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Posts tagged ‘buddhist’

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.[1]

Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone. Realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.[2]

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.[3]

You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.[4]

What does unity mean to you?

bettertogetherWISC
Say or think the first few things that come to mind. What is unity? According to a mash-up dictionary definition, unity is defined as:

Being together or at one with someone or something.
Unity is the opposite of being divided.

In the world, we certainly see divisions in many aspects of society—divisions in religions, politics, culture, nationality, race, gender, world view, and many more. Keep in mind that I am referring to divisions, and not difference. Having different religions, cultures, languages, and world views is what makes us human. Difference is good; difference is humanity.

Division is something else. Case in point: I have different political views from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. Some of us can actually talk about these differences without getting angry or defensive. But others who have different political views than I do cannot even engage in discourse with me. They see only their own point of view and also see my different view as a threat, or as flat out wrong. And that my friends, is division.
Last week, as many of you know, I participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk for Reconciliation in Philadelphia with hundreds of people from various religious and secular backgrounds.

peace-walk-gallery-header_0Now to some, this kind of walk is pointless, because in their view, the actual event accomplishes nothing.

So what? People go on a walk. But they are still divided! Muslim women in hijabs; Wiccan women with no head coverings; Sikh men with turbans; Jewish men with kippas; Catholic men and women with cross necklaces; Buddhists with mala beads; Hindu women with saris; hippie and hipster folk with peace signs and long hair.

From the outside, the walk doesn’t seem like anything unified at all if one thinks that differences only separate us. What they don’t know is that throughout the year, the real influence of the walk is evident. It is not about one day or one walk. It is about the relationships that are formed. People build bridges of understanding, trust, and friendship across lines of difference. A Christian woman now sees her Muslim friend not as a Muslim, but just a friend. Likewise, a Sikh college student sees a Buddhist classmate as a colleague and does not identify him by his religious tradition.

That’s what this walk is about: a commitment of individuals [and communities] to embrace difference as healthy and beautiful, and to not see difference as division.

The Christian Bible most certainly addresses the theme of division and unity in both the Old and New Testaments. I will say, however, that American Christians often understand unity to be something only within their own religious circles. So, if you happen to be Catholic, unity might mean that various Catholics should get together, be on the same page, and cooperate. Mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, do the same thing. They create regional and national events to try to make unified decisions and also to join for unified worship and prayer. And ecumenical groups have joint worship services to express unity across denominations.

By no means am I saying that such things are negative—they are not. But this is not the kind of unity that the Bible speaks of.
Remember that the various authors who wrote the Bible did so over the course of centuries. And none of them had any idea about the religion of Christianity. Zero. It did not exist. It is really important to keep that in mind when you read the Bible. Instead of Christians, there were all kinds of people who were considered to be of the Jewish tradition [and they were not all the same]. There were also Greeks, and Romans, and Samaritans, and Africans, and Arabs, and many, many more. Religiously and culturally, even in the small area around where Jesus and his followers lived, there was diversity and difference. Later on, when Paul and other followers of Jesus of Nazareth started to branch out farther into Europe and the Middle East, they encountered even more difference.

All that being said, John’s Gospel was written well after that—even after Paul’s letters. So look at this prayer that is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in John 14:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

We don’t have adequate time to dissect every part of this prayer so we will focus on unity as it is expressed here as being one. In order to do that, I’m going to borrow from Richard Rohr and his work, the Cosmic Christ. For those of you unfamiliar with Richard Rohr, he is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

In The Cosmic Christ, Rohr speaks about the Incarnation of God that we assume happened in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Rohr states that the incarnation actually happened 14.5 billion years ago with a moment that many scientists call “The Big Bang.” In other words, two thousand years ago, according to the New Testament of the Bible, the human incarnation of God in Jesus took place, but before that there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast” according to the story in Genesis of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 1:3-25).

This, Rohr says, was the “Cosmic Christ.” Christ is in fact not Jesus’ last name, but the title for his life’s purpose. Jesus is the very concrete truth revealing and standing in for the universal truth.[5]

This idea is nothing new. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that the world was created by one God and that this God manifested in a human or in humans. So do many, many other traditions like the Baha’i faith, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, etc. Some traditions call that divine manifestation light. This concept is often called non-duality.

Okay, stay with me here.

Nonduality or nondualism, means “not two” or “one undivided without a second.”

