Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for April, 2015

New Things, Beautiful and Changed

Mark 2:21-22  

Have you  moved a lot in your life?
I know I have. I have way too many memories of packing up stuff and cleaning out an apartment, a dorm room, or a house.

That’s the worst part of moving, isn’t?

Each time I moved, I had to come to that awful, eye-opening revelation that I just had too much stuff and now what am I going to do with it all?

It’s overwhelming.

Well, at least it is when you’re in the midst of all that packing and cleaning.

And yet, something happened to me every time I moved—whether as a kid, or a teenager, or a student, or an adult—once all that stuff was gone or packed, I felt pretty great.
In fact, I felt light as air.

And if you’ve ever been in a “temporary” living space for a while, unable to have all your “stuff” by your side, the first few days are frustrating, but after that, something happens.


You feel liberated.

Some of my fondest memories in life involve an empty house in Indiana; an unfurnished studio apartment in Honolulu, Hawai’i; a bare-bones dorm in Princeton, NJ; and a period of many months when my partner Maria and I did not have any of our stuff because it was in storage somewhere.

Why is that?

Perhaps you have your own answers to that question.
For me, the reason I felt so liberated each time I moved was because the change made me aware of my attachment to all the stuff in my life, and I’m not just talking about furniture, clothes, or knickknacks.

I mean my attachment to the past—to a life I lived somewhere else that was now over.

My attachment to memories and places.

In this case, I agree with the Beatles when they state in their song In My Life:

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
In my life I’ve loved them all


But the song continues with a realization:

And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Sure, this may be portrayed as a love song, but it’s always resonated with me as a love song for our memories. Yes, I do stop and think about all the places I’ve lived and been; I do think about the people who have come in and out of my life; and I do have affection for those memories.

But today, in my life in this moment, I see something more important.

I love this moment more than my memories, because it’s real.

I love the people and things in my life right now more than my past.
That doesn’t mean that my memories are worthless or harmful.
It simply means that I embrace today more than yesterday.

And such a change should not scare us.

Maybe that’s why this Jesus saying about wine and wineskins that appears in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas has always spoken to me.

Funny, though—it’s basically an argument.
Jesus is arguing with his own disciples [and others] about the memories of tradition.

Hmmm….maybe this wasn’t written in the 1st or 2nd century?

It all sounds so familiar.

People were arguing with Jesus because they noticed that he and his disciples didn’t follow the “normal” religious rules. They weren’t fasting as much as they were supposed to and when they were supposed to.

Of course, this was about more than fasting.
Jesus was also criticized for healing people, remember.
That’s right—you heard me.
He was criticized for healing people—for doing something so amazingly wonderful and life-giving.

Healing wasn’t a tradition on the Sabbath. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a criticism of Judaism—it’s a criticism of religion in general.

Christians are no different than the Pharisees and disciples who were more interested in protecting the memories of the past than actually living compassionately today.

Curious, isn’t it, that while Christians claim to believe in a God who is a God of change and claim to follow the Jesus of change and claim to be guided by and filled with the Spirit of change—most Christians fear change.

There’s a sense in the church institution that things were always better way back when.

Remember when…

But Jesus throws down a teaching here that is significant for any century.
Don’t put new wine in old wineskin.

If you have chosen to be a person of faith, and this spirituality you choose to develop is a “new” thing or at least something that “renews” you every day–why in the world would such a thing feel heavy?

If you choose to be a person of faith, this should not be a burden to you. It should not weigh you down; it should not be about “I can’t do this or that”; it should not make you legalistic, rigid, or limited.

So why then, is much of religion such a burden and so heavy?

Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coatIt’s heavy, because we keep trying to put new things in old things.

In the Gospel story, wine is a metaphor, of course, but real wine was indeed a staple of the culture of Jesus.
No one would never put new wine in an old wineskin.
It would ruin it!

New-wineIt’s really a simple metaphor about embracing change and letting the past be the past.
But I’m quite sure you’ve had moments [or days, or week, or months] when you wanted to put your past behind you but just couldn’t.

You wish you could do that so you could move forward in your life.
But you keep hearing [and feeling] that you have to hold onto your past for some reason.
So you keep trying to introduce new ideas or experiences into that old life, it just doesn’t take.

Hey, I understand.

Every time I moved in to a new place and tried to introduce the same old things from my old place, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t work. I had to rearrange or get rid of some things altogether.

The difficult truth we all have to hear is that we need to let the past be yesterday.

It’s difficult, but we have to let go of anything that weighs us down or keeps us from moving out of the past and into the present moment.

This affords us the opportunity to be free.
And, it enables us to be creative, to love, to help, and to fully live.

