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Archive for December, 2018

The Power of Love: a Different Joy

Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

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You know it must be Advent if on the in later December we’re reading from another minor Hebrew prophet, in this case Zephaniah. It would be a stretch to say that many people know the book of Zephaniah well [Jewish or Christian alike].

Though, come on–I mean, he was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, born in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah—and no, I didn’t make up those names, and yes, it sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, and sure, some of us who went to Divinity school memorized that.

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But all kidding aside, as with other Hebrew prophets of ages long past, I do think good ol’ Zephy has something to say to us today.

A little context please? Okay, yes.

The cliff notes version of what scholars say about this prophetic book: when was it written? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 698 BCE-586 BCE, depending on who you talk to. Where was it written? Jerusalem. What was going on? Well, lots. First off, the Israelites were being bad, apparently; they weren’t obeying Yahweh’s commands as they were supposed to. Maybe they were just settling back in after a few generations of exile? Whatever the case, Zephaniah’s author called attention to the Israelite’s behavior as making Yahweh mad. So the book’s tone is ticked off, and it’s spelled out with these sections: the coming judgement of Judah, the great day of the Lord, judgement on enemies, wickedness of Jerusalem, and the punishment of nations. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

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But Zephaniah ends differently. The book closes out with God/Yahweh being much nicer, less angry, and dare I say—loving and gentle? Yahweh is present, protective of Israel, and happy to welcome people back. Apparently, Yahweh has a lovely singing voice too and will be showing off the holy pipes.

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More important than the Holy Karaoke, people will be healed, the homeless will find places to live. People who were hated will now be accepted. Everyone comes home. It’s a celebration of great joy! Now that’s more like it, Zephy…

And that’s what brings me to why I think this minor prophet still has something prophetic to say to us today so many years later.

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

Some of us have been exiled and know what it feels like to be marginalized or excluded. Some of us have lived though times of great suffering, loneliness, and despair. Some of us are going through that right now. Still others find very few reasons to live any longer. And many today are just tired—tired of a depressing and heavy news cycle that continues to make us aware of the great pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dies simply because she can’t get enough water to drink while detained by U.S. immigration enforcement. Large groups of humans sprawled out on top of steam vents all across Philadelphia, just to stay warm. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others specifically targeted by violent people. Individuals still left out, refused jobs, discriminated against in hospitals and other public spaces, simply because of who they love or how they identify or express gender. The Christian religion on the whole, has become known more as a perpetrator of hateful rhetoric and alliance with political leaders and lobbying monies and ignorance of child abuse and discrimination than it is known for love, peacemaking, and service to others.

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

Yahweh might as well be the same kinda angry at Western Christianity and at society in general. We’re not really fulfilling our part of the bargain—to heal the sick, give homes to the homeless, gather in the outcasts, and love each other.

Sure, we can put up pretty lights and sing carols and talk about joy, but I would argue we can’t. Not until we admit where we are, in Zephaniah’s world, in this world. Not until we recognize the deep suffering going on. Not until we are incensed by the injustice in our world. Not until we talk about our own feelings of despair, heaviness, and apathy. We have to go there, if we truly want to get to the joy part.

Rumi, the brilliant Islamic poet, wrote of sorrow being the prerequisite for joy. Sorrow makes space for joy to enter in. Old roots are pulled up within us and new growth takes place. Only then will joy flow through us like a river.

We’ve been talking the last two weeks about the promise of inclusion, about what it looks like/feels like to be excluded and then finally accepted and invited in. And that this promise of inclusion is a powerful promise to believe in, because if we do, we will seek inclusion for those we see on the margins.

See, it’s a decision to believe in the promise of inclusion. And it’s a decision to think about joy as rising out of sorrow and suffering.

And I think what bends us towards those decisions is an understanding that love itself is not an emotion, but an active choice as well.

In the world of Zephaniah, Yahweh made a love-deal with the Israelites. But the moment they started mistreating each other and oppressing people and manipulating, there was no more Mr. Nice Yahweh. Because love for Yahweh and for the Israelites has to be an active choice, not just a feeling.