Across religious and philosophical traditions around the world, nondualism takes different shapes. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s take nondualism to mean that there is no absolute, transcendent reality beyond our everyday reality. The universe is one reality, and we are part of it. Explore more about this idea and you will find that there is so much harmony across religious and non-religious traditions when it comes to this perspective, i.e. that we are all part of the same universe and connected to it.

Westerners struggle with nondualism. Why? Lots of answers to that question. In my experience, it is often because people have been raised to think that there are black-and-white answers to cosmic and nuanced problems, and also that there are clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. This is what we can refer to as binary thinking. For example, consider when countries like the United States wage a “war” thinking that it is on the side of good. At the same time, those on the other side of this war also think that their cause is right. So who is right? It depends on where you live, how you were raised, and your worldview, of course. Most people from the Eastern part of the world would understand this and not be freaked out by it. It is not relativism. It is non-dualism. Both sides of a war are seeking the same thing.

Contrarily, the opposite of nonduality is duality. In the West, as individuals, we see duality expressed with this idea—that I am here and you are there. All of you and the rest of the world is outside me. In other words, we are not connected.

What happens outside of my family or social circle, or house, or church is not related to me.

 

This is, unfortunately, how many Christians know Jesus.  They say they believe in and follow Jesus Christ, but they really have no idea what that entails. What they have actually done is to make two acts of faith, one in Jesus of Nazareth [the person] and another in Christ [the cosmic]. Jesus of Nazareth was a man—a human being who taught certain things and lived in a certain way. Christ is the “anointed” one who was and is divine. This concept of Christ is much bigger and older than Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion. This idea that the material and the divine co-exist is ancient and spans nearly all religious and philosophical traditions.

Imagine how a non-dualistic understanding of Jesus’ prayer in John 14 could be liberating and unifying. Imagine how it could embrace difference and combat division.

Jesus understood that to be divine was to be human, and vice versa.

He was well aware of his connection to all of nature, the communities around him, and the universe. He taught that anyone who hurt others hurt themselves. Understanding the connection between himself and God, Jesus was fully able empathize with another person’s pain and even the very cries of creation. Imagine if some of these highly-contested social issues were thought of in a nondualist way. There wouldn’t be so much fear of what or who is different. Case in point: I think the hurtful controversy about bathrooms and gender identifications would be less about the religious agendas like it is today and more about people—taking into account that non-binary is not a bad thing at all. And we are connected to each other. So if certain people do not feel welcomed to use a bathroom, we also do not feel welcomed.

gender-inclusive-bathroomsNot sure what your take is on whether Jesus was divine or not. Explore that on your own. What matters most is that if we separate God from humanity and vice versa, we’ll deal in division, absolutes, and binary things. We won’t be able to see God in the face of an enemy or in the faces of people in faraway lands or even in the faces of people next door who are different than us.

If this prayer teaches me anything, it is that our divisions are made up.

We are not divided. We are all connected. And the Divine is everywhere, in all of us. We are not alone. There is light in all things and in all people.

So take that idea with you—hold it close and express it in everyday life. We should all be one—with all our differences and uniqueness. We should be unified—as humanity and the natural world. Remember that you are not separated from the people and living things all around you. Remember that you are not separated from the Divine and the Divine is not separated from you. This is love and light.

[1] Gwendolyn Brooks
[2] Rumi
[3] Askhari Johnson Hodari, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs
[4] Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations
[5] From Radical Grace, April-May-June, Volume 23, Number 2, 2010.

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The Generosity Fast & Paradox

Isaiah 58:1-12

Isaiah, the prophet says:
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! It’s announcement, but an announcement about hypocrisy. This is often a common issue for religious people—that they say they love God and they claim to do all the right religious rituals and they think themselves to be righteous. But truthfully, their lives do not reflect what they claim.

Oftentimes I get asked this question:

Why are less and less people participating in the Christian church? What is happening?

It is probably the easiest question to answer.

It’s the hypocrisy thing again. People on the outside of the institutional church know more about the Bible and the religion of Christianity than churchgoers assume. And those on the outside see that most churches don’t do what they say; they are not living as Jesus taught. So it should come as no surprise that most people are completely skeptical of and turned off by the church as a whole. No, it’s not about flashy programs, the “right theology” or the coolest music. It’s about being real.

It’s about doing as we say and being authentic.

Which is why Isaiah is so ticked off. People of faith spend WAY too much time fighting over whose religious fast is better. Our theology is superior to yours; our Bible interpretations are the best; our social justice outreach is exemplary; look at what we do and say—we’re awesome!

