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Alternative Wisdom

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20

wisdomChineseThe most common type of wisdom in society is what we call conventional wisdom. This is the mainstream, what “everybody knows.” It is society’s understanding about what is real and how people should live. Conventional wisdom includes ideas that are so accepted they are not questioned. These ideas tell us now to live; we are socialized into conventional wisdom as we grow up.

Example: we are told that life is about reward and punishment, i.e. “your reap what you sow” or “get what you deserve.” Though this idea is prevalent in secular culture, it also exists in religion, i.e.: “God will reward or condemn you based on what you’ve done.” Obviously, conventional wisdom leads to social separations, because it claims that some people’s roles in society are more important than others.

A person’s self-worth or identity is based on how they measure up to society’s norms.

At the end of the day, conventional wisdom can lead to us thinking that the reality as we have labeled it is actually the end-all. This of course can close our minds to new realities and ideas.

There are many examples of conventional wisdom. Here are a few:

The Earth is flat. The Earth is the center of the Universe.
You have to make more money. It is always best to pursue promotions and jobs that pay more.
You should buy a house.
You should do tons of cardio exercise to lose weight.
Keep taking antibiotics so you won’t be sick.
In Hollywood: a movie can’t succeed unless it stars a famous actor.

What examples of conventional wisdom can you think of?

To bring this home, consider that many people’s image of God is based on their acceptance of conventional wisdom. God, for them, is the enforcer and the one who gives legitimacy to religious behaviors and viewpoints. It’s the idea that people must satisfy God…

conventional-wisdom-quote-minh-tan-halifaxNow let’s switch gears to alternative wisdom—a grouping of ideas and perspectives that are not afraid to ask questions, to challenge convention. Alternative wisdom confronts the so-called norms of society and asks why we consider these norms to be our reality. For example, conventional wisdom says that a person’s worth is determined by measuring up to social standards. Alternative wisdom says that all people have infinite worth that is intrinsic and not based on merit. Likewise, while conventional wisdom says that our identity comes from social tradition, alternative wisdom says that identity comes from centering in the sacred, and in our humanity. And finally, conventional wisdom tells us to strive to be first in line for everything, no matter what. Alternative wisdom says that the last will be first and the first will be last.

Can you think of your own examples of alternative wisdom?

More specifically, in Jewish and Christian Scriptures, there is most certainly a blend of conventional and alternative wisdom. If you look closely enough, I’m sure you can find various examples of both. To bring this conversation to its center I would like to hone in on alternative wisdom as it was for Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus, parables were storytelling methods of imparting alternative wisdom. The parables were not black and white. They asked questions. Typically, wisdom teachers like Jesus, Socrates, Buddha—they focused on a “wise” way and a “foolish” way; a narrow way and a broad way. Instead of telling people how to live or which rules to follow, wisdom teachers made observations about life and spoke from experience. This is why Jesus periodically referred to nature.

Jesus of Nazareth, unlike other religious leaders and teachers of the time, and unlike many of the churches and religious leaders of today, did not spend so much time interpreting scriptures. Instead, Jesus taught and modeled experiential living—the daily experiences people have.

Rather than focusing on written words, Jesus focused on the experience of God.

Jesus and others invited people to see something they might not have otherwise seen, to look past conventional wisdom and conditioned culture to something beyond, something that could transform a person. For example, the idea that a person’s purpose in life is to follow certain rules so that God will be pleased and then, when they die, God will allow that person to go to heaven—this is not the alternative wisdom of Jesus. Instead, Jesus flipped this convention on its head, saying that those who were thought of as the lowest and the least religious would be the ones better off in the end. Jesus’ wisdom portrayed God as Giver of Compassion and not Judge. Further, when Jesus spoke of death, it was not a physical death, but a death of that conventional self—dying to the societal norms that trap us and living into a new reality of transformation, resurrection and enlightenment.

Friends, don’t buy into conventional wisdom. Be different, be weird, defy the conventions.

Ask questions about why we do this or that. Seek alternative wisdom—based on what you see in nature, what you actually feel within yourself, and your own experiences. Seek and develop alternative wisdom, as this will help you see the bigger picture and enable you to get to know yourself better, apart from all the social conditioning and convention.

