Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for May, 2015

The Three Ps, Every Day

John 15: 26-27, 16:4b-15     Inclusive Bible

Note: Paraclete can be translated: one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and/or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate

When the Paraclete comes, the Spirit of Truth who comes from Abba God, whom I myself will send from my Abba—she will bear witness on my behalf. You too must bear witness, for you’ve been with me from the beginning. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you. Now I am going to the one who sent me–yet not one of you has asked, ‘Where are you going?’ You’re sad of heart because I tell you this.

Still, I must tell you the truth: it is much better for you if I go. If I fail to go, the Paraclete will never come to you, whereas if I go, I will send her to you. When she comes, she will prove the world wrong about sin, about justice and about judgment: About sin—in that they refuse to believe in me; about justice—because I go to Abba God and you will see me no more; about judgment—for the ruler of this world has been condemned.

I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now.

When the Spirit of Truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are yet to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. This is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.

graduation_capsGraduations are upon us.

It’s that time of year again when high school, postgraduate, and graduate students line up in robes with funny hats and tassels. After a painful race to the finish line of exams, papers, projects, and theses, they will sit in seats for a couple of hours listening to speakers and hearing their names called. They’ll march up to the stage and shake some faculty members’ hands; they’ll get a diploma [or in some cases an empty container, because their diploma gets mailed to them afterwards]. People will clap and take lots of pictures. Parents and grandparents will cry.

And pretty much all of the graduates will be in a state of shock and wonder.

Is it really over?

All the work, all the stress, all the challenges, experiences, and all the friendships?
Is it really over?

I remember all three of my graduations as being completely surreal. I mean, how can you really sum up years of your life in a ceremony that lasts a couple of hours? The truth is that you can’t. The robes, funny hats, tassels, diplomas, and ceremonies just don’t cut it. Yes, we mark these occasions as special, because to some extent, they are. But certainly, a graduation ceremony is no more special than any of the days or moments during the four years of high school or college. Certainly, those years are not defined by a piece of paper called a diploma. What about the relationships you forged? What about the challenges you overcame? What about all the things you learned, not just from books, but the things you learned about yourself, others, and the world?

We put so much effort into marking the occasion of graduation.
But once the hats are thrown up in the air and the parties end, what next?

Will tomorrow also be a special day with funny hats, robes, and celebration?
This is the question I would like for you to consider.

Is it possible for everyday to be a special day?

Mull over that for a moment.

And now, let’s move from funny hats to funny words, all beginning with the letter p.

Paraclete, Pentecost, and Promise anyone?

Certainly, the first two “p” words are strange.
What do they mean anyway?

Let’s start with Pentecost.

Pente is a Greek prefix for the number 5 or the number 50—depending on the context, and would have been said by Greek-speaking Jews centuries ago. Later on, in Eastern Christianity, Pentecost was designated as a festival celebrated 50 days after Resurrection Sunday.

But Pentecost as a festival did not originate in Christianity; it comes from the Jews.
It was called the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot in Hebrew.

This festival began Saturday, May 23rd at night, and continued through Monday. People read the Torah, fast, eat special foods and specifically dairy products, and pray.

Shavuot is a celebration of the gift of the covenant—in other words, the giving of the Law [Torah] to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews celebrate Shavuot 50 days after the first Seder meal [linked to Passover] to remember the Torah and God’s promises.

And now, what in the world is a Paraclete?
No, it’s not a pair of soccer shoes that float through the air.

parachute

Paraclete originates from ancient Latin and ancient Greek. It means mediator or advocate. But if we really want to dig into its original meaning, a Paraclete is a person—someone who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and one who literally stands with someone and intercedes on her behalf.

This is often why Paraclete is translated advocate in English Bibles. But as you can see, Paraclete is the word used in John’s Gospel, and its meaning is wider than just advocate.

And the last p word you’ve heard before, but do you really know what it means?

Promise.

promise

Certainly, there are types of promises, some of them being: vows, oaths, commitments, and even legal contracts. The type of promise that goes with the other two p words of Pentecost and Paraclete is really none of those types of promises.

It is a covenant promise.

Keep in mind that a covenant is very different than a contract, which is based on law, and often built on fear. A covenant is based on grace, and built on love.

