Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for April, 2016

Choosing to Love No Matter What

John 13:31-35

love-is-a-choice
When did you choose to act out of love?

What I mean by that question is when did you choose to love someone you were not obligated to love? When you loved someone outside of your social circle, your family, colleagues or friends? When you chose to love someone….

Love is certainly a difficult word and concept to define. I’ve learned in my lifetime that the more I age, the more I realize how little I actually know about a lot of things—including love. Love is so much bigger, mysterious, random, and more undefinable than I ever dreamed possible. If you were to ask me: how do you know when someone really loves you? My answers may surprise you. Perhaps your answers to that question would surprise me!

I want you to take a moment and think about this.

When do you know that someone really chooses to love you? What does that kind of love look like? What does it feel like?

My personal answer is: I know someone loves me when they are not obligated to because of family or societal obligations, or money. I know someone loves me when they treat me well when I’m tired, angry, or annoyed, or not at my best. When someone chooses to love me even though we strongly disagree or we are on different paths.

But allow me to clarify—this kind of love [for me] isn’t dependence masquerading as love. In other words, there are people look for other people who are needy. Why? Because they want to appear loving by attaching themselves to someone who will be dependent on them. This is, of course, co-dependency and not really love. I had a friend in high school who experienced this first hand. His parents showered him with “love” his whole life, but at the same time, they wouldn’t let him choose anything, wouldn’t let him find his own path or make mistakes. They sheltered him from life’s realities. And so he was so co-dependent that none of it felt like love. He resented them. Sadly, this happens all too often in our relationships.

So we are exploring a love that might make us uncomfortable. It will challenge our preconceived notions and societal constructs. This love is not conventional.

Speaking of non-conventional, how about the Gospel of John? The story we are looking at in John 13 is in fact about love, but before we get into it, let’s set the context. It’s right before Jesus of Nazareth gets arrested. He just had a meal with his friends, the disciples. Jesus just finished washing their feet. That was something a servant would do—not a rabbi, or a prophet, and certainly not a powerful leader. But that’s what he chose to do. And Peter [as well as others] didn’t like it one bit. Peter even refused. But Jesus insisted. Then, after the contested foot washing, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ close companions, leaves with some bread. This was significant, because next in the story, Judas sells out. He accepts some money from Roman authorities and tells them where Jesus will be at a certain point so they can ambush him and arrest him. Jesus, in John’s story, already knows that Judas is about to do this. After Judas leaves, Jesus announces a new commandment: love one another.

Now let’s look this word love in its Greek linguistic context. Love is agape in the ancient Greek. A loose definition of agape is: the highest form of love and compassion that is unconditional and transcends love of family or friends, regardless of circumstances. But please keep in mind that agape was not a religious concept and certainly not a Christian concept until many centuries later. In Hellenistic culture and in Israel and Palestine, this type of love was known, but as a cultural concept apart from religion. That being said, there are many other traditions around the world that define this higher love in a similar way.

For example, in Sanskrit [the ancient language of India], there is mettā, which means loving-kindness or friendliness.

mettaAnd in the Arab tradition, the Arabic word ishq, which means divine love.

ishq

Again, don’t assume some lofty, religious, non-concrete love. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Agape, or the higher love, was based on real, human experience. It wasn’t something you talked about; it was something you did. So it makes sense that in John’s story, Jesus of Nazareth keeps on setting concrete examples of what this higher love looks like and feels like. Foot washing—the rejection of social constructs that separate people and make others lesser. Agape love transcends social levels. Forgiveness—which involved debt forgiveness. Agape love did not keep a record of debts. And here’s the most difficult question: what to do with Judas?

I mean the guy did betray Jesus, right?

But after Judas leaves the room, Jesus lays this down: I have loved you so that you also might love one another. This would have been difficult to hear, because we know that the disciples were already bickering over who was the best. They just found out that Judas, one of them, had betrayed. No doubt they were ready to rip into Judas after he left. But they didn’t get that chance. Instead, they were to love each other [including Judas! Come on, you can’t leave Judas out], and they were to love each other in the way that Jesus had loved. This would be the way that they would continue to feel Jesus’ presence, long after he was gone. And this higher love would be what defined them; it would be their primary characteristic.

By this higher love they would be known.

Look, I’ve been to many different religious communities and I have many colleagues and friends from a variety of religious or non-religious backgrounds. I’ve seen how families treat each other and how friends and colleagues treat each other. In all cases, there are people who choose to love, and there are people who choose not to.

