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Archive for December, 2013

JOY: What Is It?

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

bowlGo find a bowl. Any size will do—preferably glass. Look at it. This bowl is empty, is it not? And yet, still a bowl, right? Now put stuff in it. It doesn’t matter—fill it. Now what is it? Has the bowl changed its essence? Is it now “candy” if that is what you filled it with? Is it water? Is it coins? No, the bowl is still a bowl. Now I want you to imagine that this bowl is you—your life. Now imagine all the things that your life becomes filled with—events, circumstances, successes, failures, good and bad relationships, life and death, money and no money, jobs, school, sicknesses, discoveries, sunny and rainy days, etc, etc. Your bowl [your life], though filled with events and things and people—is still not defined by its contents. Your life is still your life. You are still you. In spite of what we may think, our bowls are still the empty vessels of life that they always have been.

All of the stuff our bowls get filled with does not define us.

The bowl is about identity, of course. And so is the Matthew Gospel story about John and Jesus. During this season when many Christians are focused on the baby Jesus—a story that appears in only a handful of Bible verses—it is appropriate for us to talk about who Jesus was and is. Of course, that identity of Jesus has been determined by people over the centuries and still today.

Most of you probably have already figured out that Christ-mas and December 25th have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These traditions of Christmas [leading up to Dec. 25th in the West and January 7th in the East] are relatively new and more closely related to cultural traditions and winter solstice observances. In fact, celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. Moving forward, in the 1st and 2nd Century there is no mention of any celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the writings of early Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen of Alexandria. Still in this time period, Jesus of Nazareth was defined by his life and ministry, and his death. The four Gospels provide much more detail about his life and his death. They even provide more specific times as to when his death may have occurred.

So to sum up, the earliest NT Biblical writings—Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark—do not mention Jesus’ birth. Neither does the Gospel of John. Only Matthew and Luke tell this story and in entirely different ways with different details. The New Testament is much more concerned with what Jesus did as an adult and how he died. This is how he was defined.

But in Matthew’s Gospel, this was not even the case yet. John wasn’t sure about Jesus.

Everyone was waiting for a Messiah, a ruler of some sort, or at least a prophet who would shake things up and change the current state of people’s lives. They were all waiting. John was waiting. Was Jesus their guy? Or had they been waiting in vain? John was confused. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly no king. Actually, he wasn’t even a religious leader. He had no sway in the temples, no power or authority in Jerusalem.

So was it time to give up on this Jesus and start waiting for another Messiah?

Of course, Jesus’ response isn’t what many wanted to hear. Jesus did not tell John:
Sure, I’m the Messiah. Here I am!
Bow down to me, worship me, the deal is done!
Everything is going to get better!

Instead, Jesus told his disciples to report back to John—to remind him of the compassionate and life-changing things that were happening to those who were typically left out and pushed down. Once again, Jesus borrowed from prophets like Isaiah, and lifted up the healings of those who were suffering; the new life for those who were considered dead; the poor being uplifted rather than ignored. But Jesus never really talked about himself. In fact, he talked about John. Who was John? How did people define him? What did people expect? A great priest with long, flowing robes who would lead the people? A prophet who would preach to them? John certainly was a prophet, but more than that. John was a guy who told the truth [no matter how painful]; he lived among the people without pretense; he exposed hypocrisy, greed, and injustice.

People tried to define John in certain ways and with various titles.

So did people try to define Jesus in certain ways and with various titles.

We still do it.
At Christmastime, we talk about Jesus as Savior and Messiah—and these are things that Jesus actually never said about himself.

We sing joy to the world, the Savior reigns…but after 2000+ years, does the Savior reign?
I mean, the world that John and Jesus both hoped for still doesn’t exist.

People are still incredibly poor. There is still great evil and corruption in the world.

Many times, joy is hard to come by.