Covenants have a growing edge; they are fluid; they don’t impose limits.
In a covenant, accountability is mutual.

And finally, covenants require community affirmations and re-affirmations.

Of all the three p words I’ve mentioned, perhaps promise is the most important one, or at least the word from which the other two flow. There is no Pentecost with promise. There is no Paraclete without promise.

You see, Western Christians are notorious for marking liturgical days [like Pentecost], putting on strange robes and funny hats, giving special speeches, and observing one day as an extra special one.

But that’s not at all what Paraclete and Promise are about.

The Paraclete, the Spirit of God, is a promised reality. The Spirit is not limited to a day, or a time, or a place, or even to a religion. The Spirit flows as it wishes, and it flows through all. And the Spirit is part of the covenant promise, for the Spirit flows with grace and fills with love.

I return to the question I asked you to consider:

Is it possible for every day to be a special day?

Consider: what if every day were Pentecost?

No waiting for some mythical “Holy Ghost” to come down, or for some second coming—no waiting. Today.

What if impatience for “better days” or anxiety over what is to come took a back seat to the realization that today, right now, there is spirit, and promise, and life?

How would that change our living?
Our decision making?
Our treatment of others?

The Spirit–She is already here—proving us wrong when we say that there are only certain days that are special, only certain times when we can be filled with compassion, understanding, and joy. She is here today, standing beside us in times of need and standing up for that which is right. She is in us and around us, and so every day is an opportunity for us to change, to discover ourselves, to find wisdom, to listen, to learn, and to love.

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Gravity

John 17:12-19    

What is gravity?

Gravity is a force of nature that you experience every day. It’s produced by all matter in the universe and attracts all pieces of matter, regardless of type. The Earth produces gravity and so do the sun, other planets, your car, your house, and your body.

Gravity pulls things and beings towards the center of the earth.

In 1687, the story goes that Isaac Newton wasn’t paying attention while sitting under a tree [I guess kind of like Buddha?], and then an apple fell on his head.

Eventually, Newton—busted up head and all—came up with the law of universal gravitation.

gravityappleEvery object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe. The amount (force) of the attraction depends on the mass of the object.

So, for example, you’re sitting in front of your laptop. That laptop is actually attracting you, but you don’t feel it, because the mass of your laptop is so small compared to the mass of the Earth, there is no physical pull.

Newton’s law also says that the greater the distance between two objects, the less the objects will attract each other. So the farther away an object is from the Earth (or any large body), the less it will weigh. If you stand at the top of a tall building or a massive mountain, you will weigh less than you do when your feet are on the ground at sea level.[1]

Gravity has inspired that well-known phrase:

What goes up must come down.

In fact, some of you may remember a song that begins that way; a little Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Spinning Wheel

Now you may be wondering why the heck I am talking about gravity. Well, this part of John’s Gospel is all about a really, really, REALLY long prayer of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s a prayer for and about the cosmos.

And it’s a prayer worthy of a bigger space [like outer space]; but most importantly, it’s also a symbolic affirmation of gravity itself.

What goes up must come down.

You see, when most people think or talk about this thing called prayer, they assume that prayers are said to some god far off in the heavens. So prayers are lifted up to the heavens, right? That’s why incense is often used during prayers. In my opinion, this is why many people in the West actually don’t pray or meditate all that often, because prayer is reduced to some sort of religious ceremony in a temple, sanctuary, or building. Many people even claim that they cannot pray without the presence of a religious leader who can tell them what to pray.

And yet, any devout Muslim, Christian, Jew, Baha’i, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, or Pagan will tell you that prayers can be said anywhere.

There are no “more important” prayers that one can lift up than the humble prayer of a small child hoping that her mom’s illness will get better; or the dad praying that he will find a job; or the teenager praying that the bullying will stop; or the old woman praying that she will feel no pain when she passes from the earth.

But of course, we’re only human, and so we still have the tendency to place greater importance on certain prayers, and in this case a prayer attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel. It’s a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor, as Jesus is hoping that his friends the disciples and all his followers, and all the world, may be one as he is one with his Abba.

