Relating, Creating, Transforming

Saving the Best for Last?

John 2:1-11     

Image result for israel vineyards

Winemaking was a practice in the ancient world we now call the Middle East and parts of Africa. Wine was made in the triangle of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee—consider eastern Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. Then the vines made their way to Egypt. There wine’s importance was first documented. The vines also passed through Canaan and ancient Israel. After that, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans brought the vines to what is now Western Europe and North Africa and then the Spanish brought it to the Americas.

Wine figures prominently in the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments. Prophets like Isaiah use wine frequently as imagery in prophecy. Prominent characters like King David, Moses, and many others were wine drinkers. Noah was the first recorded vine grower. He planted his vineyard where the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. Back in Jesus’ day, people drank a lot of wine because it was often safer than water. Wine was also a disinfectant for wounds, an agent for dying, a digestion aid, and an instrument for religious ritual.

Image result for ancient israel wine

Making wine was a family enterprise. Everyone would have a role in the harvest. People carried grapes in baskets and then put them on the floor of the winepress and then they pressed the grapes with their bare feet. Finally, though wine was stored in pottery jars–

Image result for ancient israel wine jars and skins

When people traveled, they would put the wine in animal hides [often goat]. These wineskin flasks allowed for the wine to keep fermenting while it was stored.

Image result for ancient israel wineskin flask

So fast forward to Jesus of Nazareth, and let’s be honest—Jesus was a typical Nazarene Jew who enjoyed wine. He was referred to as the one “who came eating and drinking, a gluttonous man and wino, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Sounds like my kinda dude.

How many times have you ever considered that Jesus may have been really fun to hang out with? Hmmmm….

Anyway, we find ourselves in a John Gospel story that is often referred to as the first miracle story. But let’s bring it back down to earth. Jesus and his fam and some of his followers are at a wedding in nearby Cana of Galilee. It’s a party. Now at some point, they ran out of wine. And that’s bad news for a wedding reception. How are grandma and grandpa going to do the electric slide without wine?

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So Jesus’ mom tells Jesus as much: “There’s no wine.”

At first Jesus seems a little put off. I mean, is it really his problem that the hosts ran out of wine? But Jesus’ mom knows what she’s doing. She’s savvy. She’s in on the joke, you see. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. Then we get some important details. There are 6 stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. Aha! Let’s explore this. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people had developed water purification rituals before entering the temple or other religious rites. They would submerge themselves in a mikveh, a collection of water similar to a pool.

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So those 20-30 gallon jars were for purification purposes. You sensing where this is going yet? I don’t need to fill in the blanks, right?

Consider that Jesus of Nazareth had recently met up with crazy John the baptizer at the River Jordan to be submerged in the water, baptized. It was a ritual cleansing for “reorienting” [repenting]. So now Jesus has the people fill those empty purification jars with water. What was supposed to hold “holy” water would now be party juice. They do it and then they draw some out for the chief steward. He takes one drink and is like: “What is this? It’s gooood…” See, usually you serve the good wine at the beginning of the reception and then people’s taste buds get numb so that at the end of the night you can serve the bleh or meh wine.

But the opposite was true—the best wine for last.

So let’s review the opposites at play here:
-best wine served last, not first
-religious, ritual jars filled with secular juice
-divine to profane
-clean to unclean

There is so much to say about this story. What stands out to me is the interplay of water as a purifying, cleansing, blessing agent and wine as coming from that water and bringing about joy, and existing in the everyday lives of ordinary people, and quite frankly, reminding us that all our religious rules and rites can blow up at any moment.

And it’s a world of opposite possibilities:

Exclusion to Inclusion
Division to togetherness
Walls to open spaces and welcome mats
Hatred to Compassion
Judgement to Acceptance

It’s a world of possibilities and the world of incarnation—of the divine and human coexisting just like water and wine coexist. It’s a world that exists in each one of us, the possibility to make change. You know, Martin Luther King once said:

Image result for mlk always time to do the right thing

There will be resistance to us turning water into wine, friends. There will be people with red baseball hats that call certain others unclean and shout hateful and harmful rhetoric about making things great again, but we’ve learned from this story, haven’t we? Being great isn’t about power or sovereignty or control. We don’t get to say who is clean or unclean. At any moment, things can flip.