But instead of tooting our horns to pat ourselves on the back, Isaiah [and later Jesus of Nazareth] tell us to do the opposite. Yeah, toot your horns, but do so to call attention to those who are truly suffering in the world. Do so to shout out the truth! People are marginalized because of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification, and the language they speak.

And all the religious rituals, the ceremonial fasting, and the talking about God doesn’t cut it.

The chosen fast, says Isaiah and Jesus, is to loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break down every barrier or limitation. The chosen fast is to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; and to clothe the naked; and to not turn away from all the humans around you who may need some encouragement or help.

And look—this spiritual fast [which becomes a living fast] is not some sort of guilt trip that God is laying on us. There are so many benefits to this fast. Light breaks forth like the dawn, healing springs up quickly; protection is provided. You call out and your voice is heard. You need help, and you’re not alone. Needs are satisfied; you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Broken relationships are reconciled and streets are safe and toppled structures rebuilt.

The acceptable fast is generosity.

Think about generosity for a moment. It is paradoxical, is it not? Those who give, receive something back. If we let go of something we own, we better secure our own lives. If we give a part of ourselves, we ourselves move toward fulfillment. This is not philosophy or religious jabber; it is a sociological fact.[1]

e_chinese_symbols_proverbs_generosityThe generosity paradox can go the other way, too. Instead of giving, if we hold onto what we currently have, we actually lose out on better things we might have experienced. If we keep possessions, we shortchange ourselves long-term. For example, one may think that she needs to protect herself from an uncertain future or possible problems, so she holds tightly to what she has. But this behavior makes her more anxious about more vulnerable to future misfortunes. If we do not give of ourselves to care for others, we do not practice self-care.

This paradox of generosity is reflected in many religious traditions. Consider the ancient Hebrew proverb: One gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but ends up impoverished.

Or, this teaching of The Buddha: Giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression.

And this Hindu proverb: They who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing.

And anyone hear these Jesus words echoing?
Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.

For the last three years Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have been leading a study called the Science of Generosity Initiative. They have conducted a nationally representative survey of Americans’ practices and beliefs about generosity, hundreds of interviews with Americans around the country on generosity, and participant-observation studies of local religious congregations.

Here is what they learned:

  1. The more generous people are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.
  2. Generous practices actually cause enhanced personal well-being.
  3. The way we talk about generosity confirms and illustrates the first two points.

The third finding is important to notice and very similar to Isaiah’s point about generosity:

We cannot fake generosity.

We can’t choose to be generous just so we can get something. We must desire the good of other people. Fake generosity, just like false humility, will not make us happier, healthier, and more purposeful in life. Generosity must be authentic. And this is the good news that the world needs to hear and experience. So embrace the generosity paradox. May your forty days of Lent be an opportunity to decide to make generosity your lifestyle. Amen.

 

[1] Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. The Generosity Paradox.

Love at the Core of Being

Psalm 85:1-8; 10

I want to begin with a question.

How many of you feel that your definition of who God is comes mostly from:

What your parents or family raised you to believe?

Or:

From the Bible?

Or:

From a church?

Or:

From a spiritual or enlightening experience?

Or:

From personal life experience?

homerThinking

Perhaps some of you answered this question strongly with one of those options. Or, maybe there are a couple of those options that resonate with you.

Regardless, most likely you identified strongly with these options:

-Parents or family beliefs
-Church beliefs
-Personal life experience

Yes, it’s true. Most of us [and I mean almost ALL of us] do not define who G-d is based on the Bible or some spiritual experience of enlightenment.

say-whatIn my vocation I encounter a lot of people who want to talk about religion or spirituality or G-d, and many of these conversations start with assumptions about belief itself. For example, many assume that the Christian G-d is a certain way. If that person is not a Christian, he/she has learned something from the TV or other media or most likely, they’ve just heard it as second or third-hand information from family or friends or acquaintances. If he/she does not have much contact with people who identify as Christians, the assumptions begin to grow into perceptions and eventually, they get solidified. He/She ends up saying and thinking:

All Christians believe this or that. They all think G-d is like this or that…

Of course, today this is happening much more to Muslims than to Christians. Islamophobes really do exist. They group all Muslims together, as if every single Muslim in the world believes the same things and practices their faith in the same way. They assume that all Muslims say and think the same things about Allah and life in general, and so the beliefs and actions of so-called terrorists like ISIS are no different than say, the Muslim family down the street or the guy at work who pauses to pray from time to time, or the female doctor who wears a hijab. Even though terrorist groups are not considered Muslims by practicing Muslims, it doesn’t matter to Islamophobes. They’ve made up their minds already. This kind of thing also happens to Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, etc., but we know that in this country Islamophobia is most prevalent.

closing2So because I have Muslim friends and colleagues and work frequently with Muslim communities, people come to talk to me.

