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Thrice Love

Matthew 28:16-20  NRSV
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Creator and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[a]

[based on I Corinthians 13]
Finally, my friends, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with sacred embraces. Jesus is grace for you; God is love for you; and the Spirit is community for you.

thricelove
Let’s start with three questions we all ask:

  1. Am I loved?

  2. Do I have a purpose in this world?

  3. How am I connected to others?

And now imagine your are on a mountain, but not really. A “mountain” experience is a spiritual one. It doesn’t have to be a literal mountain; it is a spiritual space where you learn something important.

For Jesus’ followers, their mountain experience included being told to “go” and make disciples. What does that mean? To baptize in a threefold concept of Creator, Son, and Spirit? And then, they were to obey the command. Which command? The greatest command–love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Then, a letter from Paul of Tarsus, to the people of Corinth, echoing this same idea. We are to go and strive for restoration in our relationships with each other, in our communities. We are to be better together, to live in peace. And then, we will experience peace. We are to greet one another with sacred embraces.

This whole “discipling” and “Trinity” thing. It’s not just a Christian idea. Many, many traditions hold to it, teach it, seek to live it out. It is a threefold mantra of God/the Divine Light living in us and calling us to live out this identity.

Keeping in mind the wisdom of many, many years and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh:

First, God says:

I am here for you.

You are not alone. Love as availability, accessibility. A great gift we can give to each other is our true presence. I am here for you. I am present with you, in this moment.

Second, God says:

I know you are here, and I am very happy.

Our lives matter. What a gift we can give to each other if we acknowledge their existence, that their lives matter to us. That we’re glad they are alive.

Third, God says, through Jesus,

I know and acknowledge that you suffer.

The most difficult thing for us to do, I think, to admit that people suffer, to accept it, and to not try to fix it, but to acknowledge that it is true. Many of us want to move quickly past the suffering, because it hurts to hear. But what if we acknowledge the suffering of another? Sit with that person? Stand with them?

The identity piece in all this, friends, is that the Trinity is not about a doctrine or a religious belief system. It is about living. God is here for us, loves us, as we are. God is happy that we are here, alive, as we are. Jesus knows and acknowledges suffering. This is the threefold love we are called to be for each other, and it is important, and purposeful, and powerful.

Make this a part of your everyday life.

  1. Be present with others.
  2. Be glad that others are alive.
  3. Acknowledge when people suffer.

Go and do likewise.

 

Understanding Each Other’s Languages

John 7:37-39, Acts 2

multilingual-content-strategyImagine this scenario: You are stranded on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific [no, not Waikiki] and you encounter another person on the island. You are overjoyed that you are not alone, except that both of you speak completely different languages and cannot understand what the other is saying. You don’t have electronic translators or apps for your phone…all you have is each other, pen and paper, and the ability to make sounds. Would you both be able to communicate effectively and if so, how long would it take? What do you think?

Some of you know that I lived in Hawai’i for three years, on the island of Oahu. People there wouldn’t hesitate to answer this question. They would say: “Of course. Of course we would be able to communicate.” Why? Because the great people of Hawai’i know all about pidgin and creole.

Hawaiian-Pidgin-EnglishPidgin and creole are terms that linguists use to distinguish between 2 very different forms of speech. Pidgins are simplified languages that develop as means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. This has happened around the world. On the Hawaiian islands it happened on the plantations and on boats. Originally, pidgin was a combo of Hawaiian, Cantonese, English, Portuguese, and Japanese. Then, they added Filipino languages, Korean, and Puerto Rican Spanish. It is important to note that people who speak a pidgin language claim another language as their first language.

Creoles, on the other hand, are languages that the children of pidgin speakers develop. As the kids grow up, they expand the vocab, pronunciation, and the grammar so they can eventually use it as their main language. Isn’t that incredible? I experienced this in Hawai’i with teenagers who spoke a very complicated and diverse form of Hawaiian pidgin that technically should now be called a creole.