See, greatness is about serving others in love.

For if our actions are generated by love, we will make change. We will change water into wine. We will turn the tables in ourselves and in the world. Salud!

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Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Water is essential for life.

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Without water, we die. Without water, there is no life. Period.

Look around the world right now and you’ll notice that there are far too many people who struggle to survive…because they don’t have access to drinking water.

844 million people don’t have clean water.
(WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2017)

31% of schools don’t have clean water.
(UNICEF, Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring, 2015)

Every minute a newborn dies from infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
(WHO, 2015)

Worldwide, 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is due to a water-related disease.

And here’s the thing—access to water affects a person’s whole life. If a kid, for example, has access to clean water, he/she does not need to travel miles to fetch water. That kid can then stay in school and get an education. Also, with clean water, disease and sickness is lessened, and the child can grow up healthy with access to more opportunities. And, with clean water access comes better food security and reduction of hunger. Access to water can break the cycle of poverty.

Now for many living in the U.S., water scarcity is not a thing. Many of us used to think that that kind of thing happened in far away places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Flint, Michigan happened. You remember that? Also, as recently as last year, there were a few days in certain Philadelphia suburbs when the water was unsafe to drink due to septic issues. Imagine if that problem were to last weeks, months, even a year?

Many of us take water for granted. It’s coming out of our faucets, shower heads, flushing our toilets, and making our coffee. But what if you had to travel miles on foot just to have access to water? How would that change your view of it? Water would become precious to you. Water would become life for you. Water would be more valuable than money.

We ought to view water in this way—as a precious treasure, and something that all people [and all living things] deserve access to. For without it, life is no more.

I hope that you can embrace water as a tangible thing but also as a symbol of life, of wholeness. For that is what a small story found in all four canonical Gospels is all about—water.

You may have heard of this tale. Jesus of Nazareth, now a grownup, heads to the river Jordan in the middle of nowhere to meet up with this crazy preacher named John. Now, there’s context here, right? John is Elizabeth’s kid, and Elizabeth is somehow related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Were they cousins? Very possible. But the Gospels seem to point out that John and Jesus didn’t know each other yet. How could that be? Well, it’s possible that when King Herod was trying to kill all the first-born sons of Judah back in the day that while Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah and John went somewhere else to hide. Perhaps Jesus and John grew up apart from each other. And then, it’s possible that Jesus heard about this crazy preacher by the river Jordan and wanted to meet him. It’s possible. But we really don’t know. What we do know is that the first version of this story, in Mark, is shorter and just says that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to where John was and got baptized, i.e. submerged in the water of the river. Then, the heavens opened [I’ve always taken this to mean that it may have rained], and then the Spirit came down [fluttering like a bird] and a voice told Jesus that he was a pretty good dude.

But the later Gospel writers added some commentary, because honestly, this story is problematic. I mean, think about it—many people believed [and still believe] that Jesus of Nazareth was without sin. So, why in the world would a sinless Jesus need to be baptized by John, who was doing that so as to forgive people’s sins? Um, yeah. So the later Gospels try to explain it away and in my opinion, they fail at it. I actually think this whole “sin” thing isn’t the point of the story at all.

The point is the water.

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See, John and Jesus were doing the same thing, in their own ways. They were preaching and teaching what the ancient Hebrew prophets did, like Isaiah, telling anyone who would listen that the world was messed up, out of balance, and injust [especially to the vulnerable and marginalized], and that Yahweh had just about had it. Time to repent [which means turn around], time for a 180 and the water was a symbol of that. You submerge yourself in that river, you make a decision to move forward in a new way. You leave behind whatever was dragging you down. You commit to being just and compassionate to others. You decide to be just and compassionate with yourself.

