Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for August, 2017

A Hand Reaches Out in The Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

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Forming Community

Matthew 14:13-21

rainbowgathering1What does the word/concept of “community” mean to you? It can seem a broad term, community, right? If you move into a suburban neighborhood, does that mean you are in a community? If you to the Community Center Shopping Mall does that mean you are in a community? What if we get more specific and say, as intentional community organizers do, that a community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact. This means that just living near each other doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Community must be tangible and cohesive; it should bring people together in ways that allow them to do things they could not have done on their own. And then, there is such a thing as an “intentional community,” one in which there is a shared purpose and set of values, the people in that IC are entwined to some degree both economically and socially; and that being part of that IC means something.

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that many people in the United States want more community in their lives, because they often feel isolated and dissatisfied with everyday life that tends to be focused on work, consumption, and entertainment. If our interpersonal relationships within a community give us joy, meaning, or satisfaction, we can expect less of a focus on material and superficial things that leave us feeling empty.

Congregations, churches, communities of faith, are at their core, supposed to be intentional communities in which people find meaningful relationships, interact socially, share resources, and accomplish things they could have otherwise. Of course, just because someone puts up a steeple with a cross and places a sign that says “church” does not mean that it will be a community. I’ve spent significant time in my career visiting various churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious communities. Not all of them were communities. Some were merely buildings with signs; others were institutions. Forming and nurturing an intentional community takes time, cooperation, and the acceptance of the commitment community requires—active listening and sharing.

The type of community Jesus of Nazareth was intending to form and build was focused on gathering those who were marginalized in society and left out of communities. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus did not create nor establish a religion or even a church. Jesus was building community. And in Matthew’s Gospel there are various stories that illustrate what Jesus meant by community. In this particular story Jesus and his small community of followers came upon large crowds of people who were in need. After some healing and caring for them, Jesus’ followers were ready to leave. After all, there was not enough food for these people to eat. So they suggested to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the villages to get their own food. In other words, go to the market and leave us alone. But Jesus refused. Instead, Jesus told his followers to give the crowds something to eat.

But the followers of Jesus only had food rations—bread and fish that would most likely feed only 13 people. Jesus took those rations and gathered the crowds in a field of green grass, though it was a wilderness, far off, isolated. The fish then seem to disappear. Only the bread is divided among everyone. This is Matthew’s storyteller changing the story a bit from the original version in Mark, to make a point. The bread, offered to the crowds, was the sign of Jesus’ presence and the sign of the new community—one which would continue long after Jesus’ death. Because this feast was egalitarian. It was for all. It was a feast started because of compassion. It was a feast that created community intentionally. And in that community all were filled—people were made whole.

And let’s briefly mention the number 5000. Is it important? I think it is, because if we skip ahead a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel to chapter 15, we find another story about a feast where there is not enough food but suddenly there is. But this time, only 4000 are fed; Mark’s Gospel contains the 4000 story as well. This is the clue. The story about 4000 being fed takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, Gentile country. But the feeding of the 5000 occurs near the Jewish villages of Galilee. So the 4000 feeding story is about non-Jews. The 5000 feeding story is about Jews. And it’s clear by the 5 loaves and the 5000 fed that the number 5 is important. That number happens to be the number of books in the Torah, called the Pentateuch. And the 12 baskets left over signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The feeding stories are inclusive.

One last detail to mention. In the culture and time of the people of this area, being unclean or touching unclean things was bad news. So people tried to avoid eating or touching anything that might render them unclean according to the law, food included. How were the 5000 to know that the food would be clean? They couldn’t really know. They couldn’t guess if Jesus and his followers kept up with the dietary restrictions. They couldn’t really prove that Jesus and co were clean because they had certainly touched and been with lepers and others who were unclean.

But they still ate anyway. And they were made whole.

They decided to eat together.

They decided to form this inclusive, intentional community. They made a choice. So we have this choice before us. Will we intentionally form and build an inclusive community where anyone can eat and be safe and belong and participate? This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on its own. We must make that choice. We must make that commitment. May it be so.

 

Buried Treasure Inside You

Matthew 13:44-46
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sell all that they have and buy that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went and sold all and bought it.

treasureHave you ever searched for hidden treasure? What about buried treasure, pirate treasure? There are treasures around the world that are hidden and waiting to be found, like the treasure of Lima, Peru; the golden owl of France; Lake Guatavita “el Dorado” in Colombia, and many others…

Guatavita-lagoonWhen I was a kid I used to go out into the rural expanse of Iowa and look for treasure in fields and grasslands. Sometimes I found First Nations arrowheads, other times amazing creatures living underground like massive ant colonies, centipedes, chipmunks, and more. At times I found coins or pieces of what seemed like pots or something.

Either way, I always believed that there was more treasure out there, just waiting to be found…

In religious traditions of the ancient worlds the idea of buried treasure within the natural world and within human beings was a common thread. It came to be known as the Divine Spark. The idea of a divine spark is that every human being possesses either a connection with God or a “part” of God. The goal of life, then, is to allow the divine spark to influence us toward love, peace, and harmony. Upon death, the divine spark returns to God. There are current expressions of this in most Western Mystical Traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism and many Eastern spiritual traditions teach it.

lightinyourheartI know it may seem that the major world religions that dominate the landscape these days [especially in the West] seem to teach or display something contrary–saying that the Divine [God] is far too big and powerful to be close or hidden within these lands, streams, trees, and in the people on the earth. It is true that Christianity as a religion moved away from what was called Gnosticism by some in the time of Jesus, the idea of mysticism and Divine-Human connection. As time passed and as people formulated more and more perspectives about Jesus of Nazareth, they moved towards a more distant God that they chose to express as Creator, Son Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Of course, for many Christians, this is a doctrine: the Trinity. But what if we were to embrace the truth that the Trinity and this idea of God being far away was not a 1st and 2nd century Jesus-taught idea? What if we were to hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, in the Jewish tradition, written so long before Jesus:

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (45:3).

And one of the many times that Jesus was believed to have said this in the Gospels, like this instance in Luke 17:21: The kingdom of God is within you.

The idea that each of us contains within ourselves a portion of God, a Divine Spark, is old but also new. It is the idea that each time we quiet ourselves and sit in the grass and look deeper into it, what will we see?

Hidden treasure.

Life we didn’t notice before. When we are patient and look out on the water and pay attention, we see it. The spark is there. When we look deeply within ourselves and realize that we are indeed connected to something more, something deeper, something that is love and compassion and wholeness. It is there. You may not see it today because it may be buried within you for lots of reasons. You may have been told a false story that your life is not life or that your existence is not important. You may have been lied to and told that you are dirty or sinful or unworthy. You may have been hurt, rejected, or isolated because of the way you look, who you love, or how you express yourself. But none of these change this fact—that you have within you a Divine Spark. God has not left you and never will. That treasure, within all of us, is worth looking for, worth focusing on, worth finding and embracing.

 

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