I know that I am challenging a lot of our most popular assumptions. But I think that we need to do this if we are to concretely live out faith and practice compassion in life. Jesus of Nazareth and his cousin John both taught compassion, love, truth, and justice. Neither one of them believed that one person alone could bring such balance to the world. It would take a village—no, a whole community of people. And so Jesus called people lights in the world. Lights is plural. You, me, everybody else—lights in this world.

It is one of the biggest challenges of this holiday season, because we often force an identity on Jesus and then on ourselves. Christmastime is supposed to be a happy season of smiles, hugs, warm feelings, and stuffed stockings. But that’s not really at all what the story and message of Jesus of Nazareth is about.

It is about JOY.

Okay, but what is joy? To address this question, we have to ask another question:

What is happiness?

Often, the two words [and ideas] of joy and happiness are lumped together. Certainly, during this holiday season, we are bombarded with images, songs, and stories that tell us to be happy. Have a holly, jolly, Christmas! We say merry Christmas for a reason, right? Or..happy holidays? I mean, who would really go so far as to say to someone have a mediocre, melancholy Christmas or May you have a realistic holiday or better yet,
Miserable Christmas to you, too!

Uh, I’m joking, of course. But I am not joking about this word happiness. We have got to take a closer look because Happy Christmas is less about reality and more about marketing.

According to the Free Dictionary and Psychology Today, happiness is an emotion based on the external. It is based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts. Happiness is also connected to the future—something you do not currently have but hope to have one day. Happiness depends on outer circumstances that will need to align with your expectations in order for you to “feel” happy. Thus, a “Merry” Christmas, in this sense, depends on whether your family and your friends meet your expectations for the holidays to be “happy.” If they don’t, unhappiness results. Happiness, then, is a roller coaster of emotion; we are at the mercy of other people and things, speeding up and down and hurling through loopy-loops until we get sick. Now I happen to like roller coasters, but just not the emotional kind that I was speaking of there. I’m not a huge fan of being happy one moment and then depressed a bit later, and then repeating the same cycle again and again.

So that’s happiness. But what is joy? Ah, here we go.

Joy is actually not external, cannot be bought in a store, is not conditional on someone else’s behavior—in fact, joy is completely independent of everything and exists on its own. Joy laughs at attachments. Joy doesn’t need them. Joy is free; joy lives and breathes on its own. Hmmm…so do you think we can start a movement? Can we instead say to other Christians, have a joyful Christmas? Can we say to those who are not Christians, have a joyful holiday?

I think we can. And I think it is more real and certainly healthier. For joy means being at peace with yourself—accepting who you are, where you are, and why you are. Joy is about accepting who you are not, and who you are not with. I received a great question about joy this week: what does joy feel like? Seems like something children are privy to. Explain the way joy feels!

Joy does not feel like happiness. It’s deeper, fuller, more realistically yours.

JOY does not come from your successes or achieving goals you set for yourself.

JOY is not dependent upon external circumstances.

JOY is when you are grateful consistently—even when there is no success.

JOY is internally and eternally yours when you are joyful regardless.

With practice, we can experience joy even in the midst of sadness. We will need to see life as more than just one disappointment or success after another. We have to let go of judgments and the negative emotions that come with them. If we can work on that, we will find joyful freedom.

Life is a gift. And each and every one of us is a life-gift. Our bowls can be filled with plenty of things, but it doesn’t change the fact that each one of us is a life and gift. Gratefulness comes when we just realize how much of a gift life actually is. And those around us are gifts, too. And this life is unpredictable and will always surprise us. Joy is in embracing the changes and the surprises. It is seeing a snowstorm not as an inconvenience or a fearful event, but as a moment to pause and admire creation—to stop and breathe and laugh, cry, and experience. When joy and gratitude live in you, the imperfections of your life add beauty and wholeness to your life.

Friends, we are trained at very early ages to believe that we are defined by other people and by the things we have. We are often told that only when we acquire certain things will we be happy. We are conditioned to believe that if we do not have certain things, we cannot be whole or content.

But we are not valued by what we have, nor by what we accomplish.

Our value is in who we are.