The water is the tangible element in nature that everyone needs to survive. There is not one single living thing on this earth that doesn’t know about water. Every day water is part of our lives. So it’s the perfect, universal, tangible symbol for something that may seem not so universal or tangible—the Spirit.

See, many read this story as Jesus’ big moment when God pretty much certifies Jesus as the Messiah and some type of demi-god. In fact, that’s what most people wanted. Truth be told, if you read the whole story in the Gospels, John had his own views about who the Messiah would be. We have NO IDEA how John really reacted to meeting Jesus. We just know from the earlier story in Mark that John baptized Jesus. And then they went their separate ways. So make your own conclusions.

But what resonates for me is what is consistent in the story—the water. The water changes the people who are baptized in the Jordan river. The water changes Jesus of Nazareth. After the water, Jesus launches a movement of ragtag, poor, marginalized people who promote justice, peace, and love. They go from town to town, and eventually make it to the epicenter, Jerusalem.  The water-spirit drives them there, keeps them together, motivates them when they lose momentum, fills them when they feel empty.

The last thing I’ll say about this story is that the voice coming from heaven was mostly likely heard by lots of people. In other words, don’t take the story so literally that you see these events as happening all in the same linear time frame. The voice was meant for Jesus, yes, but was also meant to be heard by others, and was also meant to be heard by you and me in 2019, reading this story.

Because we’re invited to the water ourselves.

We’re invited there no matter how long it takes us to get there, or where we come from, or who we call ourselves. We are invited to the water, invited to submerge ourselves in it, to feel its drops trickle down our face, to feel the sensation of cool water in the middle of a hot desert. Yes, we’re invited to the water and we NEED this water to live. It turns us around, it reminds us of who we are and who we are becoming, and then we just might have a chance to embrace this Spirit-thing that is sometimes hard to understand or accept. The voice is also for you and for me, for all of us, telling us that we are just fine as we are made, we are beloved as-is, but that also at any time we can go back to this water and make a change.

We can turn around. We can do a 180. We can keep becoming.

I recently had a conversation with my friend, Lucas Mangum, the author of FLESH AND FIRE, MANIA, ENGINES OF RUIN, GODS OF THE DARK WEB, and WE ARE THE ACCUSED. The collection, Engines of Ruin, was just released in paperback on January 5 (the Kindle edition has been out since December).

Lucas’ newest novel We Are the Accused was released on January 15th.

You can find the rest of his books on Amazon and you can also follow his blog Cranky but Cultured.

[Our conversation was transcribed and not edited so as to capture the true spirit of it]

JOSH:
Lucas, I’m curious to know if there is a book that you can remember—not necessarily the first one you read, but a book that definitely made you cry.

LUCAS:
I will mention two—I don’t remember if I actually cried but I do remember being deeply affected by first The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and also by another called Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. First, O’Dell’s book I think primarily affected me because of the violence and because it was my first exposure to real tragedy and stuff like that. Stepping on the Cracks was a book that really affected me because it was the first time I really experienced the magic of storytelling, the way she sets things up. There are these expectations early on this book and then she kind of turns them on their head, but it doesn’t happen in a way that makes it seem like it comes out of nowhere. She surprised me, but it makes sense.  

JOSH:
I’m wondering–I’m not a writer but I’m an actor and a performer and so, I know for me that when I’m doing stage work it definitely energizes me. So I’m wondering if for you the writing practice gives you energy or, when you’re finished writing, are you exhausted?

LUCAS:
You know, lately it’s been doing nothing but energizing me. It’s weird, but now I want to write more. I don’t know if it’s because I finally like got my voice or hit my stride or whatever you want to call it; it’s been like this for the last 6 months. I’ve been very, very productive always wanting to continue doing things. For example, I started doing this new thing just after I finished another piece. I’m ready to move on to another one and I’ve never done that before; I’m just compelled to do it.

JOSH:
So this is the first time that you have felt that type of energy when you finish a project, i.e. you are ready for another.

LUCAS:
Yeah, before I would get this temporary high, but I would definitely have crashes as well. But this doesn’t feel like that now, it’s different.

