fruit.

Yes, you know where this going and it won’t be a tidy answer to your questions. We are the fig trees. We are planted in the ground, cultivated, watered, offered sunlight, cared for, and deeply rooted. We are the trees and we are planted to bear fruit. But life is harsh and winters take their toll. Our fruit spoils and sometimes is attacked by disease. Some seasons, we get flooded. Other years, we get a drought and dry up. Strong winds damage our branches and then overdevelopment tugs, pulls, and even breaks some of our roots. Eventually, we don’t bear any fruit. Weeks, months, even years can pass. Our branches spread out cold and bear with not even a bud. No fruit. We start to forget a time when we ever did bear fruit. And then, eventually, we start to think that we will never bear any fruit. Cut us down. Tear our roots out of the good soil. Stop watering, stop tending to us. We are worthless.

But then the gardener says: there is still time for this tree to turn around. There is still time to cultivate this seemingly fruitless tree. The patient gardener adds some good fertilizer and digs around our roots. The graceful gardener waters us just right and makes sure we feel the pleasant rays of the sun. The merciful gardener cares for our branches and fends off the developers who want to cut us down. And then the seemingly fruitless tree of ours has a chance. Winter won’t last forever and spring is coming. We start to bud. Figs appear. They ripen. They are sweet, delicious, and life-giving to the animals and creatures all around us. And the gardener is pleased.

Friends, God’s patient grace is not indifference to the suffering in the world. When people suffer or wherever there is injustice, God is bothered by it. So are we. And we should be bothered by it. We shouldn’t try to alleviate the pain of that feeling. We shouldn’t try to justify the pain or the injustice. We shouldn’t let our roots dry up or our branches break off, just so we don’t have to think about it. The sad, frustrated, angry feelings about injustice and suffering are real.

But the uncomfortable message in the parable is that we still have time to do something. We have time to turn around. We have time to bear fruit in the world. We shouldn’t let fear or depression convince us that our trees are lifeless with no chance of producing fruit. There is still time.

So we should bear the fruit of justice and healing.

Our anger and frustration over the sufferings and the injustice in the world should motivate us to do good—to bear even more fruit.

There are no easy answers, no closure. Jesus knew this; Jesus taught this.

There is no end to suffering.

But as trees planted in this world, we have to stop blaming God for it.

When we blame we do nothing about it.

We are trees planted in the ground to bear fruit.

And sometimes we will need other trees to help us remember how to bear fruit. Other times we need gardeners who will dig and fertilize and help us have what we need to grow. We need a community of trees.

And once we start recognizing this about our identity, something happens.

The fruit we bear does indeed touch those living around our tree.

Then other trees start to bear fruit around us.

Before we know it, there is a forest of trees bearing fruit.

There is always time for mercy.

[1] Kushner, Harold, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Random House Inc., 1978.

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