Give heed to alternative wisdom, which gives assurance that we are truly alive.

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Well Traveled

Matthew 5:1-10  

Hey, how ya feelin’ today? Blessed? Are ya feelin’ blessed today?

kidquestion
If you were to answer “yes” to that question, what does that mean, to be blessed?

Let’s ask our friend the dictionary. First off, if this word is used as a verb, it is pronounced blest, with one syllable, i.e. “Before the dinner started, grandma blessed [blest] the food.”  But this word can also be used as an adjective, and this case, it is pronounced with two syllables, i.e. “Gerry’s graduation from college was a bless-ed moment.” Of course, you can also say:

“I don’t have a bless-ed clue about what you’re saying!”

In general, though, blest or bless-ed means favored, fortunate, lucky, privileged, enviable, happy. This is the most typical use of the word, at least here in the U.S., where you hear people say “I’m blessed” quite a lot.

But the modern use of #blessed is not really close to the “blessed” said many times in a famous speech attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in Luke’s and in Matthew’s Gospels. Often called the Beatitudes, these words of Jesus are believed to have been said from a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee, but over time, a collection of Jesus sayings, kind of like a Jesus mixtape.

The_Hamilton_Mixtape_album_cover_2016

These “blessed” quotes had their foundation in the Hebrew wisdom literature, the Psalms and Proverbs. In Israel’s culture, poets and sages used beatitudes to encourage admirable behavior and traditional attitudes towards life. These ancient writings affirmed that blessedness was not about material fortune or prosperity. People were blessed when they were filled with and surrounded by a spiritual sense of well-being—both as an individual and as a community.

Jesus’ blessed sayings, though, are paradoxical. They don’t fit the typical idea of what it means to be blessed. Poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, peaceful, persecuted, and hated? These states of mind or being don’t necessarily seem blessed, at least according to society. But maybe that’s point. For Jesus,

Being blessed was about being well-traveled—being wise and awake.

Being poor isn’t just about having less material things. It’s about detaching yourself from things and finding freedom, joy, and gratefulness in all that is simple and beautiful. Mourning is about being open and honest when you are sad. Justice-seeking is wanting the best, not just for yourself or for those who are close to you; but for anyone anywhere. Being merciful to others means mercy will find you. Working for peace and not war ends your hate and starts your love.

So, I hear this saying to all of us:

Accept that people won’t like you and will sometimes say bad things about you when you try to do good things. Don’t let that stop you. Instead, find joy in the fact that you even have an opportunity to do good.

Rituals of Love

Matthew 22:34-46

Love-225x300What rituals do you have when you wake up each day?
What rituals do you have when you go to bed?

It is not hyperbole to say that whatever “waking up” habits and “pre-sleep” habits we practice affect our days and how they are lived and experienced. I’m certainly not a morning person and would sleep as late as possible I could. Even so, I do appreciate the healthy morning rituals of friends, family, and colleagues. I’ve even practiced some of them myself. I do eat a fairly big breakfast when I first wake up. I do my best, when it’s sunny, to go outside/look outside and salute the sun. I put on clothes. I listen to music. In the evening, I brush my teeth and floss. I put coconut oil or some type of cream on my face. When I’m prepping for sleep, I do my best to turn off electronic devices and use breathe to turn off my monkey mind. It doesn’t always work, of course. But the practice of healthy rituals adds something good to my life and does change my experience of each day.

Some of these rituals become a big part of who we are and, I would argue, if they are healthy, said rituals can help make us whole.

Rituals, in religion, are of course widespread. Some are just silly and unnecessary. Some are for show. Other rituals exclude people, acting as gatekeepers for the religion. And then there are those rituals that….

Ring true and lead to health, healing, and humanity.

Like the Shema, a Hebrew prayer based on Deuteronomy 6:4 of the Torah:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.
Blessed be the Name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them
When you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

For many Jews, it is a practice to say this in the morning as they rise and in the evening before they sleep. For Jesus of Nazareth, a Nazarene Jew, this was how he answered the tough questions of Pharisees and Sadducees, the major religious leaders who always seemed to be setting a trap. It would have been tempting, right—to snap back at the lawyer-Pharisee who asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. After all, is there any good way to answer such a question?