JOSH:
Your writing obviously crosses over some genres. How did you get to that point? When you started writing, were you attracted to horror typically or was it just kind of writing in general?

LUCAS:
I guess it was always writing in general, though I definitely was into the spookier things in life. I actually recently chronicled my long-standing relationship with horror in a poem called Halloween Poem and it was featured on the Heavy Feather Review last October. tI’ve definitely been expanding to other genres and I recently wrote a romance novel. I’ve been trying my hand with a few other genres like short story form as well, but horror is definitely something I come back to.

JOSH:
You get this question a lot but it’s worth mentioning: who are some strong influences for you?

LUCAS:
So I guess you know Stephen King would be the obvious one of course, but there’s this movie from the eighties called Killer Klowns from Outer Space and it made me incredibly happy. I actually just recently re-watched it and I still absolutely love it.

JOSH:
That reveals a lot about you, Lucas [laughter].

LUCAS:
There is a lot of stuff that I like that isn’t, you know, spooky. I also like stuff that has a sense of humor as well. I’ve only recently started to incorporate more of a sense of humor into my work. Indeed, a lot of my stuff tends more towards the bleak side of things but some of the last few pieces I’ve done have been–I don’t want to say lighter–but definitely there has been a bit more humor providing some comic relief.  

JOSH:
So all your different writings, are they pretty much stand-alone pieces or are there connections between the stuff you’ve written?

LUCAS:
You know I often toy with the idea of tying them all together but the idea of trying to compile an expansive work like the Labyrinth stories or JRR Tolkien’s work is really intimidating for me. But I kind of end up doing it on the subconscious level anyway you know, coming from my head of course these stories exist in some sort of connected way I would imagine.

JOSH:
So you don’t intentionally do that.

LUCAS:
No, not really, no.

JOSH:
Now that you’re older [you’re still young], but if you could think back as far as you can when you first started writing, what would you tell that younger Lucas about writing?

LUCAS:
I’m tempted to tell him to get a bit more serious about learning the craft a little earlier but at the same time I don’t think I really regret anything. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll leave time traveling to the guy from Quantum Leap then.

JOSH:
So you’re probably more of a process-oriented person. And having no regrets is also a good thing.

LUCAS:
I don’t recommend some of the choices I made but I don’t regret them either.

JOSH:
After your first work was published, did that change things for you in terms of the way that you carried out your process?

LUCAS:
You know, after my first publication, Flesh and Fire–

After that I started second-guessing myself a little bit more. I thought it was a pretty good novel but I sort of built it up in my mind so much that I started thinking that I’d never be able to repeat that success.

JOSH:
What is one of the novels that people should know about?

LUCAS:
That’s easy. Come Closer by Sara Gran is absolutely frightening. It’s about a woman who may be possessed, and it’s all told in first-person from her point of view. You kind of get the impression that there’s a chance she might not be possessed and that she is just kind of losing her mind. I don’t know the author managed to capture that in such a visceral way but it had an impact on me.

JOSH:
How do you balance asking the reader to do something and also caring for the reader? How does that factor into your process?

LUCAS:
I mean it definitely used to. I guess when you’re a new writer you really do get concerned about  the notes you have to hit in this particular genre. I don’t know, now I kind of feel like if I’m having fun running with a piece, regardless of what I do with the genre’s tropes, I think that will show through and hopefully the reader will have fun in turn.

JOSH:
Now that you are a published author, obviously you are hitting a different stride. How do you define success? I mean, success is such a weird word, because there is such a thing as commercial success or monetary success. But as a writer in general, how do you view success? Is it about your own personal satisfaction?

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean I certainly would like to make a lot more money. I figure people in every profession kind of feel that way. But really, if I take a step back, I have to appreciate the fact that I’ve done a lot. Come Tuesday my 5th book will be published. I’ve done lots of public readings and I’ve done two panels at Austin Comic-Con. I don’t know, I mean kind of just have to appreciate each degree of success, I think

JOSH:
When you write, do you do research at all, and if you do, how much time would you say you spend on that?