The past is something that can cause fear and confusion. It can make us believe that some things are impossible and that some things will just never change.

A couple of years ago, the congregation I serve decided to put up two signs [one a rainbow design] that clearly welcomed the LGBTQ community in a public way.

People left the church.
Founding and long-time members quit. Others continued to grumble. Eventually, because of what those two signs led to [more freedom and less fear of change], more people left. The first rainbow sign, after it was put up, was even stolen.

Many members of the congregation who stuck around started to be more active in their community. They welcomed and helped people who had no place to go and sometimes no food to eat. They formed more partnerships with people of different religions and those who didn’t claim a religious background. It was new wine.

And yet, there was still grumbling; and fear; and resistance.

The new wine was bursting the old wineskin.

And the more they interacted with people who were atheistic, agnostic, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Baha’i, Sikh, Buddhist, gay, lesbian, transgender, yellow, brown, pink, orange, and black; speakers of languages other than English; loud and energized toddlers; inquisitive and skeptical teenagers; suburban, urban, and rural folk; those with money and jobs and those with neither; families with kids and those without; single moms and dads; straight and gay couples…

The wine spilled out.

The old wineskin just didn’t function anymore. The heavy religious stuff didn’t make sense.

And for those who were able to embrace this, it freed them.

Yes, it’s true. Though it is difficult sometimes to do, we should not fear change.
We should actually embrace change.

Because the Creator is always doing NEW things.

And we are created and can become creators ourselves of new things.

We are all liberated from the way it’s always been done

You have the opportunity to be new–to embrace all people for real, and to show them that something new is being created in them and in you.

And whatever those heavy things are from your past—whatever weighs you down—know that you have the freedom to let go.

Today [and every day] new wine is poured.
New things are created.
So welcome it.


The Journey

Luke 24:13-16; 27-32; 36 

Spring is here. The weather is getting sunnier, the temperature is warmer.

Time for a road trip!

I really like to travel. When I was a kid, I moved a lot, so I was used to a change of scenery more often than not. So when my family went to different places, it was always exciting and something I looked forward to. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say that sometimes if I’m in one place for too long…I get antsy.

Road trips seem to be the cure for that feeling, though. Jump in the car and go somewhere.


Or forget the car—take a train, or a bus. Explore a city, or even the countryside.

Or scratch that—take a plane. Fly to another far away state or to another country or why not—go to another continent.

Take a trip. You’re bound to change.

That being said, though I do like traveling to faraway places, sometimes for me it can be as simple as walking somewhere close by where I have never walked before. I notice so much more when I walk than when I drive. Places that I thought were “familiar” are actually not. All the details of places and people and things are clearer. And the road, the journey is different when I walk. It takes longer, yes, that’s one thing. But also the journey requires some physical [and mental] effort on my part. I can also see where I’ve been, where I’m going, and where I am. There are smells, sounds, sights, and things to touch. It’s a holistic journey that engages all the senses.

This is from a recent walk.
JourneyReally, what’s a better cure for feeling down, or empty, or anxious, than a good walk?

Well, that is pretty much the setting for this Luke story in New Testament.

A couple of depressed guys walking down some road–some road to some town called Emmaus.

You, and Biblical scholars for that matter, cannot really find Emmaus on some map. We cannot really know where such a road existed—if it did at all.

The characters are also are just some people who happen to be some disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Cleopas and one other person.

Some have tried to claim that this Cleopas is the variation of some other name that fits with a character in John’s Gospel, but that is quite a healthy stretch and probably just an attempt to make sense of the story.

Honestly though, let’s try not to “figure out” or explain away such a strange story.
Emmaus could be any town, or suburb, or city, or place.
The road could be any road or highway or train or bus line or street.
And the two disciples could be anyone.

Even you and me.

Luke’s story is not about historical people or places. It’s about the journey itself.
Essentially, the Emmaus Road is a metaphor for the journey of life.

We, like the two disciples, walk on a certain road and along the way, we encounter strangers. Sometimes, if we’re open to it, those strangers end up being “less strange” after we interact with them, because we find out that they also share some of the same disappointments, fears, anxieties, passions, and hopes that we have. If we’re open to sharing our authentic stories and listening to theirs, suddenly our eyes may open. We may see things differently.

We may see ourselves differently.

That “seeing” yourself differently is also referred to by another name: resurrection.
Like the “normal, everyday” people on the Emmaus road, we can be brought back to life.

They were full of despair and basically, they were dragging heavy feet on their journey.
But a stranger woke them up, their eyes were opened, and they were resurrected.

Luke as a storyteller tries to keep it simple for us.
The travelers see Jesus in the breaking of bread and in the hearing of their sacred story.
Essentially, when they eat and share and hear sacred stories, they remember.