One more linguistic thing before we move on. There is such a thing called mutual intelligibility. This is when people who speak different languages can understand each other because the languages they speak have some sort of relationship with each other. An example: if you speak Spanish as your first language, technically you can communicate with Galician, Portuguese and Italian speakers. It gets even more fascinating when you consider the cultures of people who live on the borders of their countries and often interact with others/cross those borders. Their languages reflect that interaction and often, they develop a pidgin or even a creole language that is a combo of the languages of various countries.

All this talk of language and communication leads us to Pentecost, a Christian holiday that is always celebrated on the 50th [thus Pente] day after Easter. It is a festival that reminds Christians of the giving the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But, it really is Jewish. The Feast of Weeks was and is a Jewish festival celebrated on the 50th day after Passover. So, you see that followers of Jesus just continued on with Jewish tradition, but with a Jesus twist.

There’s another important festival/religious time to mention. Jesus, as a Jew, observed succot, or what is often called the Feast of Tabernacles.

sukkahA really cool looking sukkah, no?

That is what we see in John 7. The feast was seven days long, a major feast to remember the story of Moses out in the wilderness. Moses struck a rock and water came gushing out of it like a geyser. Typically, a Jewish priest would go into the center of Jerusalem and find a large spring [pool of Siloam anyone?] With the water bubbling up, the priest would dip a pitcher of water. For seven days the priest would do this: dip the pitcher in the spring and then carry the water to the temple and pour it out there.

All this is important to know, because with this info you can imagine Jesus watching the priest perform this ritual with the water when Jesus said this:

When the Spirit comes and lives in you, out of your heart shall flow rivers of living water.

This Spirit, which is interchangeable with living water, takes center stage in the story of Acts. It was the Feast of Pentecost of course, and a strong wind came and no one knew where it came from. The wind filled the place and then the Spirit filled the place, and the people. It was like fire. And the people gathered there started to speak different languages and understand each other.

he-qi-pentecost
He Qi, Pentecost

A lot to unpack here, but let’s keep it simple. This Spirit that is given to everyone takes shape as wind, fire, water. The Spirit fills people regardless of age, background, past, or identification. The Spirit gushes out as an overwhelming spring of water. The Spirit brings together people who on the surface would never be together, never speak to one another, certainly wouldn’t understand each other. And this is more than just linguistics. When I say understand each other’s languages I mean more than just verbal or nonverbal communication.

Understanding each other’s languages means hearing each other’s authentic stories.

It means welcoming those stories, providing a safe space for them to be told, and then not judging those stories—just listening to them and accepting them. It is a powerful thing, don’t you think? If someone really hears your story without judgement? You walk away from that interaction feeling alive, connected, understood. This is the Spirit. This is what we need to do and be for each other.

Sacred Connections

John 17:6-11 NRSV

Perhaps you’ve heard of a little movie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

IamOneForce
One particular character in the story is called Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen). Chirrut says a mantra throughout the film:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

He repeats this phrase over and over again, especially when he is in dire situations. Whether fighting hordes of storm troopers, imperial walkers, massive weapons of destruction or the stigma of his blindness—Chirrut remains calm and confident as he says:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

Check out this trailer with a clip of one of his scenes.

Because this movie [and the Star Wars story in general] is pretty well-know, I thought I’d ask some of the members of our faith community what they think this phrase means to them. Here is what they said:

The force links us all…it flows through all living things.

I am one with everything and everything is within me.

I can change the world by changing minds.

The force is everywhere and it gives me strength.

We channel the energy of the universe so much that we embody that energy.

When I am connected spiritually, I become an active part of God. Like a cell in a body.

I’m in a state of strength of mind and body that keeps me focused.

The force, in Star Wars lore, is an energy field that connects all living things in the galaxy. The power of the Force can be used by individuals who are sensitive to it. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi who uses the force, states:

ObiWanHS-SWE

“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

So when Chirrut says I am one with the force and the force is with me he is affirming the ancient teaching that all living beings are connected and can access a strength, a power, within themselves if they are sensitive to it. Chirrut himself is not a Jedi who would then use the force in obvious ways. And yet, Chirrut, as a blind person, is often able to see better than those around him who are not blind. He can read people’s feelings. He can sense movement. He is convinced that the force lives within him and therefore connects him to the greater, which is the force itself—the dynamic, connecting energy of all life.

