Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for February, 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

Are you a perfectionist?

perfectionist
A dictionary definition: a perfectionist is a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait of a person who strives for flawlessness and sets excessively high performance standards, often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and deep concerns about how others evaluate. To a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable.

Are you a perfectionist? Do any of these phrases ring true for you?

There is no room for mistakes. You quickly race to correct them.
There is a very specific manner in which things should be done.
If something feels out of place it’s not acceptable.
It’s all or nothing—either you do something well, or not at all.
It is about the end result.
You are really hard on yourself when something goes wrong.
Not achieving a goal makes you feel heavy.
You often ask: What if? After the fact.
Your standards are extremely high and you fear not being able to reach them.
Success is fine, but there is always another level to achieve.
You only start things when you feel ready.
You can spot mistakes a mile away when others are like: Huh?

You are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, and even well-being sometimes to achieve something in the way you deem right.

Do you relate to any of this? Personally, I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist in general, but I do relate to a few of these characteristics. So though I may not be a perfectionist in all areas of my life, in certain ways I am. I bring this up, because in Matthew’s Gospel we get a story about Jesus of Nazareth talking about perfectionism, or so it seems. On the surface, it actually seems even worse than the psychological perspective I just shared. Jesus seems to be saying that we as human beings must be as perfect as God.

As perfect as God? Hold the phone, Jeebus!

kermitjesus
No way that Jesus is encouraging us to be divinely perfect, right, because that would be, well, impossible and also depressing. Talk about a self-image downer….

But let’s take a look at the word perfect in English, a translation of the Greek word telos. Telos has nothing to do with being morally perfect [or free from mistakes]. Telos is about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity that is…like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit. Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in personal growth. This concept, restated by Jesus in Matthew, is referring to the perfection/growth of nature. The growth of trees and plants is perfectly balanced. And as we know from prior Jesus comments in Matthew, we as human beings are compared to things like salt, light, earth, clay, and animals. Being perfect, in this context, is about growth in our love, compassion, and wholeness. Like a tree, we are made to grow buds that eventually bear fruit. That is Divine perfection.

treefruitHow can we love perfectly? How can we live love in a time such as this?

Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient and when it’s difficult.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways according to where they are in life.
Love with no borders, walls, limits, rules, or formulas.
Love and leave resentment behind.
Love those outside your social circles.

Love consistently, no matter what is happening in the world.

Let’s go back to the discussion about perfectionism. Having perfectionist traits is actually not all bad, you know. There is such a thing as a positive perfectionist, someone who is achievement oriented and not failure oriented. Positive perfectionism, which I argue Jesus practiced, is the lifestyle of noticing that there are things wrong in the world [injustices, suffering] and that helping to make things better gives life meaning. Positive perfectionists focus on how to make a lasting impact and they rarely give up because when they encounter obstacles, they shift to problem solving and see an opportunity. Failure is not the end of the world, because failure or mistakes lead to assessment and renewed brainstorming. Planning happens and there is a renewed commitment to pursuing that positive impact.

Friends, in a time such as this, when people are distracted by hate, and confusion, and manipulation; at a time when it may feel difficult to focus on loving and working for compassion; at a time in which it can feel overwhelmingly dismal and increasingly negative—we need to focus on cultivating the part of ourselves that is beloved, worthy, and good enough to make positive change happen. This is not a time to be overly critical of ourselves or of others. This is a time to be patient and compassionate both with ourselves and others. This is a time to reach out and build bridges, a time to surround ourselves with those who are trying to make a positive difference in the world and who recognize the importance of community.

Whatever level of perfectionist you are, bear in mind that you are enough; you are capable of living love in your relationships. You are capable of making a positive impact in the world. And the more we join together—all of us trees with compassionate roots and growing branches—the more fruit we will bear.

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Building & Nurturing Reconciling Community

Matthew 5:21-24; 33-37 

So many labels.

labels
We are named this, that, the other thing.

We are told what we are capable of or not capable of. And we bring all of these experiences into our relationships. We bring all of this into community.

These labels, these stereotypes—they hinder us from fully expressing ourselves and sometimes they even keep us from connecting to others. I would argue that the divisiveness we experience in the world occurs because we too readily accept the labels given to us, and too readily apply labels to other people. The divisiveness begins in each one of us, as we seek to balance how we see ourselves with how others may see us. It is not easy, for sure, but essential work we all must do. Because if we don’t know, love, and accept ourselves as we are, and if we too often accept the labels given to us, we will find it difficult to have meaningful and positive relationships. It will be more difficult to be part of a community.

This individual work I will call self-reconciling—the work of getting to know yourself apart from societal, religious, and even family labels. Discovering how to love and accept yourself as you are, raw and unfiltered. That self-reconciling, in my experience, leads to reconciliation with others, in community.

Jesus of Nazareth spoke a lot about this type of reconciliation, within ourselves, and as part of a community. His quite famous “sermon on the mount” includes such identity metaphors as salt and light, and of course, the beatitudes–the affirmation of the marginalized as part of God’s reconciling work. We are looking at the latter part of this speech in Matthew’s Gospel, and this time Jesus shifts to a conversation about the Law.