And they see that the spirit is present with them.

We might be tempted to think that Jesus being known in the breaking of bread means the Sacramental ritual of Communion. Or we might be tempted to think that Jesus is known to us in the Scriptures only means the reading of the Bible.

But this seeing and knowing of Jesus happened on the journey to somewhere.
On the road.
In normal, everyday life.

Not in a church.
Not during a worship service.
Not during Communion or a Bible reading, or a sermon.
The seeing and knowing happens along the journey of life.

Everybody is on a journey, though we don’t always recognize it.

The essential question to ask is: what sort of journey are you on?
In which direction are you moving?

Are you moving in the direction of being freer, meaning that you are moving away from the destructive words others have said about your or the unhealthy ways you have been conditioned to think about yourself and others? Are you moving away from those voices that tell you that you are not worthy or that you don’t deserve love?

Are you moving on your journey towards peace, life, and gratitude?

And let’s not forget that it was the travelers’ hospitality that led them to open eyes and resurrection.
They were open to change because they invited change into their lives.

Then they ate. Then they remembered love and mercy and peace.
Then they lived again—as if for the first time.

And let’s also not forget that the travelers felt depressed.
They were sad. They mourned. They were disappointed in life—in the journey.
And we shouldn’t ignore this, because it’s real.
At times on our journey, we will feel this way. And we will encounter others who feel low, too.

Rather than ignoring such feelings or disappointments, or trying to cover them up with false happiness, what if we just kept walking on the journey? What if we recognized the low moments for what they are [moments] and accepted them?

Yes, I admit it. It can be hard sometimes—really hard.

We will be tempted to stop walking on the road and we can be coerced by our past to think that our journey has ended and there is no road for us left to walk.

Indeed, there are winding roads and twists and turns and peaks and valleys.
The journey is not a straight line.

But we have to show hospitality to change.
We need to share our own stories with others and hear their stories, too.
We need to eat with other people.
We need to see ourselves and the world differently.

Yes, we do.

I said earlier that the Emmaus road is a metaphor.
It is, but it’s more than just something you do once or twice.
It’s a daily activity.

Each morning, you have a chance to walk on your road—to begin your journey again.
The most truthful and beautiful part about life’s journey is that each day it starts again.

Whatever happened yesterday is over with.
And tomorrow hasn’t happened yet so it’s not real.

Only today matters.

The steps on your journey in this present moment matter the most.}
The stories you share and the stories you hear.
The strangers you meet.
The hospitality you show.
The food you eat and share.

The change in you.

Don’t give up on change.
Walk your unique road.
Be open to all the amazing strangers you can meet.
Listen and share.

Keep walking.


Doubters Welcome

John 20:19-31

It is for certain that there are many misunderstood characters in the Biblical narrative, but none more than the disciple who became famously known as doubting Thomas. Case in point—the paintings of Thomas that are the most famous, tell a story much different than the actual Gospel story, like Doubting Thomas, by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da, 1571–1610) which shows Thomas literally poking Jesus in the side to feel his wounds.


Pretty gross. It also depicts two other disciples looking on intently as he does it. There’s just one teensy, weensy problem.

Thomas never reached out and touched Jesus’ wounds. Not at all.

Meanwhile, in modern day Sunday school land, Thomas is the quick and easy way for teachers and pastors all over to present a cookie cutter dichotomy: faith vs. doubt.

thomas2Kids, don’t be like Thomas; don’t doubt.

Be like the other disciples—believe!

And now go to your soccer game.

It’s really too bad that we have bought into these inaccurate interpretations of this story.

I feel bad for the character Thomas, who is only remembered for what he apparently did not believe.

It’s not a stretch to say that our treatment of Thomas is a microcosm of our treatment of faith in general.

Very rarely do Christian churches allow for much doubt or questioning as it pertains to God, the Bible, or belief.

It’s pretty much believe or don’t believe. This you can see on church websites and in bulletins, in worship services, etc., via doctrines and dogmas or the ever-popular “statement of faith” or “what we believe.”

It’s this type of thing that motivates me to hear more stories from people who are often called nones, people who do not claim a religion. I actually don’t care much for the name nones because it assumes that people without a religious tradition are missing something. Some prefer spiritual but not religious.

I’ll stick with just calling them humans—like you and me and anyone else.

Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted an unprecedented study about religious affiliation; the results show that about 20 percent of adults — about 46 million — have no religious affiliation, up from about 15 percent just five years ago.

Further, about a third of U.S. adults under age 30 are unaffiliated.

By the year 2050, the study projects, atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated people will increase in the United States to 26%.

