Tag Archives: Matthew

Naming Demons

I made a curiously controversial remark at a church conference on severe mental illness several years ago. “What spiritual healing can the Church provide?” I had asked.

The medical professionals in this meeting wanted to keep spirituality out of this process as many people, even in developed countries, want to deny the physical aspect of mental illness, to deny the healing power of proper medication. Affirming a spiritual dimension would keep them away from conventional medicine.

Yet there really are demonic powers in the world. Scientists call this the “Nocebo effect.”

Its opposite, the placebo effect is widely known. The placebo effect happens when scientists give patients in a clinical trial sugar pills to test the efficacy of a new drug. While they expect those who receive pills with the drug to get better, even a few of those who merely receive sugar pills also get better. Merely believing or trusting that a pill or procedure will benefit yields benefits.

Those same medical trials often also prove the nocebo effect, that merely thinking something might go wrong, that the pill might have serious side effects, causes those side effects.

My question about the spiritual dimension of mental illness sought to discuss those effects and others that interfere with conventional medicine. These effects are most properly named as demonic effects.

Anointing VialWhen I visit people in the hospital I offer them anointing with oil. The ritual I use from our Book of Common Worship includes forgiveness of sins. I am convinced that holding on to one’s sins interferes with healing, and that a simple reminder that our sins are forgiven aids physical healing. Our own sins and the fear that they cannot be forgiven, at least by ourselves, is perhaps the most dangerous of demons; a demon that Jesus lived and died to cast out; a demon that God sends the Church into the world to name and to cast out.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
— Matthew 9:2-8 (NRSV)

Showing My Faith

As a pastor I feel a special burden and opportunity to share my faith with other people. The question is how?

On Sunday mornings I wear an academic robe and a stole to remind me who I am and whose I am, that I speak not for myself but for the whole church, and that the whole church is present with me.

But what about Monday through Saturday? How should I show my faith then?

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;
for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Matthew 6:1 (NRSV)

When people find out I am a pastor for the first time conversations tend shift to either deep theological questions should my new acquaintance have a relationship with a church or, when they don’t go to church, our conversation shuts down as if I had announced that I had a communicable disease. Hence I do not usually wear a cross pendant or lapel pin. I want people to get to know me before they find out I am a pastor. Especially people who do not attend church.

License Plate with caption Wearing one’s faith where everyone can see it —bumper sticker, pin, pendants, earrings— has other burdens as well as opportunities. To some extent I wear the stain of pastors who have been caught in various scandals. When a car bearing a special license plate or bumper sticker speeds around me then cuts me off, they send a message about all of Christianity. On one hand by wearing such external emblems I hope I would show the best of what the church has taught me. On the other hand I wonder how my actions will tell my faith story on my worst day; when I am caught up in some urgent crisis or distracted by unrelated issues. I fear that person who does not go to church thinking: “l don’t want to associate with people like that.”

Necklass with crosses either side of a stone.
Creative Commons license http://art.thewalters.org/license/

I wonder about using the cross as an ornament.  Does that cheapen God’s sacrificial love? Use it in vain? What does this say about my faith? Would I seem overly pious or mocking of those who sincerely believe?

Should I pray aloud in public, or quietly pause and listen for God in silence?

Instead I hope my faith shows through my actions, taking time to know those with whom I speak and present myself.

The Theology of Money

A budget is a theological statement since how we divide our resources shows what we truly value.

12 Months Spending Pie ChartFor over thirty years I have tracked our family’s expenses using a variety of tools. Initially I had filled in a simple spreadsheet with each week’s expenses, doing little more than automating our check register. Now I use a sophisticated database that tracks how much I spend in several categories and compares totals for each category with my budget. Thus now I can easily review how much I have spent in each category over the past year, even several years.

Merely reviewing how much I have spent last year and estimating how much more I am likely to spend in the coming year based on changes from earlier years is seldom practical. We have always had changes in our family from year to year: new homes, new after school activities, changes in employers, … But ultimately our income provides a limit. Should we intentionally spend more than we earn or should we find some place to trim? The answers to these questions is the essence of a budget.

Trimming my budget to fit our expenses within our income tests my theology. Can we cut back on entertainment? Eat out less often? Shop for insurance? Turn the thermostat a little lower? No we won’t cut education, pet care, or charitable giving (at least as a percentage of income).

What do your finances say about your theology?

