Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for April, 2018

Creating Safe Spaces

Proverbs 18:10, John 10:2-4; 7-10

Define safety. What does it mean for you to feel safe?

In the Hebrew literature of the Psalms and Proverbs, Yahweh is portrayed as a physical and spiritual presence–and place of safety. A refuge. A comfort from the storms of life. Yahweh is also portrayed as a safe space for those on the margins, those who are lonely, oppressed, or afraid.

Fast forward to Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish person, raised in this tradition. How Jesus saw Yahweh or Abba, was akin to the views of Psalms and wisdom literature. God, for Jesus, was calling people to a place of acceptance, safety, and abundant life. God would gather people to God’s self like a mother hen gathers her chicks.

Eventually, long after Jesus of Nazareth had died, those who followed him came up with metaphors for Jesus. One of the most overlooked metaphors was the the metaphor of the Good Shepherd. Surely many of you have heard of Psalm 23, i.e. the lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

Well, the Gospel writers would have been well aware of this image. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ identity is expressed with I AM statements, in Greek the ego eimi. In fact, John’s Jesus uses this phrase seven times. I AM…the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. And in John 10 Jesus also expressed what Jesus is not. Jesus is not a thief or destroyer of life, but instead a giver of life, a full life.

John’s metaphor involved sheep, a shepherd, and a gate. Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd, one who will lay down one’s own life for the sheep and stand with them when they are in trouble.

Consider that this image of Jesus as good shepherd is a more ancient symbol for Jesus than the cross. Before Roman Christianity developed its own symbols, followers of Jesus resonated with the simple image of a shepherd who cares for sheep and knows them by name.

good-shepherd

The comparison of people to sheep is not meant as an insult, though it is oft-understood this way.  The metaphor of human beings as sheep means that human beings have a capacity, like sheep, to hear their shepherd.  It refers to that part of the human psyche which listens for a True Voice.

And yet, particular brands of Christianity [including American Christianity] have skewed Jesus’ message and even the image of the good shepherd to be about exclusion, judgement, and even violence. It is so sad to know that there are people who claim to be a follower of this Jesus and consistently mistreat people because of their cultural or linguistic heritage; their gender expression or identification; who they love; how much money they have; the color of their skin.

This is why it is essential for us to not be silent while this is going on.

We cannot hide from the wolves and thieves who seek to destroy. We must confront them, for the sake of our friends and neighbors who are being bullied, and excluded, and told that their lives do not have value. We must change the narrative and express that ALL deserve safe pastures.

So I’m interested in doing that, but in community, and with intention. How, in community, can we create safe spaces for those on the margins?

I’ll be asking these questions the next few months. Please join in the conversation by posting in the comments section….THX

 

 

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Communal Seeing

Luke 24:13-16; 30-35

Image result for seeingOkay, let’s be clear here. If you identify as a Western Christian, you’re just a couple of weeks removed from April Fools’ Day—I mean, Easter. The dyed eggs are old and crusty, you’ve finished all the jelly beans, and Peeps are on sale at the grocery store.

And yet, the story in the NT Gospels is stuck on that first day of the week, you know that day when Mary Magdalene and others found a cave-tomb empty and told other disciples who didn’t believe a word of it. People are still lost in the story, mourning the death of their teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth. Some are locked behind closed doors for fear of the Romans or the Sanhedrin. Pretty much everyone [besides the women in the story] is befuddled, sad, confused, and lost.

And why is that? Well, think about it. Imagine you have been following a teacher or a mentor for a considerable amount of time. This teacher spoke to you in a way that moved you to action, filled you with confidence and love and encouraged you to live a full life.

You were changed by this teacher.

And you had such plans. Such plans you had. You would conquer the evil and injustice, make things right, restore harmony to creation!

Image result for superhero justice

And now your teacher is dead. Gone. Nowhere to be seen. Nowhere to be felt.

The dream is over.

For those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, they had found a purpose. Prior to meeting and following Jesus, they had been asking those questions that humans often ask—existential questions that are quite annoying because they never have an answer. It’s like what Peter Rollins discusses in his book The Idolatry of God. He labels these questions as existential grievances that occupy the human heart.

Question one: why does the universe exist?

Question two: what is our role within this universe?

Those who followed Jesus most certainly were asking these questions—both of themselves and of Jesus. But in following Jesus, they embarked on a journey towards Jerusalem–a purposeful one that involved justice-seeking, forgiveness, healing, and hope. This had meaning for them.