So find inner joy in who you are, as you are. And may that internal joy you discover lead you to compassionate living with others—recognizing the life and gifts in them. That is what this season and this life are about.



PEACE: What Is It?

Isaiah 11:1-10

I thought that there was no better way to start a message and conversation about peace than to hear from the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died at the age of 95 this past Thursday, December 5th. His life and work are a testimony to what real peacemaking looks like. And that is why as we ask the difficult question today: what is peace? I wish to include Mandela in our reflection.

Often during this time of year, Advent and Christmas, the word and concept of peace can be quite superficial and abstract. We talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we hear familiar words from prophets like Isaiah, we call the infant Jesus a peace child, and we sing silent night and peace on earth until we’re blue in the face. But what does it all mean really? Does one season and one day out of the year have any real, peaceful impact on our lives and on our world?

That is the question I am holding today. Do our words and beliefs about Jesus as the one who brings peace really mean anything? Or is it just a holiday tradition of hanging up pretty lights and tinsel and singing familiar carols and exchanging gifts? Is peace real? Is Christmas about peace? Do we really live peace in our lives?

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in being calm and comfortable for a few moments on Sundays in Advent and then on Christmas eve—no interest in entering a church and singing some songs, lighting some candles, doing the same Christmas traditions—when out into the real world all is conflict, tension, and suffering. For me, hiding the tension makes me feel worse. It’s hard to sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger without thinking about kids in Syria, Palestine, Southern Sudan, West Philly, and Camden. Peace? Not so much for them. It’s painful for me to put up lights and exchange gifts when I know for a fact that there are plenty of people who see no light in their lives and don’t want gifts, because they just want food…or a job…or safety….or health.

So what is peace?

I’m coming clean here, being honest with you. This second Advent candle of peace is a tough one for me. I myself am full of tension; I’m full of conflict internally. And the world around me doesn’t seem to be cooperating.

But I do find something that speaks to me in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

I also find encouragement in what Nelson Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Peace as the presence of justice; peace as living in such a way that brings freedom to others. This stays right with the prophet Isaiah’s perspective. For Isaiah, the people of Israel had become a stump—dead, nonmoving, apathetic, unjust. So when Isaiah speaks of a plant growing out of this dead stump, it is a hope, a dream—that the people would wake up, be alive, and bring justice and peace to their lands, to their communities—to themselves. Isaiah’s belief about God was that the presence of God [called spirit] would be obvious in people because they would live differently. They would not be dead stumps but alive in this spirit. The spirit would awaken the people as an active agent of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and justice. This spirit, at work, would show itself as the poor would be uplifted [no more injustice for them]; people would be equal and not pushed down, the evil oppressors would hold no more sway.

And only then, with the dynamic action of the spirit in people to bring about justice—only then would there be true peace. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion–a little child leads all of them. These images of contrast, of yin and yang, of strength and weakness, hot and cold, opposite things living together in harmony—are the image of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which people recognize the tension of injustice and suffering and do something about it. A world where hurting and destroying is not the norm.

And now to the other questions I received this week about peace:

  1. Did Jesus have one main definition of peace or was he concerned with many different types of peace – inner peace, peace between people, peace between countries? What was most important to him when he spoke about peace?

What we know of Jesus is found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. Each time that Jesus used the word peace he usually meant shalom. This of course is the Hebrew word that expresses God’s desire for all of creation. Shalom means that people are in a good, healthy relationship with God; people are in healthy relationships with each other; they are in healthy relationships with their physical bodies and minds; and people are in healthy relationships with the whole earth [animals, trees, land, etc.]

So for Jesus, peace was about all of us living in balance—recognizing our deep connection to each other and to all living things. Jesus of Nazareth would have been well-versed in the Torah and in the writings of the prophets, like Isaiah. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he was echoing Isaiah’s call for the people to create a peace on earth. It was all about action. One clear example is in the Gospel of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39).

For Jesus, acting out shalom was the whole point. How do we treat others? This was the proof of true peace. Let’s add a cool twist to this. Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY, explores deeper.