If you’re religious or not, just rephrase the question to be: What is most important in life? When asked that question, how would you answer? Would you have to think about it? Would you be nervous, depending on who was in the room or who was asking?

What is most important in life?

It would have been easy to be distracted by the interrogation and being put on the spot. We don’t know what emotions Jesus felt in this story. Was he angry? Sad? Disappointed? Nervous? What we do know is that he answered with the Shema. He fell back on the prayer that started his mornings and ended his evenings. “Hear O Israel, God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Oh snap! That lawyer just got Shema-fied or Shema-shamed.

OH-SNAP--IT-JUST-GOT-REAL
Sorry for that. Couldn’t resist.

Anyway, Jesus’ answer was more than a prayer. He went on to say: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

So what is most important in life? Love God [who is one and for all], love yourself, and love others.

There’s a drop-the-mic moment if I’ve ever seen one.

So back to this idea of rituals to bring this home. Look, religions are often terrible to people. Let’s be honest, they are. Way too much. But that’s because people distort religions and use them to hide behind so they can be racist, prejudice, homophobic, hateful, complacent, or ignorant of the needs of those who suffer. Religions at their core are human attempts to find a baseline, a common ground, a shared value that goes back to that not-so-simple question:

What is most important in this life?

For Jesus, it was love in a threefold way: Love the Creator of all, love yourself, love others. This was the mantra. This should be said and lived when you rise and when you lie down to sleep. This should be posted on your walls and doors; this should be on your bumper stickers and tattoos and graffiti. This: Love.

Why do we need to keep saying this? Because there are still people who use this and anything else they can to be tricky. How many so-called Christians have used this love commandment to say to a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person, or a trans person: You should love God with your whole heart, mind, and strength. But you should hate who you are—your sexuality, your love preferences, your gender identification or expression. Love God. But hate who you are?

It also happens to others, does it not? If your skin color is of a darker shade or you’re not Anglo or a U.S. citizen, you should definitely love God, but love the skin tone? Love your cultural background? Love your language? Your religious difference? The love command/Shema is threefold.

You can’t just say you love God and stop there.

You have to love yourself as you are. And you also have to love others. If you ask me—doesn’t matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof. What’s most important in this life? I don’t think it’s a bad idea to consider rising each day and showing some love to life and the sun and the trees and the oxygen and the food. And then showing yourself some love and accepting yourself as you are, even celebrating it. And then, in turn, meeting others during your day and loving them too, as they are. And then, when you end your day, loving the Creator of all living things, loving yourself [regardless of the mistakes you’ve made], and being grateful for the others in your life. Even if you feel trapped sometimes by tricky or unkind people, go back to your Shema. Go back to your meeting place where love keeps appearing and thriving and living in you. Go back to love. Post THAT on your Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; war that on t-shirts and display it with tattoos.

Love.

Following Light

John 8:12 [NRSV]
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

I John 1:5-7a
This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Matthew 5:14-16a
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.

diwaliheld This time of year, in the fall, there are a variety of traditions that celebrate the symbolism and presence of light. One such holiday is a big one: Diwali. Also called Dipawali, Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday in India. The festival gets its name from the row of clay lamps that people light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. To put it in context, Diwali is just as important to people from India as Christmas is to American Christians. And it is not just Hindus who celebrate Diwali. So do Jains, Buddhist, Sikhs, and many others.

And do did I. On Thursday night, I went to a friend’s place in Philly to celebrate Diwali with a group of people from various parts of India and the U.S. We ate great food [including particular sweets that are famous during Diwali] and wonderful curry with rice. After the meal, we ventured out into Center City to find an appropriate place to light up the world—with fireworks, of course. This is a common occurrence during the days of Diwali. Now because in Pennsylvania “real” fireworks are not legal, one of my friends purchased the PA-sanctioned sparklers, spinning flowers, and grand finale sparking thingys. We found a parking lot. We fired up the sparklers. We were having a great time. And then…

FireworksDiwali

A random person walking by started yelling something at us.

