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Communal Seeing

Luke 24:13-16; 30-35

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

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

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

You were changed by this teacher.

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

Image result for superhero justice

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

The dream is over.

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

Question one: why does the universe exist?

Question two: what is our role within this universe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to story…

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

And they found it in community.

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

Because that’s real. That’s life.

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

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

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

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

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A Doubting Faith

John 20:19-31

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

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

Let me introduce you to Peter Rollins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we could embrace it?

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

What do you think?

 

 

April Fools!

John 20:1-2; 11-18

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

AND FREAKED THE HECK OUT.

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

Image result for jesus april fools

Image result for jesus april fools

I just couldn’t resist.

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

But let’s back up for a moment.

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary!

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

Now, back to meaning-making.

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s the same for resurrection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tearing Apart and Finding Rest

Mark 11:7-11; 14:3,8,9; 15:25, 33,34,37,38   

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It’s an interesting day, the Sunday before Easter. Christians around the world call it Palm Sunday, commemorating the story in the NT Gospels about Jesus of Nazareth riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and people laying down their cloaks and perhaps some palm fronds as well. So churches of all sorts often give palm branches to people who attend worship on said Sunday.

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I’m not judging anyone or any church that chooses to give out real palm fronds or fake ones. It is what it is. I’m not sure it’s the best use of resources [especially if we really dig deep into where the palm fronds come from]. Fake ones? Okay. But I’m not going to dwell on that. Such traditions are fine as long as they inspire and encourage people to be more kind and loving to others. Do the palm branches given out once a year accomplish that?

Not sure.

Since I was a child I have always wondered about the strange transition from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Sandwiched in between those two celebratory Sundays is what is called Holy Week—a week usually including at least one service of worship that focuses on Jesus’ death, including the symbol of the cross, and more mournful/somber ceremonies and rites. Sometimes people parade crosses through towns and cities and display bloody Jesus statues in public squares. Depending on a person’s tradition, Holy Week can be a time of mourning and sorrow.

I see you, Spain.

Image result for holy week processions spain

Image result for holy week processions spain

Or…

Holy Week is not bloody, somber, or particularly religious, but simply a week to prepare food and your house for relatives and friends for Easter dinner. Although depending on your friends and family, I suppose it could get bloody and somber? I hope not…

And we can’t forget about Passover, right? That’s how this all started anyway! Passover, for all of our Jewish friends and fam, begins March 30th and ends April 7th.

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Really, not so concerned about whether you do or don’t observe Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Passover, or Easter. These religious holidays are a mix of both secular, national, cultural, and religious traditions and vary according to where you live, what you eat, and what language you speak. So it’s best not to read too much into all that.

What I’d like to talk about with you, if you’ll join me in this conversation, is how a story [and our traditions] either help or hinder us in our seeking of rest and wholeness, and in our development as people to be more compassionate and loving to others. I’ve chosen to include parts of Mark’s Gospel story that take us from the Jerusalem road [palm branches, etc.] to the town of Bethany and the woman who anointed Jesus, to Golgotha and the cross, then back to Jerusalem and the temple.

The story arc goes like this:

-Jesus of Nazareth finally makes it to his destination [Jerusalem], and as he arrives, people are waiting.

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They are a mixed group—some wanting him to be a political ruler, a king, or a military champion. Others watched with curiosity and others with skepticism. The Romans were most certainly watching. So were the religious elites, called the Sanhedrin. Was Jesus a king? Some people wanted him to be. They sang the royal songs to him. They tried to anoint him as king.

-But this so-called “king” went to Bethany first. And there were no crowds and no Hosannas, and no palm branches thrown at his feet. Instead, there was a leper—an unclean, untouchable person. Jesus sat at table with this Simon. Then, a woman approached with an alabaster jar of ointment [notable because of its value and something that was reserved for special occasions].

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With Simon the leper watching, she did, in Jesus’ words, what “she could,” anointing Jesus’ body for burial.

Her action was good news.

-From Bethany Jesus ended up in a place of death, of skulls, called Golgotha.