LUCAS:
Yeah, I mean I guess it really depends on the project. If I’m writing an intense, personal piece then all the research I need is already there in my life experiences. But if I’m doing something in another time period or something that involves, I don’t know, police work or something, I’ll have to do some actual research. I guess the short answer is it really depends on the project.

JOSH:
Has most of your work been more personal and so it doesn’t require as much research?

LUCAS:
For someone my age I think I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of things. I’ve got this well that I can draw from without doing a tremendous amount of research.

JOSH:
Now, you mentioned that you do have this really strong energy to write. On average, how many hours a day are you writing?

LUCAS:
You know, I don’t usually count in hours. I shoot for a minimum of 800 words a day but usually I end up doing anywhere from 1500 to 2500 words a day.

JOSH:
Looking over the synopsis of some of your short stories and other stuff you done, I’m intrigued by whether you tend to focus on different periods in life, like childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.  

LUCAS:
A lot of times I do end up focusing on the present, though I’ve definitely written all over the place; I have kind of been all over the map as far as stages of life go. I haven’t done much about the elderly, so maybe that’s my next novel.

JOSH:
Those of us with interesting vocations like writing or acting or religious work tend to be less commercially successful in many ways, though we put a lot of work, energy, and passion and love into it. Do you think that writing for you is a spiritual practice? And I give you full freedom to define spiritual however you wish.

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean, at the risk of sounding corny or something like that, I really don’t think ideas come out of thin air. I think all artists are definitely channeling something. I don’t know if that’s humanity’s collective unconscious or chaos or something else. I don’t really think that is for me to say. But I think you would imagine a story is coming from somewhere and life experiences are only a piece of the puzzle. You’re in a type of zone when you write and you almost kind of have to hypnotize yourself into getting into that place because otherwise you know you’re worried about making a mistake or doing the dishes or paying your rent or whatever. And if you’re focused on something like that then you’re not going to be able to bring it and put it on the page.

JOSH:
Certain elements of isolation can be good if we were able to break free from some of those day-to-day routines and get into that creative space, one many people have compared to meditation in other spiritual practices.

LUCAS:
Definitely. I usually spend a tremendous amount of time meditating on what I want my first line to be because for some reason that first line is like a doorway. Once I get that first line down I can pretty much just go. It is interesting, but that’s how I used to write song lyrics back in my early twenties and then I kind of got away from that practice when I started writing prose. But then about 6 months ago I started reincorporating that practice into my prose and it’s actually worked out really well. I did something like a hundred and fifty thousand words during last year.

JOSH:
Let’s talk about Engines of Ruin, the collection of stories.

They all look really interesting. Were there particular stories in that group that really just came easy for you?

LUCAS:
Yeah, Occupy Babylon was probably the easiest one. And, in the case of Ghost Music, I got the idea, I had a title in my head for a while, I didn’t really have a story. Once I got a story idea I was actually writing it on my phone. At the time I was walking to class and I just basically wrote the whole thing on the phone, during these trips to class. So there there was an immediacy to it—to get the idea to the page quickly instead of filing it away in my brain, which you know can be hazardous because if you file it away like that by the time you sit down and write it you may not see it as that exciting to you anymore. I’ve got to get it on the page, even if it’s just a few sentences or just a general outline of the idea. This seems to further my enthusiasm for the project, so I can maintain it over the course of writing.

JOSH:
Were there other stories in this collection that were actually more of a slow burn, you know, in terms of getting them done?

LUCAS:
Video Inferno, I guess. I wrote the first draft in about a week and then it took me four years of really poking at it to get it into the form that it is now. I went through so many revisions. It’s a very surreal story, so when you’re playing with the surrealism, on the surface what you know is happening might not make sense. That requires a little bit more calculation and attention to detail.

JOSH:
What were some of your favorite characters in these stories?