I’ve seen a parent choose to accept and love her grown child who now identifies as non-binary. Though it may be outside of this mother’s thinking and difficult to understand that her child does not clearly identify as one gender, she chooses to love.

One colleague of mine [who happens to be Muslim] was once asked: if your college-age son decided to leave Islam and no longer be a Muslim, what would you do? His answer: I would be disappointed, because I do think that following Islam can help him become a better person, but that’s less important and not really my answer. My answer is that I would choose to love him.

I know it’s not the norm in society and I know it’s rarely seen in churches [sad, but we all know it’s the truth], but this choosing to love is the real deal. It’s action; it’s not easy. It transcends. It can change someone’s life and remind them that they matter.

So keep asking yourself: How do I know that someone chooses to love me?
Surround yourself with those people—even if they are only a few.

And then, consider that if you are obligated to love or pressured to love, this is not the same thing as choosing to love.

To close, I couldn’t resist. I listened to Prince a lot in the 80s and 90s. He was an oft-misunderstood artist and person, but much of his music spoke to the deeper levels of identity, sexuality, and spirituality—all at the same time. So I close with a few stanzas from his song Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed:

If I were ever to write my life story
I could truly say through all the pain and glory
I was just a piece of clay in need of the potter’s hand
Cause when you whispered in my ear
The words I so now understand, oh

Beautiful, loved and blessed
I’m better than the day before
Cause you made me confess that I am,
Beautiful, loved and blessed
When you’re free you’re really free indeed

All you gotta do is just plant the seed[1]

Yeah, Prince.

Choose to love. Plant that seed.
[1] Songwriters: NELSON, PRINCE ROGERS / DAVIS, ASHLEY TAMAR

Beautiful, Loved And Blessed lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Listening and then Belonging

John 10:22-30

Julian Treasure is founder and chairman of The Sound Agency, a UK-based consultancy that asks and answers the question: “How does your brand sound?”

julianTreasureJulian’s vision is to make the world sound beautiful, by helping individuals to make and receive sound consciously, and companies to discover that good sound is good business.
http://www.juliantreasure.com.

He recently gave a Ted Talk entitled: “Five Ways to Listen Better.” Conscious listening, he says, leads to understanding.You can watch it here:

 

Allow me to apply some of his research and points.
First, consider crowd noise. Everyone is talking all at once.
Now, in the midst of all that noise, I will call upon the names of two people, saying their names and telling them to pay attention. What will happen? They will stop talking and listen.

This happens because we recognize patterns to distinguish noise from signal, and especially our name.

Another sound technique: differencing. Play some constant noise—anything. TV, phone, iPod, whatever. Now, if you leave this noise going for more than a couple of minutes, you would literally cease to hear it. We listen to differences and we discount sounds that remain the same.
Now close your eyes.

Sound places all of us in space and in time. By closing your eyes, you become aware of the size of the place you are in from the reverberation and the bouncing of the sound off the surfaces. And you’re aware of how many people or other beings are around you because of the micro-noises you’re receiving.

And now to the crux of Mr. Treasure’s passion: he claims that we are losing our listening. Why? First, because we have invented ways to record sound and video and words. Second, because the world is very noisy. It becomes hard to listen. Perhaps that’s why many people use headphones so that they can transform big, noisy spaces into small little sounds in their ears. We’ve also become impatient. We don’t want to listen for long periods of time, we want sound bites. Headlines therefore have to scream at us, just to get our attention. It’s political season. You know what I mean.

And why do you think commercials turn up the volume?

Mr. Treasure goes on to say that listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening creates understanding. A world where we don’t listen to each other at all is a very scary place indeed.

So He shares five simple exercises–tools to take away with you, to improve your own conscious listening.

Silence: Silence of 3 minutes a day helps reset our ears to quiet so that we can listen well.

The Mixer: Even in a noisy environment, try to listen to as many individual channels as you can hear and differentiate. It can be in a crowded city intersection, at the workplace, at school, or even in a beautiful, natural place as well, like a park. How many birds do you hear? Where are they? Is their flowing water? So the leaves make sounds in the wind? This improves the quality of your listening.

Savouring: This is about enjoying the most mundane sounds. For instance, the tumble dryer of a washing machine. We can enjoy any sound as long as we listen.

Listening positions: This is the most important one. Moving your listening position to what’s appropriate –  active/passive or critical/sympathetic. This helps become conscious of barriers/filters to listening and play around with them.

RASA: It’s a Sanskrit word for juice or essence and the acronym stands for Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask. It recaps the process of active listening.