And this is why love has tremendous power to create a better world—in ourselves, and on this planet. There is great power in sitting with someone in their grief, with loving patience and a loving ear with loving acceptance. There is power in standing side by side with someone who feels pushed down, choosing to love by standing with them. There is power in treating newcomers with loving hospitality, power in lovingly learning about someone’s culture or religion; power in mentoring children and youth with loving patience; power in lovingly lifting up or even carrying those who are experiencing extreme mental or physical challenges; there is power in choosing to lovingly care for the earth, the animals, trees, and ecosystems. Love as an action is powerful.

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.

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The Promise of Inclusion II

Baruch 5:1; 7-9  The Inclusive Bible
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. For God has ordered that every mountain and the ancient hills be made low and the valleys lifted up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of God’s glory, with the compassion and justice that come from the Most High.

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It’s still Advent. Week 2. Got some more Hebrew prophetic literature in the queue. This time, it’s Baruch, not well-known, not in most Bibles, and not even considered a prophet!

Resultado de imagen para tell me moreBaruch ben Neriah (ברוך בן נריה) was is believed to have been the scribe, secretary, and devoted friend of the prophet Jeremiah. Think of Baruch as the one who put up with Jeremiah’s gloomy and doom prophetic babbling and actually wrote it down. Think of Baruch as the one who was exiled in Babylonia and then in Egypt, and wrote to all the Israelite exiles, as well as those who were still in Judah.

So why isn’t Baruch as a book in the “typical” Jewish and Christian scriptures? Well, it depends on who you ask. Short version: some didn’t believe [centuries ago] that it was “divinely” inspired. How they made that decision, well…up for debate. Anyway, some just didn’t think Baruch’s writings were prophetic enough.

But…Baruch is in the Septuagint, called the Greek Old Testament, because it is the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I’m not trying to prove anything here, I’m just saying that it’s Advent and the Hebrew prophetic literature is essential reading and this dude Baruch was with Jeremiah all the time.

And he knew what it felt like to experience the fall of  the Jerusalem temple and the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. He understood what it felt like to feel abandoned and excluded, even at the hands of Yahweh, the One the Jews looked to for help and protection. So Baruch, the so-called non-prophet has something to say.

And Baruch can help us embrace the promise of inclusion.

Resultado de imagen para inclusionWhat is inclusion? A reminder of what inclusion is not:

It is not saying that “everyone is equal and the same” and “can’t we all just get along?”

Let’s be honest, please. People are not considered equal in this world. Since the beginning, humans have created unequal societies in which some get mistreated and others get privilege. We must acknowledge this. If you’ve ever been on the side of the marginalized or the excluded, this is reality. If you’ve only been on the privileged side of things, it is more difficult for you, but not impossible, to recognize and acknowledge the inequality and exclusion of society.

So, for the sake of this conversation, inclusion is:

a transformative promise that someone who has been historically excluded/left out, will now be included/invited in.

I recognize, for example, that I am a person with privilege. I am Anglo-European, U.S. born, cisgender, male, straight, well educated, English is my first language, and I was raised a Christian. How many boxes did I check?

So inclusion for me is not about me feeling left out. I’m really not excluded. But many are. So inclusion for me is about using my privilege for good and helping those who are excluded gain their rightful place at the table. Inclusion.

But I say all that, not because I’m such a nice person or whatever, but because I have experienced that all other living beings around me are part of me and I of them.

See, I think the promise of inclusion is only made a reality if we consider all other human beings—and if animals and trees and even the very creepy, crawly creatures and insects are part of us and us of them—only then will the promise of inclusion be realized and the power of inclusion evident.

And I also am drawn to another Advent theme, that of Peace.

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Peace is NOT the absence of conflict, however. Don’t imagine peace as a serene scene, or calm waters, or quiet and calm. Peace can be loud, subversive, full of conflict, and can even stir the pot even more. It is Shalom.

Peace is wholeness. Peace is justice. Peace is balance. Peace is connectedness. Peace is inclusive.

If we are at peace with ourselves, at peace with one another, at peace with the animals, the plants, the natural world—we are by our own decision, inclusive.