If you think this prayer seems long, you’re right. Its text takes up nearly 1/5 of John’s Gospel. For sure, this prayer has been analyzed to death as people try to make sense of its apocalyptic nature, theology, John’s community and context, etc.

And there are traditions like “ascension day” in certain Christian circles that may include this prayer as Jesus’ farewell before he disappears into the heavens.

Or, until he ascends, that is.

And while I’m no “high church” expert, and nor am I one who observes ascension day, I will say that this concept is gaining some ground with me.

After all, what goes up must come down.

Think about this for a moment.

All of this prayer is about unity. It is about relationship; and interconnectedness; it is about protection, comfort, and assurance. And God’s reign of love and mercy and peace on this earth, as it apparently is in heaven.

What goes up must come down.

So if we take gravity as not just a physical force, but also a holistic force that is included in our spiritual and mental practice, prayers lifted up must come down.

What ascends to the heavens eventually descends.

So rather than thinking of Jesus and his life and teachings as something that POOF! went away in the blink of an eye, because, well, he went up to heaven, we say….

What if this unifying, beautiful prayer was lifted up so that it would come back down?

What if Jesus, as John’s Gospel clearly says a million times, was “lifted up” for more than just disappearing, but for the purpose of reappearing?

What goes up must come down.

Imagine if we stopped obsessing over what Jesus or God do in heaven or what we need to do to get to this heaven.

Imagine if we thought that everything we prayed for was lifted up, only so it could come back down to us?

Maybe our prayers would be different?

What if prayers always come back to the earth to stay, in the form of everyday life?

What if there is no such thing as the divine presence staying up there in heaven?

What if the divine is here, feet on the ground, in you and in me?

Now that’s pulling us to the center of something, isn’t it?

Prayer, meditation, or any sort of conversation within yourself that seeks a deeper connection with the divine, or a deeper connection with yourself—pulls you towards your center. You are grounded, on this earth, and this is your identity.

We are all children of the earth, and not of heaven.

We are meant [and made] to be one together—not just with Christians or with those who look and act like us—with all children of this earth. We are meant to be one in our humanity, because we all utter prayers or look up sometimes or cry out or wonder or worry or cry or shout joyfully or calmly sit or clasp hands or lift hands or simply wish for things to be better, or more connected, or more peaceful, or more compassionate.

And this binds us together, because what goes up must come down.

If we express our desires for a better world and for loving and compassionate relationships, and for justice, and for love—what goes up must come down.

This day, take a moment for meditation, or prayer, or whatever best suits you. Take a moment. Lift up all that you wish for your life and the lives of others, and for the world. And then, be aware, that what you lift up will eventually come down.

And then you’ll have the opportunity to make those desires a reality on this earth.

[1] For Dummies, Boning Up on Gravity.

Self Knowledge, a Dharma Talk

On Tuesday, May 12th, 2015, I was honored to be the guest speaker at Won Buddhist Temple.

You can learn more about their community and Won Buddhism by clicking here and here.

WonFullMeditationCircleHow does one know him/herself?

A good and complicated question, am I right?

How do we know ourselves?

A simple answer would be:

Simply introduce yourself.

nametagBut it’s not easy to do that, is it?

Take me, for example. I was raised in the Midwest—Indiana and Iowa. I have many memories from those places. Religiously, my parents raised me as a Christian. Vocationally, while in college in Iowa, I decided to pursue theater. After that, I ended up on the East Coast for the first time—Princeton, NJ, in order to study theology, philosophy, and religion. Eventually, I became an ordained minister, started working in churches and other organizations, and found myself in a variety of places like Mexico City, Detroit, Honolulu, Honduras, Cuba, and Philadelphia. I got married to Maria Elena. I started working in interfaith organizations like the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

All these places, people, and experiences are part of my story. Seemingly, they define me. If someone doesn’t know me, and then asks me the question: who are you?

How do I answer?

Do I say that I’m a minister, a husband or partner, a son, a brother, a consultant, a Midwesterner, a Christian, an actor, a crazy person—how do I answer?

You see, in my experience, we most often define ourselves by all those external things: places, situations, jobs, nationalities, religions, etc.

Introduce1

But is that who we really are? Do we really know ourselves?