At first, we couldn’t make out what she was saying. She was incensed. Soon enough, we figured out that she was yelling:

“No! You can’t do that. Not here. No! This is wrong! Stop! You must stop!”

Apparently, not everyone embraces the light? So one of the people in our group approached her and explained that we were not harming anyone or anything and that it was Diwali and that these fireworks were legal and that we would clean it all up. But the lady didn’t care. She kept on ranting and threatened to call 911. Well, we didn’t stop. We kept on going. She eventually took her dog and left.

Then, on Friday, I was eating a samosa at a place near where I live, talking to the manager of the café, and she told me: “Yeah, my cousin was shooting off fireworks on his own lawn on Thursday and one of his neighbors called the cops on him.”

I couldn’t believe it. On his own lawn? Thankfully, the cops who showed up told the neighbor that everything was okay. After all, they were using PA-sanctioned fireworks on their own property, no? Makes we wonder if the 4th of July would elicit the same response. I’m guessing not.

So what does this lead me to think? Well, first of all, it makes me sad for those who cannot even for one moment embrace a holiday [even if it’s new to them] that celebrates light. But it also reminds me that not everyone is open and understanding. Not everyone wishes light for everyone, or light for the world. It’s sad but true.

Also, though, celebrating Diwali [and encountering the opposition] reminds me that if we are open to it, we realize that we are all connected. I mean, it doesn’t matter which religion you hold to or don’t. Light is a universal idea. The thought that someone could be in a really difficult time in their life and somehow light breaks through—we call can resonate with that. And I think we all want to think that light lives in each one of us, that light is in the world.

Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth thought this. Jesus taught others that light lived in them and that this light was God and that this light made them a community. Jesus also taught that each person should not keep their light to themselves. They should let their light shine. It’s the idea of God-essence being within you and me.

And while this is a beautiful idea [and one I try to embrace], we cannot ignore the other side of it. The Diwali story and the Christian story don’t just include light, but also darkness. And if you wish to locate the source of the light and the darkness, look no further than yourself. You see, the point of all this is to affirm that we should not judge others.

We are capable of light but we are just as capable of doing harmful and hurtful things.

If ever we think we have “arrived” as a kind and accepting person, we are in danger. We must always remember continually seek light, pursue it, surround ourselves with people who emit light, and in some cases, we must light it up even when others are telling us not to.

So what will that look like for you? How will you recognize the inner light you have? How will you emit light so others can see and connect with you?

 

 

Living in Trust, Living in Peace

Philippians 4:5-8

Emotional health is hard to come by in a world that seems to discourage trust in a healthy way, especially among many of in our communities who have a history of being marginalized. How can we seek a path out of the destructive patterns that recreate abusive relationships? How can we work towards a future that doesn’t recreate the past? What keeps us from this kind of healthy, holistic living: broken trust. When trust is broken we feel betrayed, alone, even worthless. We can enter into behavior patterns of mistrust, even when people have shown us that they are to be trusted. We can even perpetuate the same patterns in our relationships

Thus, it is essential that we seek restored trust. What are the elements of trust that we look for in a person, in life? What if we pursue and nurture these qualities in our relationships?

So…who was Paul of Tarsus? Good question. Like every author of Biblical literature, there is a lot of speculation and interpretation as to who Paul was. What we do know from other historical documents of the time and other Biblical books, is that Paul spent considerable time in prison. He was accused by the people of Philippi of disturbing their city and promoting customs that were not lawful for them or the Romans to observe. Leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin also sent Paul to trial because they considered him an agitator and a leader of a sect of the Nazarenes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s very possible that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison.

Before I go on, if any of you have any baggage about Paul, i.e. what’s been most likely pushed on you by others, let’s put that on the table first. Some [and maybe that’s you] consider Paul a misogynist, homophobe, and strict legalist. By no means am I claiming that Paul of Tarsus [or any other Biblical authors for that matter] were perfect or extra-inspired, super-holy people, and that’s why they are Biblical authors.

No way.