By being at peace with ourselves and at peace with all living beings, we embrace the promise of inclusion. We recognize our deep connection to each other, a connection that is full of diversity and disagreement and teeming with contradictions and a beautiful mosaic of difference.

I wish to close this post with some profoundly relevant stuff from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during Advent in the 1960s. This is from The Trumpet of Conscience.

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Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as [siblings] or we are all going to perish together as fools.

Now let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and goodwill toward [all] is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Everyone is somebody because they are a child of God.

Excerpted from The Trumpet of Conscience, published by Beacon Press, 2010. Copyright © 1967 by Martin Luther king, Jr. Foreword copyright © 1968 by Coretta Scott King. All rights reserved. Foreword copyright © 2010 Marian Wright Edelman.

 

The Promise of Inclusion

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Resultado de imagen para one purple candleDuring this time of year for Christians, called Advent, Hebrew prophetic literature is what is often read leading up to Christmas Eve. I wonder, though, do most Christians know what they are reading? Do they know that these prophets were telling the story of the Jewish people? Do they know that none of these prophets were speaking about Jesus of Nazareth? It’s an eyebrow-raiser for sure, for Christians to step back during this season to realize that it’s not about them.

No, the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures are Jewish stories, and the book of Jeremiah is no exception. So why do Christians read the Jewish prophetic literature during this season? Because in order to better understand the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew himself, Christians must have a context and a history and a story.

And that story is about the Israelites: their nation, Judah, was destroyed, conquered. Their rulers and religious leaders were taken away to a distant land. This happened something like 600 years before Jesus was born. The Israelites were taken to Babylon, this was their exile. The glory days of King David were long gone. I can hear Bruce Springsteen singing in the background…

And this is why Jeremiah as a prophetic book is just flat-out depressing, dark, and gloomy.

But oh, that’s what makes it work….

Because amidst all the darkness and despair and suffering there is still a glimmer of hope. And though Jeremiah is pretty heavy-handed, all of a sudden the prophet says that a better day is surely coming, and Yahweh is the one making the promise. The promise is to restore that which was devastated and broken, to repair and heal. The promise is for justice, and peace.

No doubt when you are ripped from your home and way of life you feel excluded from the good graces of life and from the possible love and care of a Creator who seems to have forgotten you. It is not until you are restored, until you are included when you were once excluded, that you feel whole again. That’s the thing about inclusion. It’s not just identifying who is “in” and who is “out.”

Inclusion is about a transformative promise that someone who has been historically excluded/left out, will now be included/invited in.

The hope of inclusion is a powerful one. It has driven major justice movements around the world. And inclusion drives the story of the Israelite people; inclusion drives the story of Jesus of Nazareth. And, I would argue, the promise of inclusion can move us past even hope, which can sometimes be fleeting or seem superficial. What if we didn’t hope for justice and peace in this world, and instead, we believed in the promise of inclusion?

What if inclusion shaped our thoughts and actions in our daily lives? It would change us. Think about it—if you’ve ever been party to a racist, sexist, homophobic/transphobic joke, and didn’t speak up because you were afraid of being excluded from that particular group, what if you weren’t afraid of exclusion? What if you believed in the promise of inclusion? You would speak up, not to paint yourself as any better, but simply to point out that inclusion is a promise to humanity.

This promise of inclusion would drive us in our city councils and local governments to get rid of the boundaries and regulations that keep certain people out of certain boroughs and neighborhoods; we wouldn’t block immigrant caravans with soldiers and police and signs saying “go home, you’re not welcome”; churches and other places of faith would stop excluding gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people, not because it’s becoming a social norm, but because they believe in the promise of inclusion.

Being included when you’ve been excluded before gives you the ability to feel and believe:

“I’m valued, I have a place. I am equal. I am affirmed as I am.”

If inclusion drives us, and we believe it is a promise, then we will see ourselves differently. Those who have been made to feel lesser will be transformed by the welcome they receive. Those who have been left on the margins will enter the open circle, as they are. It is more than a hope, which can fade. It is more than a dream, which can be forgotten.

It is a promise.