A few years ago, I started working on a grant project. I was funded to work with high school and college students from Greater Philadelphia and other places, including other U.S. states and other countries in South Asia and the Middle East. The concept of the project was: know your neighbor, know yourself. In essence, what I did was to help organize different experiences for these students in which they would meet and get to know students from other religious backgrounds. The point was to break down the walls of misunderstanding and prejudice and to promote peacemaking and cooperation. Sounds great, right?

But something else actually happened in the process.

Though our funders and the religious institutions that supported the project loved the idea of peacemaking and breaking down barriers, that is not really the most significant thing that happened in the end.

A Muslim student from Saudi Arabia met a Christian student from Wisconsin. They talked, they got to know each other; they participated in the silly but fun theater games I asked them to do, they did service projects together, and they shared about their own religious practices. But they also became friends. Before they knew it, they weren’t talking to each other as before. She was no longer a Muslim and he was no longer a Christian. They started to see each other so very differently than before and they were challenged to see themselves in a different way. No longer could they hide behind their religions or nationalities; they were challenged to know themselves as they were and to know others as they were.

Having done many of these projects, I can tell you that each time I am transformed by these students and the friendships they develop. And each time I am more and more convinced that we must know ourselves in a deeper way; this self-knowledge will enable us to know others as they truly are.

And yes, there is peacemaking and cooperation and justice that can result from this knowing.

But we as humans struggle with this kind of knowing.
We are so very conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of others and through the eyes of our external experiences.

I am a case in point.

My entire life, I have searched for knowledge. I’ve read books, scriptures of many religions; I have studied philosophy, theology, and psychology. All of the knowledge I gained from such study has been beneficial, but to a point. It is accumulated knowledge and clearly reflects particular worldviews and biases of society. It is limited knowledge, to be sure.

But there is a book that I should definitely read without hesitation.

It is the book of knowledge of the self.

Perhaps I can even say that we are all books ourselves. For some who believe in one Creator-god, we are then books written by this Creator. In Buddhism, we are books containing Buddha.

I have discovered [and still am discovering] that this book of self is the one I must read. I must continually look within myself to notice the creator in me; I must continue to know myself so as to recognize the Buddha in me and in others.

It is true that people will continue to write books about us. These books will tell us who we are and define our identity. But these books, written by others, are second and third-hand knowledge. If we read about ourselves in these books, then we are not real.

We are just someone else’s story.

And these other books written about us can prevent us from looking within, from reading our own book—to know our true selves.

There is a Hindu story from India that goes something like this. A very learned prince received scriptures from Krishna. Every time the prince read a new scripture, he would get confused and frustrated, saying: No, no, this scripture says something else than the other books I’ve read. And so it was again and again. Finally, Krishna laughed and said: When the light has risen within a human being, all your scriptures are like a tank full of water when the flood has come.

At times, when I was in a desert place in my life, certain books [written by others] provided some comfort and knowledge for me—a tank full of water. But the flood came when I started to read my own book, to know myself fully, and I was no longer in a desert place, but in a vast ocean.

This is recognizing that all the external identities I have been given are lesser than the true nature of myself.

It is like the venerable Sot’aesan, Founding Master of Won Buddhism once wrote:

As I do not hold the mind which wanders out,
Nor receive the mind which comes inside,
So now I obtain the One Mind which neither comes nor goes.

Lots of identities wander in during our lifetimes. But the true knowledge of self is in knowing the self that stays—the self that doesn’t come and go.

This is who we are.

When our minds are free of distractions and conditioning, desires, and attachments, we are as clean and as vast as space. This is often called beginner’s mind—who we really are at our core. To this space, we can always return. Within this space, our religious affiliation or lack thereof; our nationality; our cultural background; all the external identities given to us by the world–are of lesser importance. In this beginner’s mind, the sacred space, we are free to see ourselves just as we are and others just as they are.

A motto of Won Buddhism is “Everywhere a Buddha Image and Every Act a Buddha Offering.” My understanding of this is that it means we should recognize each person we meet as a Buddha, and treat others as you would treat a Buddha.
It is related to Grace, which expresses our interdependency and interconnectedness to all living things. Master Sot’aesan awakened to that truth and realized that nothing can exist without being interrelated with others.

