Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for September, 2017

Still Seeking and Searching, Still Breathing

Acts 17:22-28

unknownGodBefore we start, a few things to keep in mind: the writer of Acts was the writer of Luke’s Gospel. Simply put, there are many purposes that the author of Luke and Acts could have had while writing. First, it was the 2nd century. Jesus was dead. The Roman Empire saw the followers of Jesus as a threat. Also, it was confusing. How was it that a Jewish Rabbi had attracted so many Gentile followers? Many see both Luke and Act as an apologetic writing—one that tries to make the case that Jesus’ message was for the Jews but was also accepted by the Gentiles. And there are even some who argue that these two NT books were trying to convince Roman authorities that followers of Jesus would not be a threat to their empire.

Wrap your mind around that.

Regardless, what we are looking at is a scene with the apostle Paul, one of the new followers of Jesus of Nazareth, addressing a crowd of people in Greece. Things to note about the people in Greece: apparently, they were “religious,” so says Paul. What does that mean to you? Also, they had objects of worship, altars, with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

The author of Luke [via Paul’s words] then challenged those who listened. The challenge was to shift the Greek’s thinking that God was distant and lived in religious temples to a mindset that God was present and gave life to everything and everyone. The point of this speech, in this context, was to encourage the listeners to become seekers of God, expecting to find God near to them, realizing that God was not far away. And then the author of Luke throws in, for good measure, a quote from a Cretan philosopher called Epimenides: For in God we live and move and have our being. And a quote from Cilician Stoic Aratus: We are God’s children. It’s almost as if Luke and Act’s author is pulling out all the stops.

Rightly so. Fast forward from the 2nd century to this century and what has changed in terms of our view of the divine? The status-quo mindset of religious institutions and people still is that “God is so big, far away, so powerful, that God has no business being present in our day to day lives.” Why would God care about our problems, our suffering, our joys, our challenges? And God is stuck in history. This, in my opinion, is why people are still prejudice against LGBT people, those of other nationalities, cultures, and religions, because God is stuck in the past.

And while I appreciate amazing architecture [including religious structures], and also embrace the mysticism of religions that view God with awe, I argue that many times we project God onto those massive religious structures constructed with gold and other precious elements [often built by slaves]; and, many people who view God with awe as some distant force have a lot of trouble dealing with hardship and setbacks in their own lives, as they continually wait for the distant God to act or as they think that they have committed some sin and therefore are being punished.

So I wonder in this moment, if it is possible for you, can we put aside the grand structures of religion, the awe-inspiring histories, the belief systems that have lasted for centuries, and the idea that the divine is so far away and unknown?

Is it possible for you today, whatever your background, to refer to the divine not as lord but as friend?

What would it mean for you to look at God not as a Lord [with you as subject] but instead the divine friend, who relates to you out of love?

friendhandsAllow me to share the thoughts of Abu’l-Hasan Kharaqani, a Muslim mystic, a person one could call a mentor to the famous poet Rumi. Kharaqani was a Persian Muslim who experienced much hardship in his life before passing away in 1033. But for him, a relationship with God was a mutual seeking of friendship. In other words, God is seeking us just as we are seeking God.

Kharaqani wrote:

One night I saw God Almighty in a dream. I said to God: “It’s been sixty years that I have spent in the hope of being your friend, of desiring you.”

God Almighty answered me: “You’ve been seeking me for sixty years?
I’ve spent an eternity to eternity befriending you.”  

Also, for Kharaqani, being a friend of God meant being a friend to humanity, regardless of race, creed, background, etc.

See, this is where I’m at today. I have no interest in maintaining a religious institution [called church] that proclaims a big, powerful, distant God, and then uses that to control people and harbor material wealth and ignore the marginalized. What rings true for me is the idea that the Divine is seeking us, and we are seeking the Divine. When we search and seek, we find. We find and discover that we are still breathing—even when the world knocks us down and threatens to take our breath away. It is encouraging to me, and I hope to you, that the One who created and keeps creating doesn’t have to be Lord, doesn’t have to be distant, doesn’t have to live in a religious temple, doesn’t even have to live in a religion! Whoever seeks and searches for the divine, whoever loves the stranger and feeds them in whatever context—will find joy in being a friend of God, and wholeness in being a friend to anyone they encounter. May it be so.

