Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for July, 2014

Sacred Places

Genesis 28:10-19

How many of you remember the story of Jacob?

Sure, you probably remember him from such musicals as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He was Joseph’s dad, in case you’re wondering.
All in all, Jacob is one of the patriarchs in the Hebrew Scriptures.
He’s remembered for his family and what they went on to do.
But Jacob himself is a troubling character if we really read his story well.

He didn’t start off too well. Jacob, even before he is born, grabs on to his older brother Esau’s heel. It was a race to see who would be born first! Obvious, then, why the name Jacob means usurper or schemer.

From the get go, Jacob was trying to steal his older brother Esau’s birthright.
You see, privileges came with being the first born son.
There was land, animals, prestige, dad’s Costco membership, season tickets to the now Lebron-led Cleveland Cavaliers, and of course, the keys to dad Isaac’s Mercedes.

Yeah…all of that stuff.

So Jacob was really focused on getting this status by any means necessary.
He knew that his brother Esau loved food. And especially Jacob’s special soup, apparently. The story goes that one day, after working really hard, Esau returns home and is very hungry. He sees Jacob eating his favorite stew and begs Jacob to share.

Sure, I’ll share. But give me your birthright and I’ll give you the soup.

Well Esau must have been REALLY hungry, because he made the deal.
Soup for a birthright.

But it wasn’t over. Isaac, the dad, still had to give the birthright blessing to his firstborn.
And Isaac had no knowledge of the soup deal.
So when Isaac was near death, he called Esau to his beside to give him the blessing.

Jacob was smart. He sent his brother Esau into the fields to hunt for deer—one of their father’s favorite foods. So Esau leaves, and Jacob schemes.
With the help of his mom Rebekah, Jacob had a goat dish in hand, Esau’s clothes on his back, and goat skins that were extra furry on his arms and neck.

You see, Esau was hairy and Jacob wasn’t. So the goat hairs just might work.

Well, old Isaac’s eyesight was no too good, and so the plan did work.
Isaac thought Jacob was Esau.
He gave Isaac the blessing meant for Esau.

And of course, as you can imagine, upon his return, Esau was not too happy about all this.
Esau planned to kill Jacob for this deception and so eventually Jacob fled the house.
He was on his way to his uncle Laban’s house, and this is where we meet him.
He’s on his way to Haran.
He stops in an unimportant place—just a pit stop because the sun went down.
It’s dark and Jacob needs to sleep.
So he lays his head on a rock pillow.

And he has a funky dream that has inspired a LOT of songs.

Jacob dreams about a ladder that rests on the ground here on this planet, but the top of it reaches to the heavens. Angels of God go up and down this ladder.

Here is Marc Chaggall’s painting that depicts the dream:

chagall.ladder.jpeg

When Jacob wakes up, he’s surprised. You see, God speaks to Jacob and says:

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

This is unexpected for Jacob, who is on the run from his ticked off brother, far from home, and uncertain about his future. God with him in this strange and unimportant place?
The Creator standing beside him in spite of his issues and mistakes?

This Creator makes a covenant with Jacob—a promise of relationship.
And this time, Jacob did not have to lie or grab someone’s heel or deceive his dad.

Eventually, Jacob gets a new name: Israel, which means: persevere with God.

Very appropriate, don’t you think?

I hope the themes in this story lead you somewhere challenging and fulfilling.
After all, there is a lot that you can learn from here.

Like Jacob, we as human beings often pursue status, power, wealth, etc., and we do just about anything to get it. We are more than capable of stealing, walking over others, lying, and scheming.

But we always feel empty. We are never satisfied.

And, like Jacob, we can become conditioned to think that the presence of God is limited to certain places and rituals.
We commemorate such places with signs, and plaques and steeples and crosses.
We adore our religious rituals and grab on tightly to them.

But we always feel empty. We are never satisfied.

And then, when those buildings are sold or lost, when the rituals become less important—we just might convince ourselves that our spiritual core is empty and God is absent.

Or you may be someone who abhors ritual and has no attachment to buildings, but you’ve grown so tired of religion with all its dogma and hate and violence.
And so, we find ourselves in an unknown, dark, seemingly unimportant and non-spiritual place somewhat like limbo.

And it’s in that in-between place that we find something real at last.

We find God in that place and we’re surprised.

We have an “aha moment” outside the sanctuary and we’re shocked.
We experience peace of mind and body in nature and say: How?
We hear promises of comfort and connection outside of religious books and dogma and we feel that we’re dreaming.

We need this kind of dream. We have got to stop limiting ourselves so much.
Don’t think of this ladder as something corporate that you’ve got to climb up as quickly as possible, jumping over anyone in your path. Don’t think of the ladder as some “project” to be more holy or religious.
And don’t every judge others by thinking they are below you.

As Rabbi Yossy Goldman puts it:

When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: “If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question — until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.

If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.

And so my friends, it doesn’t really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder…of life. As long as you are moving in the right direction…

Friends, God is everywhere—surely in this place, and the other, and that one, and here, and there, and everywhere. The Creator is present in those limbo-like places, in between and when we’re uncertain and wandering.

Let us not seek things that leave us feeling empty.