Take a glance at Social Media and you’ll notice that people are really connecting to this Chirrut’s catchphrase—and not just because it’s related to Star Wars. I think we all have a deep sense within us of wanting to be connected to something greater, and being able to access that connection within ourselves. We are all seeking meaning in this life, this world, our everyday existence. Yes, it’s that age-old question: why am I here? But it’s universal, this question. Why do we do the things we do, get out of bed in the morning, go to work, to school, eat, interact, etc? Why are we alive? What am I connected to that has purpose? Don’t all religious traditions ask these questions?

Now look, I wish I could say right now that this idea that we are all one and part of a whole, that Jesus also taught and lived, I wish I could say that all the religions practice it. Most of them teach it, for sure. But sadly, because religions are made up by people with agendas and sometimes greed, we drift from this core ideal of sacred connection to God and each other. But I am choosing to focus on the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and not the many, many mistakes that the religion of Western Christianity has made.

In John’s Gospel, I might add, the most eclectic Gospel—Jesus prays an incredibly long prayer in this chapter 17 and it is called, by many scholars, the most universal and cosmic prayer of the Gospels and probably of the whole New Testament. It is likely that this prayer was not something said by Jesus in one setting, rather that it is a mashup of various prayers/teachings of Jesus while with friends and disciples. Such is oral tradition. People pass things on that they experienced.

The general idea of the prayer is belonging and connection. We belong to God, to Jesus, and to each other. Reciprocity:  all that has been given to Jesus has been given to us. End result: we are one. So, you may ask, what happened? How did Christianity become exclusivist and even militaristic? Not because of Jesus. Not because of the Bible either. Historically, each religion develops over time. Well, Western Christianity, after experiencing a mystical period in which people like Origen of Alexandria, Egypt and Gregory of Nyssa saw Jesus as the union of the human and the Divine in one person and thus the possibility for the Divine and the human to co-exist in all living beings, later councils and church leaders moved towards dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the Divine and the human are two separate entities. Over time, Jesus went from cosmic and connected to individualistic and separate. The Divine and the human in Christianity parted ways.

It’s a shame, but it does explain why we see many so-called Christians deal with absolutes and clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. Binary thinking. And it speaks to the fact that in the U.S. we are often “here and there” people. You are Muslim? You are there. I am Christian and so I am here. You are gay and I’m straight? You there, me here. You are trans? You are over there and I’ll stay here. You are Black, Brown, or Asian and I’m White Anglo? Let’s stay in our lanes.

But that’s not a narrative I’m buying into.

I’m hearing the Jesus of John tell us another story, that we are all connected by something greater. Hear the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action of Contemplation, from his writing the Cosmic Christ:

We eventually know that Someone Else is working through us, in us, for us, and in spite of us. After enlightenment, our life is not our own. Now we draw from the One Big Life, the Christ mystery, the Christ nature, the Christ source. We stop fretting about our smallness. The individual will never be fully worthy or correct, but that same individual can still remain utterly connected if it stops over-defending itself. Our yes deeply matters. The word for that yes and that connection is, quite simply, love.

In Christ, we become Love.

That’s what is in us; that is what surrounds us.

You know why this is important, right? Because life is scary sometimes; because there are bullies out there who will try to steal your joy and weigh you down; because sometimes we can feel so lonely and empty that we ache with sadness. So we must return to that sacred place, that place of connection that Jesus spoke of. God is in you, in me, in everyone, in all living beings. Love is in you, in me, in all living things. We are connected by this. It gives us energy, strength, and even the ability to do things we thought were impossible.

So embrace that you are part of the whole.
Embrace all living creatures as they are and with compassion.