What is the law? Plainly speaking, it was and is the Mosaic Law, the precepts and rules from the Torah; in other words, the first five books of the Old Testament. For Jewish folk in Jesus’ time, the Law was of utmost importance. It defined the behaviors of individuals, and also how people related to each other in community. Jesus, in the Gospels, interprets these Laws as Rabbis were prone to do. In his interpretation, however, was an underlying theme new to many:  laws were only good insofar as they valued and protected people.

In other words, it was not about who followed the laws more religiously. It was about how people’s lives were affirmed and embraced—that people had a right to be part of a safe community in which they could be themselves.

Please keep in mind that for Jesus, the Scriptures were not ending points that were God-words and therefore a done deal. Instead, the Scriptures were more like beginning points from which to re-form them. Jesus moved away from the authority of the written words in order to truly honor the spirit of the teachings themselves.

Each time he says “but I say to you” Jesus is placing a comma where others had placed a period.

The Scriptures were not dead and set in stone. God was still speaking through them—to people in the current age, and thus they should be interpreted in that age.

Thus, Jesus runs down a list of various laws and rules that his audience would have seen as hot button issues: marriage and divorce, murder, repayment of debts, adultery, and oaths [making vows/promises]. But in each case, Jesus focuses less on the letter of the law and more on what the spirit of the law was about—affirmation and reconciliation in community. A quick breakdown of the issues at hand:

Murder. It is not enough to just say that we shouldn’t kill each other. The point is in the valuing of another. People’s lives matter. Rather than prohibiting violence against another, this law is actually about wanting the best for others, actively seeking their well-being, affirming who they are, and even taking risks to do so. No one should go to a church or worship or do anything so-called religious before reconciling with others and loving them as they are. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually committed to this? Then it wouldn’t be about how many times you attend worship or educational classes or how many committees you serve on or any of that stuff. It would be about reconciliation with others and seeking the best for our neighbors.

Marriage and divorce. So easy to get caught up in morals here, but that’s not Jesus’ take. Instead, this law is about certain individuals being mistreated, in this case, women. Females were considered property in Jesus’ time. The rules for marriage and divorce were completely one-sided in favor of males. But the spirit of the law is about the valuing of persons and thus prohibits us from objectifying them or treating them as lesser. In blessed community, we value each other fully and consider ourselves to be of equal value and therefore deserving of protection and affirmation. In 2017 the spirit of this law is absolutely relevant. Still there are far too many people [who say they are Christians] who are fighting against and in some cases blocking the affirmation of two men or two women who wish to marry; and others who refuse to recognize the beauty and full humanity of transgender people. And females still experience objectification and are considered property. This is not what beloved community stands for.

Part of the reason why “religious” folk keep hanging onto laws that denigrate and divide people, says Jesus, is due to our spending way too much time arguing about oaths.

The formal swearing of oaths in court is something familiar to all of us. But have you ever thought about how much people swear oaths in churches? You want to join a particular faith community [or even attend a Christian school] and you must swear an oath. You must swear that you believe a particular list of things, a doctrinal statement, etc. For Jesus, oath-swearing was for people who didn’t trust each other. You say pious and hollow words. It has nothing to do with how you treat people.

And yet, in beloved community, oaths are unnecessary, because people speak the truth to each other, trust each other, and love each other honestly. I encourage you [and myself] to focus less on the labels we are given and the labels we give; I challenge you to focus less on rules and more on community.

How will we as a community value and affirm others?
How will we tackle the culture in our communities that devalues some because of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social status?

How will we continue to build beloved community?

 

Saltiness Leads to Light

Matthew 5:13-16curry.jpg

I’m not a big fan of bland food. If you are, no problem—no judgements. Everyone has different tastes and certainly, what you grew up eating affects your taste buds. But for me, I like strong flavors in food. I gravitate towards spicy and tangy curries and sauces, a wide variety of chili peppers, and accent flavors in herbs like cilantro.

And I cannot imagine what certain bland foods would be like without…salt.

dead-sea-salt-crystals-12Dead Sea Salt Crystal Formations

Everybody uses salt to some extent in their food. Of course, salt isn’t just to add flavor, because it also can be a preservative. Ancient cultures around the world used salt for a variety of reasons—even religious ceremonies and currency. For the sake of our conversation, though, we are not talking about your everyday table salt. We are talking about sea salt.

Sea salt comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. There are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, as the story in Matthew’s Gospel assumes, salt can lose its flavor. Salt from places like the Dead Sea or any other body of water obviously can mix with sand and other things, thus making it not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mix loses its saltiness. In Jesus’ day, merchants in the region of Galilee would deal with this on a regular basis, as they would encounter salt mixtures that were not usable because they were flavorless. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt.

That’s the context for the humans being as salt metaphor.