Instead, walk and climb freely—knowing that you are not alone and that you will have daily opportunities to reconnect with your full humanity, and with the Spirit that gives you good work to do that is part of a greater picture.

The ladder of transformation and social impact and connection, you see, is not only accessible through a church.

The ladder is grounded on this earth everywhere you go.

Each moment, each day we have the opportunity to claim sacred places where we are.
And all this real-time dreaming can lead to making a real positive impact in the world.

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Lighten Up!

Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

Can you sense when you are in a heavy environment?
Do you recognize when the environment is light?
How do you know?

In our Gospel story today, Jesus of Nazareth is getting impatient.

He seems to compare the behavior of the people around him to children bickering back and forth. Na, na, na, na, na, na na! Imagine your most annoying playground back-and-forth argument between two kids and you’re there.

Sticking out tongueBut maybe that interpretation doesn’t work as well. It seems to me that the children aren’t the annoying ones. They are just responding to the frustrating apathy of those around them. They played the flute and tried to get a joyful reaction out of people, and…nothing. So then they went for crying, funeral-type thing, and that didn’t work either.

That of course is a reference to John the Baptizer, the guy who shouted at the people, calling them to change their ways; it didn’t work. They said he was crazy and demon-filled.

Then Jesus, who was different than John—perhaps a “softer” message of love; it didn’t work either. They called him a glutton and a sinner.

So yeah.

The kids are right. How frustrating. Try to motivate people with joy or with sorrow and neither attempt works. People were lifeless but they sure knew how to criticize.

Not much has changed, really. In the current religious landscape of the world, there are very, very loud and annoying people who call people names and criticize people who try to do something different, or lighter, or freer….

They call them sinners, for sure.

They call them pagans or unchurched or unbelievers.
Sometimes they call them derogatory names because of their sexual orientation.
They even say that some are going to hell…just because they interpret the Bible differently.

This is what happened then and it happens now.

People drag other people through the mud and call them names simply because of fear and ignorance. If it were just a few people doing it and no one paid attention, I wouldn’t care. But many of the mud-slingers are in positions of authority or have media influence and are seen on many screens and heard on many stations.

So they drag people with them into their heavy hate rhetoric.

And religions start sinking in the mud because of this. All of them.

Religious people stop loving and helping those around them; they stop looking for justice; they stop praying and meditating; they stop living mercy and compassion.

And this is my [and many people’s] complaint about religion in general.

We argue back and forth about who is right or more holy; we assert our positions on scripture and draw lines in the sand to separate people; we shout so many words at people in order to criticize them and then we do it on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever platform we can find. This is religion at its worst—just empty, hateful, and ignorant words.

Pure heaviness that no one would ever want to be part of.

And then, some good news that we’re supposed to focus on instead:
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
It’s really simple.

Wisdom, in the 1st and 2nd century, was understood as a presence equal to that of the Creator. Wisdom was part of the creation of whole universe. Wisdom was not a person or a thing or even a god, but wisdom was constant, and unbiased, and wonderful.

In the Jewish tradition of Proverbs 8, it says:

Wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Wisdom was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
Wisdom was there when the Creator set the heavens in place, marked out the horizon on the face of the deep. Wisdom was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in the Creator’s presence, rejoicing in the whole world and delighting in humankind.

And then, this advice from Wisdom Herself:
Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways.
Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway.
For those who find me find life.

Wisdom shattered the empty, hateful words of the religious.
Wisdom drowns out the prejudice, mean religious people of today.

Why?

Because wisdom is evident not in words, but in deeds.

Anyone can make arguments and yell back and forth and point fingers.
But how many of those who shout actually do anything good?

A true prophet is known because he or she lives what he/she says.

And so in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find Sabbath rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Easy?
Light?
Since when did religion [much less Western Christianity] become easy and light?
Since when did being a person of faith include rest, learning, and release to freedom?

Since then. Since now.

But we’ve walked away from this path—many of us.

We love the heavy “yokes” of doctrine and dogma so very much because it gives us black-and-white answers and gives us the excuse to judge and be prejudice against certain kinds of people. Often, religious people prefer that type of heaviness to the lightness, because having a lot of freedom in religious practice and thought means that there are no definitive answers and that no one gets it exactly right. Your god or your savior isn’t the best or the truest. That scares some people. And yes, it scares a lot of so-called “Jesus followers” who want nothing at all to do with a light burden and too much freedom. They view Jesus as a god who started the best and truest religion on earth.

But Jesus founded no religion.

We did.

Instead, Jesus offered Sabbath rest—the kind of holistic rest from all the rules, and restrictions, and heaviness.
Sabbath rest can even be translated as recovery and restoration.

So we’re all kind of religious addicts in recovery, on a road to get rid of our heaviness, our baggage; we’re on a road to be restored and to be light—to be free.

The Jesus yoke is not easy, actually.
The word means goodness, pleasant, worthy, loving, kind.
So if we carry such a yoke, we leave heaviness behind.

We walk light on our feet and we walk in light.

We stop shouting and pointing fingers.
We start treating all people with a light yoke of love, mercy, and freedom to be themselves.
We accept the Sabbath rest of recovery and refreshment for ourselves so that we offer it to others. And we learn to laugh a lot more, and to be lighter…and this is freeing.

 

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