Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for February, 2018

The Virtue and Practice of Rest

Mark 1:9-15

It’s not popular to take a break. Is it? Really, it’s not. I mean, you’re tired, burned out, mentally exhausted at work, and so you think—I should—take a break, right? And so, when you do, to recharge, to find your strength again, are you met with approving looks and applause?

Most likely, NO. Most likely, people stare at you across cubicles with dagger-like eyes that penetrate your very soul.

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Most likely, you hear whispers around the water cooler that you’re lazy or that you not a hard worker. Eventually, you may even get a little paranoid if you even take a second of time to drink a glass of water or use the restroom. Will they call you lazy? Will they think you don’t care? Will you be punished for wanting to rest?

We live and breathe within a system we call “society” that doesn’t exactly encourage us to rest, isn’t it so? You don’t have to work in a cubicle to know that. Students are well aware. If the amount of homework were not enough, students who wish to attend prestigious universities are pushed to the limit in AP classes and are also told to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, not for enjoyment, mind you, but so that their college applications rise to the top. So, they don’t act in a play or dance or sing or play an instrument or a sport just because it’s fun and amazing. They do it to get into a college. They do it for someone else.

I’ll admit also that religions are not so good at encouraging rest either. How often do priests or pastors or rabbis or imams or any type of religious clergy actually explicitly encourage the members of their communities to take a break, to rest? Even from religion? Yeah, take a few Sundays or Saturdays or Fridays off. Spend time with your family, go out with your friends; or be enjoy time by yourself. Take a break, rest. Look, as clergy, we should be saying this. We should be modeling this by taking a break ourselves, by unplugging, by decompressing, by…resting. But often we don’t.

And why is that, do you think?

Because many of us mistake taking a break or rest for laziness. Because too many still equate more hours of work with productivity. And we’ve become empty in this way. We’ve lost the art of rest.

I don’t have all the answers. I will say that in my experience this phenomenon is related to our need for control and for being able to solve problems—even the problems of the world. All of us, in our own way, have a savior complex, It’s human, really, we want to help. We don’t like to see people suffer. It’s not bad at all to think or feel that. It only becomes a problem if we start to believe that without our help or insight or words or actions, whenever there is a problem, the world will just blow up. If we don’t do something about all the issues we’re concerned about, well—what’s the point? We’re tugged and pulled in a million different directions. We can’t rest. No way! There’s too much to care about, too much to be angry or sad or vigilant about! We. Cannot. Rest.

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Now before you think that this is advocacy for complacency or indifference, bear with me. I, like many of you, care about numerous issues going on around the world, I, like many of you, am saddened, angered, and overwhelmed. We should care. We should feel. But we can’t be saviors. We need to rest. And we need to rest so that we can actually help.

Now I don’t know how religious of a person you are or aren’t. It doesn’t really matter. I was raised in a Christian household and so I learned about Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel stories and also the Jewish stories about Moses and Joshua and Noah. And at some point in my life I realized that all my stressing about what was happening or not happening in the world came back to me. For every time I worried about some issue and couldn’t sleep, it was because I felt helpless. Like I couldn’t anything or solve anything. The problem was there and I could do nothing. It’s awful to feel helpless, don’t you think? And I had no answers and no remedy for sleeplessness. Until I rested. Until I rested. I took a break from my worry and from my desire to help or save or to solve and I just stopped.

And that was baptism for me. I saw the heavens tear apart and I heard kind and wise voices, saying that all of us are beloved and that the Divine is pleased with us. And after experiencing that, sooner rather than later I was back in the wilderness, back in the fray, where students are shot at school [again] and politicians and lobbyists don’t care and do nothing; where women are still treated like toys; where transgender people are shamed and attacked; where black people are devalued and criminalized; where money talks and truth walks. Back in the fray after a rest.

But something is different. Back in the fray, but one with the nature of who we are, like the animals who don’t tweet or post or gossip but merely live. Back in the wilderness where angels of rest dance on my shoulders.

See, rest…it’s not laziness or indifference. It’s wisdom. It’s strength. It’s restoration.

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I know a lot of you are upset, sad, scared, angry with the way things are going right now. I am too. But please, for your sake and the sake of all the people and things you care about—don’t neglect rest. Take a break, a step back. Gain perspective. Gather yourself. Find new strength. The problems and issues will be there when you are done resting, believe it. But you will be back in the fray with new energy.