Being salty is about having flavor, but also about being useful. What comes to my mind in this moment is that saltiness involves diversity. As a human race, we are full of flavors, full of beautiful colors, cultures, and ideas. What makes us salty isn’t that we are all the same or homogeneous. Our diversity makes us salty; our diversity makes us useful as well, because the more we encounter and cooperate with others who are different, we gain new perspectives about the world [and ourselves], we break down barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, and we better our world. Like I said, I’m all about the flavor, baby.

And then there’s light.

lightpersion
Pretty common religious reference across the board, right? But in this case, the light reference needs some explanation. Think 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine, as we know this area today. People of that time typically had just one room in their houses. When someone entered a home, they would immediately notice an oil lamp on top of a stand. When it was time to put the lamp out, the residents of the home would place a bushel basket over the lamp. Practically, that would keep the smoke and fumes in the basket and not blowing in your face. This context is important if we are to gain insight into this Jesus saying.

an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1

You see, Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew’s author, says that we should be like the lamp on that stand, except for one caveat—we shouldn’t put the basket on top of our light to snuff it out.

Jesus raises the stakes and says that humans should not just be a lamp, but a city, and not just on a stand, but on a hill.

We are supposed to be even brighter lights that illuminate the darkness, up on a hill where others can see.

I don’t know about you, but I want to SEE that. Who is tired of all the hateful speech, manipulation, fear tactics, and hypocrisy? I honestly do not care if you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Atheist, Wiccan, Republican, Democrat, Independent, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, bland food or spicy food lover.

Why not accept our saltiness? We are all unique, and this is SO GOOD.

Why not be light? Why not be light in this world, because the world needs us to be light, yes?

I’ll do my best. Won’t you shine your light and add yours to mine?

Being

Matthew 5:1-12

hatenohomeWhat do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

Pertinent and difficult questions.

You see, I can only imagine what it was like for the more than half a million people who participated in the women’s march on Washington D.C. last Saturday, January, 21st, 2017. I can only imagine what it was like to have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and 200,000 others on August 28, 1963, for the rally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I can only imagine what it was like for people to give up their careers, religious practice, and in some cases, their families—to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I am not being overly dramatic. Sometimes we forget the privileges we have. I have never experienced war. No one has come to my house, telling me that I am now relocated and must leave at that very moment. I have never been told that my gender identification or expression is not acceptable at the workplace or that it is not “right” or not “of god.” And I have never been denied the right to marry a person I love, just because I’m gay. I have not been told that because I’m from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or Mexico that I’m not welcome here, and that I may be a terrorist or a criminal or a “job stealer.” I have never been told what I can or cannot do with my body, as women are.

What do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

This is what I am asking right now, today, in this very moment.

I’m not alone and nor are you. Others are asking these questions. So much of what we see, read, and hear is negative, heavy, and divisive. Some of it is even fake. How much is positive, uplifting, and bridge-building? As I reflected on the amazingly under-quoted beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew’s Gospel, I wondered:

What do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

You see, author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:

“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

It’s true, you know. Where are these “attitudes” of “being” in our lives?

Let’s remove the spiritual veil from them. In Matthew’s story, Jesus goes up a mountain, just like Moses would when he spoke with Yahweh. So what is to follow is big. But it wasn’t really a mountain probably, but a plain–a raised hill, and there were not 200,000 or half a million people as at famous D.C. marches. Those gathered were Jesus’ closest disciples and they needed to hear Jesus’ urgent plea for how they would be in the world.

What were they to do now?
How could they be kind, loving, and authentic people in that moment?

You see, remember that this story in Matthew was written after the fact. Those who wrote this already knew what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. He was arrested, tortured, and killed. They wrote that with this in mind.

What were they to do now?
How could they be kind, loving, and authentic people in that moment?

What follows is beauty, at least I think so. Jesus says that there are certain people who are “blessed” or better yet, “risk-takers and well-traveled, and favored by Yahweh.” But notice that they are not the rich, or the religious, or successful, or the strong, or the full, or the powerful, or the loud voices or the war-seekers and makers. In the beatitudes according to Jesus, you don’t have to be famous, rich, or powerful to be blessed. In fact, no. You don’t have to be born in a prosperous country to be blessed. You don’t have to be considered “normal” or even “American” to be blessed. In God’s eyes, those who are blessed and favored are those who are on the margins.

And those who love those on the margins are following Jesus.

I know it is a critical time. I realize that for many this is a scary and uncertain time. But we cannot give into fear or apathy. Today we must ask:

What do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

This matters to your family, your school, your church, your community, the world.

Those of us who identify as followers of this Jesus, we are called to BE people who love our neighbors even when our government says they are not welcome; we are called to be with the vulnerable and to welcome the stranger, regardless of which country they come from, what religion they practice, or what is the popular sentiment at the time. As my colleague and mentor, the founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel recently wrote:

“It’s the time for us. It’s the moment for us. How we respond to it is how this story turns out.”

 What will we do now? How will be kind, loving, and authentic people in this moment?

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