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
— Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)

Bread to Share

English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves o...
Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I made a mistake during the children’s lesson. We had just read Matthew 14:13-21, the feeding of the five-thousand, and I neglected interpreting this as a multiplication of loaves, that somehow five loaves had become enough to feed five thousand men plus the women and children.

I should have considered that people would prefer the idea that with Jesus five loaves could become enough to feed everyone. The passage fails to explain how five small loaves and two fish had fed everyone plus had yielded twelve baskets of leftovers. The abundant leftovers shows those present did not merely take a tiny taste. Did the loaves miraculously expand as one family passed them to the next? Did a new loaf spontaneously appear as people took a piece from those serving?

Interpreting this miracle as a physical multiplication  of loaves would show Jesus as creator of all that is seen and unseen, as able to create something from nothing, as one who can ignore the laws of nature to solve our mundane problems.

Alas, Jesus did not say: “I’ll take care of this;” instead he commanded: “You give them something to eat.”

Four baskets filed with pieces of bread
Multiplied Loaves

We had demonstrated this story in 2012, when we had asked families to bring a piece of bread from their table at home to share for communion, thus connecting our communion table with our personal dinner tables. I was anxious. What if people forgot? Instead of a loaf of bread to break, our communion table had four empty baskets. As our deacons collected the offering I had invited families to place their piece of bread in the baskets. When they had finished the four baskets held enough bread to serve communion to several congregations. Apparently other people worried about having enough to eat.

I suspect the disciples had felt anxious when Jesus had told them: “You give them something to eat,” and they could only come up with five loaves and two fish. Would the people riot when the bread ran out?

But just as the disciples had hidden a few loaves and fish in their cloaks, I suspect many people in the crowd had a little food with them. I imagine the crowd getting anxious feeling their stomachs growl while doubting that those sitting near them had any food.

Imagine going to a sporting event and finding all the food vendors closed, would you pull a candy bar or a water bottle from your coat if you thought the people near you were hungry and had nothing to eat?

Thus I interpret the feeding of the five-thousand as a miracle of sharing. As people broke off a piece from a loaf or fish handed to them, they reached into their cloaks and added to what the disciples and their neighbors had shared. Their generosity not only fed everyone, but yielded abundant leftovers.

Sharing remains a miracle for scarcity often drives human responses rather than recognize and rely on hidden gifts already in our hands.

The miracle of sharing fits within the laws of nature (conservation of matter) and keeps the opportunity for solving mundane problems in our hands. Feeding those who are hungry is not merely a divine problem but also our problem.

“You give them something to eat.”

Breath Prayers

“Focus on your breath,” a Zen master teaches.

Child's First Prayer
Child’s First Prayer (From the Library of Congress Collection)

Focusing on one’s breath can simply serve as a convenient marker to give one’s mind something to process while spending a few minutes focusing on being fully present in prayer. The breath is convenient for it is always with us. After practice, merely pausing to catch one’s breath might remind one of previous prayer times.

Having something to focus on while sitting quietly listening for God can keep one’s mind from straying to work on problems not immediately present. Taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly, listening for God, and being fully present in the moment, can train one for being fully present in a difficult project or conversation. Having something to focus on can keep one from fretting about yesterday’s mistakes or worrying about what might come later.

“So do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

— Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)

Breath prayers provide an alternative to silently focusing on one’s breath. Breath prayers are short, two-part phrases, that can be said quietly: one half while inhaling and half while exhaling. Breath prayers offer structure so the one praying can focus on being fully present, listening for the small clear voice of God, without latching on to every stray thought that passes through one’s mind.

Breath prayers, or focusing on one’s breath while listening for God, can develop one’s self-control, enhance one’s ability to delay gratification.

Jesus might have used a breath prayer during the crucifixion when he said: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani.” or “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” These first words of Psalm 22 become a source of comfort since David went on to recall how God had been present with him in the past, and boasted that future generations will proclaim his deliverance.

Other passages suitable for breath prayers include:

  • Come Lord Jesus / hear my prayer.
    — see 1 Corinthians 16:22
  • Seek first / God’s kingdom
    — see Matthew 6:33
  • Be still / and know that I am God
    — see Psalm 46:10

The last phrase may also be repeated each time removing the last word. Yielding:

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still
Be

Being still to pray silently lets the one praying enjoy God in the present, equipping that person with calmness of heart and mind, to creatively engage the problems of today.

Other musings on prayer:

Sermon: “Look at the Birds”

Look below the video for my Bible study notes and sermon outline.

I. Establish the text

A. Select the Pericope: Matthew 6:25-37

B. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?

