in praise of being lowly (and my change in my main Bible translation)

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

James 1:9-11; NRSV

At first when reading this from the NRSV, I disliked the rendering “lowly.” I preferred the NIV‘s “the believer in humble circumstances” which after all, I’m quite used to. And a side note here: I am switching for the time being anyhow, to the NRSV as my own main translation. All of my opinions are gathered from experts. And I especially appreciate discernment formed within community. The NIV is great at what it does, both accurate and clear, good English basically accessible to all. The NRSV seems to be very good at what it does. But not good English and that’s because it gives us more exactly the way it was said, maybe the more precise meaning without trying to put it into the way we might say it today like the NIV attempts to do and I think does quite well. The NIV has been my main Bible the vast majority of my years (now decades) as a Christian. So I do grieve over the change, though I still always can and will at times refer to it. The NIV and especially the 2011 revision (in part from the TNIV, which used to be my favorite) is quite good. This seems to me to be a good take on a few current Bible translations: Choosing a Bible Translation.  We surely have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to English Bible translations. But now back to the main point of this post.

Lowly at first came across to me poorly, like an outcast within different cultures. It’s not necessarily more accurate than “in humble circumstances,” or the way the CEB translates it, “Brothers and sisters who are poor…” Maybe the last two more precisely catch what the issue is: those in need compared to those who have more than enough. But lowly also captures something of the twist James makes, that such are raised up or exalted. It is interesting how many of the poor have faith, whereas many of the rich struggle with faith, or so it seems. We see this in life, and it’s noted on the pages of Scripture, our Lord himself making that clear. So lowly here probably does mean those who struggle in this life, either not having enough, or just scraping through to make it day after day.

I like the term “lowly” because it seems to me that this can be a benefit for those of us who for one reason or another, probably a number of reasons are not well set compared to others. When compared with the rest of the world, like someone wisely said, those of us living here, at least the vast majority of us have won the lottery. So it’s relative of course. But the sense of being lowly is surely a blessing. It speaks of dependence on God, healthy interdependence in a give and take relationship with others, and the realization that all is a gift from God. In and through Jesus.

blessed are you poor

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Luke 6:20-26

Jesus’s words have to be understood in the context of their times, and the gospel accounts. Not a few times he got after religious leaders who loved money and even took advantage of poor widows. The calling to his disciples was to follow Jesus, which meant total trust in the Father for their provisions. But in terms of the world, relative poverty. Not that many in Jesus’s day didn’t struggle to make ends meet. Roman taxation imposed a heavy burden and most of the Jews were not considered wealthy.

A close reading of the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John along with the rest of the New Testament indicates that having wealth is not really the issue. It seems more like an issue of everything being at God’s disposal, and doing good with the wealth one has. And a big part of that is helping the poor, which when we turn the pages of all of Scripture, we’ll find again and again is one of God’s major concerns, and especially how the rich treat the poor, God often leveling judgment because of their mistreatment in being pillaged by the rich, or not helped.

It does seem to be a common theme that Jesus’s disciples are to live simply, not at all to accumulate material possessions, but in view of God’s coming kingdom in Jesus, and the true riches that are essentially spiritual. In terms of one’s relationship with God and others in the communion and community of Jesus. In following Jesus, people find that their true life is in God, and want to share that same life with others.

But that doesn’t mean material things don’t matter. Humans are not just spiritual, but physical beings as well. Food, clothing, and shelter are considered the basic essentials it seems, according to Jesus’s words. And yet Jesus had no home of his own. And Paul tells us that poverty can’t separate us from God’s love. It seems like this period of time in between Christ’s first and second coming is one that isn’t normal. God’s kingdom is present, but not fully in place, one might say. So that now, followers of Christ who are part of that kingdom live in a world that is at odds with it. Which is why we see Christians living in relative poverty in countries where they are more or less persecuted, and indeed marginalized.