I do my best to fact-check their statements and to clarify that there is not just one way of looking at things and that every Muslim is unique just like every Christian is unique.

Then the conversation usually shifts to me.

But aren’t you a Christian? So don’t you then believe that there is only one G-d, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Aren’t you supposed to believe that?

My response reiterates:

Just like Muslims, not all Christians believe the same things or practice their faith in the same way.

But then they scratch their heads and act confused. And for some, that’s the end of the conversation. For some, I cease to be a Christian in their minds.

What we’re talking about here is theology, or simply how we think about G-d.

I asked you the question at the very beginning about how you think you come to beliefs about G-d. I’ll tell you why this matters.

Religious prejudice and discrimination, Islamophobia, harmful rhetoric, propaganda, fanaticism, and even violence occur because of theology.

For example, if you think that G-d does not exist or if you think that there’s no way to be sure that there is a god, then that affects the way you look at the world. You’ll most likely be skeptical about all religions. You’ll certainly balk at any religious folk who try to convert others. But you may also be very accepting of all religious and non-religious people, because again—you are not sure that there is a god in the first place. And finally, you won’t feel the urge to attend a church, temple, mosque or whatever, because prayer and worship don’t make sense if there is no object for prayer and worship.

Likewise, let’s say you aren’t atheist or agnostic, or a secular humanist. Say you do believe in G-d, and that’s been part of your perspective since you can remember. That clearly affects the way you see the world and other people. Perhaps you see G-d as a creator of all living things. Maybe G-d is a cosmic judge, too. And if you believe in this kind of G-d, most likely you spend a reasonable amount of time in worship services, prayer, or Bible reading. You do that, because you believe G-d is watching, and also because G-d deserves your time and attention.

Take it a step further.

Say you do believe in G-d, but you were abused in the past—either physically, verbally, or religiously. Or a combination of all three. You see G-d much differently. You may see G-d as a divine rewarder and punisher. You may see G-d as completely distant and unfeeling, because how could G-d allow the abuse to happen? Or, if people used religion to control and manipulate you, perhaps you see G-d as someone or something that as power over you; and you are afraid of this G-d.

I’m sad to say that I know too many people who think in this way because of abuse.

Back to the original question. Almost all of us are conditioned to believe something about G-d by other people. And then some of us, via personal experience, come up with our own conclusions.

But very, very few people actually believe something about G-d based on Scripture itself or some spiritual enlightenment.

Someone can read the Bible many, many times and then say that he/she believes in the G-d of the Bible. But which parts of the Bible do you mean?
The Bible is chock full of theologies that don’t agree with each other at all.

The majority of what we call the Bible is Jewish, to be sure, but also many, many other Semitic theologies and ancient Hebrew thoughts—including Egyptian.

The smaller part of the Bible, the New Testament, is Jewish and Roman and Greek and Aramaic and African Sub-Saharan and more, in its perspective.

Yes, it’s true that one theology does not fit all—even in the Bible.

What anyone believes or doesn’t believe about G-d is a result of a series of influences, experiences, texts, words, songs, and feelings. No one person can claim that he/she “knows” who G-d is or isn’t. Theology has always been relative to the culture and time period in which it was created. This is why the theology of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine looks so much different than the theology of 2015 in Philadelphia. It’s just normal for this to happen.

The Psalms of the OT are a great example. They are completely human expressions of what people feel and think about G-d.

Consider Psalm 85, for example. It’s nationalistic. It’s about Israel. It’s written by someone who is in the midst of troubling times. There’s war. Notice that the writer expresses perspectives about G-d formed because of personal experiences. For this writer, G-d is a celestial being who protects a certain nation. This G-d gives fortune to certain families. This G-d forgives them when they make mistakes. This G-d is also capable of getting mad. Eventually, the tone of the Psalm shifts to a challenge.

Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

This person believes that G-d is angry with him and his nation. And yet, the writer coerces G-d as well. It’s as if the psalmist is subtly reminding G-d how G-d should act. Aren’t you loving, G-d? Don’t you care about us? You did before, so….