 

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Trans-Figure

Mark 9:2-10

Many Christians observe what is called Transfiguration Sunday, just before Ash Wednesday. Transfiguration is not a word we say a lot. It comes from the Greek word for metemorphothe, what we pronounce “metamorphosis.” Ongoing change. Of course, maybe you’ve heard or used the word transfiguration as it pertains to the spells of the Harry Potter series. After all, Transfiguration is the family of magical spells that are used for changing objects from one type of thing into another…

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[So says Hermione anyway]. At Hogwarts School, Transfiguration is taught by Professor Minerva McGonagall who also transfigures herself into Violet Crawley on Downton Abbey.

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So transfiguration has make its way into popular culture. But let’s rewind a bit [a few thousand years] to a couple of old stories that present us with the theme of transfiguration. The Transfiguration story of the NT Gospels is a parallel story to the Jewish story of Moses starting in Exodus 24. In both stories, there is a pivotal moment, set on a mountain. In both stories human nature meets up with the Divine. And in both stories, the main characters [Moses and Jesus] are changed by that experience. And the others who know them are confused, scared, and even skeptical about the change they now see.

The mistake that many make with these two stories is to assume that both Moses and Jesus were godly prophets/leaders chosen by God, and so transfiguration is limited to such rare people who come about once in a lifetime. It’s been said far too often that transfiguration changed both Moses and Jesus into God, and therefore, obviously such an experience is not accessible to everyday people like you and me. But let’s beg to differ. Let’s try our best to not reach like the skeptical, scared, close-minded disciples of Jesus and the followers of Moses. What if transfiguration is not some pie-in-the-sky concept, but a tangible experience for every person? What if you can be transfigured too?

What if you are right now?

See, the concept of the Transfiguration was a preview and an anticipation of the Resurrection. In Moses’ case, he was transfigured and then was able to act as connector between the Israelites and Yahweh. Their covenant was resurrected, and they began their journey together towards Jerusalem. In Jesus’ case, the transfiguration woke up the disciples to a new reality—that God was not stuck on some mountain or in the heavens. And that people who felt like they were dead could actually rise again to life.

Let’s pause and take one more look at the first part of the word:

Transfigure.

What does it mean?

Transfigure : A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.

Go figure. Or, well—TRANS-figure!

Where are you seeing changes of form and appearance into more beautiful and spiritual states?

As for me, in conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues who identify as LGBT, some of them say that their “coming out” to family and friends was akin to a transfiguration experience.  Disclosure of one’s own sexual orientation and/or true gender identity to loved ones is a big revelation.  Of course, it can be really difficult too, depending on their family member’s and friends’ reaction. But coming out doesn’t change the actual individual, as my friends say, but rather how others perceive and relate to them. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see threads of “coming out” in Jesus’ transfiguration story. I mean, he was surrounded by his close friends/followers, and when Jesus did transfigure those close friends struggled with the change. There was confusion and mistrust.  They had lots of questions. But in the end, when they were able to accept and embrace Jesus’ transfiguration, they changed too.

Others of you can transfigure/are transfiguring. You are waking up in your own way to the possibilities of changing your own form into a more beautiful and spiritual state. You are seeking justice for those without it; you are spending hours and energy working for the health and safety of others without expecting anything in return; you are embracing yourself as you are and learning to live with your mistakes; you are discovering that God is so much bigger than any religion, church, or book; you are befriending people who are different than you and finding shared values; you are transfiguring.

Friends, what if we are on this planet to be agents of transfiguration?

I wish for you moments and an ongoing lifestyle of transfiguring. May we transfigure situations of injustice in justice, love into hate, indifference into compassion. May we accept and embrace anyone who is transfiguring.

Restored to Wholeness: Full Self

Mark 1:29-34a

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

I’m inspired periodically by those of you with the courage to be yourselves.

I mean it—most people are not themselves. In fact, we spend most of our lives trying to fit into other people’s categories or playing characters we think others have written for us to play.

Image result for be yourselfThere are lots of reasons for this—psychological, emotional, physical, and cognitive. As humans, we are constantly creating and re-creating reality as we see it and feel it and how we think about it as individuals. We are not stuck with one framework of our human existence; on the contrary, we are moving through stages and developing new frameworks. Though we often assume such things are true about human existence when we are children and youth, this re-framing of our identity and the world can and does continue throughout adulthood.

So allow me to return to what I said at the very start: I’m encouraged, inspired by people with the courage to be themselves.