 

Great-FULL-ness

Let’s take a brief look at the concept of Gratitude across world religions [this by no means doing justice to each tradition]:

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Judaism: The first and last prayers of the day are of gratitude. For the Jewish people, all things come from Yahweh and thus their lives are filled with this recognition. A prayer is said upon hearing good or even bad news.

Christianity: For followers of Jesus of Nazareth, God is the giver of all gifts and the ultimate foundation for thankfulness. God ‘s generosity provides the model for how Christians are to deal with other people. The greatest commandment, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself is a gratitude commandment. Thankfulness to the Creator and thankfulness for others. Even the most universal Sacrament of Christianity, Communion [called the Eucharist], comes from the Greek word eurucharistia, which means thanksgiving.

Islam: in the Holy Koran, the necessity for gratitude and thankfulness to Allah is emphasized. The prophet Muhammad said, “Gratitude for the abundance you have received is the best insurance that the abundance will continue.” Daily prayers for Muslims do not petition God, but instead show everlasting praise and adoration to God for life and mercy. The month of Ramadan when fasting takes place is intended to lead a person to a state of gratitude.

Buddhism: for Buddhists, gratitude is the main currency of the “economy of gift.” They give prayerful thanks for all that life has to offer, including the challenges and suffering, because it helps them to appreciate the gifts, and to become more compassionate.

Hinduism: Hindus show gratitude in many small acts of hospitality, and through service toward the divine presence, both in their homes and at temple shrines. Hindus celebrate a number of festivals signifying the importance of gratitude. Guru Poornima is celebrated in gratitude to teachers, to those who have taught skills and to all those who teach something that shapes people’s lives. Harvest festivals like Pongal pay respect to the Sun God for helping with a bounty harvest and also thank the rain, seeds, cattle and the farmers.

Baha’i Faith: The Baha’i teachings emphasize an attitude and lifestyle of gratitude. Bahai’s are to step back, see their glass as much more than half full, and be thankful for life. Abdu’l Baha said: Thank God with all your hearts that such a privilege has been given unto you to spread love across the earth. For a life devoted to praise is not too long in which to thank God for such a favour. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 67.

Sikhism: For Sikhs, gratitude is the center of their faith practice. Siri Singh Sahib teaches that when you are grateful to God “You will be great and you will be full.” Sikhs also emphasize that  “By your ego you get yourself, which is very earthly and limited. Whenever you want to get to your own unlimited self, you have to relate with gratitude.” –Yogi Bhajan 7/10/75

Jainism: Though Jains do not believe in God per se, Jains are constantly expressing gratitude in prayers and actions. The act of fasting, which Jains are famous for, is about gratitude.

Native Americans: the First Nations People have always had a deep tradition of routinely giving thanks. They have particularly given attention and gratitude to the animals and plants that provide sustenance or medicine. The Iroquois created a thanksgiving prayer to the Creator for the earth and the living things upon it– birds, rivers, medicinal grasses and herbs, wind, rain, sunshine, the moon and stars, etc.

Paganism: Pagans, including those who identify as Wiccan, believe in the notion that if we surround ourselves with good, we will attract positive things back to us. Part of that theory is that by showing gratitude, you can cultivate more good things to come your way. Gratitude rituals are a common thread of their practice.

So gratitude pervades spiritual traditions. What does science say? There have been various studies done about gratitude and its association with well-being, suggesting that people who are more grateful have higher levels of subjective well-being. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships.

Perhaps it is because grateful people have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance and the ability to positively deal with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpret and grow from experiences, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem.

So what do you think? How do you practice gratitude? How does it affect you?

Basic Rules Don’t Apply: Love Is Wealth

Mark 10:17-22

What possesses you?

Okay, weird question?
What I mean to ask is: what consumes you, what drives you?

What possesses you?

Is it your career? Are you one of those people who is completely driven by your job and all the things related to it? Do you find yourself thinking and talking about your profession more than anything else?

Or is it your family, if you have kids? Are you mostly driven by what your kids are doing, how they feel, behave, learn?

Or is it something else? What possesses you, drives you, consumes you?