But…things went sour in Jerusalem. And once Jesus was dead, they had the same questions. Why does the universe exist? What is my role in it?

And so, it’s no surprise, is it—that in this chapter of the story, on a road to a town called Emmaus, that ex-followers of Jesus are still mourning and wondering whether there is any purpose left and if the world really should exist at all. Neither is it surprise that all of a sudden, Jesus [although the resurrected Jesus] starts walking with them and they have no clue. They are still living in their existential crises and do not recognize Jesus at all.

I would argue that it’s because they were stuck in the old paradigms. After all, those two existential questions are circular, aren’t they? I don’t know the reason the universe exists off the top of my head. And day by day I’m still trying to figure out my place in it.

Image result for existential questionsIt’s easy to get stuck in the cycle, stuck in the fixated dreams that the Emmaus walkers had for themselves and for Jesus and now it was all gone. They felt like they had nothing left; they had no purpose. So of course they wouldn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus.

And a quick word about this whole resurrected Jesus business. I’ve gone on record to say that I don’t think it’s really, really important for you to believe or not to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in bodily form. There’s a lot of history behind the Gospel stories about that, and certainly a LOT of interpretations over the centuries. They are all guesses.

So instead of running around in circles or taking a polarized view of resurrection, i.e. he fully resurrected or he didn’t at all—I find much more meaning in viewing the Gospels as unique stories and voices that are not necessarily trying to prove something physical or scientific. Instead, the Gospels on the whole present the resurrection of Jesus as both mystical and spiritual in nature. The focus is less on the physical body and more on what the people seeing Jesus need to see, need to touch, need to hear. But as always, don’t take it from me. Think critically and decide for yourself.

And now, back to story…

Eventually the ex-followers of Jesus made it to a village where they needed to stop for the night. They invited the stranger walking with them to come and stay. Then they sat down at the table to eat and then…they finally saw Jesus’ resurrected form. After seeing, they changed direction completely [I guess Emmaus didn’t have much to offer] and headed right back to Jerusalem. The existential, circular questions were irrelevant now. They had found purpose, a reason for being.

And they found it in community.

They didn’t find the comfort and peace they were looking for by getting their existential questions answered. They didn’t get to lean on their limited and nostalgic view of Jesus; they couldn’t see the world [or themselves] in the same way. They were pushed back to Jerusalem, the place of death and betrayal and cowardice and hopelessness and injustice.

Because that’s real. That’s life.

There were no tidy answers to make them feel better or any spiritual experience that would ease their doubts. Like Thomas the twin, who doubted freely that Jesus could be alive after dying, the Emmaus road walkers were given an opportunity—to be resurrected. To start anew. And the way to do that was in community.

For when we are in authentic community, i.e. with people who accept us as we are—flaws, scars, craziness, and all—when we are with such people, our existential questions become less important and we stop running around in circles seeking meaning and purpose. In community, around a table even—our eyes open. We see new life—in ourselves, in others, in the world. We notice the possibility of change. But at the same time, we don’t ignore the pain, the suffering, injustice, the mourning, the lack of hope.

In community we hold all of those things together and embrace them all.
We become lovers of doubt and we embrace new questions.
We become students of people’s lives and explorers of new ways to show love and compassion, new paradigms with which to tackle the injustices all around.
And we do this in community.

I’m interested, friends: how has community helped you to find purpose?

A Doubting Faith

John 20:19-31

Image result for embrace doubt
It’s the story of Thomas. Have you head it before? Doesn’t matter if you have or haven’t. Please keep reading, because I would love to discuss with you the active and essential role of doubt in our lives [feel free to comment!]. I will present to you the thought that  doubt is not something to fear. That doubt faces death, suffering, pain, uncertainty. And honest doubt leads to curiosity and beautiful questions, and transformative discoveries. And doubt can even lead to a living faith.

When we doubt, we question things. And people. It’s not about always having a conspiracy theory for everything, though, it’s critical thinking. When we ask how did something come to be or how did I get this idea we are engaging our brains in an active dialogue that leads to growth and perspective. Doubt also helps us see the bigger picture and initiates progress, because when we doubt, we question the current state of things and wonder: can it get better than this? It’s questioning the status quo.

Let me introduce you to Peter Rollins.

Image result for peter rollins

I had the opportunity to see him at World Café Live in Philly a couple of weeks ago. One of his books, Insurrection: to Believe Is Human, to Doubt Divine, takes a close look at the role of doubt in our daily lives, and how obsession with life after death causes great anxiety and much trouble in the world. Rollins presents an alternative theological vision—one that nurtures a faith that is not concerned with the question of life after death but rather the possibility of life before death.

