What’s your favorite Bible story? If you’ve been to Sunday school and heard as many as I have, can you pick just one? I like them all. You might even say I love them all. Here are just a few of my favorites right off the top of my head:
Moses and his ongoing frustrations as he leads the Israelites through the wilderness
Jonah and whale
David and Goliath
The conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way up the mountain
Noah, “You want me to build what?”
I could go on and on. Those are just a few of the big ones. But my favorite story in the Bible, in all of these 66 books, is found in the first 12 verses of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Here’s how it goes. Jesus, he’s the main character, like a new Moses. He goes up to a mountain to deliver a sermon, a new oral version of the ten commandments. Now, please pay attention; here is where it gets exciting. At the point in the story where he finds a spot to stand where the acoustics are just right, and most of the people gathered around can hear him, he starts to talk. Jesus talks. It’s not the fact that he speaks that makes this story exciting and vital. It’s what he says that is so meaningful. He reinvents ethics, human society, values, and religion, and he does it in 12 verses. What Johnny Appleseed did for apple trees in one song, Jesus did for civilization in 12 verses. Jesus makes it seem so simple, easy to follow, and implement in your life. Do these things, you’ll hear him say, and the world will change.
You realize what he’s asked you to do only after hearing them. At the same time, they sound deceptively simple on the surface (like a 1st century Hallmark Card) but they may be the most demanding tasks ever asked of any person. These “be” statements, as easy as they appear, ask the listener to sacrifice themselves for others in ways they’re not used to doing. They rearrange the order of the universe. Sure, God stays on top, others go first, and our wants, needs, and desires go to the bottom. At first glance, it does look easy. We ask God for the simple paint-by-numbers version of Christianity. Then what happens?
Jesus goes up the hill and lays it out. Step 1, step 2, step 3, and so on. What do we do? We say, hold on! We asked for easy, not a spiritual commitment to the welfare of others, my community, peace, neighbors, and love. I wanted something that fit my needs, more in line with the Old Testament.
Jesus, telling his story from the acoustically precise perch atop the mount, says, “my friends, is the new, new thing.” God is expanding God’s horizons. The law is the law but are neighbors need neighbors. Our neighbors need love. Our wars need to end. Our hungry need food—our broken need healing. Our grief needs comforting. Who is ready to come with me and tell this story? People aren’t going to like it, but this has to and must be done. They’d rather talk about the old stuff. But this, this right here, Jesus tells them, is what God is all about.
Don’t the Beatitudes feel like common sense? I mean, really? These 12 verses have always appeared to me to be the most self-evident truths in the Bible. Perhaps that’s why they bear repeating so often. The things that ought to be common sense and self-evident, easy to do, and no-brainers are those that we so easily screw up day after day, month after month, and year after year. On the surface, we should have no problem accepting each of these statements at face value. No Christian in this or any church should argue with Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes or the implications of putting them into practice in your life. They are the central components of Jesus’ teachings, yet when push comes to shove, most people would easily give them lip service yet find themselves unable to realize the full impact of what they agree to when they sign on to, “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Blessed are the merciful.” We can all agree that peace and mercy are fine qualities to exemplify and promote. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker? What does it mean to make peace and lead a peaceful life? What does it mean to show mercy? When you take the Beatitudes to the next logical step, the “I’m going to live them out” phase, they become the most challenging commitment a Christian can make.
First, remember none of the Beatitudes are quid pro quo. Let’s go back to mercy for a moment. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If you are merciful to others, you will receive mercy. If you do this, you get something in return. We don’t do good things because we want good things in return. Jesus is trying to teach that you do the right things in life because it’s essential to do the right things regardless of the outcomes. In the end, doing the right thing is a blessing in and of itself. The mercy we show comes back to us as mercy. This peace we make comes back to us as peace. We’re not hoping for a return. We’re doing the right thing, period.
To whom do we show mercy? Jesus wants us to show mercy to everyone, friend and foe alike. Our mercy isn’t something we disburse in drips and drabs. It’s easy to show mercy to those we love and are related to and those who look like us, worship, talk, and believe like us. The Beatitudes (and Jesus) challenge us to comfort, feed, bring peace, and show mercy to those who we don’t love, dislike, aren’t related to, look nothing like us, don’t worship like us (or at all), don’t talk like us, or believe like us. If you “Beatitude” like the first group, it’s easy; it’s a typical Sunday morning. Christianity is no longer a challenge; we never grow in our faith. We are static, and we will die as a congregation and denomination. That’s what will kill us, not who we ordain or marry. Ultimately, it will be that we stopped taking the Beatitudes seriously, living them out, and regarding them as our mission statement as a congregation. If we lose these, we’ve lost everything.
I wish those who felt so strongly about using the term “God’s Word” as a weapon and carried Deuteronomy and Leviticus locked and loaded in the chamber of their scriptural AR-15’s, ready to fire, would put down their guns. We have an epidemic of gun violence in this country. We also have an epidemic of weaponized Biblical violence, where we use the words of the Bible like high capacity rounds to kill, maim, and wound those with whom we think God disapproves. The spiritual corpses litter congregations from one side of this country to another. We can’t pick up the bodies fast enough before another verbal massacre occurs. As with the shootings in our streets, we’ve got to stop using God’s word’s, modified for lethality, so that more people’s faith are not left to bleed out on the altar of “scriptural authority.”
The Beatitudes are God’s words about mercy, peace, and righteousness. They weren’t meant to be fired at anyone. Put the gun down. Declare a truce. Be a peacemaker. Be a child of God.