And so I close with this story: Master Sot’aesan once met an old couple on their way to temple. They were going to pray for Buddha to help their troubled daughter-in-law.

But why go to a Buddha statue, Sot’aesan asked them, when you’re surrounded by living Buddhas? Why pray for someone else’s enlightenment when you can achieve it together? Your daughter-in-law is a living Buddha, so make your offerings directly to her, the same as you would to a Buddha statue. See as she sees, not as a piece of stone sees. We forget that the only way to understand another person’s problems is to look through their eyes.

Yes, I think this is true.

We must know our true selves first. And to do that, we must continually re-evaluate our own perspectives, our own opinions, and our own solutions. We must recognize the limitations of the identity that the world has given us.

And in this space we can join together with others in spite of our perceived differences. We can recognize our interconnectedness. We can cooperate across religious and social lines and bring about justice, peacefulness, and even joy.

May it be so.

Adding a Friend

John 15:12-17

When I was a teenager, there was a song that I learned in a youth ministry program that stuck in my head. The song Draw Me Close by Kelly Robert Carpenter spoke to me on an emotional level.

Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend

In college, I encountered other songs. My church was Mt. Zion Baptist in Sioux City, Iowa. At Mt. Zion, music was one big emotional ball of cathartic energy. People cried, shouted, danced, laughed, applauded, and sang like their lungs might explode in five seconds. I loved it.

O what fellowship, o what joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms…I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free…what a friend we have in Jesus…

Take a listen…..

I felt that at Mt. Zion, no one cared what kind of emotional response you had to the music. Everyone had space to express themselves as they wished. If you wanted to be quiet, you could, but your neighbor just might be shouting and dancing next to you. Even the minister, while he was preaching, if he detected a tired atmosphere in the congregation, that people were bored or at least ready for lunch to begin, he’d start singing. And then the choir would join in. And then we joined. And we were back. And before we knew it, lunch was served.

Then, in graduate school. I started interning in churches. For the first time, I encountered a lot of people who participated regularly in church activities and worship, and who claimed to be Christians, but who did not care for songs like Draw Me Close or the gospel songs of Mt. Zion. In fact, I discovered early on in my professional vocation as a music and worship leader that this opposition was strong and loud.

Even church musicians and pastors didn’t want to sing these songs because, according to them, they were too emotionally-charged.

At first, I got defensive and didn’t know how to respond. But the more I researched the history of music used in services of worship [not just in Christianity, but in other religions, too]—I discovered that their argument was a reaction to changes they didn’t like. You see, music has been and always will be, emotionally-charged.

If a song doesn’t move you in some way, you don’t really remember it.

Some people, for example, claim that their hair stands up on the back of their neck when they hear certain symphonies of Mozart. Others fall into a rhythmic trance when they listen to particular hip hop songs. Still others are mesmerized by pop choruses; and some cannot get enough of the twang of country music or the hard-driving guitars and drums of heavy metal.

The fact is, music is emotional.

Now I fully admit that some songs are cheesy and annoyingly repetitive—in every genre. But our reaction to types of music is based on our social conditioning and our tastes. And so, one song that brings about a great emotional response in someone may not do the same for another person.

In spite of this, much of the Western Christian church [specifically mainline denominations with European heritage] continues to say that emotional songs are inferior to say, songs in the Reformed tradition that require an organ and were written during a certain time period and, according to them, are reverent songs that fit into 4-5 stanzas.

Again—don’t get me wrong. Reverence certainly has its place—in music, prayer, etc. I’ve been to prayer services at Sikh Gurdwaras, for example, and the songs they sing [based on their scriptures], certainly exhibit reverence for the divine presence. At the same time, though, emotion is involved. The divine is not aloof and far off, but here, in this moment, in relationship with all humankind. They use different instruments and vocal styles to reflect that. Consider also that I’ve participated in Hindu songs and prayers that follow meditative moments and then break out into celebratory clapping with cymbals. And I’ve been to plenty of live, secular music concerts during which people broke down in tears or looked like they were at Mt. Zion the way they danced and joyfully sang along.

Music, regardless of religious background, is often a bridge for us to see that humanity and the divine are connected.