 

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Identify Yourself

Matthew 16:13-20

partySo you’re at a party or social engagement of some sort. You don’t know everybody there. Whether introvert or extrovert, at some point in the evening you inevitably encounter someone you don’t know. You make eye contact.

Let the social awkwardness begin!

You: Hello. I’m _________

Person: Nice to meet you, I’m _______

You: Nice to meet you.

[Pause]

Cue more awkwardness. You wait for something distracting to happen. Quick! Someone spill a drink or break a plate. Where’s that random squirrel when you need it? No such luck.

You: So, how do you know _____?

Person: Ah, we used to work together.

And then it comes.

Person: So, how about you? Tell me about yourself.

Tell me about yourself.

And it begins. The conversation moves to “What do you do exactly?” and “Where are you from?” which really, is to ask “Who are you?” You’re coerced, so it seems, into revealing your true identity in a few seconds by stating what you do for your job and where you were born/grew up. If you were given a choice, would this really be how you would identify yourself? I mean, what if you are in between jobs or out of work, what if you’re not sure what you do for a living, and what if you don’t really call any particular place home?

Regardless of how that conversation goes, eventually you will leave the room. You’ll go home and so will everyone else. And the people who have met you [and even some who haven’t] will tell others a story about you. The question, then, shifts to

“Who do other people say I am?”

Inevitably, when we’re not in the room, people talk about us. And they make identity claims about us. Take me for example. Maybe people say, when I’m not there: Josh is a minister. Josh is an actor. Josh is from Iowa and Indiana. Josh is insane. Josh is weird. Josh is…

We do this all the time. We say who other people are. And sometimes, we don’t have any clue who they are. Sometimes we don’t realize how harmful our words can be—when we say who someone is without really knowing them.

In this Gospel story about Jesus of Nazareth, we are looking at identity, but in two ways. First, personal identity—how you see yourself and express yourself. Second, community identity—how others see you and how you express yourself within community.

Jesus, throughout the Gospel narrative, seems to be involved in an identity crisis—at least others make it appear so. Jesus spends a lot of time asking the same question of those who followed and those who he encountered: “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a literal question, i.e. to be answered: well, Jesus, you are the son of Joseph and Mary, you’re from Nazareth, you are a Rabbi, etc. Instead, it was a bigger question for those who sought to follow Jesus on the way of love and compassion and justice. Because the follow-up questions to “Who do you say I am” include:

What and who will you stand up for? What is important to you? When are you loud? When are you silent? Who do you choose to spend your time with? Who do you avoid?

See, those questions get to the heart of it, do they not? This question of who do you say Jesus is exposes you, puts you out there. There’s no hiding behind theology, religion, the church—if you answer this question honestly. You don’t have to be religious to answer it either. In fact, those who called themselves “religious” in the 1st and 2nd Century were the ones who struggled the most to answer it honestly. It’s a big question, to be sure, but it’s also a simple one that exposes us. For if we answer who do you say Jesus is with cookie cutter responses that we’ve memorized or simply regurgitate, we make it clear that we don’t have our own answer to the question. If we scoff at the question and say things like duh, obviously, I mean Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, duh, isn’t it obvious then we show our inability to grasp concepts beyond absolutism and we display our fear of uncertainty and nuance. In either of these cases, we open ourselves up to silence and hypocrisy—two things that Jesus of Nazareth clearly taught against.

