New Year’s Eve (Boosts from the Bible #14)

It was just the two of us. Now that we were in our fifties, my wife Diane and I were going through our usual difficulties on New Year’s Eve: trying to stay awake to midnight. What seems ironic to me is that as the clock ticked away, I turned to Diane and said, “Good riddance to 2019.  The year 2020 just HAS to be better!”

No, no, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t, and ISN’T, a better year, but a worse, or at least much more difficult, year in a lot of ways, as we all know. It reminds me of chapter four from the letter of James in the New Testament, in which James, the bishop of the church in Jerusalem, has this to say to his fellow Christians: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life?” James asks. “For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘IF the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’”

James seems harsh in going on to call such “planning for the future” as “arrogant,” but he is eloquent in pointing out how we all assume we have our lives under firm control, when suddenly something happens that “ruins,” quote-unquote, “everything.” Of course 2020 has been the MOST terrible for those who have died of COVID or who lost a loved one to COVID, but there has also been the loss of jobs, the loss of businesses, the cancellation of plans for school graduations, proms, special group events of all kinds, weddings, even in some cases the cancellation of funerals, vacations, and then there’s the loneliness.

I saw a Facebook post by a high school teacher the other day – and I’m sure her feelings were shared by teachers of ALL grades. She had become emotional when she recently returned to her classroom to clean up three whole months after the schools were physically shut down. She wrote, “But most of all, it was the activities and lessons that lay half-completed around the room that really hit me. Lessons I’d planned, taught the framework for, and worked through with kids. The students would never complete them…because virtual learning just wasn’t the same. The true impact of not being able to work with students face to face became obvious once I saw the room without them in it.”

This is my introduction to how I believe that Christ’s preaching of the Beatitudes – the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapter five – can be a big BOOST for us in these weird times. Take the first beatitude, for example: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus proclaims, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Have you ever been poor in spirit? We all have, though sometimes we don’t like to admit it. Shakespeare had Hamlet describe it this way: “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – of outrageously BAD fortune, is what he meant! Who HASN’T had, if not a bad day from losing your job of many years – which is what one of my best friends has just had to go through – who HASN’T, at least, had a good day turn bad because of something someone else said or did, or because you put your foot in your mouth, or something important just didn’t go your way? Our spirits can “get down” in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, all too easily.

Yet Jesus surprises all by proclaiming that it is a blessing from God to be “poor in spirit.” How can that be? Well, let’s look at this a little closer by studying the NEXT of Christ’s beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Another slightly shocking thing that Jesus proclaims here. What’s so great about being in mourning, in grief, for the loss of someone or something? Well, first of all, Jesus knows something about mourning. He probably lost his earthly father, Joseph, to death. By the time of the Sermon on the Mount, He had seen many turn away from Him; He knew the religious leaders of His day were growing to hate Him for healing on the Sabbath and for some of His teachings and doings. But, again, why does Jesus say it is a blessing to be in mourning? Well, as Susan Mansfield has written during these covid days, “And we are mourning – mourning for normality. For being able to get up and go to work, take our children to school, meet friends, visit family, take a walk down the street without having to think about social distancing. We,” she writes, “are mourning for the holiday we had to cancel, the concert we had been looking forward to,” and so forth.

Mansfield acknowledges that these things we are missing may seem small, “but,” she adds, “it’s helpful to acknowledge that’s what they are – losses – even just to ourselves.” I would add, let’s also “acknowledge” our struggles also in prayer with God – and not just in what the world calls “the big things,” but also in what the world might call “the little things.” Letting God know what you miss – letting God know what you feel you have lost – is an important way to acknowledge that God – and not you – are in charge. That’s the advantage, as well, of being “poor in spirit” – being willing to show your vulnerabilities to both God and to your fellow human beings.

The next beatitude continues Christ’s strange sermon. “Blessed,” He proclaims, “are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” This has been a difficult verse for many over the centuries to understand. But perhaps in some ways we can understand meekness better during covid than at other time in our lives. Staying at home when we were in almost-total lockdown…remaining socially distant…the wearing of masks…these are all fairly passive ways to help each other, but they have been at least somewhat effective. We see clearly these days that meekness is a form of humility, one of the gifts of the Spirit – one which acknowledges the damage we can do if we DO something, shall we say, “without God’s permission.” We often sin every day by just blurting out the wrong thing and/or doing the wrong thing. As the old saying goes, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” To be sure Christ wants us to be His active servants – “DO to others as you would have them DO to you” –  but we must also realize that we can really screw things up in situations simply because we decided that couldn’t sit there and just be a quiet servant for a while! There are times when it is wise to stay away from others and schedule the argument later! So the “stay at home” orders give us a kind of metaphor for the more “laid back” ways we can be of service to others.

These three beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek – lead up to a key beatitude, the fourth – “Blessed,” Jesus exclaims, “are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Christ’s wording here is oh-so-careful, so let me read it again, this time very slowly: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Perfect for these times. Why do I say that? Well, it’s pretty obvious that the most difficult time we will have during this covid period is the one we are just entering into now – whether and how to reopen our various facilities, and how to act as we reopen. We, each of us, have our own feelings on the matter…we each have read a lot of things…we each have our concerns, some the same and some different from each other…but we ALL would like to know and do the right thing.

What Jesus is very carefully saying is that we should do the quote/unquote, “right thing” not as we feel but at God’s behest, by listening to God in prayer for God’s guidance. Notice two things in this beatitude. First, Jesus does NOT say “Blessed are those who ARE righteous,” which one might assume He SHOULD say because isn’t that what all religion is about, being right? But Jesus is not being religious here. He knows that true righteousness comes from GOD, not from our sinful hearts and minds. We do best during these covid times if we not only talk but listen – and listen as if very hungry and thirsty for what God might be commanding us to do – which is THE real and true righteousness. If we are quiet, waiting patiently for God, we will hear an idea POP into our head, usually an idea on how to be more caring and more thoughtful than we had been so far – usually an idea on how not to judge others so harshly or how to avoid doing something that just makes us look good.

Then Jesus carefully ends this beatitude with “they will be filled.” As we pray and let God enter into our thoughts and calm our feelings, we are allowing God to fill us up with His love…fill us up with His peace…and fill us up with His joy – becoming SO FILLED UP that we can perform for others the next beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful.”

Down through the centuries Christ’s Beatitudes have been debated for their meaning. There are indeed different ways to look at them, and sometimes what Jesus says comes through in new ways to meet new circumstances like these.

We are living in strange times, and these strange beatitudes are very helpful BECAUSE they are strange. We are glad God is there when we are in mourning for the loss of normality, and for being there for us when we make room for Him to comfort us, all the while admitting that we feel poor in spirit. We have been called to be meek as a society in ways we could have never anticipated, and it sometimes makes us uncomfortable, as though we had done something wrong. But God helps us to see the value of personal humility at these times – how being meek is being a good minister to others, for example – as we all let ourselves be hungry and thirsty not just for ANY sort of righteousness – but the unconditionally-loving kind of righteousness we find in Jesus Christ – the same Jesus Christ who, through His Spirit indwelling inside of us believers – continues to fill you and me…FILL you and me with great care, concern, patience, and peace. Amen.

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