And then the writer even goes a step further, saying what G-d will actually do and say:

God will speak peace to the people, to the faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.

And, a desired result for himself and his nation:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

There’s a reason, in my opinion, why certain Psalms are not appropriate for us to read in worship services. They reflect a certain worldview and time period and sometimes they are looking for revenge, or war, or punishment.

And now, I will say something that for some might be going too far, and that’s okay.

Sermons are Wizard of Oz speeches, because always when you listen or read them, you should use your brains, your hearts, and your courage.

wizard-of-ozFriends, we create theology. There is no “right” or “true” or “orthodox” theology.
We create for ourselves what we would like G-d to be or how G-d should act.

We ourselves connect experiences in life to things we read in the Bible and other sacred books; we listen to what people teach us and say about G-d and we make choices about what we actually think.

I am fortunate. My parents did not force a certain theology on me. G-d was never a punisher or a cosmic judge. I was conditioned to see G-d as love. I saw that love in my parents. But many people I know were not so lucky. They were raised to fear G-d. Some were taught that G-d rewarded certain moral behaviors and punished others. Others were raised in a church that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender folk; or people of other cultural backgrounds; or people who didn’t believe in things like the trinity. And as I mentioned before, some were abused.

What I hope you take from this is some encouragement. For those of you who have been raised in an abusive environment, know that what you were conditioned to believe is not true and certainly not based on any Scripture or enlightened spirituality. It’s fear-based theology created to push you down or keep you down. Over time, you can be free of it.

If you were raised to think that G-d is jealous and craves human devotion, rewarding it with heaven, then your life may be focused on what you have to do or believe in order to go somewhere nice when you die. But that limiting theology can keep you from discovering that your day to day life on this earth is the most important and treasured thing. G-d isn’t dividing people between some place called and heaven and some place we call hell. Courageously use your heart and mind to consider that G-d is concerned with your personal well-being and also present when you’re hurting or suffering.

And if you were raised to think that Jesus was and is THE ONLY savior of humankind, and your ticket to heaven, then probably it’s hard for you to interact with others who are not Christians and most likely you struggle with accepting those who follow another spiritual or religious path, or none at all. But what if Jesus is bigger than that perspective?

Courageously using your brains and your hearts, consider that Jesus of Nazareth existed and taught and lived because of love. Consider the possibility that G-d didn’t send one person to be a martyr, to die on a cross for people’s sins like a sacrificial lamb. Consider that Jesus came, as he was known to say, to seek out the lost and marginalized. Consider that Jesus challenged religion itself, and the status quo, and instigated a new type of community that considered everyone to be neighbor and family.

For those of you like me who were fortunate enough to be raised in an environment of questioning and openness, we have a responsibility. We cannot promote one view over another or lord over anyone with our theology. And we must reach out to those who have been abused, and help them to heal, and to move with them from fear into love.

For indeed, what is at the core of G-d’s being and our being. Are we not essentially love?

Regardless of what you believe [or don’t believe], may your perspectives and beliefs be rooted in the honesty that they are part conditioning and part experience. And may you always fact-check your beliefs by returning to love. Does what you think and believe come out of a place of love?

New Things, Beautiful and Changed

Mark 2:21-22  

Have you  moved a lot in your life?
I know I have. I have way too many memories of packing up stuff and cleaning out an apartment, a dorm room, or a house.

That’s the worst part of moving, isn’t?

Each time I moved, I had to come to that awful, eye-opening revelation that I just had too much stuff and now what am I going to do with it all?

It’s overwhelming.

Well, at least it is when you’re in the midst of all that packing and cleaning.

And yet, something happened to me every time I moved—whether as a kid, or a teenager, or a student, or an adult—once all that stuff was gone or packed, I felt pretty great.
In fact, I felt light as air.

And if you’ve ever been in a “temporary” living space for a while, unable to have all your “stuff” by your side, the first few days are frustrating, but after that, something happens.

Again.

You feel liberated.

Some of my fondest memories in life involve an empty house in Indiana; an unfurnished studio apartment in Honolulu, Hawai’i; a bare-bones dorm in Princeton, NJ; and a period of many months when my partner Maria and I did not have any of our stuff because it was in storage somewhere.

Why is that?