In the conclusion of his Ted Talk, Mr. Treasure says this:

Every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully — connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other, not to mention spiritually connected, because every spiritual path I know of has listening and contemplation at its heart.

This is certainly true of early Christianity—though I would argue that modern-day Christianity [and especially Western Christianity] completely undervalues listening. Just consider how much Christian sects and denominations yell back and forth at each other but rarely listen? Just think about how many of us who identify as progressive Christians have to explain ourselves again and again, saying: “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I’m not like that or I don’t believe that or I don’t dehumanize certain types of people.” It seems that  a lot of the time, religious people are not listening.

We often do not listen.

notlistening
And this is indeed the message of this short snippet from a John story, in which Jesus is pretty blunt about the need for listening. The story begins by saying that it is the “festival of dedication” which refers to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. In Greek, the Hebrew word is translated to be renewal. Hanukkah is the festival which celebrates the reconsecration of the Jerusalem Temple after the victory of Judas Maccabeus. John’s Gospel includes these references from time to time due to the audience reading the story. It was important to help non-Jewish readers understand a bit of the history and context of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s winter—you can feel the chill in the story. As Jesus of Nazareth strolls around the portico of Solomon, the Judeans [the Jerusalem-area social and religious aristocracy] surround him and pester him. They are scared of Jesus, because they had heard whispers of him being the promised Messiah, even though Jesus himself had never made such a claim. If Jesus were indeed the Messiah, the religious elites would be in trouble. So they were nagging Jesus until he said something. If he claimed to be the Messiah, he could be stoned. If he denied it, they could go back to the other elites and say See, we told you so.

Jesus’ response is typical. He doesn’t call himself the Messiah. Instead, he makes it about trust. The phrase here shouldn’t be I told you and you did not believe but instead I told you and you did not trust. They didn’t trust in the work that Jesus did. The healings. The teachings. The gathering of so-called sheep who were marginalized and left on the outside of society. The religious authorities are not the sheep. They are more like the thieves that come to separate and destroy.

And they don’t listen.

On the other hand, those who were often considered unclean and unworthy are sheep, and they do listen. They hear the loving voice. And they are known. They follow the merciful path. And life is theirs to embrace.

So here it is—we should listen, but not to all the noise, all the conventional sounds of society, and certainly not to the voices that seek to destroy, hurt, or separate.

Instead, we should listen to the voice that says:

I am not the things my family did.

I am not the voices in my head that tell me I’m worthless.

I’m not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that have caused me pain.

I am not the color of my eyes or the skin on the outside.

I am not an age, a race, a nationality, a religion, or an academic level.

I am divinity defined.

I am the God on the inside.

I am connected to others because I listen to them and accept them.

I am light.[1]

Will you take just a few moments each day and during the week to listen to that voice? Will you connect with me, connect with each other? Will you teach children how to listen and will we teach listening in our schools, workplaces, places of worship, and homes? Listening is a powerful thing. It can transform the world to a listening world — a world of connection, a world of understanding and a world of peace. Will you listen?

[1] Excerpts from India Arie’s song I Am Light.

Just When You Think It’s Dire…SURPRISE!

 John 21:1-14

Right now I have been thinking about a number of people—people who are going through extremely difficult moments in their lives. It’s broken relationships, physical and mental illness, great loss, loneliness, or a feeling of complete uncertainty and no sense of purpose. It is painful for them in so many ways. And, to be honest, I don’t know what to say. I don’t blame them for thinking:

There’s no way out.

What they feel is intensely real, and intensely awful. It cannot be explained away by positive thinking or quick-and-easy solutions. And these types of feelings can lead to desperation, fear, and even hatred. As much as we try to avoid getting to that place, it’s possible.

So let me ask you:

Have you ever felt so low and desperate that you saw no way out?

Have you ever felt that life has no meaning?

Are you feeling that way right now?

Let me say straightaway that I don’t think that desperation is a sign of failure. In contrast to what much of Western society propagates—the idea that we should always be in control and calm, collected—I’m not buying it. Desperation can actually be a sign of something good to come. Desperation can be a gift. Why? Because when we feel desperate, we can find an otherwise unnoticed ability to change—to change behaviors and life habits that we thought were not possible to change.