And of course, this study does not take into account the millions who claim a religious tradition [due to family upbringing or geographical setting], but who do not practice their religion and would certainly consider themselves non-religious, even though if you ask them, they might say:

I’m Methodist.
Or Presbyterian.
Or Catholic.
Or Congregationalist.

But I’m not religious.

It doesn’t take an expert to see these findings play out in real life. Look at the huge decline in every facet of Christian church attendance and participation. Every single denomination has undergone massive downsizing of staff and administration. Individual congregations close every single day. Even the so-called megachurches are consolidating and overall, they are downsizing to smaller spaces or choosing not to commit to large campuses as they did in the past. The median age of people in megachurches continues to rise, as many millennials just don’t care for church at all.

These trends are not surprising to me, considering the great number of people I know who are looking for something more than what they see.

People have questions and doubts about Christianity in general and about the Bible. They have doubts and questions about the church as an institution. Most of my friends, family, and colleagues who do not consider themselves religious have been disappointed, or in some cases, even hurt by the church.

Their questions were rejected or ignored.
Their doubts were not welcomed.

It’s hard to fathom, but I have met people who simply asked these questions, only to be told to stop asking, or to leave the church entirely:

Doesn’t the Bible say that we are to love and accept everyone? Didn’t Jesus do that?
So shouldn’t we love and accept people who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender?

I’m not sure that the Bible [and particularly Jesus] say that people who practice other religions won’t go to heaven; so why do we try to convert people?

How does our church justify a multi-million dollar facility when people in our community are homeless, out of work, and in need?

Why do we participate in politically-slanted events and even promote them?

Do we really have to follow these “rules” in our church? Who made them up?

If these questions cannot even be asked, then doubters are most certainly not welcome.

And yet, in spite of this unfortunate policy that many churches have—that faith is the opposite of doubt, the actual story of Thomas and the actual meaning of faith in the Gospels seem to contradict that idea.

Let’s start with the word faith in John’s Gospel and the New Testament. Koine Greek; the word is pisteuein; this is actually a verb.

Now faith as a verb in the English language doesn’t work. So faith is often translated as believe.

If you believe something, it’s absolutely true. It is a cognitive function only. Thus, the word believe appears in doctrinal statements. I believe…

Faith as a word, however, is quite different. Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more akin to an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith also involves trust.

With that understanding in mind, let’s look closer at Thomas’ story.

Remember, it’s John’s Gospel, the fourth one, and so the audience is a group of people who existed long after Jesus’ death. They didn’t know Jesus; they didn’t see him. Therefore, John’s Gospel is attempting to reach out to them.

There are two parts to the story. Part I takes place behind closed doors. The followers of Jesus were hiding from the Judean [temple] authorities out of fear. But Jesus appears to them and says Peace be with you, which might as well have been:

Don’t be afraid anymore.

Then these disciples “see” Jesus after he shows them his hands and side. Finally, Jesus breathes on them [the exact same breath of the Creator from Genesis 1].

And then he tells them about the new strategic plan their new church should follow: the forgiveness model.

Part II of the story takes place 8 days later [see, another Genesis reference to creation!] Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.

And then Jesus says:

Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].

I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to the language points of emphasis I made earlier.

Surprise! The word doubt does not appear in this story. For sure, Thomas is a skeptic and a question-asker—not one to just buy into the fragmented and weird stories of his colleagues, the scared disciples. Thomas needed more than that if he were to commit to following this movement.

One more thing for us the readers.
Thomas’ name means ‘twin’ in Greek.
Look in the mirror, friends.

Thomas might as well be our twin.

Readers of this Gospel story are supposed to see themselves as Thomas—someone who didn’t see Jesus crucified or risen; someone who didn’t see scribes write down the Gospels and then copy them; someone without proof; someone with lots of questions; even someone with lots of doubts.

This story is a healing story if you ask me, because how many times have you heard someone say that good things happen because you have faith and bad things happen because you doubt?

But Thomas’ story shows us that faith isn’t a possession. Faith isn’t trapped in church doctrines or belief systems, or even the book we call the Bible! Faith is an active type of living and trusting with your own eyes, ears, hands, feet, and your mind and heart!

Look, here’s the deal. I agree with those who are called nones and spiritual but not religious. They are like Thomas. All they want is to see more of what the church and Christians claim they are. The story isn’t about doubt and belief—it’s about peace, wholeness, spirit, forgiveness, healing, and empowerment!

So why don’t we SEE more of that in the church?

Most people have no interest in a god who seems to tell them to stop using their brains or to ignore the hurt, manipulation, fear-mongering, and prejudice they see in the church.