Rollins is more concerned with how we act than how we believe. He writes about our Facebook Selves. Essentially, the selves that are based on what we believe. We often think that our beliefs are who we are, but Rollins argues that our true selves can be discovered not in what we think, but in how we act. And that this should prompt us to ask questions about ourselves, like:

  • How do I spend my time?
  • What would other people say are the most important things in my life?

Such questions, of course, can provoke some uncomfortable answers.

So let’s continue our conversation about doubt and faith with a look at the difference between anxiety and fear.

Anxiety, surely a complicated subject in psychoanalysis, is broadly connected to the idea of loss. Fear, however, is directed at some thing in the world, while anxiety expresses a feeling experienced when you lose something or fear losing it.

Doubt, then, can threaten those of us with anxiety, because doubt shows us that our present worldview doesn’t give us answers; we start to wonder if any system of belief could give us answers. What we do often then, when doubt is present, is to come up with ways to erase or at least lessen the doubt, by assigning rules to life, therefore making meaning that shields us from the destabilization.

An example: a religious person becomes obsessed with apologetics [i.e. the systematic defense of a religious doctrine like proving of the existence of God or the bodily resurrection of Jesus]. See the many, many preachers and churches that coerce you to sign “faith statements” or espouse to “core values.”

A person who becomes obsessed with apologetics will rehearse arguments, gather evidence and memorize their “elevator speech” to prove their religious point. Cognitively what is happening is that this person is trying to combat the doubt they have by constructing a wall of certainty that they can build again and again when things get uncertain or anxious.

It doesn’t have to be religious. We do this in many areas of life. Have you tried recently to talk to a family member colleague, or friends about the current state of the U.S. government? Chances are, if that person voted for the administration in office today, and you didn’t–there will be a lot of back-and-forth truth claims with evidence-called-fake-news and plenty of elevator speeches thrown in for good measure. Why? Because we suck nowadays at embracing doubt. We don’t want to even consider the possibility that things are not black and white, that we don’t have all the answers, and that insistence on certainty can lead us to totalitarianism and isolation.

But what if we don’t have to combat doubt?

What if we could embrace it?

Friends, we all face personal, religious, political, and other anxieties. In other words, to doubt is human, or as Peter Rollins would say, to believe is human, to doubt, divine.

What do you think?

 

 

April Fools!

John 20:1-2; 11-18

Easter-EggsOPEN
April Fools’ Day is perfectly timed this year, don’t you think? Now look, I’ve been fooled more than enough times on April 1st—mostly by my dad, who is notorious for doing this. One year, when I was 12 years old, my dad somehow managed to put red dots all over my face with a marker while I was sleeping the night before. I woke up on April 1st, went downstairs for breakfast, and my parents said: “Gee, Josh, you look like you broke out in a rash or acne or something. You better go check by looking in the mirror.” So my 12-year-old paranoia got the best of me and I ran to the bathroom, took one look in the mirror,

AND FREAKED THE HECK OUT.

I could tell you some other stories, but that’s enough triggering for now. This is also what I like to call “low-lying-fruit-for-lazy-pastors-who-think-they’re-funny” day, because I guarantee that there are thousands of sermonizers leading with an April Fools’ prank or joke of some kind, and then the inevitable statement at the end that God played the ultimate April Fool’s joke by raising Jesus from the dead…blah, blah, blah….

Image result for jesus april fools

Image result for jesus april fools

I just couldn’t resist.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to talk with you about resurrection and how it pertains to your personal story being sacred in and of itself, and how we are given a chance [if we risk it] to resurrect/reinvent ourselves periodically.

But let’s back up for a moment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we give meaning to things.

You know what I’m getting at? Example: you slip and fall on the ice and bruise your tailbone [ouch] and miss a couple of days at work or school. You think, while your bum is healing, about what it all means. Did I fall because I was distracted? Is this supposed to teach me something? Am I supposed to slow down, work less, appreciate the small things more? Should I get different shoes?

What does this mean?

And so, you assign meaning to the fall on the ice. But really, if we’re honest here, did it mean anything? You slipped on some ice that you probably could not see and anybody walking that same patch of ground would also slip. You fell because your feet whipped out from under you, causing you to try to get back your balance, and you ended up falling on your rear end as a result of it, because your body and mind prevented you from hitting your head [which would have been much worse]. You simply slipped and fell on some ice. That’s what happened–if we don’t judge the event or try to give it meaning.