25 – – Career advice: Find something you enjoy doing and the money will follow.

26 – – Nomadic couple who wandered from church to church, relying on handouts for food and shelter. People in other countries exist for about $1/day. Pay Buddy $1000/year to sit by my lap.”

27 – – Science indicates that worry decreases life, while meditation and exercise increases over the average.

28 – – Goodwill, clothing ministry. Several options exist.

29 – – Lilies of the field flower to attract insects for pollenization. We array ourselves in fine clothes to attract other people for pollenization and for commerce.

30-33 – – God might not give us fine clothing, but has given us skills to earn a living.

II. Literary Study

A. What is the history of the text? Who wrote it? When? In what social context? What Historical/Religious/Sociological factors influenced its writing?

Part of the Sermon on the mount. Follows the beatitudes and the Lords’ Prayer.

III. Question the text

B. Are there any unusual details? Un-named characters? ‘Pointless’ description? Meanings of names of characters? What does a literal meaning of natural metaphors imply?

What other imperatives of Jesus are hidden in the Gospel?

C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?

Center of Gravity: Physical needs are far less important than striving to live in God’s Kingdom.

Emotional Center: Do not worry about your life

F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?

Counter cultural! Absurd!

IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?

Robert Gundry (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art. Eerdmans’ 1982). interprets these sayings as dealing “with the other main reason, besides greed, for hoarding early wealth – anxiety.” He clarifies that the prohibition is against anxiety, not against work nor to endorse idleness.

M. Eugene Boring (“The Gospel of Mathew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Abingdon, 1995.) considers 6:19 through 7:12 as one pericope as instructions on authentic righteousness. He perceives this section as “directed to people involved with sowing, reaping, storing in barns, toiling, and spinning, but who are called to see that their life is not based on these things.” He limits the scope of Jesus’ audience for this passage from the general public to disciples who’s faith might waiver after hearing the first part of the sermon on the mount.

James J.H. Price (“Concerning Treasures,” The Presbyterian Outlook. October 19, 2001.) cautions against misusing this passage to scold people who are anxious because of the lingering shock and sorrow following the savage terrorism on Sept. 11. He suggest reflecting on appropriate versus inappropriate anxiety. While worry about tomorrow is proscribed, might one worry about today?

V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?

A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?

Use anxiety constructively.

B. Focus Statement: Central, controlling, unifying theme.

Other than humans, the rest of creation does not worry about food, clothing or shelter and does fine.

C. Function Statement: What change in the hearer?

Develop constructive prayer practices to pursue God’s kingdom.

VI. Sermon Outline

[Say with hand signals]

Sit, down, come, lets go, leave it, take it, roll over, go to bed

→ Words we say to my dog to keep him healthy and on task.

Most important command: Focus

Hidden Imperatives:

Look at the birds of the air;

Consider the lilies of the field,

Do not worry, Do not be afraid
Love, Forgive, Remember me

Imperatives for our benefit.

It would be nice to be able to sit all day praying, looking at the birds and flowers, …

But someone must grow food, hunt meat, sew clothes, build houses, defend families, …

Will our proposal win?

Don’t want to be a lesson learned.

We ask:

‘What will we eat?’ or
‘What will we drink?’ or
‘What will we wear?’

Jesus spoke these words to people who had sown seed, reaped grain, sewn clothes, and built houses for others.

People who lived hand to mouth. Paycheck to paycheck.

No guarantee of food or clothing or shelter for today, much less tomorrow. ← reason to worry.

But we must eat!

Jesus tells us:

But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Do your best for God today and tomorrow will take care of itself.

Worrying about tomorrow will distract you from doing a great job today. Focus on today.

Asked business owner: Do you ever second guess proposals? Could/should we have written …?

Once it is done, on to what’s next. ← 90% win rate. & 14% growth.

Focus on today

Jesus asks:

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

By taking time each day to reflect on God’s creation and pray,
we add time to our lives.

← documented by several studies.

Worrying reduces health.

Daily prayer increases health.

Focus [hand signal] on today

Add years to life

Shut Up and Pray

I find leading the Prayers of the People during worship each Sunday requires my full attention. First, I must read slowly and distinctly, with a pacing that evokes a state of prayer. Second, I am editing the written prayer in front of me to link to the sermon and current events. Third, I watch for subtle body language changes from the congregation to my words and pacing. Fourth, in the middle of this prayer, I pause and ask for individual petitions, most of which I cannot hear clearly enough to understand, some of which I are so softly spoken I must guess when the speaker has finished. And finally, I get to attend to my own connection with God after I saying, “and those concerns we hold deep within our hearts,” while I count slowly and silently to seven.