Instead, they want to see love and wholeness demonstrated in real life. They want to see that their questions and doubts are welcome. They want to see that churches are simply groups of people like them—people seeking community and forgiveness and healing; they want to see that what they believe or don’t believe is not as important as how they live, how they help, and how they treat others.

I agree.

That’s what I want to see—both in myself and in others.

Of that I have no doubt.

Out of the Woods and into Life & Light

Mark 16:1-8  

When I was in junior high, I lived in Iowa. My church was a small, country Presbyterian congregation about 10 minutes outside of Des Moines. I have so many good memories of Easter [resurrection Sunday] from my Iowa years. So at risk of sounding ungrateful, it’s really hard for me to say this, but there was one thing about Easter in Iowa that I absolutely despised.

I had to get up at 5:00 a.m.


Don’t ask me why, but there are STILL plenty of congregations out there who have it in their heads that every Easter Sunday you have to get up before the sun does to have some sort of worship service.

Oh the pain.

I can still hear the voice of my college football coach:

You see–nothing good happens after 9am.

I am not a morning person [understatement of the century], and so the night before Easter, I could never sleep. I was too anxious, because I knew that in just a few hours my parents would come barreling into our room [I shared with my brother] and rouse us from sweet sleep. I wanted to rebel, because no matter how many times people told me that the women went to the tomb at dawn and therefore we should get up before dawn to celebrate resurrection, I wasn’t buying it. I mean, do you really think the women got up at 5am? I’m guessing 9. Or even 10:30. In fact, the story just says that they came AFTER the sun had risen, so it could have been anytime!

So why are we up at 5am again?

Now I wasn’t the only one who suffered the horrible pain of Easter sunrise service. You see, all of us teenagers were entirely responsible for the worship service. We all had to drag our lifeless bodies out of bed into the cold Iowa dark.

Yes, it was cold. It was Iowa.

One year, a friend of mine was slated to play Peter in the resurrection sketch. Somehow, though, all the alarm clocks that he had set [and his mom had set] just flat out failed to go off on Easter Sunday; or perhaps they just didn’t hear them over their snoring? Who knows. All I do know is that we were all getting nervous at 6am because he still wasn’t there. So we called and called, and finally he mom picked up the phone. With a groggy voice, she said “hello” and “oh no” when she realized what time it was. In the end, my friend made it at the last second, but what I’ll never forget is that he showed up half-dressed—in sweatpants and a pajama top that didn’t match, and he had what we call rooster hair, which is just another way of saying that he had major bedhead. Peter’s wild and unusual hair didn’t negatively affect the worship service, which I enjoyed. We chose the songs and put the skits together. We read the scripture story and even led some prayers. It was always a fun and a celebratory time.

After our youth worship service, members of the congregation served a huge breakfast. It was definitely a highlight: pancakes, eggs, sticky buns, coffee cake, fresh fruit, and though I’m now a vegetarian, if I had to eat meat again, I would choose that Iowa pork sausage they cooked on Easter Sunday. After the breakfast, my brother and sister and I sprinted to our house [right across from the church] to go look for our Easter baskets. That’s another story in and of itself, because our Blakesley Easter bunny had a mustache and was also quite good at hiding baskets–almost too good. Sometimes I had to “help” my little brother or sister finds theirs before they got really upset. And as for my basket, being the oldest was not a perk in this case. One year I found it in some attic that I didn’t even know existed.

But eventually we found the baskets and started eating candy and tried not to get sick.

And then, we headed to my grandparents on my mom’s side, hunted for Easter eggs and ate Easter lunch. And finally, we went to my dad’s parent’s house and got more eggs and ate more food. And then shortly after that we all collapsed in an incredible food coma coupled with a candy overdose.

The day after Easter I did not get up at 5am.

But I’m guessing you already knew that.

As you can tell, I really have good memories of Easter as a kid. But here’s the thing about that. As much as I looked forward to singing the songs and acting in the skits, as much as the smell of the delicious breakfast was enticing, and as much as I enjoyed my time with friends and family—all of that wasn’t my favorite part of resurrection Sunday.

My favorite part was late Saturday night, into the wee hours of Sunday morning, when it was still dark. Why? Because at that moment, the story wasn’t over. We weren’t singing happy songs or eating candy yet. We were sitting in the dark, waiting for the sun to come up on a new day.

To be honest, that is how I have always seen the resurrection story of the Gospels.

I don’t think that this story is all about belief in something fantastical.

Jesus of Nazareth rising from the dead in bodily form?

I cannot even count how many people have debated this with me, or at least who have approached me with that dreaded question:

Can you explain how Jesus rose from the dead?
And can you give me proof?

They are always disappointed with my answers, which are as follows:


I am not sure that what we believe about this whole resurrection thing is all that important.