JuanCruz
A feeling of complete desperation has also been described by many as the “dark night of the soul.” This phrase, in its original language of Spanish, la noche oscura del alma, is a title given to a poem by 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, often referred to as Saint John of the Cross. Juan was born and raised near Ávila, España into a converso family (in other words, he came from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity]. Juan did not entitle his poem “the dark night of the soul”; it is instead called Spiritual Canticles and was written by Juan when he was imprisoned and tortured in Spain due to the tensions between certain factions of the Roman Catholic Church and monastery orders.[1]

As with any work of spiritual or religious mysticism, Juan’s poetry is symbolic of both religious and theological leanings, but also of the inner psychology of the human experience. His poetry, for the most part, focuses on the mystical union between a human being and Christ.  Many people, including those who are non-religious, have embraced Juan’s poetry, finding some connection to his expression of the dark night of the soul. Even rock bands like Depeche Mode.

depecheMode In their song “I Feel Loved,” they sing:

It’s the dark night of my soul and temptation’s taking hold, but through the pain and the suffering, through the heartache and trembling I feel loved…

Eckhart Tolle, philosopher and author, who is best known for his books The Power of Now and A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, shares some helpful insight about the dark night of the soul.

eckhart-tolle-full-size

It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness.  Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything.  Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level.  The death of someone close to you could trigger it. The meaning that you have given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, this meaning collapses. What has collapsed is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it.  So that results in a dark place.[2]

The Gospel of John is no stranger to this idea of dark places and the possibility of light breaking through them. The symbols of light and darkness are all over John’s story.

After Jesus of Nazareth dies, his friends and followers are indeed in a period of the dark night of the soul. And only by passing through it can they experience the light of the dawn. Keep in mind that the appearances of Jesus to his friends after his death are not concrete resurrection proofs that you can point to and say “aha!” Jesus rose from the dead! These appearances are very contextual, psychological, and unique to the individuals involved. So let’s not try to “figure out” timing or details of these appearances, because such things don’t exist.

That being said, this story is about some of Jesus’ followers who were fisherman. After Jesus’ death, they went back to what they knew—fishing. But it was night [notice that] and they were not catching anything.

it was a dark night for them. Jesus was gone, they were alone, and they were failing at the one thing they knew how to do.

Business as usual, the old habits, they just didn’t cut it.

Then, morning came. Daybreak! A new beginning.

And along came a “stranger” who asks them if they’ve caught anything. They respond, “Nope.” Then the stranger tells them to go back out on the lake and drop their nets on the right side of the boat. That was weird. Fishermen mostly threw their nets right over left, to the left side of the boat.

Well, they decided to do it, finally. And when they threw out their nets, they were not strong enough to draw them back in because they were too heavy with fish.

One of the disciples said: “It is the Lord.” Simon Peter heard that, put on an extra layer of clothes, and threw himself into the water. The other disciples, in the little boat, drew in the net of fish, and when they got to land, they saw a charcoal fire and fish laid upon (it) and bread.  The stranger [now called Jesus] said: “Bring from the fish which you have now caught.” So they ate together, but the disciples were afraid to ask the stranger who he was.

What do you glean from this story?

For me, it’s a relevant story if we notice the symbols of light and dark and also the impetus for a change of perspective.

Jesus was dead. His friends and followers were in a low place, a dark night of the soul. They were desperate, they were confused, and they felt like nothing had meaning.

But being in that desperate place was an opportunity to emerge out of it into a transformed state.

Life could have meaning again, but it will not be the same meaning as before.

Emerging from the desperate and dark night of the soul means awakening into something deeper, which is no longer based on the concepts we have in our minds. It means seeking a deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything societal.

Within the dark night of the soul, things lose the meaning that you have given them—all the things that you were conditioned to think and believe.
This is scary, of course. For the world you thought you knew has faded and the world you now see is something you no longer understand.  But we have the chance to live in this world without interpreting it compulsively. We can look upon events, people, etc., with a deep sense of aliveness, on we stop trying to fit our experiences into the same conceptual framework.[3]

I return to the questions I asked at the very beginning:
Have you ever felt so low and desperate that you saw no way out?
Have you ever felt that life has no meaning?
Are you feeling that way right now?

Friends, wherever you are on your journey, remember that being in a desperate place, a dark night of the soul, can be an opportunity. It can be a chance for you to leave behind old habits or ways of seeing the world, a chance to break down your conditioned responses to people and the world, an opportunity to see things with new eyes.

A chance to see the dawn and sun coming up on a new day.

Don’t be afraid of the dark night. Embrace it, and discover the surprises that come with it. Pass through it, learn from it, and seize the opportunity to change.