The reason I say that is because there seems to be so much around us that discourages this framing and re-framing of self, and of this expressing of a self that is truer to who we are. There seem to be more boxes these days for people to try to fit into. All this does is make us feel inadequate, anxious, or sad. At our core I do think we wish to be free—free to change/adapt/evolve in our own way—to express ourselves as we are.

Perhaps part of the problem with the society that we have created is that, overall, it is a society based on specializations and not the whole self. If you are a teacher, for example, you are specialized/categorized according to the subject you teach or age group/academic level/demographic you deal with. As a “teacher” you are not a teacher of the whole; in other words, you are not expected to consider the spiritual, mental, physical, emotional, and social state of each student. You are charged with teaching a subject or a theme and hopefully you will see certain outcomes in the student’s learning. The same goes for many doctors, care practitioners, clergy, and therapists, who increasingly specialize. I am not making a judgment either way, just observing. We rarely focus on the whole person. The whole self.

There is fragmentation.

Image result for fragmentation of selfAnd I think that this fragmentation in society contributes to a fragmentation of self. In other words, if most structures and social groups around you are very specialized and categorized, you had better be specialized and categorized also, if you hope to fit in. For example, most religious communities are homogeneous—people in those communities tend to vote for the same political candidates, look similar, speak the same language, etc.

I’ll continue to speak out against this, because I think this is where churches and other religious institutions have failed. We’re not meant to create fragmented and homogeneous communities, we’re meant to embrace the differences and uniqueness of each other, wherever we are on life’s journey. That’s what makes this community special and courageous to me.

Case in point—in the faith community I work with some of them do not identify with one particular gender. Some are in transition. Others identify with various parts of the sexuality spectrum. Some people identify as Black, or as African-American, and some don’t. Among our partners and members some identify as Mexican, or Latin American or Latino or Latinx, some don’t. Some identify as Korean or Filipino or Asian-American. Some don’t. Some identify with a particular religious tradition and say I’m Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish, or Jain, Sikh, Christian, Baha’i, or Hare Krishna. Or I’m agnostic, secular humanist, Wiccan or otherwise.

Actually, if we step back and think about it, why is this even an issue?

So what? There are some of us who don’t identify with the gender given at birth. Okay. So what? There are some of us who are attracted to males, or to females, or to both. Okay. So what? Some of us don’t’ really identify as any specific gender. All right. So what? Some of us don’t identify ourselves by skin color or nationality or religion, and some do. Okay. The only reason this IS an issue, friends, is because we’ve stopped thinking about our whole humanity and we’ve specialized and made categories that we must fit into. Without those “required” categories, we wouldn’t care how someone identified themselves or didn’t.

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And that leads me to another Gospel story where we find Jesus of Nazareth encountering someone in need of healing, in need of restoration to her true self. She was categorized, too. She is Simon’s Mother-in-law and that’s all we get. She’s a woman, and so, her name isn’t given in the story. She has a fever and is laid up in bed. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to serve. Well, by “serve” the text means show hospitality to Jesus and those who accompanied him. It was a cultural rule to serve food and drink to those who had traveled distances to your home. At first glance, this story may seem easy pickings for those who want to preach about women being silent in churches and homemakers above all else. But a closer look at the Greek [and our own bias] may help. First, she is “healed” but the word in Greek translates to “made whole.” The woman is made whole again. She is restored to her true self. When she is made whole, she engages in showing hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Again, this is not some statement about gender and more a cultural expression of what one does when one is grateful or visited by strangers.

See, our bias wants the woman to fit neatly into a gender or cultural role. But really, none of the people Jesus heals in the Gospel stories fit neatly into our categories. So I ask, what if this woman, and all the others who were made whole, were just humans, like any of us? What if this fever-ridden woman was just a human who, when Jesus met her, was taken by the hand, lifted up, and made whole? And what if we sought to do the same with others right now? Friends, there is so much courage, beauty, and encouragement in the lives of people who are seeking to be themselves, even when it’s difficult or not accepted, or the norm. For when we accept someone on their own journey, we also start to see the possibilities we have for evolving, for changing, for being our whole selves.

So whether you’re in the process of transition, or you’re laid up in bed, or if you need a hand to lift you up, or if you’re feeling empty and heavy because you just don’t feel like yourself—know this—you are not made to fit into a box or a category. You are you. And that “you” will keep framing and re-framing and that’s a good thing. And those along your journey of self-discovery who laugh, cry, and celebrate with you not only help and love you, but they are positively impacted by your courage to keep journeying forward.