Paul, like anyone else was a flawed human being and he actually said as much in some of his writings. Now look, I cannot address the whole “against women and gay people” thing in a few sentences and you’ll need to do more thinking and study to come to wise conclusions. What I do know, however, is that women covered their heads in the 1st and 2nd century. It was cultural. This is not a teaching of Paul. Likewise, some of Paul’s closest associates on his missionary journeys and most trusted leaders were women. They were obviously teaching and leading. People who wish to propagate the idea that women cannot be leaders or ordained ministers use Paul as a way to justify their gender bias. And, Paul was not a homophobe. This word and also the word homosexuality did not exist until this century and neither did the concept of sexual orientation. It’s a fact. When Paul mentions in his letter to Rome, unnatural acts, he is speaking of a whole of behaviors [as defined by Greco-Roman culture and Jewish culture]. I point you to Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and others for a more in-depth look at NT sexuality.

I say all this only so our conversation is not derailed by our biases about Paul of Tarsus. Otherwise, all that follows will not have any relevance. You see, Paul was a Pharisee originally. He was raised with a rigid belief system and set of morals. Most everything was “right” or “wrong.” He was raised to trust in a religious system and eventually to trust a Roman Empire that occupied Israel and spread its cultural and societal norms. But like most people who go through some sort of psychological break, Paul had a life-changing moment. We don’t know if it was a day, a week, or a period of years. Whatever the case, he changed his world view. He no longer trusted being a Pharisee. He no longer trusted the Roman Empire. He found peace and contentment in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. But that was long after Jesus’ death; Paul never met Jesus. His journey to self-awareness and contentment was not as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this is why some people can resonate with at least part of Paul’s story. He came from oppressive power and great privilege. At some point he broke away from that and changed. As Jesus did, Paul spent the rest of his days with the marginalized. And in doing so, he found peace within himself. This leads us to a pretty well-known part of Paul’s letter to Philippi, chapter 4.

The phrase “Do not worry about anything” could certainly sound like wishful thinking at first glance. But, as it fits within the original meaning of the Greek language, consider placing it after the first part of this text. In other words:

Be gentle with others, because you really don’t know what they’re going through. In your day-to-day moments, meditate, pray, be grateful. Whatever is honest, just, joyful, beautiful, kind, life-giving—think about these things and pursue these things in your relationships. If you do, a divine, holistic peace that doesn’t fit into society’s or religion’s boxes will fill you and surround you. You will think differently about yourself and others. You won’t judge life and its situations so much because you’ll take them as they are. And anxiety will not control you anymore.

As such, this is not telling you to just push aside your problems and feelings, to ignore suffering, to be complacent and to “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, this is an invitation to trust those things and people that bring you joy and encouragement, fill you with acceptance and peace. To think about and meditate on such trusted things and people, because the trust is earned. I’m hearing this text giving us all permission to Live into trust and into peace. Life is about Moving forward.

It is about stopping the continual dysfunctional patterns within our lives and relationships.

handscirclepeaceSee, we can try to be healthier, more spiritual, whatever—but we won’t be unless we change. We won’t find peace and wholeness by tweaking this or that or by trying various religious practices or joining clubs or making small lifestyle changes or making New Year’s resolutions. We can continually rearrange things in our lives, but it will never end. Not until we realize who we are at our core.

Are you feeling stuck in a dysfunctional past? If so, why? What relationships and behaviors are keeping you there? How can you move forward?

What drives you in life? Think about these things.

Where have you been hurt? Recognize this.
What qualities in people inspire and encourage you? Meditate on those qualities.

EnTRUST-ed

Isaiah 5:1-7 Matthew 13:42,43

Love-one-anotherOnce again, let’s talk about trust.

In my last post we looked at how authority and trust go together, i.e. we give authority to the things and people we trust. And we focused on the idea that trust is not something we should blindly give; rather, that trust needs to be proven. Now, let’s take that same word trust and look at a variation of the root word in entrusted. If we entrust someone with something or someone, it means we give that person a responsibility to protect, care for, and handle. You give your beloved cat to your friend to take care of while you are on vacation. You entrust that person with your beloved cat. You put some money in a bank account. You entrust the bank to protect your funds, and in some cases, to grow the funds with interest. You send your teenager to college and entrust the professors, administrators, and RAs with your son or daughter.

