Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for May, 2013

A Spirit Perspective on Life

John 16:12-15

Our perceptions are incredibly important. How we see the world—our perspectives—determines how we react to things in life and also how we interpret the t hings we experience. So let’s do some activities to reinforce that idea.

What do you see?

illusion1

You may see a lakeview with a tree and two people standing.

 Or, do you see an infant in the fetal position?

 What do you read?

illusion2

Did you skip a “the” in the triangle?

illusion3

Which word did you see? Good or evil?

Quick: How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”

Two, you say? All right.

But wasn’t it Noah, and not Moses?

What do you see in this picture?

illusion4

Coffee beans. Right. Me too.

But what about the poor guy buried in the beans? Do you see him?

Look on the lower left-center side of the picture.

illusion5As you look at this picture, do you believe me when I tell you that there are no triangles?

 How we see and perceive things makes a huge difference. But what our eyes see is not the whole story—not at all. Our perspectives, attitudes, and our worldviews determine how we interpret what we see. For instance, some of you may have already seen these pictures before. This time, was your perception different than the first time you saw them? And, for those of you seeing these for the first time, I’ll venture a guess that your experience was quite different than mine.

Often we cannot see what we are not expecting to see.

This is called confirmation bias, the tendency for us to favor information that confirms our preconceptions or assumptions regardless of whether the information is true.[1]

We look to see what we expect to see.

And depending on what stage of life we are in, perceptions change. We illustrate this all the time with kids. There are some things we don’t want a child to see, but we in fact see these things daily as adults. So we shelter the child from those things—at least until he/she is a bit older and perhaps more able to “see” and “experience” the thing in a healthier way. I am about to perform a wedding this afternoon. The young couple soon to get married will hear me give them some advice and a blessing for their relationship. But my words won’t mean much, you know. They haven’t even begun to experience the challenges, blessings, joys, and sorrows of a life partnership. Ten years from now, if things work out for them, I could say the exact same words I will speak today. But I guarantee that this young couple would perceive my words to be different ones than I spoke at their wedding. Why? Because after many experiences, day-to-day life together, and the altering of their own individual views, their ears would hear something else.

Today’s story in John is all about perception. Jesus of Nazareth, trying to comfort his disciples before his departure, leaves them with a new way of seeing things. They won’t be alone. The Spirit will be with them and guide them through this crazy life. The story refers to the Spirit as parakletos, the ever-elusive Greek word that can mean so many things. This parakletos, the Advocate, is the Spirit of truth. This Spirit will lead the disciples into all truth. This Spirit is Jesus’ legacy, for Jesus himself was full of truth, and it is the truth that leads them on their way. But the disciples would not, could not accept such a shift in perspective right away. How could anyone or anything replace their rabbi Jesus? And yet, Jesus kept on insisting that his Spirit would be speaking to them—long after he was gone.

But notice that Jesus is also very honest with the disciples—about their tendency to cling to the past and their nostalgia–their inability to let go. He said to them:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

Sounds like what we often say to someone when we’re unsure if she can take difficult news or constructive criticism. Sounds like what we say to someone who isn’t ready to change his perspective, or at least recognize that there is more than just one way to see things.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

The disciples loved Jesus; they did. They relied on him. But they were not supposed to be co-dependent. Their calling was not supposed to be limited to their hometowns or to their narrow worldviews. The disciples were meant to be mature, growing, creatively transformed people. They were meant to move forward and to let go. They were not alone, remember. The Spirit was with them! Jesus’ teachings and example were with them.

This was their new perspective and their new way of life. Be humble. Recognize and embrace the Spirit’s presence; be connected to that Something Greater; let that Spirit move you to heal, to forgive, and to love.

Friends, like the disciples, we too can become clingy, nostalgic, static people. We can get too comfortable and stay in the same place. We can start to see the world as a depressing, scary, and awful place.

And then our lives aren’t life at all.

But we are offered another perspective. We are asked to stop putting Jesus and God in a box and to be open to a reality shift. Seeing life with a Spirit perspective means that our theology [how we think about God] is dynamic and forever changing. The way we see God and the world cannot remain the same; God is not limited to a church or a sanctuary or a song or a book or a doctrine. God is not limited even to our past experiences.

