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Posts tagged ‘trees’

Matthew 5:38-48

Are you a perfectionist?

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!

kermitjesus
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.

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Perfectly Imperfect in Every Way

Matthew 5:38-48

Question for the audience:

How do you define perfection?

If you are a student, think back to a time when you prepared that bit of homework so carefully. You worked very hard, you spent lots of time on it—you felt good about it. When you turned in your work to the teacher, you felt a surge of confidence because…

It was perfect.

Surely you would be rewarded for what you did.

But when the teacher returned your homework, shock fell over you. Apparently, the teacher thought that what you did what anything but perfect! You just couldn’t understand why your teacher didn’t see the perfection in all the time, creativity, and effort you put into that project. But the lower-than-perfect grade, marked clearly in red on your paper, left a permanent, bad taste in your mouth and in your experience.

Just like poor Ralphie from a Christmas Story.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect…

Right. This word perfect rubs me the wrong way.

But the word in the original language of this New Testament passage is telos [Greek], and perhaps perfect is not an adequate English translation. Because telos is not about being morally perfect but more about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity.

That is, telos is like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit.
Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in the growth.

In fact, let’s take this notion of perfection further. Let’s say that be perfect is like saying be like nature in its perfection.

Have you ever stopped to notice nature’s perfection recently? It’s amazing. There is harmony there. Nature is balanced. Just when you think nature is unbalanced, it recuperates and reminds you of its…perfection.

CR1You see, it’s not about doing things the “right” way all the time [whatever that means]; or following a bunch of rules; or even trying to make New Year’s resolutions or religious promises that you obviously won’t be able to keep.

What if, instead, we thought about our identity differently. Like nature–like that tree–God purposes for all of us to grow up , to mature, in our love, compassion, our joy, our peacefulness, and our wholeness.

What if we thought about the whole journey of life as walking towards that tall tree that eventually bears delicious fruit?

It’s not checking things off on a list or striving for the kind of perfection that garners applause or scores of 10 by judges.

If I were to ask you:

How can you love perfectly?

What would you say?

Well, Jesus would say:
Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways and with different actions according to where they are in life.

Love isn’t abstract in this sense.
Love is a concrete act of compassion, understanding, and empathy with no borders, limits, rules, or formulas. Love just is.

Sometimes love will hurt, and that’s the point.
Love that is easy and comfortable and always wonderful is not really love.
Love requires us to grow up when we don’t want to—leaving resentment behind.
Love asks us to bear fruit for others—no matter who they are or where they are from.

Love is perfect as nature is.
Love has seasons and rainy and snowy times, and sunny and blue-sky times.

But here’s the challenge—many times a sermon on a mount or a sermon in a church means very little once it’s over. I can talk and talk, but what will we all DO?

So I have to ask myself and you have to ask yourself:
What gets in the way of you being a tree that keeps growing?
What keeps you from identifying as someone who is loved by God?
What keeps you from loving people as they need to be loved?

Answer this.

Because these words:
Don’t take revenge on another.
Be generous without expecting a pat on the back.
Love your enemies.
Love those who don’t love you.
Love those outside of your tribe and social circles.
Just love people.

The words ought to inspire us to be telos: complete.

Imperfectly perfect in every way.

Accept how you are made. You are not perfect and you never will be.
But you can love someone as they need to be loved.
You can be compassionate with someone who has been left on the curb.
You can choose to reject the evil idea that some people count and some people don’t.
And you can choose to let your life grow and move and fill up with opportunities to love.

That can be a decision you make.

And look—nobody is saying that this is easy. Jesus himself never painted this whole love your neighbor and your enemy thing as easy. It is hard, hard work. And you will encounter disappointments and times when your tree will lose its leaves and need more water and feel that its branches cannot support any more.

But it’s like Jose Luis Sampedro, humanist, writer, and economist from Spain once said:

sanpedroTree

We should live as much as possible like trees
That after passing through a bad year
Grow new leaves and
Begin again.

 So may you begin again to discover how you are loved and can love.

May the sermon be nothing other than a memory.

May your day to day actions of love and compassion be the road you travel on.

 Stop focusing on being perfect; focus on being whole.

Grow up, spread your branches, provide shelter for other living beings.

Mature, walk towards wholeness, embrace the life that is in you.

 

Small? So You Say…

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

nelsonandcoHave you ever been bullied?
I bet most people would answer yes.

Bullies can find any little thing to pick on, am I right? You wear glasses. You’re too skinny. You’re too chubby. Your feet are big. Your clothes are weird. You talk funny. Apparently, in Jesus’ time–the 1st century–bullying was like it is now. People got picked on just like they do today.

Zacchaeus was short. Zacchaeus was a tax collector; Zacchaeus was rich.

Three strikes and you’re out!