I’m not a scientist, or a doctor, or some great scholar.

It doesn’t take much brainpower, though, to figure out that there has never been any real proof of any human being physically dead for at least a couple days, only to resuscitate and walk the earth again.

That would be what we call a zombie, and they actually don’t exist outside of movies, TV, and literature.


So what’s this resurrection thing about then?

Well, why don’t we look to the Gospel writers for some perspective, and this case, Mark?

I don’t know if you noticed, but Mark’s resurrection story is quite disappointing. The women go to the tomb with spices, and when they get there, the stone covering the entrance to the tomb is rolled to the side. They go inside and see a young man in a white robe. They are freaked out. The man says: “Don’t be freaked out, actually, for you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised and his not here. Go and tell your disciples friends and Peter that Jesus has already gone ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

The story ends with the women leaving the tomb, but they don’t do as they were told.

They are still freaked out and become paralyzed.
They say nothing to anyone.
The end.

Happy Easter!

What a downer of an ending, huh?
Where are the trumpets?
The happy songs?
The Easter eggs and sticky buns?

And, quite frankly, where in the heck is Jesus?

I really think it’s for this reason that some monks who were copying Gospel versions some centuries ago decided that Mark’s original ending wasn’t good enough. Mark’s Gospel does indeed end with chapter 16 verse 8a, the women leaving scared and speechless. But many, many Bible versions add two more endings to Mark, endings that probably were inserted centuries after the original one.

One more thing for you grammar gurus out there.

Mark’s original ending sentence was also changed as it was translated into English. In the original Greek, it ends with a preposition: The women went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…

And now, let’s go back to the very first chapter and verse of Mark’s Gospel.

This is the beginning of the good news.

For Mark, good news did have a beginning.
But good news does not have an end.

I mentioned to you that my favorite part of Easter as a kid was not all the happy stuff on Easter day, but rather that journey towards the light of a new dawn, the anticipation, the story that didn’t have to end.

Maybe that’s why I like Mark’s resurrection story, because the story doesn’t have to end, and that gives me hope.

Because I don’t always feel happy and celebratory.
I don’t always see resurrection.
Sometimes I’m afraid, confused, and even paralyzed.
Sometimes I doubt that life can be renewed.

That’s what is special about this story. You and I are invited to be the women. We pick up where they left off. Mark’s Gospel leaves the story open to interpretation, to thinking, and to living.

Resurrection isn’t trapped in a book or a belief system or even a religion.
A resurrected mind and life is a daily kind of journey.
It’s free and unpredictable and wild and fluid.

And this frightens and confuses us, just like it did the women disciples.

Because we’ve journeyed through the woods, to all the dark and scary and confusing places where we can get lost. Surprisingly, though, even in the deepest parts of the woods where we feel we’ll never find a way out, we come upon a clearing. Natural sunlight overwhelms us. We see a new path forward. The light is almost overwhelming. Our eyes aren’t used to it; neither are our minds. It doesn’t fit into our linear way of thinking or acting. It’s just light. It’s resurrection.

And the light has found us.

In spite of our terror and amazement, the love, mercy, and healing of the resurrected Jesus lives in us.

Suddenly, it’s no longer about what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection–if you need scientific or historical proof, or if you need none at all.

It’s now about how we live, in this present moment.

For the light of resurrection is free to shine as it wills; it even appears in us and in others when we feel that God is the most absent.

Embracing resurrection can be about many things, depending on your own story.

Sometimes embracing resurrection means embracing your doubts.
Other times it means getting up out of bed when you are just not sure why you should.
Sometimes it means speaking a kind word or acting compassionately even when you’re having a horrible, no good, rotten, day.
And other times embracing resurrection will mean not running from the things that scare you; or the things that confuse you; or the new ideas and perspectives and opportunities that push you out of your place of comfort.

So friends, see the light of resurrection within you.
See the light everywhere.
Nurture the light in you and the light in others.

The story doesn’t end…it continues in our lives.

Seeking Freedom in the Woods

Mark 11:1-1, John 12:12-19

Palm Sunday. A sort of strange Christian day, isn’t it? Most churches purchase some sort of palm branches [fake or otherwise] and distribute them to all the people [young and old] who make it to a worship service the week before Easter. There is usually some sort of waving back and forth of said branches; maybe a processional during which a choir sings some happy song with hosanna in it. And when worship is over, the branches go back into boxes [if they’re fake] or people take them with them and then throw them in the trash perhaps after a few awkward hours [or days] of starting at them and wondering:

Uh, is it bad to throw away the Palm Sunday branches? Will Jesus be mad? 