You are one with this Sacred Love; and the Sacred Love is with you.

 

Spiritual Quotient

John 14:15-21

There is a book that I have recommended and I’ll do it again. It is SQ 21, or Spiritual Quotient 21, by author Cindy Wigglesworth. This book really spoke to me and inspired me; I highly recommend it and would value your response to it. Ms. Wigglesworth defines spiritual quotient as: the ability to behave with wisdom and compassion while maintaining inner and outer peace regardless of the situation and emphasizes the urgent need for development of the SQ if we as human beings are to navigate this complicated and often disconnected world and above all, to experience spiritual health as individuals and communities.

sq 21
Oftentimes, we react to the issues and problems in our personal lives and in the world with a regression to survival modes—leading to unhealthy behaviors, division, isolation, and personal suffering. As a whole human race, when we regress to survival mode, we fall back to leaders who command and control, create hierarchies, bureaucracies, and corporations, all limited in their effectiveness and certainly not mechanisms for positive and lasting change.

 

I would argue that part of this is because we have gotten to a point in which we neglect spirituality.

For example, when kids and youth are in school, we are absolutely focused on their retention of knowledge and how to best help students to function intelligently. Furthermore, in general, we “ooh” and “aah” at people who have high IQs.

On the other hand, I have great respect for teachers who really care about their students, but not just their IQ. Good teachers also care about student’s EQ—emotional quotient. How are these children and youth learning and developing emotional intelligence? I am absolutely grateful and inspired by those of you who are teachers and are committed to the emotional intelligence of your students. It is vital. And the EQ leads to the SQ, the Spiritual Quotient.

Spirituality may be an elusive term or concept for you. Let’s attempt to imagine spirituality as the use of the brain, feelings, and experiences, leading to something transcendent. Nearly every faith tradition and philosophy emphasizes this kind of spirituality, teaching that spirituality is the development of understanding of others with kindness and is being in service of something greater.  From this core is born beautiful ideas like the so-called “golden rule,” a cross-pollinated value across religions. It starts with: “don’t hurt someone, unless you want to be hurt. Then, it evolves to “love one another as you wish to be loved.” Finally, at its peak, it becomes “love others as I [insert higher power/god] love you.” It is a love of generosity and is reciprocal.

Allow me to share a story. This story is an old one, from India. I’m retelling it in a similar way to Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, an Indian yogi, mystic, and poet. Many years ago, a family in India owned acres of land. The parents who owned the land had two children. When the children were grown, the parents knew it was time to hand over the land to their children. So they did, though they did not split the land in two, rather they promised half of the produce of the land to each of their children—grains and such. Time passed, and the land produced. One of the children got married and had 5 children; the other person did not marry or have any children. Time passed, and one day the person who was married with 5 children thought: my sibling is alone; no children, no partner. Why do I need all this produce, if I am not alone? So one night, the person snuck some grains and produce out of the storehouses and placed it in the sibling’s storehouse. This continued for some time. But then, one evening, the other sibling who was unmarried and had no children, thought: my sibling is married and has 5 children. I live alone. Why do I need all this produce? So the unmarried person snuck some of the produce to the other sibling’s storehouses. This continued for some time—both siblings sneaking grains and produce back and forth without knowledge of what was happening. They were both participating in necessary work, don’t you think? Reverse osmosis. Finally, one evening, when both siblings were sneaking the bags of grains to the other storehouse, they bumped into each other in a certain spot on their property. They both did a doubletake, were surprised, and also embarrassed. They were very embarrassed by being caught in their generosity. Clandestine generosity that caused them discomfort.

So that spot on their land, where they met in the night, was a place they did not return to. Years later, after the two siblings had passed on, the town near their property decided that they wanted to build a temple. Where would they build it? They decided that they would build the temple in the exact spot where the two siblings had met in the night, surprised by their generosity.

So it goes that if we do not create that space within us, we will not build a temple.

Divinity will not be a living reality in our daily life. So we are to create that space within us, to build that temple, reaching out, stepping out of our survival instincts to do something generous and kind, that little something.