[1] http://elvelerodigital.com/apuntes/lyl/nocheoscura.htm

[2] https://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/october-2011

[3] https://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/october-2011

Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

empty-easter-basket-green-grass-white-13295986The tomb is still empty. Really, it is.
The peeps have been eaten [or at least mostly eaten], the baskets emptied of their sugary substances and plastic grass, and the Easter egg hunts are a distant memory. It’s the week after, and the tomb is still empty.

candyComaIn Luke’s Gospel story, a group of women discovered an empty tomb and no body, and two guys in shiny, white clothes [apparently part of some Elvis impersonator caravan]. And they were happy, because they were told that Jesus was no longer dead in the tomb. So they rushed to their friends the disciples, and told them, and were met with sarcasm and rebuttal. They were called foolish. Only one of the men, Peter, decided to make his way to the tomb, and of course, when he did, it was empty.
Now we shift to John’s story, so put on your seatbelts. We’re not in Luke-Kansas anymore!

John sets the stage for us and says that it’s evening, and all the doors of the disciples’ house are locked. They were afraid, not of the Jews in general [because that would include most of them], but afraid of the religious and political authorities who they felt were out there looking for any followers of this Jesus of Nazareth who had died. Add to that the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing, and well, the disciples didn’t want anything to do with that. They were keeping their heads down.

But, in the all-of-a-sudden, freaky-John style, Jesus appears out of nowhere. He says: Shalom, peace be with you, and then shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are happy about this whole seeing Jesus again thing. This was pretty cool. After all, to this point, they had done nothing but deny, run away, and betray. And then they locked themselves inside their house after the women disciples told them that the body was missing. And now. Jesus was here! Great.

Like a broken record, Jesus says Shalom again. And: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Then Jesus breathes on them [though I don’t imagine some weird, awkward breathing like when you eat garlicy food and want your friend to smell your breath].

bad-breath4

I imagine a more symbolic sort of breath like in Genesis’ creation story. A breath that gives life or purpose. Perhaps a breath to help them remember? The women already did remember the things that Jesus said and did. But these disciples, because they were afraid, had forgotten.  Well, here comes the answer to our question about the whole breathing thing, because John’s author tells us that Jesus then said:

Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive.
In that breath is God’s Spirit and that Spirit is one of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anyone at this point wondering if this whole forgiveness part was needed by these particular disciples? I mean, really, their track record wasn’t all that great. I wonder if that statement about forgiving others was also about forgiving themselves. Either way, we’re not given much time to think about it, because the most interesting disciple outside of Mary Magdalene [in my opinion], takes center stage.

Thomas!

thomastrain

And not the train!
Thomas, the doubter! Yes! Welcome back! How we missed you…

First, he’s called Thomas the twin, and here’s what I will say about that. He has no named twin so, you and I could very likely be his twin. That’s literary device at its best. We are meant to be with Thomas here.
He didn’t see Jesus appear, He didn’t hear the double shalom, he didn’t see the hands and side. He didn’t get breathed on or told to forgive. He was out.
Was Thomas less afraid than the others?
Or was he just unlucky?
We don’t know. But we do know that Thomas was not buying this whole “we’ve seen the Lord” thing. Yeah right. These fearful, cowering men had seen Jesus? Prove it.

The story flips forward about a week later.

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 a confusing translation from Koine Greek to English. I’ve mentioned this before, but often in our English Bibles, the word belief appears, and in my opinion, it is a lazy/Western biased translation that does not take into account the many possible meanings and nuances of the original word.

Belief is absolute certainty in something that you know to be true and is not at all tied to spirituality or religious practice—at least it wasn’t until much, much later in history. Trust and faith, however, are two words that appear often in the New Testament and carry with them much larger meanings than just believing that something is true.

I’ve come across so many people who assume that because I am a Christian, I believe this or that or the other thing, or what that thing says on TV or what that person says, and with complete certainty. Of course, when I tell them that I don’t believe in more than half of the stuff they said do, they are confused.

Why?
Because many people, including Christians, assume that faith is belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word faith in John’s Gospel is a verb, not a noun.
Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more like an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith includes trust.
So as we’re standing in the empty tomb, left to wonder what happened, or if we find ourselves in Thomas’ shoes, doubting the whole thing, is that so bad?

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

I’m going through a time in which I don’t think God exists.

Do you feel guilty or strange about it? Well don’t! Embrace that thought.

In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Faith, he says that his doubts keep him moving and that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual and personal growth. In terms of his own personal thoughts about God, McLaren has “sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs [he’s] had to release, while others have proven themselves as ‘keepers.’”[1]

I don’t think doubt is really the problem. I think an unwillingness to question belief is a problem, because consider: isn’t holding onto a belief out of a sense of false security a very dangerous concept? I would say, look around the world, and the answer is a big, fat, YES.

