Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Acts’

Still Seeking and Searching, Still Breathing

Acts 17:22-28

unknownGodBefore we start, a few things to keep in mind: the writer of Acts was the writer of Luke’s Gospel. Simply put, there are many purposes that the author of Luke and Acts could have had while writing. First, it was the 2nd century. Jesus was dead. The Roman Empire saw the followers of Jesus as a threat. Also, it was confusing. How was it that a Jewish Rabbi had attracted so many Gentile followers? Many see both Luke and Act as an apologetic writing—one that tries to make the case that Jesus’ message was for the Jews but was also accepted by the Gentiles. And there are even some who argue that these two NT books were trying to convince Roman authorities that followers of Jesus would not be a threat to their empire.

Wrap your mind around that.

Regardless, what we are looking at is a scene with the apostle Paul, one of the new followers of Jesus of Nazareth, addressing a crowd of people in Greece. Things to note about the people in Greece: apparently, they were “religious,” so says Paul. What does that mean to you? Also, they had objects of worship, altars, with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

The author of Luke [via Paul’s words] then challenged those who listened. The challenge was to shift the Greek’s thinking that God was distant and lived in religious temples to a mindset that God was present and gave life to everything and everyone. The point of this speech, in this context, was to encourage the listeners to become seekers of God, expecting to find God near to them, realizing that God was not far away. And then the author of Luke throws in, for good measure, a quote from a Cretan philosopher called Epimenides: For in God we live and move and have our being. And a quote from Cilician Stoic Aratus: We are God’s children. It’s almost as if Luke and Act’s author is pulling out all the stops.

Rightly so. Fast forward from the 2nd century to this century and what has changed in terms of our view of the divine? The status-quo mindset of religious institutions and people still is that “God is so big, far away, so powerful, that God has no business being present in our day to day lives.” Why would God care about our problems, our suffering, our joys, our challenges? And God is stuck in history. This, in my opinion, is why people are still prejudice against LGBT people, those of other nationalities, cultures, and religions, because God is stuck in the past.

And while I appreciate amazing architecture [including religious structures], and also embrace the mysticism of religions that view God with awe, I argue that many times we project God onto those massive religious structures constructed with gold and other precious elements [often built by slaves]; and, many people who view God with awe as some distant force have a lot of trouble dealing with hardship and setbacks in their own lives, as they continually wait for the distant God to act or as they think that they have committed some sin and therefore are being punished.

So I wonder in this moment, if it is possible for you, can we put aside the grand structures of religion, the awe-inspiring histories, the belief systems that have lasted for centuries, and the idea that the divine is so far away and unknown?

Is it possible for you today, whatever your background, to refer to the divine not as lord but as friend?

What would it mean for you to look at God not as a Lord [with you as subject] but instead the divine friend, who relates to you out of love?

friendhandsAllow me to share the thoughts of Abu’l-Hasan Kharaqani, a Muslim mystic, a person one could call a mentor to the famous poet Rumi. Kharaqani was a Persian Muslim who experienced much hardship in his life before passing away in 1033. But for him, a relationship with God was a mutual seeking of friendship. In other words, God is seeking us just as we are seeking God.

Kharaqani wrote:

One night I saw God Almighty in a dream. I said to God: “It’s been sixty years that I have spent in the hope of being your friend, of desiring you.”

God Almighty answered me: “You’ve been seeking me for sixty years?
I’ve spent an eternity to eternity befriending you.”  

Also, for Kharaqani, being a friend of God meant being a friend to humanity, regardless of race, creed, background, etc.

See, this is where I’m at today. I have no interest in maintaining a religious institution [called church] that proclaims a big, powerful, distant God, and then uses that to control people and harbor material wealth and ignore the marginalized. What rings true for me is the idea that the Divine is seeking us, and we are seeking the Divine. When we search and seek, we find. We find and discover that we are still breathing—even when the world knocks us down and threatens to take our breath away. It is encouraging to me, and I hope to you, that the One who created and keeps creating doesn’t have to be Lord, doesn’t have to be distant, doesn’t have to live in a religious temple, doesn’t even have to live in a religion! Whoever seeks and searches for the divine, whoever loves the stranger and feeds them in whatever context—will find joy in being a friend of God, and wholeness in being a friend to anyone they encounter. May it be so.

 

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Understanding Each Other’s Languages

John 7:37-39, Acts 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sukkahA really cool looking sukkah, no?