The silence of Christians when Black and Brown people are targeted by racists and white supremacists. The inaction of Christians when transgender people are victimized and scapegoated. The non-commitment comments like “there is trouble on both sides” or “I don’t see color, I’m colorblind; why can’t everyone else be?” Or “I have nothing against LGBT people, but can’t they just use another bathroom and stop causing so much division?” or “shame on those NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem; can’t they just be quiet and do their job; they make so much money anyway…” The pardoning of those who oppress and the victimizing of those who are marginalized. And the silence…

Yes, it is true that our silence and inaction as they pertain to social justice are rooted in our identities. Who do we say we are? But also, if you are a Christian [again, identity!] who do you say Jesus is, because if you limit Jesus to a religious icon, figure, personal savior, then this Jesus won’t move you to stand with those who are on the margins. This Jesus won’t light a fire under you, make you uncomfortable, even tick you off and challenge your assumptions. Your Jesus will just be the nice god-figure that makes you feel comfortable and safe when the world around you is not. By no means am I against feeling comfortable and safe when everything around you is uncomfortable and scary, but we all know that those feelings of security are fleeting. Eventually, that kind of safe Jesus fades in reality and can even isolate us from others.

So what if we seek to answer these identity questions honestly? I’ll do my best, though I’ll fail. To me, Jesus of Nazareth was and is a teacher and activist for the embracing of wholeness in all of humanity. Jesus wanted people to be their whole selves—whatever that meant—and then to take those whole selves out into the world to love people, to help them heal, to show compassion to those who were victimized, and well, to help others be their whole selves. And Jesus was the opposite of silent when it came to calling out injustice against the truly marginalized.

Because, friends, as with Jesus, people [and the world] will try to tell you who you are. If they hear you express your true identity, they may not like it. And so, they may try to pray it away, to fix you, so your identity fits into their categories and makes them less uncomfortable. Others will flat out reject your true self because you scare them—you expose their prejudice, you challenge so-called norms of society. So they may call you names.

Shame on them!

For however you identity yourself, that is your beauty, your uniqueness, your wholeness. They don’t know you. And they are afraid. And in God, in this Jesus, there is no fear of being yourself. There is encouragement to be yourself fully, to be known as a child of God, as you are.

And collectively, community-wise, we don’t have to agree on theology or the Bible or other religious stuff. But we do have to come clean about how we identify Jesus. It’s a lot easier to be neutral about controversial issues and to hide behind hymns and prayers when things are divisive and chaotic. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus taught and lived for those who followed, that this crap called evil and injustice and hate is real? That we are made to join together to work for justice and peace? So wherever you are today, embrace yourself as you are. Don’t let any false narratives that others tell you about your identity stick. You are unique and beautiful. And also, may that identity wholeness move you to embrace others as they are, and to stand up against anyone or anything that calls people names or strips away identity. May it be so.

 

Keep Your Love, Find Your Healing

Matthew 15:21-28

What do you think about miracles? As I mentioned before, when it comes to miracles, I think it is most helpful for us to avoid asking did the miracle really happen? Instead, we ought to ask: what does a miracle story mean? By asking that second question, we will be truer to the story and will also find various perspectives and meanings for ourselves. So let’s do that again now with another miracle story—this time involving a Canaanite mother and her ailing daughter, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gospel of Matthew.

This part of Matthew’s story begins with Jesus in the Jewish territory of Galilee but then shifts to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, but even more than that, Matthew’s author tells us it’s Canaanite country. Why does that matter and who were the Canaanites you ask? The people called Canaanites were at first those who lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Hebrew scriptures [OT] [more specifically Genesis] tell us that Canaan extended from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan River Valley in the east. Today that would be Lebanon, Israel, and some part of Jordan and Syria.

Back in ancient times, roughly 200 BCE, the Canaanites were pretty much an enemy of those who called themselves Israelites. Noah, you know, the guy whose ride was an ark—he had a son named Ham, who then had a son named Canaan, so goes the story. Ham did something bad to his dad Noah and that stayed with him; this was passed on to his son Canaan. Eventually, the name Canaanite, particularly in Joshua’s time, was a broader reference to a variety of nomadic, indigenous people, like for example, the Hivites, Jebusites, or Amorites.

That’s from the book of Judges, one of the books of the Bible that many people say they have read but are totally lying to you because most people only last about 5 minutes before they give up on that one.

TruthorLie
To sum this up, Abraham’s descendants, called the Israelites, believed they had a claim to the land of Canaan and so they needed to defeat the Canaanites, who of course wanted to stay in their lands. So there’s history here that’s important to keep in mind. Still with me?