The Spirit is not a spirit of oppression or depression, but a Spirit of freedom, joy, and fulfillment.

This Spirit changes our perspective. The world is bigger.

There is more than just one way to see things.

We are connected to Something Greater.

We are connected to others in the work of compassion, justice, and love.

The Spirit is poured out on all of us; we just need to recognize it.

So what do you expect to see each day in your life?

Do you expect God to love you?

Do you expect to have opportunities to help someone?

Do you expect to see positive change in relationships that are broken?

Do you expect healing where there are wounds?

Do you expect to find strength to overcome the struggles you have?

Do you see the work of the Spirit around you and in others?

What actions, movements, creative moments, prayers, experiences, relationships, and enterprises make you more aware of the Spirit?

Which things make you less aware?

All of us are invited to a new perspective. The Spirit is in you. Recognize it. Perceive. Broaden your worldview. The Spirit is in your decision-making, in your day to day living. Notice the Spirit in others. And be led in this way. Find spiritual fulfillment and growth.

Walk this path knowing that you are not alone.

Each moment of your life has purpose and meaning.

And in those moments when this is hard to claim, when you feel alone or lost or completely broken—close your eyes.

Take a breath.

Listen.

Open your eyes and see things anew.

Hear new sounds.

And keep breathing, knowing you are never alone.

Amen.


[1] Baron, Jonathan (2000), Thinking and deciding (3rd ed.), New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prayers of Love, Prayers of Unity

John 17:20-26

It happens. A strange letter arrives in the mail, a weird email in my inbox, a random post on my Facebook page. People I don’t know, or I may know of them, but they are certainly not close friends or colleagues. I’m invited to something–a gathering of pastors for prayer; a group of community leaders for discussion; an event sponsored by some political figure. It is more than an invitation, I find out. The more I read the fine print, the more I realize that they want me to support their cause. A prayer meeting is not just to pray; it is to express how the government is evil and things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and undocumented workers are destroying the very fabric of the U.S. So come and pray about that. Or, the community meeting is not about learning or education or even networking. It’s about money, and how much money I can give to certain lobbyist groups, causes, or organizations. And the “Christian breakfast” invites are really fronts for political rallies for some candidate that of course, is looking for my vote and all of your votes. xianSpam

Each one of these comes with strings attached. And in every request, there are many assumptions made. First, whoever is inviting me assumes that as a Christian, I am just like them. I think like them, pray exactly like them, read and interpret the Bible just like them, worship like them, even vote like them. So the organizers of such gatherings are shocked when I call or email them back with a response of no—not because I cannot attend, but because I choose not to attend. How could that be? Am I not a Christian, just like them?

It is a common theme in our world today, I think. If someone doesn’t believe or think or even look like we do, they could not possibly be connected to us. We assume separation. People who disagree draw lines in the sand, rather than hearing out the other’s argument. People with differing worldviews never share a coffee, glass of wine or a beer, or a lunch. Even those who hang out or befriend another of a different religion, political stance, or philosophical view are told that they are watering down their own beliefs and stances. It seems that all too often we have to be exactly the same, or we cannot be together at all.

That is why, in this moment, I think it extra important for us to walk through John’s Gospel. Written last out of the other three Gospels, John has a nuanced perspective. Consider that when it was written, people had formed different religious and cultural groups, identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. We call them churches now, but these groups didn’t look much like what we see today. They were communities of people who lived together and supported each other. They were people from various backgrounds. They didn’t believe the same things. They interpreted their experiences of Jesus and God very differently. They even argued and had strong disagreements about ethics and theology. All of this is in the Gospel of John if we look for it.

Consider that these stories were written long after Jesus’ death and at a time when these faith communities were already expanding; assume that contextual, relevant interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings were being made. In other words, John’s Gospel interprets Jesus in light of the context and experience of that particular time and culture. We get a glimpse into a time, place, and culture simply by reading the words written about Jesus and even the words attributed to Jesus. You can read a novel about some historical figure like Abraham Lincoln or even see a movie, but it won’t really make sense to you unless you have some grounding in the historical context and cultural dynamics.

It’s no different with the Bible.