This is the idea [and practice] of spirituality, of deep connection, which says: we are DEEPLY connected. Think for a moment about anyone you know or have known who was what you would describe as “deeply spiritual.” What characteristics describe them? I don’t want to speak for you, but for me, the deeply spiritual people I have met were created that space within them and demonstrated love and care.

This leads us to John’s Gospel, with the same reciprocal, spiritual theme of the commandments of God being summed up like this: love God, love yourself, love your neighbor. Done.

In terms of spirituality, John refers to the Spirit of God within us as the “advocate” or “comforter.” It is a spirit of honesty that won’t lie to you or manipulate you; it is a spirit of healing and of love. And this spirit is in you; it is actually part of your makeup.

Jesus, a representation of God’s presence and love, does not leave humanity all alone. The spirit of Jesus, this same spirit of healing and of love, lives—not in a church, not in a religion—but in you. In all of us. When we see love; when we see compassion; when we see acceptance; when we see or experience healing. We see and experience this spirit.

Further, loving Jesus is not a test. It is a not a belief system. Remember that in John’s Gospel, we are looking at the most recent Gospel writing and the most inclusive in terms of audience. There is no exclusivity in John. The idea of loving Jesus is not saying that if you don’t love Jesus you are not loved or you will not have access to God’s love. It is simply an attempt to explain that this type of agape, holistic love is reciprocal. Jesus loves and receives love. God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God. We are in Jesus and we are in God. God is in us. It is not meant to be linear or predictable. It is precisely the opposite. It is spiritual. It is the spirit that lives in that space we open up inside ourselves.

When Jesus says that the disciples “know” the spirit, this [in John’s Gospel] means that they are in relationship. Abiding, being one, and knowing, are all the same thing in John. This is about connection. And this connection is called love. And love is the opposite of fear. Those who are connected to God’s love are connected to each other. And they live out that connection in the world. This gives them meaning. So may all of us create spaces within ourselves, to build temples of compassion, kindness, and reciprocal love. It is vital to our identity and to our world.

 

Community within, Community Expressed

Sense8 is an original TV series streaming on Netflix, created by the Wachowskis, the two people behind the Matrix trilogy. Sense8, a play on the sensate, tells the story of eight strangers: Capheus, Sun, Nomi, Kala, Riley, Wolfgang, Lito and Will, each from a different culture and part of the world. As the story develops, all eight characters have visions and find strange connections to the others even though they are all worlds apart. They realize that they are all sensates, humans like anyone else except for the fact that they are linked with a mental and emotional connection, allowing them to sense and communicate with each other, as well as share their knowledge, language and skills. The eight sensates try to live their lives and figure out how and why this connection has happened and what it means.

Here are the eight sensate characters in the story:

sense8
Capheus,
a matatu driver in Nairobi, a passionate fan of movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a son who is trying to earn money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother.

Sun Bak
, daughter of a powerful Seoul, Korea businessman and a star in the underground kickboxing world.

Nomi Marks,
a trans woman hacktivist and blogger living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita. She was born Michael but changed her name to Nomi, which stands for “Know Me”.

Kala Dandekar
, a university-educated pharmacist and devout Hindu living in Mumbai, India. She is  engaged to marry a man she does not love.

Riley Blue,
an Icelandic DJ living in London.

Wolfgang Bogdanow,
a Berlin, Germany locksmith and safe-cracker who has unresolved issues with his late father and participates in organized crime.

Lito Rodriguez,
a gay, closeted actor from Bilbao, Spain living in Mexico City with his boyfriend Hernando.

And Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer haunted by an unsolved murder from his childhood.

In the story, the sensates represent the next step in human evolution. Their brains have subtly but powerfully changed so that they are able to connect with each other across long distances without being detected or listened to. They can have conversations in two places simultaneously, flipping back and forth between a rainy café in Germany and a sunny temple in India, while a character in Korea vapes with a character in Iceland. They seem to be physically in the same place as the others, having a face to face conversation. A common phrase for the sensates becomes:

“I am also a we.”

