Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for September, 2016

For…Give.

Luke 16:1-13

forgive
In life, we sometimes encounter confusing and difficult situations. Maybe you are in one of those situations right now. Regardless of the advice that people give you, or conventional wisdom, nothing seems to fit or work. You feel stuck. You are not sure how to move forward. There are no easy answers.

This kind of life narrative needs to be told. We need to share with others [and ourselves] that it’s okay to feel stuck sometimes and that there are situations without answers or solutions. For me, it has been a comfort throughout my life to hear these stories—to discover that many, many others struggle with some of the same things I do, and that I don’t always have to resolve things. This gives me peace.

So maybe that’s why I appreciate the so-called “hard parables” of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. These parables are the stories that Bible commentators, preachers, and teachers struggle to decipher. These are the parables that they avoid. They don’t have easy answers and they leave you hanging.

The parable of the unjust steward is one of those difficult stories. What does it mean? I don’t know, you tell me! But maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s left open, and it also seems to contradict some of the things we assume about the Bible, God, and Jesus. So let’s explore a bit and see what happens.

First off, one thing we do know is that this story can be connected to the story of the prodigal son. In both stories, a character squanders the wealth he has been given. Also, the audience would have been Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees. The story is pretty straightforward, as a guy wriggles himself out of trouble by doing something pretty dishonest, but at the same time is shrewd enough to put his boss in a tough situation where he cannot fire him. So basically, the boss chooses to save face and thus “saves” the dishonest, shrewd guy. Yes, this is a parable about money. Duh. It’s Luke. Luke’s Gospel is all about money and maybe that’s why many Western Christians avoid it. Oh snap, did I say that?

oh-snap-this-is-getting-good-meme-35315
Anyhoo, Many Western Christians know what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.” But do they know that this prayer is about money? Yep. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer is about forgiving debts—monetary debts. It’s literally saying that we should forgive the money that people owe us, therefore “releasing” them from the debt.

Okay, wow.

In terms of life application, I need to quote Sarah Dylan Breuer,[1] who has a wonderful blog that interprets various “difficult” Gospel texts. Ms. Breuer asserts that most commentators ask the standard questions like “Who is the steward?” and “Who is the master” but she asks a more pointed question: What does the steward actually do, without permission and dishonestly? 

The answer: the steward forgives debts. This is about forgiveness. So what’s the point of this supposedly confusing story?

Just forgive.

Forgive everything, forgive it today, forgive for any reason whatsoever and for no reason at all. Forgive. This applies to you and me, first of all. Forgive yourself. Just forgive yourself. For the things you regret, for the moments when you feel you failed, just forgive yourself. And then forgive others. That doesn’t mean forget any form of abuse or violence of oppression—but forgive means release the debt that exists between you and that person, because it is bringing YOU down. And it means forgive in the community, the nations, the world. Communities and nations should not be in debt to others. This is part of why the world is so screwed up. Forgive.

There is no bad reason to forgive, says the story, because keeping score is meant for sports and not for life. What does keeping score do for us anyway?

So what do you think?

Teaser for next week: Story of Lazarus and the rich man. What is it that causes some people to have someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them?

SHOUT OUT TO CHARLOTTE AND TULSA AND ALL WHO MOURN.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html

Losing and Finding Sheep: Empathy

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

How Are We Clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

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