Jesus’s woes are to those who fail to help the poor, who have not obeyed his call. It’s essentially a gospel, good news mission for all, particularly for those who see their needs ultimately fulfilled in and by God. Who are not sufficient in themselves, and see themselves as completely God’s both in terms of devotion and mission. Who can enjoy God’s provisions, but are generous in sharing that wealth with others, particularly those in need, and in so doing are rich toward God. In and through Jesus.

blessed routine

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

There is something it seems like our society wants to get away from, to escape as much as possible, which I actually should be appreciated, if it was recognized for the blessing it is. That is, routine. I’m thinking in terms of regular responsibility, which actually is a privilege to be involved in, and carry on. Instead nowadays, it seems like people want as much freedom and free time as possible. I’m not at all suggesting that there might be better ways to do work, or that we always have to do things the same way. Or that we should work long hours and long weeks, with little time off. No. And there may be new approaches to work that are different and fresh, indeed, helpful.

Usually trouble follows us wherever we go, not just because we’re creating it ourselves hopefully, though that reality exists from which we can learn, even if just from being finite beings. But simply because we live in a broken, fallen world. It seems like if something can “so south,” it will, being hard to keep everything pointed to “the true north” (these sayings from the compass). Due to imperfections everywhere, from nearly every direction, there will be trouble. And that simply becomes a part of the normal routine we have to work on, and live with.

We’re to find satisfaction in all of that, no less, and even, no more. Ecclesiastes suggests that if wealth is added to that, then that’s all well and good, people occupied with gladness of heart, I suppose being able to do this and that, to enjoy life. Whereas those financially strapped, or living in relative poverty may be limited, yet hopefully blessed with a job to make ends meet. Though sadly here in the United States, a living wage is not guaranteed for any forty hour job. One should be able to live in humble quarters, and provide well enough for themselves with a full time job. Life isn’t easy, although some pieces are dropping in to many places, for example in Africa, to help societies and families have work, and provide for their own. The free enterprise system and capitalism are regularly beaten up by many progressives, but in my opinion, are not evil in and of themselves. Any system can become wrong, or more accurately have many wrongs because of the people who are in charge and in place in them.

Continuing on in the blessed routine, in whatever God gives us, should be something we learn to appreciate. For some of us, retirement age is approaching. If God gives us health, that can be a step into another blessed routine, of day in and day out, doing much the same things, hopefully to our own enjoyment, and even delight, and for the blessing of others. As we continue on as witnesses in all of this, to the truth and power of the good news of God in Jesus.

 

finding the wealth in poverty

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

Scripture and especially in the way of Jesus is full of paradox in which the normal order of things seems upside down. What works in the world isn’t at all what works in the way of the Lord. Unless somehow the world’s values are imposed on the church, which all too often is the case, and which we need to guard against both in our personal lives, and together, in the life and witness of the church. Of course that’s not to say that somehow we don’t try to connect with others in following Paul’s example of being all things to all people to by all possible means save as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9).

The way Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount is especially near and dear to me, since most all of my life I’ve really struggled internally. And scripture and especially the gospel does answer much of that struggle, for example the Lord gives us his peace in his presence in the Father’s love by the Spirit which is for all of us, for all who believe.

I find over and over again that accepting the struggle and hard places of life, instead of trying to find an answer past or around them is key for me. I find the Lord in those places, his strength in my weakness. I also have found again and again that the Lord meets me in the depths, in the hardest places. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of either pressure or even controversy, both inevitable even as simple followers of Jesus. But I am more than happy for those times which are relaxing and in which there doesn’t seem to be a care in the world.

The poor in spirit is an apt description of myself and my own spirit and spiritual state. But I find that’s where faith is born, and grows, and even thrives. Not in a world in which everything is awesome with high fives. But in a place of struggle which encourages humility so that we’re cast upon God.