I wish to explore this idea of deep connection—how it is on the inside and then how it can be expressed on the outside. Have you ever felt a deep connection with someone you just recently met? How did it feel? What did that connection lead to? And, do you ever have the experience of feeling disconnected, even from people you have known nearly your whole life? See, connection is not about longevity; it’s not even about having things in common, looking the same, or sharing all the same perspectives. Connection, I argue, is an energy. It is an energy between people, between us, when we feel that we have been seen, heard, and valued as we are. Connection is that energy that fills us when we are not judged, when we are truly seen and valued.

I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it’s worth saying again. In this life, it is really important to pursue and nurture relationships/connections with people who value you, who see and hear you and accept you, as you are. That most likely means that you will have these types of strong connections with only a handful of other humans and that’s fine. Hey, the characters in Sense8 are only deeply connected to seven others. The energy of connection in our relationships is vital to our health.

The language and concept of connection is obvious in the Jesus of John’s Gospel. Jesus is portrayed in various I AM statements, and all of those identity statements lead us right back to the idea of connection. Jesus said I AM the vine and you are the branches. Straight up connection talk there. And now here in John 14 we find Jesus talking about dwelling places, though not your typical house or apartment. Jesus speaks here of a realm of dwelling beyond the brick and mortar. Dwelling in Abba God’s house is not heaven—it is the presence of God, and it goes both ways like a swinging door of connection. If God dwells in you, then you also dwell in God’s house. And vice versa. The place, the connection for all of us has already been prepared; it is simply up to us to embrace it.

And then the Jesus of John takes it one step further, or maybe in this case, Jesus humanizes it even more, because our good friend Thomas is still asking great questions. Thomas asks the how question and Jesus responds with love and care. How will you know the way to this connection? Well, I AM way, I AM truth, I AM life. No one comes to the light, to the connected Divine, to God, except through path, truth, and life. If you know your path, and truth, and life, then you will know the Divine. And from now on you do know, and you have seen.

Wonderful and beautiful language, but of course I have to mention [albeit briefly] that this beautiful part of John’s Gospel can also be negative trigger for some. Why? Because sadly some make it a habit of taking words from the Gospels attributed to Jesus and turning them into clobber texts, exclusive religious dogma, or even opportunities to say to some people they don’t like that they are doomed and that God doesn’t love them. Rather than spend more time on those who use this as a clobber text, I prefer to focus on what the text actually says within its context, also considering the audience it was written to. Keep in mind that John’s Gospel is the most inclusive Gospel writing, apart from the Gospel of Timothy, probably. John is a text written for a mixed group of people. It’s meant to open up the message of Jesus to a wider audience. It verges on universality sometimes. It’s often ambiguously symbolic and even combines different religious traditions. But John’s Gospel is not exclusive. Jesus’ I AM statements, each one of them, are meant to invite and include more human beings. Many rooms in Abba’s house, remember?

So this oft-quoted phrase about way, truth, and life is not a claim that Christianity [which didn’t exist at the time, by the way] is the one true faith and that Jesus is the only way to God. It doesn’t say that. The word only just isn’t there. What IS there is a kind and loving invitation to be connected in a deep and powerful way. Be connected to Jesus/God/the Divine/the Light, however you wish to call it, but be connected to this way, truth, and life, which is the power greater than all of us that connects us across genders, orientations, cultures, languages religions, countries, and differences. This connection is love and compassion—practicing that in our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing people as they are. Accepting them. Seeking and nurturing this connective energy gives us purpose and meaning in life. What do you think?

 

What Gives You Life?