When you slap someone on the right cheek, consider that it is a back-handed slap. Why? Because in the time of Jesus, the left hand was not used for greeting or for doing much at all in public. The left hand was used for what we now call toilet paper. Yes, that’s right. So keeping that in mind, the right hand slapping someone’s right cheek would be a back-handed slap. This demonstrates to the other person that you are above them; a back-handed slap is to push someone down or insult them as lower than you. Turning the other cheek then, is not really an act of being passive, but rather an act of showing another that he/she is your equal. It is not responding to violence with more violence. Jesus actually never taught passivity or getting walked over. Shalom/Peace for Jesus was about seeing others as equals. In the end, Jesus was concerned with a holistic peace that was demonstrated in peaceful living with others.

Question #2:

How can you create peace when the other party doesn’t want there to be peace?  Can peace be one-sided?

When we seek peace with another person and that person rejects it—this is a sign of deep hurt and a broken shalom in the other. We often forget that we cannot control the attitude or the behavior of others; we just cannot. Even if you are behaving in a most peaceful and compassionate way, this will not change the person. He/She will ultimately have to make peace with him/herself first before accepting your offering of peace. So in this case, yes—peace can be one-sided.

When we forgive or offer peace to someone, this action is healing for us. We must recognize this. Only then will we be able to see that any person who cannot accept peace or forgiveness is greatly suffering. Of course, this does not excuse bad behavior. But when we offer peace to someone, we do it because it brings peace to us and we hope that the other person will also experience such a peace. But we must accept that we cannot force a person to be at peace; this will enable us to have compassion and to be able to move on.

Good questions.

In conclusion, let’s hear these words from Nelson Mandela, reminding us that peace in ourselves, peace with each other, and peace in the world— this is not a reality for everyone. So we must join with others and be the buds that spring out of the stump—committing ourselves to peaceful, just living and recognizing that all people deserve love, acceptance, and wholeness.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

 May we keep walking as agents of peace. Amen.

HOPE: What is it?

Isaiah 2:1-5


The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth  instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:8-12a

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

hg.catchingfireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, recently released, is the second movie in a series based on the three novels written by Suzanne Collins. The story of the hunger games focuses on selected people from various districts who are called tributes. They must fight to the death in order to provide food for the people of their particular district. For 75 years, the oppressive, wealthy Capital has staged the games. But in the previous games, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) won as a couple. Thus, they became victors—heroes for the oppressed people of the districts. But they are soon forced to obey the demands of the Capital’s leader, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) and compete to the death once again. Why? Because Katniss’ bravery and stubborn defiance have made her a symbol of hope for the people.

In one scene, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ sister says:

Primrose Everdeen: Since the last games, something is different. I can see it.

Katniss Everdeen: What can you see?

Primrose Everdeen: Hope.

It is this hope that has been the spark for a rebellion by the people of the districts against the oppressive rule of the Capital and President Snow. Sensing this, Snow puts an awful plan in motion to destroy Katniss and Peeta and to crush the hopes of the 12 districts.

snowOf course, the Hunger Games draws out some very appropriate and timely themes for us today. For certain, we live in a world in which there are millions of people who suffer needlessly without enough to eat, in unsafe conditions, and forced to compete against each other.

The strongest theme in this particular movie for me happens to be the use of fear to control people and the ability of hope to change the game.

That is what we will explore.

Throughout this season of Advent, I will be asking questions and encouraging you to ask them, too. So what questions do we have about hope?

I received two questions this week that I would like to share with you:

 1. What did Jesus have to say about hope?

 2. How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?
How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

 3. And my question: what IS hope?

Since I am the one talking, I get to start with my question.

The English dictionary defines hope as:

 -a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

 -a feeling of trust.

 -[verb] to want something to happen or be the case.