Once last thing before we get back to the main character in the story, a Canaanite woman. Right before she arrives on the scene, Jesus says this in front of a crowd of people, including his followers: “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

This business of defilement is important to note. Many times the Gospel writers give us some insight into what is clean and unclean—who is considered outside of God’s kin-dom and who belongs. And then Jesus seems to not only cross those lines but to erase them. In this case, what goes into the mouth is symbolic of rules or purity laws. If someone does not follow certain societal or religious rules that person is defiled, i.e. separated from God. Of course, this idea of defilement allows for people to judge others and even to reject them, based on whether or not they follow certain rules. It may be tempting to assume that ancient Jewish purity laws are thing of the past and not relevant, but not so fast. We too have our own purity laws, agreed ways of behavior.

We too exclude people from society and community, claiming that our way is God’s way, that we are right.

This has led to specific examples of exclusion and marginalization, including but not limited to shaming of and violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. Hateful rhetoric and sadly more violence against our beautiful friends and family who are black or brown. What we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia is not a one-time event. We may not use names like Canaanite, but we certainly say things like “illegal immigrant,” “alien,” “those people,” the C word for women, and of course all those subtle ways we separate a person or a group form ourselves, referring to them only by their race or nationality, rather than just their name, or calling them friend or colleague. I could go on, but you get the idea. This idea of defilement and excluding people is still happening in this country, in our cities, towns, and suburbs. This defilement happens when we assume something about a person before actually having an experience with that person. Oh, she’s Canaanite? Send her away.

But Jesus turns this idea around, teaching that these rules [and our following them obsessively] is actually defiling us. Instead, we ought to focus on how we behave towards other people. Do we treat others with compassion and love, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they look like? Or do we reject and expel them so we can feel better about ourselves?

Enter the shouting Canaanite woman. That’s right—she was yelling at Jesus. In the original Greek, the word for her shouting is the same word for the disciples’ shouting when they were stuck in a boat in the stormy Sea of Galilee. Her shouting is exposing her to the crowds; how will they react? She’s also putting pressure on Jesus; how will he react? At first, Jesus ignores her. That’s not a typo. And of course, Jesus’ own followers, just like they did in two other miracles stories [the feeding of 5000+ people and the feeding of the 4000], tell Jesus to send people away. Send the Canaanite woman away., Jesus. Expel her, exclude her.

But the Canaanite woman is relentless. She comes and kneels before Jesus. She is the clear model of what is pure—her love for her daughter and her desire for mercy and healing. No defilement here. One might expect that Jesus’ disciples felt pretty defiled themselves at this point. Then the story takes a bit of an uncomfortable turn. Jesus, up to this point, had ignored this woman hoping for her daughter to be healed. Now, kneeling at his feet, she asks again. And Jesus tells her that he is only sent to the lost of Israel, i.e. NOT her, a Canaanite. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Pause for a moment.

She asks for help once again and Jesus tells her that it wouldn’t be fair for him to give her the blessing [food] of Israel’s children and then compares her to a dog. Are you shifting in your seat now?

But she is smart. Even dogs eat crumbs from their master’s table. She wasn’t fazed, being solely motivated by the love she had for her daughter. This moved Jesus to praise her, a Canaanite woman, the one whom others told him to send away. Let it be done. Let the healing come.

What does this miracle story mean?

For me, I’m hearing loud and clear [especially as I consider our context today], that Jesus exposed the societal prejudice and injustice of our religious and societal rules, in the public square; Jesus didn’t ignore it or try to explain it away. Jesus called out the privilege we hold over each other and then gave up his own privilege, choosing to include rather than to exclude. Jesus chose to focus on the way of compassion and love.

This is the kind of way we should follow; this is the kind of behavior we should exhibit. In a world full of privilege, prejudice, defilement, and exclusion—we can choose to give up our privilege out of compassion and love for another, we can choose to include, we can choose to keep our love in an age of hate. And then healing can come.

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