I get in trouble when I am trying to find the spiritual secret to getting out of my mess. But when I accept the poverty, then ironically I find the Lord’s hand to help me to a place that seems more like Jesus, in him. Paul’s thought in Philippians comes to mind here:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Philippians 3

Over and over again, we find this to be true in the witness of scripture, and in life. With that comes the danger of caving in, and not having the right attitude in the midst of difficulty. Instead we need to press on in faith, and learn to rest in Jesus and the Father’s love in him. Accepting poverty so that we might find true riches in and through Jesus.

blessed are the poor in spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

The NET Bible‘s note on Matthew 5:3 reflects something I believe of a scholarly consensus on this passage, seeing it as Matthew’s version of Luke’s words about the poor being happy, or blessed:

The poor in spirit is a reference to the “pious poor” for whom God especially cares. See Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29.

That could well be. But I think that Matthew applies this, and in so doing reflects the Lord’s application or meaning here, in referring to those who know their need of God (see the NLT translation in the Matthew 5 link above). Or more accurately, simply those who are poor in spirit, the spiritually poor. In the Hebrew mindset which is reflected in Jesus’s disciples’ thinking, to be poor materially was not far removed in their eyes as failing to be under God’s blessing, indeed perhaps under God’s curse. We can see some good reason for that application with reference to Israel as a nation (the blessings and the cursings named in the Pentateuch). But God’s care for the poor, who in many cases were at least open to God in contrast to the rich, who in not a few cases victimized the poor and came under God’s judgment, is a theme in the Old/First Testament, carried over into the gospel accounts (Matthew through John) and especially a prominent theme in the book of James.

So to be poor materially would lend itself to one better understanding their need for God, which in fact is another theme of scripture, with the contrast that the wealthy oftentimes rely on their wealth, in fact make it their god, and imagine themselves to be in no need of God. For one to be poor materially, and realize that, could help one to realize their inner poverty as well, since they are not benefiting from some other source apart from God. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that receiving help from other sources, such as the government is intrinsically bad, because that indeed can be the secondary source from the true source, God.

But now to cut to the chase, or more precisely, make the point I wanted to make in this post all along. I so readily identify with the idea of being “poor in spirit.” Oftentimes in my lifetime, inwardly I have been anything but rich. I see other Christians around me who seems joyful, or profess some kind of inner peace or spiritual bearing which I completely lack. Not that I’m saying my experience is good, because in and of itself, it’s not. Such experience could amount to any number of things in the present day assessment. One might be clinically depressed, or something physical affecting the emotional and psychological might be going on, which needs to be addressed. At any rate, I’ve felt not only an inner emptiness, but a desolation that can seem heavy and nearly suffocating at times.

And so I’m more than happy to hear our Lord’s words, that the poor in spirit are blessed, the very first “beatitude” of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. That helps me be able to relax in my abject inward poverty, and by faith not let it move me from seeking to fulfill God’s will in Jesus as for example, in loving others. When one doesn’t feel well physically, it’s hard to hang in there, even sometimes impossible to carry on the normal responsibilities of life. And the same holds true spiritually as well. We can’t give out what we don’t have within, and we can spew out what is not good within, no doubt.

And so our Lord’s words here are quite encouraging and even uplifting to me in calling the likes of me along with others who are poor in spirit, blessed. In that word, in my weakness, I can find God’s strength. And in my spiritual destitution, I have no where else to turn to but God. Aside from some of the other help I might receive, which could be a part of the help I would receive from God.

And so I’m not concerned about being a spiritual pauper, because I know to whom to turn for the true riches which for us in Jesus are spiritual, rather than material. The true and eternal life that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

living in identification with the poor

It is wonderful to hear of those who are wealthy pouring a sizeable part of their fortune into helping those who are poor and in need. And I find it encouraging that Pope Francis turned down an invitation to a meal with members of the US Congress to instead eat with the homeless.

We all live in varying economic situations. Most of us in the United States and in other first world countries are wealthy in comparison to the rest of the world. Although many of us live from paycheck to paycheck with sizeable debt. Yet our standard of living is something billions of others could not imagine.

I found it striking to see that a psalm attributed to David, which may have been a Davidic psalm in a sense other than him having actually written it, that the writer saw themselves as “poor and needy” (Psalm 86). If one sees their true state, then instead of thinking they are well off just because they are materially wealthy, they will learn to see that they are indeed, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3). Jesus called both the poor and the poor in spirit blessed, while he pronounced a woe on the rich. And stated that it is impossible for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God. But that what is impossible with humans is possible with God (Matthew 5; Luke 6; Matthew 19).