In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine [and then in Greece, etc.] traditions were for the most part, passed on by oral tradition. They didn’t have email archives, metal file cabinets, videos, or audio files of Jesus. They had memory; and experiences; and stories told by one person to another and then to another, and then to another. Much later, scribes wrote it all down. In fact, John’s Gospel is particularly unique in its storytelling, because most scholars believe that various authors put it together over an extended period of time. It was a community of people called “Johannine.” In their context, Jesus’ story was often about relationship. And so it is in John 17, the longest speech attributed to Jesus—in the form of a prayer–26 verses.

 This prayer of Jesus focuses on unity, love, and relationship.

Let’s explore those three things. First, love. We have been talking about this a lot in John, and with good reason. To love is a command of Jesus. God is love. Those who love are of God. There is a direct correlation between acts of love and acts of God. If a person shows love to another, they show God to that person. Likewise, if a person refuses to show love to another, God is not present in that act and they are not of God. But this is not meant to be mere metaphysical language. Jesus was clear with the disciples about love. It wasn’t a feeling alone; it was how you lived. The disciples could love with the love of God. They were capable of it. Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t have told them to do it in the first place!

Second, love is tied to that word relationship. Jesus had a unique and intimate relationship with God, who he called Abba [Father]. God knew Jesus; Jesus knew God; Jesus made God known to the disciples; they were to make God known to the world. That is a lot of knowing!

So look at the actual Greek word: ginoskoto know. Its meaning is intense. Ginosko means deep, interior perception that influences one’s emotions and actions.[1]

Knowing in John’s Gospel is not just about being aware—oh yeah, I know that guy, or at least, I know of him…

Knowing means being changed. Knowing affects your life. Knowing moves you to be. This relationship connects you to something bigger.

God knows all of us.

We are known by God.

Jesus knows God; God knows Jesus.

Jesus made God known to others.

We are to make God known to others.

And how does that happen: love.

But this leads us to the most difficult and misunderstood part of this prayer: unity. In the letters and emails and posts I get, this word unity is thought to mean the absence of disagreement or conflict. We are supposedly unified, because we believe the same things. We are unified because we hold the same commitments. We are unified by what we eat or wear or the language we speak. We are unified by our sameness. Don’t get me wrong—I am a big fan of finding people who connect with me because we share a common value, concern, or passion. I am a bridge-builder.

But being one or the idea of unity isn’t about sameness.

I mean, the colleagues and friends I have who stand with me on certain issues or share important values with me are quite different than me in a lot of ways. Some practice other religions or don’t practice any religion. Some of them speak other languages. Some live in different states, towns, or countries. Others participate in things in which I have no interest. Some don’t go to church. Some enjoy hobbies that are completely boring to me. On some issues, we completely disagree. They vote for different people or don’t vote at all. So are we unified? Are we one?

That is the question. You see, I think in American Christianity we often forget that being one isn’t about a piece of paper we sign, saying we believe the same things. It isn’t about doctrine or dogma or even some mission statement we agree upon. Unity, according to this prayer of Jesus, is based on the two things we already unpacked: relationship and love.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention the Apostle’s Creed or some Council in Nicaea. The disciples don’t sign on the dotted line. But they are challenged to make a choice, aren’t they? They are challenged to mirror the life-giving relationship of Jesus and God.

Be unified in your relationship: know each other by how you love each other; be known to each other by the love you receive; and then make love known to the world.

Funny enough, the unity of Jesus isn’t even meant to benefit the church.

Unity is meant to bless the world.

The phrase so that the world may know is repeated again and again by Jesus, and it’s almost annoying! But I think there’s a reason for the repetition, because we tend to ignore this challenge!

We like unity if it makes us feel better about our religion or because unity strengthens our numbers and gives us a louder voice so we can fight against others who disagree with us. We like unity if it gives us black-and-white understandings of God, morals and ethics, and salvation.

Less to think about.

We embrace unity if it allows us to avoid conflict and especially that particular issue that we have trouble with…

But this kind of unity? It’s not really about us at all!

It’s about others.

We are supposed to be one so that the world notices our love.

And this unifying love points them to the unifying love of God though Jesus.