Because if we’re convinced that doubt is “bad” and not something so common, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. Instead, our so-certain belief system becomes a rigid, intolerant and self-righteous existence.

Freedom to doubt, however, helps us to deepen, clarify, and even explain certain aspects of our spirituality and of our day to day lives.

So friends, there is room for your doubt and plenty of it. Embrace it and allow it to challenge certain belief systems and perspectives that may be doing you harm. From experience, I can tell you that if you do that honestly and at your own speed, like Thomas you will encounter healing, reconciliation, and a rejuvenated enthusiasm for more exploration.

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

[1] Brian McLaren “Doubt: The Tides of Faith”

 

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

I’ll admit it. During this particular Holy Week and then, on Resurrection or “Easter” Sunday, I didn’t feel so up to painting eggs, eating candy, or singing hallelujah, Christ is risen! My role here is not to be a Debbie Downer–it’s just to be honest. I’m not up to it. Because, doesn’t it just seem like yesterday that people were changing their Facebook profiles and creating Twitter hashtags like #jesuiparis [i.e. I am Paris], after terrorist attacks?

jesuisparis
And then the attacks in Brussels. And then another attack outside of Baghdad, Iraq at a soccer game; a bomb in Turkey; and then, on Good Friday, bombs in a Nigeria mosque that take the lives of worshipers. And on Easter Sunday, a bombing in a park in Pakistan where Muslims and Christians [many of them children] mingled and played and enjoyed the outdoor festivities.

pakistanLike the Paris attacks, Brussels was trending on Twitter and on the news–along with some guy named Ted Cruz, another guy with a squirrel on his head, a Spice Girls reunion, and peeps. Lots of peeps.

peepsBut Baghdad? Turkey? Nigeria? Pakistan? Not so much. Really, I’m not bringing this up to bring you down. I’m just being honest.

So before I seemingly ruin your holiday, let me explain. This is not about despair, or pointing fingers, or whatever else.

This is about being honest and being connected.

We live in a world with many people in it, who speak different languages and practice different religions [or no religion] and who eat different things and wear different clothes. It’s always been like that. This is humanity. When we get into this kind of violence and fear is when we forget our humanity.

When we think that “our” way is the best way, or even worse, the only way, we impose that way on anyone who gets in the way.

And let’s not go down this road of accusing Muslims or Arabs for being the group of people that is doing this the most. It’s not true. Anglos in America have done it [and do it], Europeans do it, too. You can blame whole religions if you wish [though it’s misguided], because people kill others because they choose to, or are moved to by charismatic, evil-crafty leaders with authority, power, and money do it. Individual people decide to commit violence, and yes, some are desperate and destitute and coerced into it. But we can make no blanket statements anymore. When we accuse a whole religion [or cultural group] of something as terrible as these violent acts, we show our ignorance and unwillingness to embrace a difficult truth: we are all connected. So if we propagate hateful and prejudice rhetoric about ANY group of people, we are contributing to this awful mess.

So don’t do it.

This is why I refuse to stand by and watch while many people [whether religious or not] give into fear. This is the last thing we should do. Fear only creates more fear, and then more misunderstanding, less connection and cooperation, and more violence. In wake of such violence and tragedy, fear should not be an option. Understanding, relationship-building, and cooperation are the options. For as much as we move from hashtag to hashtag and headline to headline, we are not governed by these things. We choose whether or not we will know our neighbors and even those outside our neighborhood and community. We choose whether or not we shrink back in fear or whether we respond with love and empathy.

In this very moment, there is a Muslim refugee family from Syria that just arrived in the Warminster, PA area. The United Church of Christ in Warminster and other congregations and non-religious folk too will be involved in helping them get settled here via co-sponsorship, housing provision, transportation, language courses, job assistance, etc. So they feel welcome.

This is a choice.

And on resurrection Sunday, there is a story that presents a choice as well. Most of you have heard or read this story in the four Gospels, so it may seem familiar. This time, we’re in Luke’s Gospel, pretty similar to the oldest Gospel, Mark, but with its own nuances. The story begins as all the resurrection accounts do–without fanfare and quite gloomy. Women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed for burial [which is a cave] and they come with spices. They see, however, that the protective stone placed in front of the tomb has been rolled away. So they go in. To their surprise, the body of Jesus of Nazareth is missing. Luke offers no details here and leaves room for us to ask questions like: was the body stolen by fanatic followers of Jesus? Was the body removed by the Romans? Or the temple authorities? Was the body ever put in that cave in the first place?