When we understand how everything is a gift and how utterly dependent we are on God for all of life including each breath that we breathe, we can begin to see ourselves as no different than those who live in abject poverty or conditions much  different than our own. But with that insight comes responsibility. In love we need to reach out and help those in need. And be sure that our hearts are not tied to material wealth rather than God.

We are poor in and of ourselves. Everything is a gift. With whatever we are blessed with we’re meant to bless others, especially with the true riches that last forever in and through Jesus.

the true riches

Money is called Mammon, an idol representing wealth, and indeed has a pull and attraction that according to scripture and verified in life easily becomes idolatrous. Some people give everything in the pursuit of wealth with what in the end? (See Ecclesiastes). Others live with an uneasy devotion to it, hoping to get enough so that they can finally devote themselves in service to God. The only problem with that is that Money is a hard taskmaster. They don’t get free of its service so easily as they might imagine, just because they become “financially independent.”

Materialism is the culprit, not the material world, or matter. That is when we live for things, whatever they may be. The dream house, luxurious cars, extravagant vacations, toys and more toys to fill the empty void of our lives. Not that it’s wrong to enjoy something which might incur some significant expense at the time. Not that money itself is evil. It is simply when we live from day to day intent on living it up and have a devoted love to money that we become people who more and more might be characterized by greed which scripture calls idolatry.

It is not that the wealthy can’t be good and do good. One does not necessarily have to get rid of their excessive wealth to be faithful to God. There are some who are gifted when it comes to accruing wealth, and this is a gift that can be well used for good. They are managers and stewards of riches. Such a place requires grace, but ideally they should live as humbly as possible, needs met, but giving as much as they can to God’s work, especially for the service of the gospel.

Those struggling with poverty are likewise prone to temptation along these lines. Their minds can be occupied with the desire for wealth and they need grace to accept their situation while seeking to do well with what gifts God gives them, be it in terms of a job, an education or whatever. Oftentimes their lot in life, perhaps especially so in the beginning is challenging. There tends to be an upward mobility for those who come to faith in Christ, but some for this or that reason may experience dire poverty much of their lives. Jesus did say that it is hard and impossible in human terms for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. He did not say the same for the poor, in fact the poor seem to have more of a readiness for faith since there condition is inherently dependent. With that come unique temptations, one of them often called entitlement. The world is an unequal place, no friend of the poor quite in contrast to scripture where God’s priority for the poor rings out again and again.

In the end Jesus calls his followers to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness with the promise that all of their material needs, the need for food, clothing and shelter will be met. We are called not to store up wealth for ourselves, but to be rich toward God. That may mean for some that they handle large amounts of wealth. All relative, since most of us Americans do so compared to the rest of the world, and indeed it is expensive to live in any established normal way in America. But those wealthy by first world standards can still be rich toward God, not imagining that the money is their own.

The rest of us want to do well with the material wealth we have, avoid excessive debt and get out of debt. Give regularly as an act of devotion and faith to God’s work. And live as those whose lives are caught up in “the true riches” in and through Christ.

putting our trust in God (and helping the poor)

Time Magazine has an interesting article on how the stress of poverty can impact one’s thinking and actions in a negative way. I am saddened that we live in a society which either wants to ignore the poor and let them suffer the consequences of their poverty, or simply wants to give them handouts in a kind of welfare state, which really does not help them get on their feet and become contributors to society. Thankfully most people would opt for neither, but it seems like the political dialog in this country goes back and forth in those two extremes.

Our faith in God in and through Jesus should lead us to trust the Father to take care of us and all our needs, and enable us to help those who are in poverty. To work on this issue would help to decrease the number of abortions. With God’s help people can help each other. The church should be especially adept at this, beginning among its own, while at the same time doing what it can wisely do for the outside community. The church we are members of, even though it is not overflowing with money, does something of both in a way that is commendable.