John 10:1-10

Open-Gate
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of religion and politics. Now before you run away after hearing this, please hear me out. I know some of us prefer to avoid that conversation, but I think it’s really important to address it. Religion and politics have been intertwined ever since human beings started saying and defining those two words. Though people who live in countries like the U.S. that claim to be democracies often think that religion and politics are separate, it’s time for some honesty. Religions have always influenced political policies; political movements and policies have influenced religions. Currently, many in the U.S. are perhaps recognizing this for the first time, even though it is nothing new. When things like health care are discussed, or marriage rights, or abortion, climate change, capital punishment, gender equality, trans rights, etc., it quickly becomes clear that a person’s religious tradition [or lack thereof] informs how they view these issues. If you haven’t noticed, since the new administration took office, many religious groups across the spectrum have been more vocal about government policies that are inhumane, harmful, and even evil.

We need to leave space for these conversations to happen and people of all religious traditions and secular traditions should not ever be afraid to stand up against any policy or political movement that threatens people’s humanity or rights. It is our responsibility to do so, even if said policies do not affect us personally, because they affect our neighbors. Of course, this is what Jesus taught and did—even though it was not popular. In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as the presence of the Divine as hoped for in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah—bringing justice, healing, and reconciliation to an unjust, wounded, and divided world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often expressed identity 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, stand with them when they are in trouble. In fact, 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

Sadly, as mentioned previously, religions are created by humans and thus end up serving the desires of humans. That means that religions easily lose their way when they stray from the core elements of message and practice. Jesus, in no Gospel account, was violent, uncaring, exclusive, or judgmental.

Jesus didn’t try to steal people’s identities.

Jesus didn’t destroy people’s lives. Jesus was a giver of life to all. 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, as I mentioned, 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.

And we need to tell the blessed story that gives life. Everyone deserves this type of love and care that the good shepherd offers to all. Everyone. And all of us should be loving and caring in this way, in the world. For if we choose to identify with this good shepherd, if we choose to believe that God offers us a full life and acceptance as we are, then doesn’t it follow that we should wish for others to experience the same thing?

You see, I think what gives us life as individuals is a good place to start. So ask yourself: what gives me life? Who are the people who give me life? Go to that place. Then, think about all those around you—regardless of their religious traditions or lack thereof; no matter what gender they express or identify with; no matter who they love or what they look like or how much they make or what language they speak. Think about those around you. Don’t you want them to feel alive, cared for, loved? My answer is yes. And all of us who do answer yes to that question, let’s do something about it. Be life-givers in your conversations, your interactions, your decisions, your tweets, and your connections. And if you feel bullied or destroyed or hurt or not invited—I am sorry that this has happened to you. It’s not something you deserve. What you do deserve is love and kindness and community. Let’s work on that together.

 

Who Do You Meet on the Road?

Luke 24  

 path

Not that long ago if we needed to walk, drive, or take public transportation to a place we asked other people how to get there. Then, we used paper maps. After that, we typed the address into a computer and printed out Mapquest directions. Remember that?

mapquest

Then the GPS with the somewhat unreliable suction. And now, of course, when we want to go somewhere we simply tell our phone where want to go, the mode of transportation, and we not only get directions to that place, but how long it will take us, alternative routes due to traffic, construction, or a Godzilla attack, and also we get to see our progress on the screen, right before our eyes.

The roads we travel have seemingly become more accessible with this kind of technology. It is true—we are traveling more now as a human species than ever before. We honestly don’t have the same excuses for not going places and the whole “I got lost” argument usually falls pretty flat these days. All that aside, traveling the road to a destination is an important metaphor in life. I invite you to think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on—and all the different kinds of places those roads led you to.

When I was younger and living in rural Iowa, country roads [and even gravel roads] were part of life. I spent a lot of my time walking down these roads, as public transportation was scarce and I didn’t have a car. Where we lived in Central Iowa, the roads rolled over hills [yes, Iowa has hills!] and at the top of certain hills you could see for miles. Before you got to the top of the hill, though, you couldn’t see anything. Gravel roads are interesting, mainly because anything or anyone that has traveled ahead of you kicks up dust. The general rule when you are walking on a gravel road is to wear sunglasses or to walk backwards. Otherwise, you’ll be begging for eye drops in a hot second. The other type of road in Iowa I remember distinctly is highway 65/69. That thing went on forever, and when we had to go to faraway places, at times I felt that it would never end. The speed limit is 75 and you still feel like you’re crawling along. Maybe it’s the eternal stretch of cornfields on your way through Nebraska? Think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on.