LUCAS:
Definitely the rock star. I mean, I’ve entertained becoming a rock star at least once in my life. Also, the bartending preacher. Actually, this came out of a conversation I had with somebody. She was somebody I used to work with at a previous job. She was like a fundamentalist or whatever and she said it would be a total fall from grace if a preacher were you know, to quit his job and start bartending. I actually disagreed with her because I thought, you know, being a bartender is almost like being a preacher.

JOSH:
You mention that The Last Easy Rider is more of a manifesto than a story?

LUCAS:
That goes back to the spiritual question you asked earlier. Basically, the main character is a version of me who is driving in this beat up camper van, you know, across the American highways, and encountering ghosts and demons and other shady characters. I thought it was essentially an interesting metaphor for me navigating my subconscious, even down to the van.

JOSH:
Let’s shift to your new book, We Are the Accused.

Image result for we are the accused lucas mangum

I was reading through the synopsis and wow–there’s some interesting stuff there. I also wonder what didn’t make the final manuscript. Were there certain things you had to edit out?

LUCAS:
Yeah, it just had a lot of characters and a subplot to glue together in the initial draft. Then I got further along and I didn’t think that they fit together as much as I would have liked them to. So I ended up deleting 20,000 words, more or less, in the original work.

JOSH:
How do you feel when you delete that much?

LUCAS:
It was difficult. I mean, there’s definitely a sense of loss or a grieving process involved. But I should say that I deleted it from the manuscript but I still have the text available; I didn’t destroy them forever.

JOSH:
How do you select names for characters?

LUCAS:
Usually friends. Specifically for this one I just went through my Facebook friends and picked out names I thought were interesting. I would take some person’s first name and another person’s last name and combine them for one character.

JOSH:
Any significance to the setting, Blue Brook, Pennsylvania?

LUCAS:
Yes, it’s basically Bristol Township and Bensalem with a little bit of Levittown, but all is one town. I think even Doylestown gets a mention in this book.

JOSH:
Do you have any hidden secrets that only a few people will catch?

LUCAS:
Of course, yeah, definitely. I’ll put stuff in there that will be there for people to catch. There’s this character in Gods of the Dark Web, and one of my friends called me immediately after reading it as and was just like: “Oh, thanks for turning me into a [devious character] in the book.” Sorry.

JOSH:
I’m sure that was a great phone call.
So how long did it take you to write this novel?

LUCAS:
The first half of the novel took me a ridiculously long time, like I’m talking a year-and-a-half just writing the first half. It was because I was going back and rewriting and fixing things as I went along. And because I was able to write the first half in this way, the second half was quick and pretty much set up for me; I didn’t really need to second-guess myself at all.  

JOSH:
What do you hope the readers will experience when they read this and what type of journey do you hope they go on?

LUCAS:
I hope they have fun, first and foremost. I hope that some readers will maybe, you know, look a little deeper into it and hopefully notice the spiritual questions raised in the book and the social ones as well. I think if you know what you’re looking for you’ll find it and I would hope that people would kind of read beyond the surface.

JOSH:
In your work you often include a sense that each individual has a darkness inside, for lack of a better term, and that this darkness manifests itself outside. It’s a universal idea, right? We have the sort of Yin and Yang thing inside of us: light and dark. Do your characters tend to constantly live in that struggle or is there any sort of resolution, or better said, a realization of that struggle?

LUCAS:
I mean, my work does sometimes end on a hopeful note, though the more recent book might be considered a tragedy, but there are certainly moments of revelation.

JOSH:
Thanks, Lucas, this had been great. Anything else to add about We Are the Accused?

LUCAS:
It’s out on January 15th and on Kindle as well. I believe the paperback will be along shortly after that.

Interested in checking out Lucas’ new novel? Click HERE.

Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

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

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

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

A little context please? Okay, yes.

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

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

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

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

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

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

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

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.

The Promise of Inclusion II

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

Resultado de imagen para two purple candles

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

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

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

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

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

And Baruch can help us embrace the promise of inclusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jeremiah 33:14-16

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

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

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

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

But oh, that’s what makes it work….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a promise.

 

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

Resultado de imagen para gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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