That brings me to this saying in John’s Gospel, a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor. Jesus has just finished describing the beautifully-connected relationship between vinegrower, vine, and branches. Now, Jesus gives a simple command: love one another as I have loved you. And then this: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

But we need to know that laying one’s life down is not about dying. I have heard this phrase misquoted to explain why missionaries die in other countries or why Iraqi or Kenyan Christians are killed or why women and men of the military die at war.

I think this shows great disrespect—both to those who die, but also to those who are living. In John, Jesus doesn’t ask people to die for a religion.

If we say that and believe that, we are no different than any religious fanatics in the U.S. or around the world who hide behind religion in order to commit violent acts.

No, Jesus says, in the Greek, lay down one’s psuche. Psuche is roughly translated into English as breath, life-being, or soul. Apply that to the phrase and here are some possibilities:

  • lay down (or set aside) your heart
  • lay down your mind
  • lay down your soul
  • lay down your being

Keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth and the writers of John’s Gospel were all influenced by Eastern philosophy. Psuche is a holistic word to represent our humanity—including our ego.

egoEgo means “I” in Eastern philosophy. It is the the named self, self-consciousness of self-recognition.

When you say: “I am.”

Ego is preoccupied with our future existence; ego helps us survive sometimes.

But ego also can distract us from simply knowing our own selves, i.e. being present in this very moment, and then knowing the people around us.

Jesus’ teachings, and many of the teachings of the apostle Paul, were about the spiritual goal of attaining self-knowledge of one’s own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world. Some called this enlightenment [like John’s Gospel] and others called this salvation.

Simply put—it’s about knowing yourself fully, as you are.

Keeping this in mind helps us to better understand the meaning behind these Jesus words of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. We are commanded to love each other in a better way, and this love involves knowing ourselves in the present moment, and knowing those around us. It means setting aside that which would prevent us from truly loving others as they are.

The vinegrower God is a relatable divine presence. Jesus called his followers friends. The command here is not to be religious or to believe certain things; the command is to love in a certain way.

Consider Lean on Me and the great Bill Withers:

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
If there is a load you have to bear That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load
If you just call me

We all have loads that we carry in life, and our pride can get in the way of admitting how we feel in the present moment.

We’re meant to lighten our own loads, and the loads of others.

This is how God is a friend. God is not meant to be heavy at all. Jesus, a good friend, said if your load is heavy, come to me, and I’ll give you rest, because my load is light.

This is how much we are loved.

And this is how we are supposed to love others.

It is possible—it really is—to meet people where they are and as they are. If we push aside our pride and the things that distract us, we can become aware of your own prejudices or any other obstacles that keep us from loving others.

Can you accept it?

The divine is a friend.

That’s music to the ears!

Embrace friendship with your Creator; see and accept yourself as you are, in this moment; seek out and nurture divine friendship with your brothers and sisters of the world.

Real Friendship, Real Justice, Real Love

John 15:1-8

baltimore.jpegBy now the majority of your have at least heard or read something about the story of Freddie Gray, they young man who died in a police van in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m sure you’ve heard about the protests of recent weeks and days and also about looting and violence. And perhaps you’ve also heard that six police offers have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Stories like this one in the media come and go [because…ratings], but I hope we won’t be so fickle. It is up to all of us as individuals to read as much as we can and to diversify what information we put in our heads. It’s important to continue to read stories from people in Baltimore, and not to just take the word of media outlets as to what we should pay attention to or what’s trending.

It’s also important to not ignore Baltimore—its people, and the cries of: Black Lives Matter! Baltimore is Philadelphia, or any town, suburb, or neighborhood. The systemic problems in society of racism and discrimination, of violence and mistrust, are present everywhere and are embedded in our communities.

baltimore2.jpeg

Sadly, most churches will remain silent. It will be “business as usual” and things will go on as if nothing has happened or is happening.

Why is this?

The quick answer is that the institutional church is a part of society and so reflects the embedded racism and discrimination. One doesn’t have to look hard to see that churches are segregated. We could spend weeks talking about that.

Frankly, I am tired of all this—so can you imagine how my African-American friends and colleagues feel? Another killing in another street in another city involving another Black life. And no, this is not about demonizing police officers. This is about people who feel that they don’t have a voice, that they are treated like junk when they are human and deserve so much better.