Yes, we are thankful for the work and all the good ways we get help. But we must remember that the one who provides every good gift for all is God. It’s in spite of us that God in his mercy and love provides. And God’s passion for the poor is seen over and over again in the pages of scripture. We need to enter into that passion ourselves in and through Jesus. And of course we need to live out ourselves a life of faith in God. We won’t help others in the way of Jesus unless we’re walking in that way ourselves. And so we need to learn and grow in the radical trust in the Father which Jesus prescribes in his great Sermon on the Mount.

We need to slow down, stop, not panic, but put our trust in God in and through Jesus. And go on, doing what God calls us to do faithfully, perhaps what’s right in front of us. Believing in our heavenly Father’s provision for us and for the world in and through Jesus.

material wealth, or the kingdom of God?

Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

It is not wrong to have a high paying job and make lots of money. Nor is it wrong to be rich. The entire question becomes, just where our heart is. If our heart is set on riches, and our goal in life is to get rich, then we are missing the boat entirely with reference to the kingdom of God come in Jesus.

But if it just so happens that we make lots of money, and have much wealth, but our heart is on following the Lord and doing good as a responsible steward of the money we have, well and good. Of course we need to make a living to provide for our loved ones and for ourselves, to receive God’s provision. But our hearts need to be set not even on that, but on the kingdom.

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And so what is this post saying? Maybe the question is, just what is the Lord saying to us with regard to material wealth. Most of us by the standards of the world are wealthy, but by the standards in our society are middle of the road, or more on the poor side perhaps. No matter what, money and wealth and how we’re to live with reference to that, is a crucial issue, and too oftentimes a stumbling point for us.

I sometimes think it would be nice to take a vow of poverty, live in a monastic community and be done with it. In fact I would like that, I think. Of course in a married order, in my case. But we find ourselves in the stream of society, pretty much on our own in terms of what it looks like. We do need to take our Lord’s words to heart, to pray over them. To be in no hurry to make any radical decisions, except to be committed to following the Lord in the fellowship of his people.

Often a big part of the answer for me is to get my mind off finances, off money short term and long (my wife handles our money well, so I gladly let her have at it), and instead focus on the kingdom, on the things of the Lord with reference to God’s will and my part in that. Money continues to be an important aspect of that in our life in this present world and we need wisdom in it. Such a big subject, one in which we can feel overwhelmed.

May we look to the Lord to give us wisdom in it, as well as our daily bread, together in Jesus for the world.

the Franciscan vow

I have always been rather attracted to the Franciscan order for various reasons (not only them among Catholic orders, though with all respect by no means do I intend to become a Catholic), and one reason is because of their vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.  While I’m not really a fan of vows, I do find the expressed commitment helpful in itself. There are times when there is nothing left for us but a naked commitment to God, and strengthened when made before others.

How Franciscans do it and what they mean may be different, but these values to be lived out are not unique to the Franciscan order. They are meant for all followers of Christ. Poverty in spirit is called blessed by our Lord. Our hearts not clinging to possessions, but acknowledging our own inner poverty and great need of God and of God’s grace. Chastity is commitment to purity in heart. The goal is to “see God”, to live in fellowship with him as saints of old, such as Enoch. And obedience. Done out of love for God with reference to his word, and the Spirit’s leading in our lives.

This is a lifelong commitment to be lived out day after day. In community, at least at home, but preferably with others in Jesus. It is good to have close, trusted friends with whom we can share our deepest woes and struggles. Beginning with our spouses, with whom ideally we should never hide anything. And carried on with those friends of the same gender, but to some extent with all who are in our community of faith. In fact it is sub-Biblical if in some way it is not being lived out in, through and out from the fellowship of our church. God has made us to need him, but also to need each other. We are dependent on God and interdependent on each other, for prayers and counsel, as well as accountability. We stand together, not separately as one Body in our Lord as we walk with him in and for the world. That is part of the Franciscan vow, that it is to be lived out in their community. But this is for all in Jesus. This holds weight because we are called to live it out in terms of who we are, not just individuals in Christ, but those in community with others, in fact members of each other in Jesus, as well as members of him.