But honestly, a dictionary definition is not really adequate, because hope as a concept has developed over thousands of years, throughout cultures around the world. Psychologists who study human emotion state that hope is an emotive response to circumstances that are pretty terrible. Hope can result when people are unsure about the future or are currently experiencing a tough time. Something happens in a person’s brain—he/she can open up to a new reality and remove the mask of fear and despair. This mental image of hope allows a person to see the big picture and helps creativity grow.

But hope, say psychologists, is actually quite different from positive thinking. Being positive is a therapeutic and systematic process used to reverse pessimism. But it can often lead to a “false hope” in a fantasy or an outcome that is highly unlikely. On the other hand, hope is cultivated when people have a goal in mind, determination that the goal can be reached, and a plan as to how to achieve the goal.[1]

In other words, hope is more than just a positive, mental image. Hope is thinking that turns into action.

Hope is imagining a better tomorrow when today is terrible.

Hope is taking the small steps necessary towards that tomorrow.

But what does the Bible say about hope?
A lot, actually, but we do not have the time to explore all of it.

So let’s start with Isaiah, from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Biblical literature, hope is about expecting or anticipating.

Isaiah is part of what we call prophetic literature. Everything you read in Isaiah is symbolic and not literal. In this second chapter of the prophet’s book, we are told that Isaiah saw the words. How does one see words? The Hebrew language helps us here. “See” means “envision.” Right away, the words on a scroll or on a page jump out at us. They are alive; they don’t stay on the paper. They are envisioned. Seen. Alive.

Isaiah challenges the people to walk in Yahweh’s light. They are to reject war and turn to ways of peace. This was shalom. Shalom is wholeness. Shalom is a vision of balance, justice, and unity. But this shalom is not realized yet.

This is important to understand because Isaiah was not a prophet who lived in some fantasy world. He saw the extreme poverty, oppression, and injustice in the world. That was reality. Suffering was reality. Isaiah was a realist. Hope was not false or merely a once-a-year, Christmasy kind of hope.

The world of Isaiah’s time and the world of our time was and indeed is screwed up—out of balance. So to have hope seems absurd.

At least, it seems absurd if it is just a good idea or a feeling.
Hope without action would have been absurd. But Isaiah’s hope is a calling out to the people for change, for them to help, to heal, to bring justice, to find balance in themselves and then to bring balance to others.

Prophetic books like Isaiah do not tell us about a current reality, but rather, challenge us to start building an unseen reality.

Build hope where there is despair.

When the night is long, scary, and full of despair, can you imagine the dawn?

I hear Katniss Everdeen: The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand.

sunpersists And so I return to one of the questions asked about hope.

How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?

How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

For each person, it will be different. The absence of hope, for many is fear; despair; hopelessness. So what is causing those feelings in your life? Identify the sources of fear and despair. And at the same time, identify a path that you may take to overcome fear and leave despair behind you. What steps can you take today? Tomorrow? Next week?
In short, we won’t hope without hopeful thinking turning into hopeful action. I can think positively and pray all I want, but if my prayers and thoughts don’t move me to positive action—I’m stuck in my fear and despair. This kind of progress in the midst of difficulty is not easy, for sure. But hope that is more than thinking is a spark that can set a fire.

And a very appropriate question during Advent: What did Jesus have to say about hope?

Actually, nothing. At least not specifically.

Jesus of Nazareth never mentioned the word or concept of hope. But he did talk a lot about fear. There are a myriad of Gospel passages attributed to Jesus that mention fear. And in each case, Jesus of Nazareth tells people: do not fear.

Why? Because when we fear, we have way too much trouble envisioning a new day.
When we are paralyzed by fear, we stop thinking wisely and certainly stop moving.
When fear dominates, we stop loving and accepting people as they are.

So it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ most famous words are echoed by Paul in the letter to Rome. And what else could be more appropriate for us to hear during Advent season [and every season of the year]?

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Awake from sleep.

In fact, wake up your neighbor from his/her sleep. Wake up the world.

For the dawn is near.

Hope is real—if we live it.

Do more than imagine hope. Forge a path for it in your life.


[1] Snyder, Charles D. The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. New York: The Free Press, 1994, pg. 19

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