Crazy as it may sound, churches and people of faith, if we are really interested in following Jesus, we need to be with other people who are different in order to experience a loving, unified relationship with God and in order to show love to the world. Love pushes us to widen the circle, reach out, and include. But we shouldn’t assume that they will think, believe, pray, sing, dress, talk, or behave exactly like us. In fact, we are challenged to embrace the differences, the disagreements, and the uniqueness. Why? Because in that kind of crazy, inclusive, diverse, raw community, we get a glimpse of what Jesus was praying about.

We start to get it—that God knows us and loves us as we are.

We open our minds to grasp that Jesus lived this loving relationship on earth.

We begin to know God and be known out of love–not obligation or fear.

Then, we live that love in the world–not obligating others, not causing fear.

Friends, the more we love, the more our relationship with God is real.

The more we love, the more we know ourselves better.

And the more we love, the more our relationships make a real impact.

Amen.


[1] Strong’s #1097 – γινώσκω.

 

Peace and Presence, Inspiring Love

John 14:23-29

Graduation! It’s that time of year. Students will be graduating from high school, college, graduate school—it’s a major milestone in their lives. It is the result of a lot of struggle and hard work; the facing of challenges and the overcoming of obstacles; times when they thought they wouldn’t make it; graduation is a time to remember the people, who helped along the way—who supported, encouraged, walked with them, and advocated for them.

I remember fondly all of the times when I graduated. Each graduation was unique and important. But today I want to remember [with you] my high school graduation. I, along with two other students, was chosen to address the crowd at our graduation. The three of us, rather than give a speech, read a book. We read a Dr. Seuss book: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. I’d like to start by reading from…

ohtheplacesCover 

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

Seuss

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets.  Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”


seuss2

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there in the wide open air.


seuss3

Out there things can happen and frequently do
to people as brainy and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew.

Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO![1]

This book—and my graduation experience–came to my mind when I looked at this passage in John 14. Now obviously, Jesus was not giving a graduation speech [though I think he probably would’ve rocked it if he had]. But this part of John does sort of feel like a graduation speech for disciples who needed to hear something inspiring and relevant. Now of course not all of us are graduating soon, but I still think the message applies to all of us. You get the feeling that the words in John were not meant for just a select group of people. Jesus appears to address everyone in the challenges and the blessings of his words. That should not surprise us, though. After all, we are reading John’s Gospel, written so long after Jesus’ death. This was a Gospel that had more universal appeal, simply because it was written with a wider audience in mind. By the time these stories were written, the early communities that followed Jesus [what we now call the church] already existed.

Today we’ll need to look closer at some particular phrases in Jesus’ speech. First, those who love me will keep my word…

It can be tempting [and it has been very tempting over the centuries] to reduce Jesus’ teachings and life to rules and theological viewpoints. But let’s try to stay above that fray, as best we can. The word of Jesus is not a word per se, and certainly is not the word as defined by some to be the book we call the Bible.

Jesus’ word is a reality of being.

Remember John’s Gospel starts with that explanation. The word was there from the very beginning, the word was with God, the word was God, and the word became flesh. So word is living. And how did Jesus live?

Well, for Jesus of Nazareth, living involved the fruit of loving people. Sometimes this meant healing; others times, teaching; sometimes, feeding; and other times, caring for and guiding; other times, forgiving. That is by no means an extensive list. But you get the idea. Jesus lived to love. Love, for him, was less a feeling and more an action.

So for the disciples [and us] to keep Jesus’ word, is to keep on loving.

Just as Jesus loved, we are supposed to love. Just as Jesus healed, we are supposed to heal; just as he cared, we are supposed to care; just as he forgave, so are we to forgive; and just as Jesus gave peace and wholeness, we are supposed to…

But wait a minute. It all sounds nice, but isn’t Jesus about to ditch the disciples?
Isn’t he about to leave them alone?

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Okay, now THAT’S BETTER! Suitable for any graduation speech, I think. Yes, I’m going to leave and you will definitely be on your own. But you won’t really be alone, because an advocate will go with you on your journey. And you will have wholeness—something that is far beyond what the world can possibly offer you. So don’t be afraid.

I’m into this.

But we need to look closer at this spirit word, par-ak-letos, the Greek word that appears here and is translated [loosely] in English to both advocate and holy spirit. Let’s break it down.

Para means alongside.

Kletos means called.