The electronic road signs in Illinois show a new public service announcement: “Drop it and Drive.” Our neighbors to the west have a new law prohibiting talking on a handheld phone while driving. They reason that holding a phone is one to many tasks to do while driving. Unfortunately, merely talking with someone not in the car is the major distraction for the driver’s mind is no longer on the road ahead.

I have come to realize that spoken prayers are like a table edge that a toddler might use to steady himself while learning to walk. Spoken prayers guide our connection with God. But strengthening one’s connection with God requires letting go of the guide and stumbling. First a few seconds of quiet, wordless prayer, which after practice can lengthen to a minute, and eventually, fifteen minutes or more of solid, undistracted connection with God.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites;
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners,
so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door
and pray to your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do;
for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

— Matthew 6:5-8 (NRSV).

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In the Zone

Is your prayer life in-the-zone?

The opening seconds of this year’s Superbowl snapped one team’s attention to winning the game and allowed the other team’s attention to ramble. Great athletes speak of being in-the-zone when their entire being –body, mind and soul– is fully focused on the task at hand.

Cleaning Supplies for Spring Cleaning
Cleaning Supplies for Spring Cleaning (Photo credit: Chiot’s Run)

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lists among the beatitudes those of “pure of heart.” We get the word cathartic from the word translated as pure, a process of purging to clean everything out. While modern poets consider the heart the center of emotion, ancient Greeks considered the heart as the center of reason. Thus this verse might be interpreted as beginning: “Blessed are the clean of mind,” or as “Happy are those in-the-zone,” or “Honored are those who purge out all distractions from the task at hand.” Later in this sermon Jesus tells us to go to a closed room to pray, to find a place free from distractions to focus on God.

Scientists studying people who meditate regularly perform better at other tasks. By learning to focus on the task of prayer, purging distractions in a quiet place, we exercise our intellectual muscles of concentration so we can get in-the-zone for other tasks.

Great leaders throughout the ages tell how when life gets extremely complicated, spending a few minutes in prayer allows them to accomplish more. Spending a few minutes warming up our muscles of concentration, purging distractions, puts us in-the-zone.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right.
Then you can see God in the outside world.
– Matthew 5:8 (The Message)

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Time and the River Flowing

The Grand Canyon looking East.
The Grand Canyon looking East. R Shaw photo.

The Grand Canyon at a glance is both timeless and transient, epic and ephemeral. Its scale proclaims that it will not change, yet everywhere it shows continual change from erosion by wind and water, from plants digging into cracks and people digging paths along its crags. Its geology shows the result of eons of sedimentation and slow erosion of seismic faults gouged into side canyons. The rocks themselves tell a history of a vast inland sea through tiny fossils. It tells of a persistence that exceeds humanity.

This month we celebrate the birth of Jesus; an event according to Matthew that was forty-two generations in preparation, an event that in a few months transformed the lives of Mary and Joseph, an event that changed everything and changed very little. A few months following our Savior’s birth Herod slew dozens of boys out of fear. And two thousand years later our fears still affect how we feed and house the poor. Yet the growth of Christian love shows a persistence that exceeds humanity.

In my own life I have experienced dramatic events that change everything and very little: school graduations, collision at sea, sonars designed, and church ministries. The persistent flow of culture resists change and eventually erases all but the memories of great tragedies and accomplishments and eventually even memories will fade away. But through all these events I also recognize a persistent thread that I trust links these events into a whole that supports the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world.

For surely I 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.
– Jeremiah 29:11

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Good Friday, March 29th

Road to the cross

Come to hear the story of Christ’s trial and crucifixion by which the cross became the instrument of our deliverance.

At this special worship service you will hear Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, Christ’s betrayal, Mocking, The Trial, The Crucifixion, and Burial. In between these readings and interpretations, we will pray and sing verses of the hymn “Were You There?”, adapted and extended for this service. Slow removal of decorations from the sanctuary will help us recall the betrayal.

The cross will be presented and participants will be encouraged to individually offer a sign of reverence, including bowing, kneeling, touching, praying, or pinning one’s sin on the cross.

Yet, after the prayers of the people, participants should go away recognizing the cross as a symbol of the world’s redemption, upon which Christ is exalted!

7 p.m., Friday, March 29th