So when we say we are entrusted with someone or something it is a responsibility to care for, protect, and in some cases, help to grow. I wish to connect the previous conversation about authority and trust to being entrusted. We give authority to political, religious, educational, and business leaders. By doing so we show that we trust them to do their jobs effectively and to serve the people they are supposed to serve. They are entrusted to do so.

And then, I look around. Yes, with social media and 24/7 news we are getting a heavier dose of politics than ever before. The issues, though, are the same ones we have always struggled with since the beginning of the human race. We give authority to political leaders, for example, like the White House Administration, and we expect certain things. We entrust these leaders who were voted in to care for human society, protect people, and serve the community. Sadly, I argue we have put far too much trust in people who since the very start didn’t have much of an interest in caring for or protecting people. And it’s not just in politics. Religion is no different.

How much are religious institutions and their leaders caring for and protecting people?

The issue of self-preservation is obvious among both political and religious leaders. And when you are afraid losing your authority and people’s trust in you is waning, then you will have the tendency to protect only yourself and the people you have around you. And that’s what is happening now.

A government that turns a blind eye to insane violence in places like Las Vegas, an individual who was able to plan out such a terrible shooting because it is far too easy to obtain automatic weapons that even people in the military think are unnecessary. Our own Conference Minister of PA SE the Rev. Bill Worley, stated after Vegas that as someone who served in the military and as someone who is a gun owner, he could not be more incensed and sad about the lack of interest in creating gun control policies that prohibit such terrible events and make it difficult for people to stockpile powerful weapons. It really doesn’t matter what political party you identify with or don’t, this issue is about people. And violence. And our political leaders continue to fail us. And I will also say that churches are far too silent about this. Far too many churches get all up in arms about Black Lives Matter signs or kneeling during the National Anthem and then say nothing after Sandy Hook, Vegas, and other mass shootings. None of us are that obtuse to insist that political leaders are not receiving money from the National Rifle Assoc., right? Those who have been entrusted to care for and protect are not following through.

Likewise, the AG of the U.S., at the same time of this horrible tragedy in Vegas, and during the continued suffering of people in Puerto Rico and Mexico, decides to rescind an Obama administration policy to protect LGBT people, undercutting federal protection, telling agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate those who hide behind so-called “religious freedoms.” So, in other words, it’s a license to discriminate. If that were not enough, the Trump administration issued a new rule that substantially undermines women’s access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act. Protection? Not unless you are white, male, straight, and wealthy.

And all this sounds so very familiar.

You see, in the Hebrew prophetic writings like Isaiah, the same things were happening. Governments were corrupt, self-serving, and refusing to care for the people—particularly those on the margins. Likewise, the religious institutions and leaders were silent and did not deem it their responsibility to care for and protect vulnerable people. YHWH, God, is not pleased with this. The image of the vineyard begins with a beautiful image of God’s good creation—the choice vines, the fertile soil, the potential to grow amazing grapes. But God notices that the beautiful vineyard that was entrusted has been neglected. YHWH expected justice, but saw violence; compassion, but saw indifference and silence.

Jesus of Nazareth knew the Hebrew scriptures and made the connection to Isaiah on various occasions in the Gospels. For Jesus, the vineyard was the kin-dom of God, i.e. the whole of creation, all living things. And this creation has been entrusted to human beings, to you and me. And those who produced the fruits of compassion, of caring for and of protecting, would experience this kin-dom and be in line with God’s great wishes for the world.

Friends, this is a critical time. It’s tempting at times to become overwhelmed with grief, sadness, and even anger over the break in trust that is happening now. So it is essential that we care for each other.

We must. Care. For each other.

Especially those who feel marginalized, vulnerable, lost, pushed down. We must care for each other. Because that is what God wishes for God’s good creation. Because that is what Jesus taught and did and passed on. It doesn’t matter what so-called authorities say or do, if they do not care for and protect people. We can. May it be so.

 

 

 

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

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