Now bear with me here, because I realize this can be a nuanced conversation. I am aware that for some of you, this question may lead you down a difficult path. Perhaps you have struggled for years with addictions and so, this can drive you. Or for any of you who suffer from depression or anxiety, this can consume you, no doubt. So please know that I am not downplaying that and I absolutely acknowledge addiction, illness, disease, and chemical imbalances as real issues that people deal with every day.

What I’d like for us to do is to focus on the things that drive us overall, apart from those things we cannot control or are part of our chemical makeup or a result of great trauma we suffered. I’d like for us to focus on the driving force for each of us, the thing or things that get us out of bed in the morning and keep us alive.

And I acknowledge the amazingly courageous people I know who fight addiction or mental illness every day and keep on living. Because this is at the core of the question. How do they keep on going?

And I’d like to address this by looking at this Mark Gospel story about a person who clearly was driven by questions about salvation, eternal life, legacy, etc. The man [called a ruler and a young person by Matthew’s and Luke’s versions] was also rich. He owned things—most likely a lot of land. He possessed property. He went to Jesus of Nazareth, because he respected Jesus as a religious teacher. Jesus would know the answer to a question he had. The rich man wanted to inherit eternal life. He was used to getting what he wanted, you see. He thought of salvation as something to buy or sell or to obtain. It was a possession. Religion, for this person, was about keeping the commandments that Moses shared with the Israelites. Don’t do this, don’t do that, etc., etc. Following these rules allowed him to maintain his upper hand in society, to fit in, to be respected, to maintain control. Follow the rules, get the reward.

Wrong.

Jesus tells him that he still lacks something. Ironically, what he lacks is because of what he owns. He has a lot of possessions. Material things. On the surface he has a lot. But he lacks the most important thing. What was that important thing? Well, it seems like Jesus didn’t say. What Jesus does do is tell him to do the most logical thing: sell your things, give money to those who need it most, and then you’re good. Follow this way of love.

Sounds good, right? Happy ending to this story?

Nope.

The rich guy doesn’t jump up and down with joy, now knowing what he has to do. I mean, it would have been fairly simple for him to give things away. And Jesus wasn’t even asking him to give it all away! But instead, the man gets sad about it. He expected Jesus to perhaps tell him about some other commandment or rule that he didn’t know about. Maybe there was just one more thing he had to check off his list and then he’d be okay. But no—he was told to do the very thing that he felt that he couldn’t do. He couldn’t give up material possessions. He could not follow such a way. For him, wealth was having things; wealth was not expressing love, not giving to others. Following the religious rules made more sense to him, even comforted him. But now that salvation fell outside the rules, his world turned upside down. He grieved, because he lost something—his ability to control things, to buy and sell life.

As Jesus often does, though, he invites this rich man to be healed. Get up, go, change, be healed. Follow this way. And I suspect that the story doesn’t really give us an ending so that we are aware that it’s not so easy to just change in the moment. The rich man was grieving because he felt that he could not give up his possessions, he could not see a way to be possessed by love. But that was in the moment. He left the scene—probably went home, probably thought more about it. And maybe, must maybe he started small. Perhaps he gave away some of his material wealth. And it probably felt great. And then maybe he gave away some more. And eventually, maybe this person was no longer possessed by what he owned. After a while, maybe he discovered what true riches were.

Friends, we can be possessed or consumed by things that are our “ultimate concern” like ambition, religion, money, power, politics or whatever. We can be owned by a number of things. And so we are offered a healing choice, I think, to instead be driven by love. To let go of the things that possess us and drag us down or hold us back. To walk forward and not backwards. To give more than we try to obtain. To make love our reason for existing—not pleasing people, not “making a name for ourselves,” not obsessing over legacy or retirement or status or religious rules or sexual norms or gender binaries or nationalities or affiliations or ethnicity.

What if we are driven by love?

What if love is in front of us, behind us, around us, and in us?

*To all of you who beautiful and courageous humans out there who wrestle with addiction and mental illness, I love you. It is your life: your courage and honesty and the way you show love to others in spite of all you go through–that inspires me.

Be driven by love, because you are loved.

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