If you’re worried about that, don’t be. Jesus wouldn’t be mad if he were alive to see all this Palm Sunday stuff. In fact, he and the writers of the Gospels would just be confused. It’s more likely that they would do a quick check of their 1st and 2nd century calendars, only to see that any sort of parade or celebration shouldn’t take place until Passover. But the waving of palm branches inside buildings with crosses mounted on walls and people singing “Hosanna” would most certainly be the most whacked out experience since the whole “pigs talking like humans and then running off a cliff” thing.

Palm Sunday has always been a little strange to me personally. It got stranger when I served a church in Hawai’i, where we were surrounded by real palms, and yet people were less than enthusiastic about waving palm branches on a the Sunday before Easter. Perhaps it’s because we are all so confused about traditions and where they come from and even what any of these symbols actually mean. And in each of our respective cultures, we have different ways to celebrate and remember, and different climates, trees, and branches.

Like in the South Indian state of Kerala, many congregations throw flowers on the floor on Palm Sunday during the reading of the Gospel story. This tradition is older than Jesus. People in India [later called Hindus by Westerners] would hold festive occasions in which flowers were strewn; also, the throwing of flowers was a sign of honor and respect for someone.


In the West, on Palm Sunday, just a few days before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in many churches people are waving branches, putting on big processions, shouting and singing Hosannas, and pretty much any pomp and circumstance we can possibly come up with that fits into a church’s worship service and involves choral anthems with hopefully an Easter egg hunt, though ideally not during the choral anthem.

It all seems quite the royal welcome to a royal Jesus. Fanfare, smiles, and happy songs. That wasn’t really what happened, though, when Jesus hitched a ride on a “borrowed” donkey to make it to Jerusalem. There wasn’t the fanfare we imagine; there was no pomp and circumstance.

But there was plenty of confusion.

After all, all four Gospels make it quite clear that most people [including Jesus’ disciples] didn’t really get who Jesus was. And as I’ve been saying all during Lent, each Gospel “gets” Jesus in a different way. So it’s fitting that we’re looking at the yin and yang Gospels, Mark and John, as we dig into this oft-told story. Mark’s version, the oldest source, is of course more to the point and full of clues for us to pick up so we understand its meaning. Mark gives us specific details as to which path Jesus took to get to Jerusalem. He and his band of followers come from Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. They are coming from the east. That’s important, because remember it’s Passover time. Lots of people were coming into the city. Lots of roman soldiers were, too, in order to make sure that the party didn’t get out of hand. The Romans came from the west. Mark’s setting up the story for us. Jesus and his little band of followers are not under the radar as they were before; things are getting dicey. So they need to enter Jerusalem from the east where there will be less chance for confrontation and arrests.

So don’t imagine large crowds like in some of the paintings depicting this event.And don’t imagine a royal procession with people cheering and applauding as Jesus rides in like a king on a white horse.

It was a donkey, remember? Oh, right. The funny part of the story.

Mark spends a lot of time on the donkey, because there’s still prophecy and purpose that needs to be spelled out. Jesus tells two of his friends to head into the nearby village and find a donkey [colt] that’s just waiting to be ridden. Of course, it all went just as planned, because it was planned. Quite easy to imagine that Jesus and his friends had other friends in the villages, because that’s where they spent most of their time—in villages and in the countryside. This was actually their first trip to the big city.  But the two disciples did need a secret password to utter, to confirm that they would indeed deliver the donkey to Jesus.

The lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.

That was enough for the villagers to give the two disciples the thumbs up, and now Jesus had his sweet ride into Jerusalem. Then Mark hammers home the point about this humble procession. Jesus’ friends put their cloaks on the donkey. Then other people spread their cloaks on the road; and still others spread branches on the road. The laying down of cloaks [and of branches] was a symbol of welcoming royalty. But the irony of course is that the “royalty” is not coming into the city gates on a chariot with armor and a sword and huge battalion from the west, like the Romans were.  And it all would have made sense to the 1st or 2nd century Jewish person.

Cue Old Testament prophecy. The book of Zechariah is where Mark gets his donkey story and how the Gospel frames Jesus’ identity.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.

How more specific can one be?

The king comes on a donkey; he gets rid of the chariot and the war horse in Jerusalem [i.e., Rome]. He cuts the battle bow and commands peace to the nations. Mark paints Jesus as the peace-bearer and Caesar-usurper; the suffering servant, once again.

And now the people in the crowds speak.

Hosanna is not a happy term—at least that’s the way I read the story. Some argue that this phrase does indeed refer to praise or adoration. I’m just not buying it based on what drives Mark’s narrative. Hosanna [in its Hebrew and Aramaic roots] is a cry for help, not praise. The literal translation would be save us now. And that would be a quote from the Old Testament again—this time Psalm 118. I’m sticking with that interpretation, because I think it’s consistent with Mark’s story.