But I’m white and I’m male; I’m privileged.
I can talk and talk about this but I’d rather just listen. So I have been. I’ve been attentive to the voices crying out on Twitter, Facebook, news outlets, and I’ve listened to my friends and colleagues face to face–in a café, in a restaurant, in a church, on the basketball court.

And so I’d like to share some thoughts from some African-American voices. Preachers, teachers—people.
You may find the full texts of their messages here:

The first is Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., someone I met a couple of years ago when she was still in Philly. Now she teaches Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Texas.

wil.jpegShe shares:

I am preaching on Sunday and I am using the lectionary. I am focusing on “hearing and listening” from Ps 22:24:

God did not despise or detest the affliction of the afflicted. God did not hide God’s face from me. God heard when I cried out to God.

We can’t escape the violence in the scriptures or in the streets. The violence imposed on the body of Jesus was neither the beginning nor the end of his story. And it was not only his story. His people were subject to lethal violence whether guilty or innocent on individual and national levels. The story of the Jewish people is one of slavery, deliverance, occupation and subjugation and, in times of desperation, resistance, rebellion and retaliation. Aspects of the Israelite story are shared with the poor, marginalized and oppressed in every time and place, including ours.

It may not be your experience, but many poor black and brown people experience the police as an occupying force, at best daily harassment, at worse lethal violence. Twenty-three years ago anger and pain boiled over in Los Angeles. Last summer it boiled over in Ferguson, MO. This week it boiled over in Baltimore, MD.

Dr. King taught us that riots are the language of the unheard. Are we listening? Will we hear the voices of today’s street-prophets? Or will we allow the spectacle of violence to become an excuse to turn away? The Church has listened to these stories read and preached for millennia, but have we truly heard them?

God hears the cry of the psalmist as surely as God hears the cries from the streets…

God builds the beloved community through the encounter of [very different] bodies. God can use them to transform the world, because they listen to and hear each other.​

markt.jpegThe Rev. Mark Tyler,
Pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, member of POWER, and a partner of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

If our nation cared as much about the lives of Black people as it does the loss of property, we would not be discussing Baltimore this morning. “We will prosecute to the full extent of the law” is what is heard when talking about looting, but silence is heard when unarmed, handcuffed Black men are killed by the police. Why not the same anger and outrage for dead people as burned out buildings?

juliab.jpegJulia Blount, a NY Middle School Teacher:

Every comment or post I have read today voicing some version of disdain for the people of Baltimore — “I can’t understand” or “They’re destroying their own community” or “Destruction of Property!” or “Thugs” — tells me that many of you are not listening. I am not asking you to condone or agree with violence. I just need you to listen. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but instead of forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion, please let me tell you what I hear:
I hear hopelessness; I hear oppression; I hear pain; I hear internalized oppression; I hear despair; I hear anger; I hear poverty.

I try to conceptualize what it is like for my students who got wanded by the NYPD, my students who have been stopped and frisked, my students whose parents work multiple jobs, my students on free and reduced-price lunch, my students whom white adults move away from because they look “scary.”

I try, when I can, to listen to them, because only by validating their feelings can we begin to find a way to overcome the challenges they face. That doesn’t mean I let them off easy when they do something wrong. But I try to understand the why.

I don’t need you to validate anyone’s actions, but I need you to validate what black America is feeling. If you cannot understand how experiences like mine or my students’ would lead to hopelessness, pain, anger, and internalized oppression, you are still not listening. So listen. Listen with your heart.

jacqui.jpegAnd Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D., Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church: New York, NY. She writes:

Monday night, as a straight Black ally, I attended a United4Marriage equality rally in Times Square anticipating the Supreme Court hearings Tuesday. Before I spoke, a religious leader hissed, “Read your Bible!” I said, “I read my Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and in English!”

Why is that the question?

While the list of dead bodies — black and brown female, male, trans and gay bodies — lie dead in our streets; while Baltimore burns in the fires where racism, desperation and violence converge; while we wonder if SCOTUS will scuttle gay marriage, the burning question for me is “What are people of faith going to do about it?”

Are we to be paralyzed by these things? Or are we, as my Bible says, “able to do more than we can ask or imagine through the power at work within us” and create the world we want?