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The ones who previously shouted Hosanna and laid down palm fronds and cloaks, where were they? It seems lonely, this part of the story. And indeed, it was. Jesus cried out in loneliness to a God who seemed absent, quoting a Psalm, Elohim, why have you left me alone? And then, Jesus died.

-At that point, the story shifts back to Jerusalem and the temple, the same one that Jesus threw tables around in because people were being exploited and marginalized there. In this same temple a ceremonial curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom…

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As if to say: the sacrifices you’ve been told you have to pay for and offer here are no longer necessary. Likewise, you don’t need priests or scribes or any other mediators to access the Divine. The Spirit of God is loose in the world and is all around you, and stands with all of you who are marginalized, broken, exploited, or lonely. This Spirit is with you.

All of you, like the woman with the alabaster jar, who have been criticized or made to feel small just because you made yourself vulnerable and took a risk to be yourself to show love.

All of you who have felt/feel like Simon the leper sometimes—ostracized by society and told that you don’t fit—that who you are is somehow not of value.

All of us, who have felt beaten up and are suffering, wondering, as Jesus did, where in the h@&* is God in all this pain and emptiness?

In all places, countries, neighborhoods, towns, and countrysides—we are given accessibility to a Divine presence that affirms who we are and calls us to love others above all else. And yes, it is this idea and movement away from hate and towards compassion that led to Jesus’ death, yes, this is what the curtain tearing in two is all about.

Students lose their lives due to senseless gun violence in their schools. They cry out with loud voices to lawmakers, politicians, school administrators, parents, and leaders. And they are met with silence. They are are blamed and scapegoated and told that they are too young to understand. And these students are still crying out.

Syrians experience death and war in their cities and towns each and every day. They cry out for help as foreign powers fund the armed conflicts in their neighborhoods, as their lives hang in the balance. Will anyone pay attention? Will anyone care?

Africans in various regions of the continent pray and hope for an end to civil wars and genocides that barely make the news or internet feeds and if they do, they last for a moment before people’s attention turns to the next new gadget or the newest celebrity gossip story.

Honest, hard-working people find themselves on the pipeline to prison just because they are black; transgender people are targeted and attacked just for being themselves; gay and lesbian couples are shunned by their families just because of who they love.

And churches continue to shame and shun people who don’t fit their definition of what God approves, conveniently kicking to the curb those who are materially poor, the LGBTQIA+ community, undocumented immigrants, non-religious people, those in non-conventional love relationships, people of other faith traditions, and basically, anyone who doesn’t sign off on whatever doctrine or dogma they hold to.

Golgotha is all around us. But we don’t have to stay there, do we?

Not sure what this next week called holy will be for you.

Perhaps you’ll decide to trade palm branches for protest signs; maybe you’ll pick up your cloak from the ground and give it to someone sleeping on the street; perhaps you feel a bit like Simon the leper, shunned and isolated, and you’d be grateful if someone would just visit you and sit at your table. Or maybe you’re like the woman with the alabaster jar—in possession of something so important and special to you, and yet bursting with the desire to share it with others, in spite of the skeptical stares you get.

There’s a place for us all in the story, friends. That’s what the temple curtain tearing is all about. No matter where you are or who you are on this journey called life, you don’t need a priest or a church or a religion to encounter God or to walk with this Jesus or to find intrinsic value within yourself.

You already have a place in the great story.

So, If there is to be any rest in us, if we are to bring love and rest to our communities and the world, We must go back to the curtain in Jerusalem that tears, reminding us that things are not set in stone or impossible to change—neither in us or in the world, that is, if we choose to risk love. If we risk being ourselves.

The Virtue and Practice of Rest

Mark 1:9-15

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

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

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

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

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

And why is that, do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

restWater

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

 

Trans-Figure

Mark 9:2-10

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

Image result for hermione

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

Image result for minerva mcgonagall and violet crawley

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

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

What if you are right now?

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

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

Transfigure.

What does it mean?

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

Go figure. Or, well—TRANS-figure!

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

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

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

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

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

Restored to Wholeness: Full Self

Mark 1:29-34a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is fragmentation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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