As we are asking these questions, two men in shining clothes appear to the women and ask a different question: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised. REMEMBER what he spoke to you, in Galilee? It is necessary for the son of man to be delivered into the hands of sinful human beings, and to be crucified, and on the third day to rise.

And now, Luke’s author is making us do our homework. First, the two men in shining clothes are JUST like Moses and Elijah in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain that Luke told in chapter 9. So it’s an identity moment for Jesus. He’s on the same level now as those great prophets.

And then, the questions. The women are asked to remember. In Luke, remembering is a constant theme. Jesus asks his friends the disciples to remember, time and time again. Now, the women are asked to remember. The son of man [i.e., the son of adam, or son of humanity] is delivered into the hands of sinful people, and crucified, and then will rise on the third day.

Consider that for the entire Gospel of Luke, the sinners were always the ones who hung out with Jesus–the marginalized, the oppressed, the left out. Now, the sinners are the authorities who led to Jesus’ death.

The women choose to remember.

So they don’t stay in the tomb, crying out of sadness. They don’t shrink away from the situation out of fear. Instead, they leave the empty tomb and tell the disciples about it. They are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary of James, etc. These courageous women are met with not only skepticism, but are considered crazy by some of Jesus’ closest followers. In fact, the only guy who considers their story is Peter. He goes to the tomb [running] and finds linen burial clothes [but no body]. And he leaves the empty tomb wondering what actually happened.

Here’s what I take from this story, and I don’t know if what I say matters, but I do think the story can matter, that is, if it moves you to do things in your life that matter. Ultimately, how we decide to act–how we treat people, matters the most. So here goes:

Why did Jesus die? A question we have to ask if we plan on talking about resurrection. Why did he die? I’m not one who thinks that he had to die. I know that many, many people will disagree, and that’s fine. But I don’t think his dying was the whole point. I think he died because he was a threat–not as a violent revolutionary, but because Jesus of Nazareth challenged the whole societal system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the reign of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.[1]

Ask yourself: what do violent religious fanatics, power-wielding authorities and fear mongers have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against certain groups of people, separating us and creating more chaos and less cooperation. Rather than raising our children to be peacemakers and to have friends from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, we are told to be fearful and to shrink back, protect our own, and to shelter children and youth from the world. What killed Jesus was indeed fear.

But this story tells us that we are not supposed to give into that fear.

The resurrection story isn’t flashy at all. Maybe that’s why the bunnies and baskets and painted eggs and peeps need to be there. Because really–the tomb is empty and we’re left to ponder: what happened? The real symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. No pageants, no lights, no trumpets or angels. Nobody is exchanging gifts under a tree or singing old songs.

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

The emptiness makes space for us in our distress and sadness about what’s happening all over the world. The emptiness leaves space for us to ponder like Peter: what happened? The emptiness leaves space for us to make decisions. How will we react? Will we respond out of fear? Or possibility, promise, new life? Will we react like Mary Magdalene, the one who kept on searching for the face of mercy and love, in spite of the uncertainty and despair all around?

Friends, there is room in the tomb for your doubts, your questions, and even your despair. But there is also room for your dreams, your joys, your whole selves. What will we choose? There is room. There is room. There is ALWAYS room for you. Love is that big, that wide, that accessible. So make room in yourselves for new life, for love, for mercy, for empathy, for light. Find yourself and embrace your uniqueness.

And always make room for others–all others. Make the choice to work for peace and cooperation, and empathy. Speak life to the death of prejudice and violence.

May every day be resurrection day.

[1] Ericksen, Adam, Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance, March 25, 2016.

The Subdued Entry and a Path to Peace

Luke 19:28-40

Peace sayings from various traditions

Hindu tradition
Oh God, lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.  God’s peace, peace, peace to all.

Buddhist tradition
May all beings everywhere be happy, Peaceful, and free.

Jain tradition
Peace and universal love is the essence of all the teachings.
Forgive do I creatures all, and let all creatures forgive me.

Confucian tradition
First there must be order and harmony within your own heart.
Only then can there be peace and harmony in the world.

Native American tradition
Give us the wisdom to teach our children to love, to respect and to be kind to one another that we may grow with peace in mind.

Muslim tradition
Praise be to the Lord of the Universe. Who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not despise each other.

Have you ever heard a story that you thought you knew so well, only to discover that you really didn’t know it at all?