Par-ak-letos, literally translated, means the one called alongside.[2]
In a daily life application, this word par-ak-letos could apply to someone who is summoned to court in Greek law to help out as an advocate—to plead someone’s case.

Keep in mind that the people of the NT were not all Greek. Yes, the New Testament, as we know it, was written [for the most part] in Koine Greek. Over the centuries, though, manuscripts of the Bible were copied and changed. This is proven, because various NT manuscript copies of the same passage but from different years are not exactly the same. Whenever you translate something from one language to another, this is bound to happen. So please understand that paraclete is a good guess. And remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and many of his disciples most likely did, too. So often when you read a Bible story, you are seeing words translated from Aramaic into Greek [and sometimes mixed together], before being translated into a language that has nothing to do with Middle Eastern languages: American English.

And just one more thing to add to the craziness. Paraclete, in Greek, is also borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT].
The word is nacham. This means comfort.
You may recognize from Psalm 23: your rod and your staff, they comfort [nacham] me.

Essentially, take the Greek word for paraclete [one called alongside] and nacham [comfort] and you get what we see here: helper and comforter, later called Holy Spirit.

At this point you may be scratching your head or perhaps wondering what’s lighting up your Twitter feed or how you can discreetly escape, but please don’t despair or turn your brains off just yet. I’m saying all this just to help us understand that all these words for spirit are not necessarily interchangeable, but words from a variety of linguistic and cultural origins trying to describe something somewhat indescribable.

The presence of God promised by Jesus is indeed mega-inclusive.

This promise that we will not be alone is bigger than we think.

Comfort. Help. Advocacy. Presence.

This could be why Jesus finishes his disciple graduation speech by talking about another elusive word.

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives to you, do I give to you.

Yes, peace. I’ve said this quite a bit, but it’s worth restating. Peace is a poor translation of the Greek word eirene, just as peace is a bad translation of the Sanskrit word you hear in Yoga class, namaste. Namaste actually means I bow to the god within you or the spirit within me salutes the spirit within you.[3]

A lot more than peace and love, baby.

In the same way, the Greek eirene and the Hebrew shalom mean a lot more then peace, bro!

Eirene, a translation of shalom, is promoting the well-being of all people and society. It is wholeness, abundance, reconciliation, social harmony, and spiritual and physical health.[4]  

Again, Jesus is going all-inclusive here.

First, the spirit is for all and doesn’t leave us alone.

Second, the wholeness beyond superficial understanding is poured out on everybody.

I don’t know, but I have always been greatly encouraged by this section of John’s Gospel.

Like the confused and scared disciples, you and I will go to many places in our lives. Some of those paths we walk will not be all that great. We will encounter obstacles. We will have tough decisions to make. Oh, the place we’ll go, but oh, how hard it is to go there sometimes!

But we don’t go alone, and that’s what encourages me. We are not meant to journey alone. The wholeness of God is part of our experience with other human beings who also journey with us. We meet people in all the places we go. Some help us and some don’t. Some encourage and love us, and some don’t. Some places will be wonderful; some will be meh or awful.

But regardless, we don’t go alone. And we have a loving, comforting, challenging, holistic spirit walking with us. This is not a fantasy, but a promise. If we love as we are supposed to love, we will notice that this spirit is with us. The command to love goes right along with the promise of the spirit’s presence.

Love–and you will experience wholeness beyond understanding.

So friends, let’s be a place and community of love where the spirit lives. Let’s draw the circle wide—believing that God’s promises are not just for a few, but for all. Let’s not push people down or to the side; no one should stand alone or be left alone. Let’s live and breathe side by side with people of all ages, backgrounds, beliefs, perspectives, and personalities.

If Jesus’ love knows no limits, why should ours? Our love should not be scared of borders or differences. Jesus opened doors that were once closed. He opened hearts that were hard.

We can open doors.
We can welcome and invite.
We can show hospitality to all kinds of people in a million different ways.

And when we do this, when we draw the circle wide, invite in, love people well—we notice that the Spirit is in us and part of our lives. And then, oh, the places we’ll go! Amen.


[1] Oh the Places You’ll Go! Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1990.

[2] Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary #3875 – παράκλητος

[3] Chatterjee, Gautam (2001), Sacred Hindu Symbols, Google books, pp. 47–48.

[4] Strong’s Concordance 7965.

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