Love Builds Up

Mark 1:21-39

Let’s talk demons, afflictions, identity and love.

Cool with you?

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Okay, first, a story about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s making his way to Capernaum–perhaps the most important and well-connected community in the region of Galilee. There was a temple there, and Jesus was about to darken its door. Mark’s Gospel is the speed Gospel, going right to the point. Jesus has already been baptized by John, has experienced temptation in the wilderness, and then he formed new community by calling fishermen. Now, after all that in just a few verses, Jesus moves on to engage the religious authorities of the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. On the Sabbath, Jesus started to teach within the temple walls. The “they” in this case probably refers to the people in general—those who were present to receive a teaching. But they didn’t expect this action-oriented teaching they were about to get.

For something strange then happened. Something out of the Exorcist maybe? A man, in the synagogue, cried out. He was unclean, with a spirit inside him. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

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For sure, the people had to be a little freaked out.

But oh, it wasn’t over. Be silent, and come out of him! Jesus spoke with authority. And then, the unclean spirit left the man after much convulsing and crying out. Okay, yes, Mark tells us, the people were freaked out and amazed by this. What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. People all of a sudden didn’t care that Jesus was from Nazareth or some so-called sh&thole country.

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Just then, the people didn’t care about Jesus’ place of origin. Go figure. They liked what they heard and saw. They saw him doing something good and forgot about their prejudice. Hmmm…..

Let’s get this out of the way. Demon possession? It’s something reserved for horror movies or superstition, right? It’s the scary story my conservative youth group leader use to tell us as teenagers about some kid she claimed was possessed by the devil and then cured by the prayers said by church leaders. Yes, that really happened. It was a religious anecdote meant to scare us into the fear of God and steer us away from the many, many things that tempt teenagers and well—everyone. Is that what we’re talking about here?

No, this is not a story about fear or scaring people into certain moral choices.

This is about healing.

Pure and simple. Healing. You see, in Jesus’ time and in ours, there were and are many people afflicted by disease, illness, mental anguish, depression, and loneliness. There are many suffering from addictions, OCD, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, chemical imbalance, genetic tendency, etc., etc. What Jesus healed [and the disciples, too] was affliction—and not something out of a Hollywood movie. People were possessed by unclean spirits that did not allow them to live their lives. Sometimes those unclean spirits were physical ailments; sometimes mental afflictions; sometimes, lifestyle habits; other times, vicious family cycles; sometimes injustice, oppression, or discrimination. But the demons were real. And today, they are still real.

Because people [and governments] still deny a person’s full humanity. They tell them that they are lesser, unworthy, or unnatural. There are lots of reasons why, they say—based on a person’s gender identity or expression; who they love; the color of their skin; what language they speak; what religion they practice; where they grew up or how much money they have. This denial of a person’s true self causes terrible anxiety and depression in people whose beauty deserves to be seen and recognized.

Those who demonize others don’t bless, they curse. They ban people from hospitality and refuge. They use religions and politics to hide behind their prejudice and hate. They tear down instead of building up. There are even those in today’s society who quote Bible passages and even mention Jesus in their hateful rhetoric against certain people and then are conveniently silent when people are unjustly treated.

But Jesus and those who followed him told a different story. Healing was accessible to all—even if they were poor, marginalized, unclean, or forgotten. Jesus recognized that poverty, sickness, injustice, and the denial of someone’s humanity were systemic problems. Even he could not solve this in a blink of an eye or a healing touch. But he could heal one person in her own context, listening to her story, and offering whatever kind of healing touch she needed. It’s like Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth, you can gain all the knowledge you want, and that’s great, but it is love that builds something. Love builds something.

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Why do we need to create accepting, affirming, raw-messy-beautiful communities? Because it’s needed. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. And sadly, far too many religions and governments deny some people’s full humanity. So community is needed—a community that loves and heals together. See, we can claim to know this or that about Jesus or God or whatever, but that knowledge takes us only so far. Eventually, we are tasked with acting out of love. Because there will always be people standing outside our gates, or entering in, who need healing of some kind. We can shower them with knowledge and prayers but that’s not enough and sometimes it’s not relevant. But love is always relevant. Love builds up. It is the one thing in this mess of a world that makes any sense.

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