To grieve with any level of authenticity, we must not be selective in who (or how) we mourn. To name a loss worthy of memory, sorrow, and joy (in a life well lived) is an act of supreme defiance in a world where we store our wealth in a currency named for the Greek word “hidden” or “secret.” We live hidden and transient lives. Everything we value about life, even its inevitable ending, is obscured with each new mass shooting, virus, disease, and missile attack. Those who die remain unseen, off-camera, and hidden beyond well-worn catchphrases and slick camera angles. Even before the pandemic, the affluent west invested heavily in crypto-mourning. This is the process of continually moving our thoughts, prayers, and concerns from one tragedy to another (as one would move money to offshore accounts) but never asking, “Do these prayers have any real value unless we transfer them as hard spiritual currency into our lives and act upon them?”
While all death is death, we grieve some longer and more viscerally than others. We invest in acts of community and corporate sorrow. Candlelight vigils and community gatherings have done what I once thought impossible: made grief cliché, predictable, and ephemeral. Our grief becomes public, or so we claim, and then we move on. We wait for the next tragedy, and the cycle repeats. The problem isn’t too many people sending meaningless thoughts and prayers. Instead, we’ve made grieving a public media-driven production. Persons whose trauma and grief are too immense to step into this spotlight are largely forgotten. For so many, the vast majority of those in hospitals and homes worldwide, there are no witnesses to the realities of grief preparing to be confronted at this time we force each other to call “joyful.” Their grief isn’t sensational, but it is real. Seek out those who are hurting, be present, and help mend the broken threads of our torn humanity.
1. Change the windshield washer fluid in your car. Yes, this is both a metaphor and a practical admonition. Work on clearing obstacles, smudges, and other icky things blocking your vision. You will be happier and safer.
2. Make all of your expressions of thanks, from the drive-in window to the condolence line, equally sincere. Gratitude needs to multidimensional and felt for the person hearing the words “thank you” to know you mean what you say.
3. Learn to love a pet. Love is hard. A dog or cat (for example) will work with you as you learn.
4. Become a better conversationalist. This means work on your listening skills. Learn how to ask better questions.
5. Don’t let healthy admiration become idolatry.
6. Take care of your body, mind, and spirit. We need you. You matter.
7. Wear comfortable shoes. The journey is long.
8. Keep a record of your days. Whether you call it a journal or notebook doesn’t matter. Leave a record of your time on Earth.
9. Find a way to give joy back to the other people. How can you serve others, give back, and enrich the lives of others in unexpected ways?
10. Take fewer selfies. Share more pictures of the world around you.
You may recall, gentle readers, previous missives, published here by S.P. Wildeman. The same author has been in touch and asked to submit another story. I have so obliged.
Richard Bryant, Proprietor, Richard’s Food for Thought
Note to the reader: Everything in this short story bears a resemblance to someone living and something dead. Whether man or machine, theater critic or person, we’ve all met for coffee and coordinated our versions of the truth. -S.P. Wildeman
I’m never sure where I am these days. So many of the places I inhabit tend to blend together in the darkness. Lit only by second-hand lamps, I am led among frayed extension cords, by one-eyed adult orphans, and through hastily arranged curtains. The villagers, I am told, have taken me to the theater. The play we are about to see is something I created over a decade ago. There were no actors, plot, or scenes. Borrowing mainly from the work of Samuel Beckett, I wrote a play where nothing happened. The curtain remained closed for two hours. Behind the curtain, the audience could hear the occasional sound or see an intermittent light. There might be a clashing cymbal.
Here is my point. Nothing happened. One person (in the early days, it was me) sat behind the curtain, making the noise. After a few of the trendier theater journals reviewed my descent into nothingness, I was able to bring on a few stagehands to bang wooden spoons against my kitchen pots. Eventually, they wanted to be called actors, so I fired them and hired the one-eyed orphans. This was a play without a plot, actors, or any of the conventions of modern drama. I was going to ask my audience to stare at a closed curtain and listen to random sounds for two hours, all in the name of culture.
While the New York critics were harsh, we were huge in France. The French ate this up. The best negative review I’ve ever received came from Le Figaro. “Could less have occurred on stage?” It was a good question. Could I do nothing at all and still call it a drama? Would people pay to stare at a closed curtain with no sound or any physical interaction at all? Yes, I thought they would. I would go for all and nothing.
Why a remote village in northern Togo cobbled together enough Central African francs to buy the rights to produce a 10-year-old American play about nothing was beyond me. I had a theory. I once wrote a book on Dom Deluise as a recurring Christ figure in the Burt Reynolds’ Cannonball Run Story Saga. (I sold 12 copies, 4 of which were to Reynolds himself). Deluise’s comedy was widely revered throughout French-speaking West Africa, with his work featured in film festivals in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Burkina Faso in alternating years.
Let me clear things up. I didn’t know where I was beyond a dank basement and hastily assembled theater somewhere on the northeast side of Togo’s capital, Lome. And even when I’m in Lome and watching a play I wrote, I couldn’t find myself on a map with a GPS if I had to.
One question still vexed me. Had the Togolaise seen any of my work? Did they know what they were getting into? How would they respond to spending their hard-earned money to get nothing in return? Plays about nothing are fine and dandy for first world theatergoers with disposable incomes. I can hear it now, “où est le dialogue?”
Were they expecting DeLuise to be a character?
Finally, someone asked, “When does the funny fat man arrive?”
He’s here, sitting in the corner, a piece of paper in his hand, furiously writing a part for a man named Santa Claus in a Christmas play about nothing.
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