The people weren’t praising Jesus. They were making a statement about how much they were oppressed, how much they suffered, and how much they wanted to be free.

Again, Mark’s Jesus is the suffering servant on his way to suffer even more on behalf of all those who were also suffering. The people wanted to be saved, to be rescued. They would have remembered nostalgically the era of King David’s reign in Israel. But there’s little in common with the reign of David that was based on military force, expansion, and occupation.

Jesus came with no swords, chariots, or even a horse.

He wasn’t interested in taking over the land or even restoring the religious and political power of the Jewish temple as an institution.

He came to suffer to be in solidarity with those who suffered; he came to set people free.

And in order to do that, he would need to flip the balance of power and give people the ability to set themselves free from oppression and suffering. So Mark has Jesus enter the temple and he just looks around. There’s no fighting, no war, no inspiring speech. He just looks around.

Now let’s look at the later version of the same story in John.

Remember that John’s author would have had Mark’s Gospel. This is interpretation of an earlier story.

First off, do you notice that John makes a few changes—or mostly omissions? We don’t get Jesus’ location or route to Jerusalem as in Mark. Secondly, the crowd is a “great” crowd and they already knew that Jesus would be coming because they “heard.” So they purposely spilled out of the city to greet him and they specifically have palm branches and no cloaks. Big change, because in Mark’s version, the story focuses on the followers of Jesus being the ones to lay down cloaks and branches—not random people who had journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover. So John is once again appealing to a wider audience.

John even says “as it is written,” to erase any confusion or doubt about the source: it’s Zechariah and Psalm 118 but John adds the title king of Israel.

And John certainly doesn’t care at all about the details of the donkey story.

The disciples, and how they view Jesus, are way more important in this Gospel.

Jesus’ followers don’t get Jesus while it’s all going down.

It’s not until after the fact, long after Jesus is “lifted up” or glorified, that they remember what happened and then they make connections.

John also doesn’t have Jesus go into the temple in Jerusalem.

They stay on the outskirts of the city.

But John explains why the people spilled out of the city and what they had “heard” about Jesus. Some of them had heard the story of the dead man Lazarus who was called out of the tomb alive by Jesus. This was another John “sign” and the chief motivation for the crowds gathering with palm branches.

And the reason why Jesus doesn’t have to go to the temple in John’s story is because the temple comes to him. Some Pharisees are observing the whole thing with the donkey and branches. They say to each other:

You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!

No matter which way we look at this story, I think there are things to learn and more importantly, there are positive, impactful perspectives that we can gain.

Most everybody in the world is too easily convinced that we need a king or queen or some type of ruler to tell us what to do and who will solve our problems. Churches do that to—with pastors and other leaders.

But across the Gospel board, that’s not who Jesus was.

If there is consistency in John and Mark’s stories, it is this:

Jesus served; Jesus healed; Jesus freed.

John’s “signs” were moments when Jesus served another person in need or healed him/her, met people where they were, and then offered them the opportunity to be free. In Mark’s no-nonsense Jesus story, he’s also serving and healing and freeing, but he’s also suffering—not just for the sake of suffering as some have sadly said—but suffering for the sake of saying to all of us that we’re not alone in our suffering.

I don’t know about you, but there’s a certain comfort I feel when I think about a God who is not afraid of suffering and neither oblivious to our suffering. A God who seeks to alleviate suffering and to break down the barriers of oppression and injustice is a God I’m enthusiastic about.

In the end, though, this Palm Sunday stuff always leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, because I still see so many people who suffer so, so much. And many of them suffer because we put so much of our faith in rulers and powers and institutions. And in doing so, we forget that if we really buy into this “we are the lights of the world” thing, we are supposed to be the ones serving and loving others, healing, and freeing. We’re supposed to be the ones to sit in with someone who is suffering, not afraid to hear her cry or to say swear words out of frustration and sadness. We’re supposed to be the ones who are not afraid of suffering, because we also have suffered and do suffer. And we don’t want to suffer; and all the people around us don’t want to, either. So what does it look like for you take this to heart, to live this out?

There are lots of hosannas being shouted, lots of cries for help, in this world.

How will we respond?

Will we respond in fear?
No! How about honesty, care, and authenticity.

Will we respond in anger?
No! How about passion for justice, cooperation, and solidarity?

Or will we respond with apathy?
No! How about empathy, compassion, and grace?

The journey into the woods has led us out and we stand at the outskirts of the city.

Many, like us, are all seeking the same freedom.

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