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

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

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

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

he-qi-pentecost
He Qi, Pentecost

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

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

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

Rising up to See Life Next to Death: Reflection on the Events in Boston and Beyond

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

I had prepared to say something different, but Monday came and Boston became a focus for many, and as the week went on, things changed. I am not ever sure that words are adequate in this kind of situation. But when I feel compelled to respond, that means I should. As a religious leader, as a person of faith, and as a human being—I feel that I have a responsibility to respond. So I will tell you a story.

This week I was part of PECO Energy Company’s Voices of Diversity and Inclusion event. Essentially, it was an interfaith dialogue [a panel] of five people from different faith traditions. They each shared with PECO employees and executives about their faith practices, the challenges and misunderstandings they face, and how they work with others for the common good. It was a really amazing program: people talking about faith in the workplace! Well, on Thursday afternoon, after the panel, one of my colleagues, a practicing Muslim, turned to me and said:

Josh, the reports are still coming out of Boston.
I hope that the perpetrators of this violence are not Arab.
Or brown.
Or Muslim.
I hope.
Oh, I hope not.

I paused for a moment, for my colleague had real concern on his face. I found out later that his son is a college student in Boston and was due to return to school on Friday. As a parent, my colleague was thinking about a lot of things. Of course, he expressed to me that he wished this kind of violence would never happen in the first place. But he admitted that his initial thought after Monday’s events was clouded with apprehension. He had experienced too many times when Muslims in general were blamed for a wide variety of violent acts or politically-motivated incidents. When tragedies like this occur, his first thought is about the safety of his family and friends who are Muslim or who are of Arab or Indian descent. Will they be blamed for something they have nothing to do with? My colleague is a peaceful man. He also likes to joke around. His son, the college student at Boston University, is a musician and a poet.

I did not know what to say to my colleague, so I just listened. But after we talked again on Friday [he had obviously cancelled his trip to Boston], I felt compelled to say something.

I say this as a religious leader, but also as a person of faith who is friends with various people who are Muslim. What happened in Boston was awful. No one denies that this kind of needless violence is horrific. But actually, what happens in Syria every day is awful. What happens in Palestine and Israel is awful. The murders in Guatemala are horrific. The violence that is happening in Chicago to young people is awful. Any violence is awful, actually.

But over the last week, I’ve heard and seen reactions to this Boston violence turn into blaming. This is what my colleague was apprehensive about. People often blame particular groups of people—simply because of their faith tradition, cultural background, nationality—or even the color of their skin! Enough is enough. Such blaming is extremely harmful. As individuals we are all responsible for our actions. If we hurt others, we are responsible for the injury and suffering we cause. But just because individuals may identify with a particular group does not give us license to dehumanize whole religions, cultures, or nations.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said it best last week:

The first thing we have to do is to signal that [the perpetrators] represented nobody: they didn’t represent young people, they didn’t represent Chechnyans, they didn’t represent college students, they didn’t represent Muslims. The murders of all traditions belong to one tradition: the tradition of murderers.

We are tempted to jump to conclusions and to blame. When we walk through difficult and sometimes violent valleys in life, we are tempted to blame something or someone for our sufferings. We may try to convince ourselves that we will feel better and that our suffering will ease if we make someone or something responsible. But blaming doesn’t relieve our sadness, anger or fear. It just causes more suffering. When we blame or seek revenge, we dwell in hate; we walk the path of destruction. We cause fear in people.

So it is appropriate to hear the voice of Psalm 23—a song that expresses the human reality of walking through deep valleys of pain and suffering but offers a hopeful response. Everyone has to walk through such valleys. But the psalm pushes us to journey through these valleys of the shadow of death without fear. We should not be afraid because we are not left alone. We should not fear because if we walk the path of compassion laid out for us, we won’t stay in the deep, painful valleys forever. Eventually, we will emerge from that place of death to find goodness and mercy. Do not fear. You are not alone.

stillwaterIt is no surprise that Psalm 23 is often read at funerals or during difficult times of loss or uncertainty. The stark images given to us are of green pastures and still waters; good paths stretched before us to walk on. But the darkest valley is still there and we walk it, too. There is evil. There are enemies. There is discomfort and fear. But even so, in the valley and in the midst of fear and hate, there is still oil that drips and a cup that overflows. Goodness and mercy follow us.