It happens all the time, actually. We remember events or moments in our lives and tell stories about them. But often the details of those stories change, according to the new experiences we have had in life and because we’ve had time to interpret what happened. This is very, very human and actually helps us to grow as people and to develop new perspectives and worldviews.

So Palm Sunday, at least the idea of it, is all about a story and how we tell it. Honestly, I understand why some Christian traditions do not observe Palm Sunday, because they are taking the stance that it has become an institutional holiday and not something that inspires us to develop our spirituality or to serve others. Perhaps in some cases that is true, but you could say that about most if not all of Christian traditions. A tradition is only worth something if its purpose is to inspire us to be better people and to treat others better. Otherwise, it’s just a story that we keep making up to serve our own purposes.

So let’s look at the story we always read on Palm Sunday, this time in Luke’s Gospel. Alert: though we’re looking at Luke, we’re really looking at Mark. The Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written and so the other Gospels often borrow from Mark’s story. In this case, Luke borrows a lot of Mark’s original version of Jesus finally getting close to Jerusalem. There are a few subtle changes, though, that are worth noting. First, I have mentioned before that Luke uses the word “journey” in some way shape or form many, many times. So here again, Luke changes the story to say that Jesus was journeying ahead and going up to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story and the author of Luke refers to Jerusalem more than any of the other Gospels. But before Jerusalem, Jesus journeys through Bethphage-Bethany-the Mount of Olives. Though geographical markers, these places were also significant symbols. In the OT book of Zechariah, the Lord approaches Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives [14:4]. So right away, we get some king and lord references.

And it continues. Jesus sends two of his pals to a village nearby to find a little donkey that has not been ridden. Yet another reference to Zechariah: 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 [9:9]. So they do find the colt and bring it to Jesus and then they put their cloaks on the colt. Again, Luke says that Jesus is journeying—this time on the donkey.

Along the way, people start spreading their cloaks on the road. Another royal kind of sign. Notice there are no palms in Luke’s version. We’ll get to that in a moment. The people are shouting things, but not hosannas.

Luke has them shout out a portion of Psalm 118, though Luke changes it. The people don’t say, as the Psalm does, blessed is the one, but they say: blessed is the king who comes in the name of the lord. So now that Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem, Luke finally acknowledges Jesus as some sort of king. And just in case we have forgotten Luke’s story that we read at Christmas, Luke calls the cloak throwing crowd a “multitude of disciples” rejoicing and praising God in a loud voice for mighty works, and in heaven, peace, and glory in the highest!

Cue Linus.

linus-van-peltCue Gloria in Egg-Shell-Seas-Day-O

Cue Christmas carols that you know you don’ t want to hear EVER again….

r-LOUD-NOISE-large570

Luke’s entry to Jerusalem seems happy. A little TOO happy?

At least, for one brief moment. Luke adds verses 39-40, as they don’t appear in Mark’s story.  Some Pharisees speak. They call on Jesus to make his disciples stop their affirmation of him as king.  Jesus responds: “I say to you, if they will hold their peace, the stones will cry out.” The use of the future tense here indicates Jesus’ role as a prophet. This is consistent with Luke’s story, for Luke presents Jesus as a prophetic voice much more than a king or religious ruler. In this story, those who follow Jesus are speaking joyfully of the peace they have found in him. If Pharisees or anyone else try to silence that joy and peacefulness, nature itself will chime in.

I hope the details help you discover some meaning in the story or at the very least, they help you see another perspective about this think people call Palm Sunday.

Because maybe buying palm branches and waving them around sanctuaries, taking them home and pinning them up until they rot and then throwing them away isn’t leading us anywhere special. Maybe we should pay more attention to the people who spread their cloaks and coats on the ground, and even on the back of a donkey. Perhaps they were “all in” for this peaceful and joyful journey in a world that was not so peaceful and joyful.

For there were no trumpets or choral anthems or pretty palms. Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem with the sounds of only a few enthusiastic people. The rest were skeptical, angry, jealous–even violent about this idea of breaking down the walls of separation to create peace within people and peace around the world. And yet, that was this prophet’s wish and all he taught and lived asserted this path to peace.

To close, here these words from Frederick Buechner:

That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if they are about anything that matters. That you and I also, each in our own puny but crucial way, will work and witness and pray for the things that make for peace, true peace, both in our own lives and in the life of this land. Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take – despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in the one who travels the road with us and for us…approaching every human heart like a city.[1]

May we continue to journey towards peace—peace within ourselves, peace with others, peace around the world.

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The Things That Make For Peace” from A Room Called Remember:

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