Tax collectors for the Roman Empire—yeah, they were pretty much disliked by everyone. Think about it. People did not like to pay taxes to the Romans. And they especially didn’t like someone who was not Roman coming to their house to collect taxes. People like Zacchaeus most likely had Roman soldiers for bodyguards just so they wouldn’t get beaten up. Add to this that many tax collectors skimmed off the top. They collected taxes for Rome, but kept some of the money for themselves.

It’s like the Beatles sing:
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.

Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

But in spite of this, the taxman Zacchaeus really wanted to see this Jesus of Nazareth character. But there were a lot of people surrounding Jesus. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see him, on account of the important detail that he was short in stature. Our perception of this story makes us think that he climbed a tree just because he was short. Maybe. But don’t forget: Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he was rich. He ran ahead of the crowds because he did not want to get beaten up. Maybe he climbed the tree so that no one in the crowds would see him.
zaqueoBeing “short in stature” does not necessarily mean that he was 3 feet tall. Perhaps he could not see Jesus because the crowds wouldn’t let him. You see, people already assumed that Zacchaeus was a bad person just because of his title.

But for some reason, Jesus did not.
He saw Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree and talked to him.

Come down. Hurry. I must stay at your house today.

Really? With all the crowds watching? Zaccheus was so excited, he forgot about all this and welcomed Jesus’ request with open arms.
But the crowds grumbled:
Jesus will be the guest of a sinner. Humph.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus is eager to tell Jesus about himself.
Look, half of my material possessions I give to the poor. If I’ve cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times what I owe them.

Let’s pause here for a moment because there is something interesting to explore. The verb form of give to the poor in the original Greek language is in the present tense. But most of our English translations render it as will give. This makes a huge difference. If Zacchaeus will give to the poor, as our version says, then this is a conversion story. He was a bad guy and now he’s not. But if it is the present tense, then we’ve misinterpreted the story.

What if Zacchaeus was already giving to the poor and making sure that he didn’t cheat people? What if he never really was a bad dude to begin with? Was he generous? What if his title of tax collector and sinner was the only thing that stained his reputation!?!

I’m going with the present tense, because I think our Bible translations have tried to turn the Zacchaeus story into a conversion story when it is actually a last-first, small-tall story. What I mean is that just earlier in Luke, Jesus said that another tax collector who called himself a sinner in his own prayers was on his way home to find God’s mercy and that he was justified more than any religious leader who supposedly knew how to pray elegantly in public. And here we have another tax collector in Zacchaeus who is called a sinner by the crowds who have judged him without a reason to, other than his marginalized status in society.

Zacchaeus was not the bully.

He was being bullied! He was a generous man who was already doing the right thing. But nobody cared. He was a tax collector and therefore, according to the people, he was an awful sinner. Even though the name Zacchaeus means pure and righteous one, he’s painted as a cruel, selfish, greedy, businessman who must undergo a miraculous conversion in order to be saved.

I just don’t think that this is the point of the story.

Jesus already knew about Zacchaeus. This is consistent with Jesus’ movements in many Gospel stories. He saw him up in that tree and called him down because he wanted to show the people just how judgmental they really were. I mean, come on. Jesus knew exactly which tree Zacchaeus would climb and when he would be there. This is all a setup for a major teaching moment. Jesus was once again flipping over the assumptions of the crowds and calling out their prejudice.

And so the story should be for us.

Two perspectives jump out at me:

One: the crowds are full of prejudice. They have become bullies, even though they think that Zacchaeus is the bully.

Two: Zacchaeus, in his suffering, doesn’t give up; Jesus knows where he is, looks at him, calls him down from the tree, and goes to his house.

The story is a warning to all of us that we can become bullies. We cannot assume that certain people are lesser or undeserving of God’s grace. We just cannot do that. Ever. We should never bully someone—even if others do it and it seems popular. No matter what label or category exists for a person—we should never judge them.

Each person deserves our empathy.

We ought to accept people as they are without assuming things about them. Oh, how that is needed in our world!

Friends, Jesus chooses to hold up characters like Zacchaeus as shining examples, even though they have been despised and bullied for a long time. Zacchaeus is another unlikely hero, but exactly the kind of hero that Jesus lifts up. So this is good news.

This encourages us to keep doing the right thing, to keep spreading love and compassion to others, in spite of all the bullies out there who will try to tell us that we’re not worth it. Somehow, Zacchaeus still had hope even before he met Jesus.

He did not despair, even though people tried to push him down. That is why he ran ahead and climbed the tree. That is why he jumped down from the tree and had Jesus over to his house.

Zacchaeus, a wee little man? So we say…but not so much. Zacchaeus was not small, but tall.

He was bullied but did not despair.
He didn’t hesitate to show compassion and generosity even when no one noticed.
And he found out—as we can—that God doesn’t ignore our suffering. God knows about all the bullying going on. God sees us as we are. God calls us out of the tree, down into the world, and God meets us at our homes.

So don’t let the bullies discourage you from being generous and compassionate. God sees and accepts you as you are.

Now do the same for others. Amen.

 

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?

FigTree

 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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