 

tabithaThe story of Tabitha is like Psalm 23 in that it also presents us with images of contrast. A little church in Joppa close to the Mediterranean Sea. A woman named Tabitha [Dorcas in Greek] lives there. Her name, from the Aramaic, means gazelle. She is called a disciple—equal to the disciples mentioned in the Gospels. She is known for her generosity of time and gifts. But beloved Tabitha gets sick; Tabitha dies. The mourning widows of the town prepare her body in the traditional way and place it an upper room. The other disciples of Jesus there contact Peter [staying nearby] to come immediately. He does, and Peter arrives just before the burial. Broken with sadness, the women show garments that Tabitha had made, reminding Peter of her generosity. But Peter asks everyone to leave.

He falls to his knees and starts praying. Then, he says: Tabitha, arise! She opens her eyes and sits up. She takes Peter’s hand and he lifts her up. And then Peter invites all the people to come back to see Tabitha alive.

Remember that the people who wrote Acts were the same authors of the Gospel of Luke. Take a look at Luke and you will notice something. Tabitha’s resurrection story is familiar. When Peter tells her to arise he uses the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus [9:22, 18:33, 24:7]. It is also the same word used in the story of Jesus raising a little girl [8:49-56].

The details in the story are very similar, too. First, someone must be a messenger and contact someone, calling them to the place where the person has died. Second, bystanders mourn. Third, during the miracle, people must leave the room or place where the person is. Finally, the person raised up must take another person’s hand. So Acts, meant to be read with Luke, is making a point. What Jesus lived and taught is now being lived and taught in people.[1]

This healing legacy is older, though. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miraculous acts of this kind [I Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37]. Rising from death to life had been happening, with God’s help, throughout the centuries.

But for the many of us who identify with the disciple Thomas, wanting to see and touch such a resurrection—we wonder about the validity of this. But I think there is hope for us skeptics. Both the Old and New Testaments offer stories of resurrection, but not just of dead bodies. Something is resurrected in people and that something is hope. Human beings are instruments, vessels, agents for God’s transformative and merciful power. Even in times of death and sadness and despair, there is life. There is resurrection.

I guess, with God, rules are meant to be broken. Life coexists with death; joy with sorrow; healing with pain.

I hear Psalm 23 still ringing in my ears. In the valley of the shadow of death, there is still hope; there is still life.

Friends, neither this psalm nor Tabitha’s story deny the pain, suffering, and death of the world. But both say a defiant, confident thing:

We are not alone, even in the painful valley. Someone is there to offer a hand to us.

Even when we feel dead, there is still life. A hand reaches out to us.

And there is no fear.

So in light of this, if you identify as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who said do not be afraid;
if you are a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or of any faith background;
if you are an atheist or agnostic–

Let us all be advocates and instruments for peace and reconciliation everywhere and now.

If we are finally recognizing that everyone around the world walks through deep, difficult valleys; and that people across the globe, near and far, suffer needless violence; and that hate can grow out of fear and misunderstanding; can we live a double dose of mercy where there IS this hate? Can we be extra peaceful where there is violence? Can we be even more accepting of those who are different when there is prejudice and discrimination? Can we pray even more when despair seems to win?

Will we defiantly and truly live out the no fear in love thing?

I’m convinced that we can be peacemakers and bearers of reconciliation in a broken world. But we will need to acknowledge that everyone, around the world, has to walk through horrific valleys where suffering is real and it’s easy to be afraid. We share this. But when we walk through these valleys, we have a choice.

Will we become more afraid? Will we look for others to blame or even for revenge?

Or, will we walk through those valleys together? Will we accept the hand and help of another who offers to get us through those valleys? And will we offer our hand and help to others when they feel alone or suffer or get scared?

Sacred Scriptures are radically telling us something: do not fear. Again and again the scriptures tell us to not be afraid. Even in the face of death, we should not be afraid.

Why? Because the gospel is a gospel of blessed contrasts: Life co-exists with death. Where there is hate, there is love. Where there is separation there is unity. Where there is ignorance there is understanding. Where there is violence there is peacemaking. In the valleys of doubt and fear, there is comfort and confidence. When we feel completely lost, a path of goodness and mercy is laid out before us.

So friends, what life will you bring to a dead relationship or situation today?

What bridges of mercy and compassion will you build this week?

Who will you reach out to in the deep, difficult valleys of life?

Rise up without fear. Rise up to love. Amen.


[1] John C. Holbert, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, http://www.Patheos.com.

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