My favorite text in scripture is:
God is love, and those who live in God live in love and love lives in them (1 John 4:16).

Love is the power with which we can do more than we can even imagine. I am counting on people of faith to put Love-In-Action. Do something, do one thing today, to right a wrong, to communicate a kindness, to create the world we want. A just world. A world in which Black Lives Matter. A world in which gay love is sacred. A world in which every life is precious.

What can you do? What will you do?

If we each do something because love abides in us, we can create the world we want. We can create The Beloved Community, right here on earth, as it is in heaven.

Love is the power with which we can do more than we can even imagine.

As we grieve today, as we mourn today, as we work for justice today, I urge you to consider that all of our holy texts hold love as a value.

Considering all this, I am thinking about love and this idea of a vinegrower, a vine, and some branches.

The vinegrower created love—look at creation. It’s beauty, it’s harmony, it’s love.
Then the vine, according to John’s Gospel, was and is the full expression of that love. Love for the cosmos, love for ALL humanity.

And the branches? Well, if they stay connected to that vine, then they stay connected to the vinegrower—to the source of love.

The branches then become creators themselves—creating love in the world. Branching out with that love and cultivating it. This is the fruit.

But love is not an abstract concept in this case. It’s not romantic or easy.

Love is about being in relationship with people.

If we truly want to create a world that is peaceful and full of loving relationships, then we have to orient every part of our being in that direction. We can’t just talk about it. We have to bear that fruit in our personal and collective lives. We have to choose to connect to people who also are striving for peace, justice, and love. Sometimes we have to cut ourselves off from those who are destroying, killing, and separating and discriminating. We have to join hands, minds, and hearts with those who strive for a more peaceful and loving world; with those who are honest about the sickness in society; with those who tell the truth even when it’s unpopular; with those who are not afraid to stand up for justice or to stand with someone who is marginalized.

This is real love.
This is real friendship.

Choosing to be branches means asking this question:
What kind of world do we want to create?

We have the ability to create on this earth. We can create peace, love, and justice, or we can create violence, hate, and injustice.

So what do we really want to create?

We’re not helpless on this planet. We’re not puppets in a show—unless we decide to act like it. We are free to not just believe in things, or to pray about them, or even just to talk about them—we are free to create the things we want to happen.

paulsplaceJayna Powell has known me since I was a baby. She went to seminary with my dad. Jayna lives in Baltimore and is the director of volunteers at Paul’s Place, Inc. Paul’s Place is an organization striving to improve the quality of life in the Washington Village/Pigtown neighborhood and the surrounding Southwest Baltimore communities. They provide programs, services, and support that strengthen individuals and families, fostering hope, personal dignity and growth.

This past week, Jayna and others at Paul’s Place were posting to Facebook. Here are some of their posts:

The last 24 hours have been difficult ones for the people of the City of Baltimore. We have witnessed deeply troubling violence engulf portions of this city. At a time like this, it would be very easy for us to collectively give in to despair and uncertainty for the future.

That is precisely why the work of Paul’s Place has the power to positively transform the lives of our guests. Rest assured that our staff, volunteers, and partners will continue to promote our mission, always treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Even though this hour may seem dark, we at Paul’s Place are committed to helping everyone we serve be able to move to a brighter future.

We join all others in praying for our city today. We are so saddened by the events of last night. The violence that happened in our city was not in our neighborhood and today we will have hundreds of people coming to find a safe place for a warm meal. And we need volunteers to serve it!

We have a HUGE donation of clothes to be sorted…if you can, please come ANY TIME today to help us serve our meal (at 11) and sort clothes…ALL DAY!

Folks heard our call to action and dozens have showed with a simple, “How can I help?” We have witnessed the true spirit of Baltimore and her people as neighbors from near and far pour into our doors looking to serve and #‎Bmore. Thank you to our amazing volunteers!

Come on down and help us serve our guests again as we make a point to show that we are here…no matter what rages around us…we are here to serve! Thank you Baltimore for your support!

Friends, we have a choice to create and cultivate love in our communities and in our world. Let’s not stand by and wait to do it. Let’s not ignore the cries of those who are not heard.

Let’s listen.

And then let’s love.

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