The reason that the road is a an oft-used metaphor for life isn’t hard to understand, is it? Because all of us use all kinds of roads to get from one place to another. The roads wind and turn and go up and down and stretch for miles. They are made of dirt, cobblestone, gravel, asphalt, grass, and rock.

Sometimes we can see what’s ahead on the road; sometimes we can’t see anything at all.

The other part of the road is life metaphor is who you meet on that road. Believe it or not, even on lonely, country roads in rural Iowa I met people, or sometimes other living beings. As you can imagine, along a country road in Iowa, there were animals. Cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, and all sorts of creatures. Just when I thought I was completely alone on the road, they greeted me with a sound or a smell or a movement. And from time to time I encountered a farmer, or a person walking their dog, or someone on a tractor. Kids would appear on bikes or motorcycles. Cars whizzed past. It honestly makes me think a lot about life. There have been many times when I have felt like I was walking down a lonely stretch of rural Iowa roads—not sure if I would encounter anyone, not convinced that the road would ever come to an end. And then, I was surprised. I was surprised by life I didn’t expect to see—connections with people that recharged my batteries and picked me up off the mat.

Those connections with people on the road of life, whether short or long ones, helped me get to know myself better and reminded me that I was not alone.

Of course, part of the road has also included recognizing that unfortunately, some people I meet on the road are not kind and not healthy for me to be around. Those encounters [and the consequent walking on/moving on from those relationships] taught me a lot about the kinds of people who really do care and truly accept me.

The story in the Gospel of Luke 24 is often called “The Road to Emmaus.” It involves two people, former followers of Jesus of Nazareth, walking on a road after Jesus’ death. Emmaus, according to historians and scholars, probably was not a real place at all. Further, the two people on the road are not identifiable. So this is the storyteller saying to us: You are Cleopas. You are walking on that road with someone. You don’t know where that road will take you—Emmaus? Timbuktu? A hole in the space-time continuum? We are walking down that road. And we don’t know where it leads. But where we are going/where the two disciples are going, isn’t the point.

The point is who they meet on the road.

A stranger. Any random person you may encounter while at the grocery store, a park, on a street corner. A stranger. You have no expectations for this encounter. But the stranger seems to care about what you’re going though. You’re sad, lost, distracted. The stranger listens. This stranger then seems to share some of your sacred stories and important feelings. The stranger accepts you as you are, where you are on that road to seemingly nowhere. Eventually, the two travelers in the story recognize the stranger. It was Jesus—their teacher, their friend. They felt connected again, but only after they ate together. Must have reminded them of their favorite moments on the road. In fact, their eyes were open and they even saw themselves as newly alive.

Now I know that for many of you, maybe Jesus won’t be the stranger you meet on the road. Maybe that religious narrative isn’t where you are right now. We get caught up with the name and concept of Jesus too much, if you ask me. So just consider—if you were to meet a stranger on the road who listened to you, accepted you, and inspired you to open your eyes—who would that person be?

And, are you open enough to affirm that this person could actually be anyone? The person next to you pumping gas? The child laughing at the playground? A teacher? An acquaintance at church, or school, or work?

See, I think that Jesus never meant for us to be so reliant on some religious idea of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. I think that Jesus meant for his followers and friends to find resurrection in themselves, along the journey, on the road, and to have their eyes opened by the encounters with people on that road. Because when we share with each other, we feel less alone and more connected. When we open ourselves to random encounters and distance ourselves from the unhealthy encounters—the ones that try to change our story and don’t accept us as we are. When we do that, I think we can be surprised. We can meet each other on the road and find encouragement and connection. Because this road is not a straight line. And sometimes you will feel alone and disconnected. But keep walking your unique road. Encounter people who will truly listen to you and accept you. May our eyes be opened.

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