We assign meaning to things all the time, don’t we? And we certainly do it in the sacred/religious stories that we have heard for a long time, don’t we?

Case in point–I’m guessing that all of you have differing views about the stories in the NT Gospels [in this case John] about Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection. Your meaning-making started the first time you heard this story and hasn’t ended since then. So let’s have some fun. Let’s look at John’s story like the slip and fall story on the ice, shall we? What actually happened?  Let’s address that first, and then we’ll circle back to meaning-making later.

First, Jesus died. He dead body was put inside a cave and wrapped in burial clothes.

It was the first day of the week [could be Saturday or Sunday in our calendars], still dark before sunrise, and Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ followers and friends, went to the cave. She noticed that the stone that was supposed to cover the entrance to the cave had been removed. She found some other friends of Jesus like Simon Peter and told them what she saw. They immediately assumed some people who didn’t like Jesus took his body out of the cave, and now they didn’t know where to look.

Mary then went back to the tomb and started crying. Through her teary eyes she did notice that two figures dressed in white were sitting where Jesus’ body used to be. They asked her why she was crying. Mary repeated the new version of the story that the men came up with: “Some people took Jesus’ body and we don’t know where!”

Just then, a gardener showed up and also asked her why she was crying and who she was looking for. Mary assumed that this gardener might have had something to do with it and so she asked him for the location of Jesus’ body. Then the gardener spoke her name:

Mary!

And Mary realized that she was looking at Jesus of Nazareth. So she called him by his name: teacher, which was what he was to her. Jesus told her not to hold onto him [literally, let me go] but to tell her friends that Jesus was going to be with Abba God. Mary Magdalene went and told everybody that she had seen her teacher Jesus and all that he had said to her.

Now, back to meaning-making.

I will challenge you and encourage you to assign less meaning to the story, less meaning to this day called Easter, and more meaning to your everyday life.

Image result for heresy christian meme

The thing is, dear friends, when we assign great meaning to one thing or one day, other things [and people] become less meaningful.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you go to a beautiful sanctuary or basilica or temple with the sole purpose of experiencing God. Well, if the place is awe-inspiring to you, the place will have great meaning for you. Outside of that building, though, you will assign less meaning to your daily experiences of work, school, home, etc. It applies to any and every religious ceremony or worship experience—if the music or the message or the ritual or the atmosphere make you feel the presence of God much more than other times and places, you assign great meaning to that worship service or ritual. And other times and places have less meaning.

And I will argue that this is contrary to what Jesus taught and lived and contrary to what resurrection is all about.

Consider that at the last meal Jesus had with his friends, they shared bread and wine and community, and Jesus pretty much said goodbye and now do this on your own. Love one another. Seek out those who are lost and suffering and love them too. Share your bread and wine and sit at table with them. It wasn’t about feeling some intense emotion about the ritual of Communion each time you eat crackers and drink grape juice. There was no more meaning in the ritual than brushing your teeth.

And it’s the same for resurrection.

Resurrection is meant to be a daily, ongoing activity. It’s not a one-shot deal, a one-time event. It’s not a thing reserved for religious myths and stories, Easter parades and hymns, or special prayers and ceremonies. Resurrection, this beautiful-amazing-chaotic-universal idea is in seeing yourself as new. It is about not ignoring the suffering or pain you’ve experienced or are experiencing. It is embracing all of it—all that you are and feel and experience–as holy. In this way all the places and times in your daily life are meaningful. And God is present in all of it—in the crap, in the darkness, in the pain, the doubt, the melancholy, the joy, the laughter, the tears, the coming out, the staying in, the celebrating, and the mourning.

Because notice in the story that those who followed Jesus of Nazareth “saw” the resurrected Jesus in many different ways, according to who they were and where they were. But in every case, the resurrected Jesus told them to let go of the past and to start to live their lives as resurrected people.

This is the shift in paradigm and in meaning-making. Resurrection isn’t limited to a sacred book or a story or one person or one day. Resurrection, like the Spirit, is loose in the world, and is happening in each of us.

We don’t have to be the same every day.

We don’t have to be loyal to old paradigms. We have the freedom to let our curiosity run wild, to explore and to discover more about ourselves and what living is, no matter what stage of life we are in.

So may your hours and days all have meaning. May your sacred spaces be everywhere you roam. And may you embrace the possibility of resurrection as an ongoing process, surprising you and shaping you. And may you recognize the daily lives of others as sacred and holy and meaningful—all of it.

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