Perhaps you have your own answers to that question.
For me, the reason I felt so liberated each time I moved was because the change made me aware of my attachment to all the stuff in my life, and I’m not just talking about furniture, clothes, or knickknacks.

I mean my attachment to the past—to a life I lived somewhere else that was now over.

My attachment to memories and places.

In this case, I agree with the Beatles when they state in their song In My Life:

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
In my life I’ve loved them all

 

But the song continues with a realization:

And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Sure, this may be portrayed as a love song, but it’s always resonated with me as a love song for our memories. Yes, I do stop and think about all the places I’ve lived and been; I do think about the people who have come in and out of my life; and I do have affection for those memories.

But today, in my life in this moment, I see something more important.

I love this moment more than my memories, because it’s real.

I love the people and things in my life right now more than my past.
That doesn’t mean that my memories are worthless or harmful.
It simply means that I embrace today more than yesterday.

And such a change should not scare us.

Maybe that’s why this Jesus saying about wine and wineskins that appears in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas has always spoken to me.

Funny, though—it’s basically an argument.
Jesus is arguing with his own disciples [and others] about the memories of tradition.

Hmmm….maybe this wasn’t written in the 1st or 2nd century?

It all sounds so familiar.

People were arguing with Jesus because they noticed that he and his disciples didn’t follow the “normal” religious rules. They weren’t fasting as much as they were supposed to and when they were supposed to.

Of course, this was about more than fasting.
Jesus was also criticized for healing people, remember.
That’s right—you heard me.
He was criticized for healing people—for doing something so amazingly wonderful and life-giving.

Healing wasn’t a tradition on the Sabbath. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a criticism of Judaism—it’s a criticism of religion in general.

Christians are no different than the Pharisees and disciples who were more interested in protecting the memories of the past than actually living compassionately today.

Curious, isn’t it, that while Christians claim to believe in a God who is a God of change and claim to follow the Jesus of change and claim to be guided by and filled with the Spirit of change—most Christians fear change.

There’s a sense in the church institution that things were always better way back when.

Remember when…

But Jesus throws down a teaching here that is significant for any century.
Don’t put new wine in old wineskin.

If you have chosen to be a person of faith, and this spirituality you choose to develop is a “new” thing or at least something that “renews” you every day–why in the world would such a thing feel heavy?

If you choose to be a person of faith, this should not be a burden to you. It should not weigh you down; it should not be about “I can’t do this or that”; it should not make you legalistic, rigid, or limited.

So why then, is much of religion such a burden and so heavy?

Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coatIt’s heavy, because we keep trying to put new things in old things.

In the Gospel story, wine is a metaphor, of course, but real wine was indeed a staple of the culture of Jesus.
No one would never put new wine in an old wineskin.
It would ruin it!

New-wineIt’s really a simple metaphor about embracing change and letting the past be the past.
But I’m quite sure you’ve had moments [or days, or week, or months] when you wanted to put your past behind you but just couldn’t.

You wish you could do that so you could move forward in your life.
But you keep hearing [and feeling] that you have to hold onto your past for some reason.
So you keep trying to introduce new ideas or experiences into that old life, it just doesn’t take.

Hey, I understand.

Every time I moved in to a new place and tried to introduce the same old things from my old place, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t work. I had to rearrange or get rid of some things altogether.

The difficult truth we all have to hear is that we need to let the past be yesterday.

It’s difficult, but we have to let go of anything that weighs us down or keeps us from moving out of the past and into the present moment.

This affords us the opportunity to be free.
And, it enables us to be creative, to love, to help, and to fully live.

The past is something that can cause fear and confusion. It can make us believe that some things are impossible and that some things will just never change.

A couple of years ago, the congregation I serve decided to put up two signs [one a rainbow design] that clearly welcomed the LGBTQ community in a public way.

People left the church.
Founding and long-time members quit. Others continued to grumble. Eventually, because of what those two signs led to [more freedom and less fear of change], more people left. The first rainbow sign, after it was put up, was even stolen.

Many members of the congregation who stuck around started to be more active in their community. They welcomed and helped people who had no place to go and sometimes no food to eat. They formed more partnerships with people of different religions and those who didn’t claim a religious background. It was new wine.

And yet, there was still grumbling; and fear; and resistance.

The new wine was bursting the old wineskin.

And the more they interacted with people who were atheistic, agnostic, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Baha’i, Sikh, Buddhist, gay, lesbian, transgender, yellow, brown, pink, orange, and black; speakers of languages other than English; loud and energized toddlers; inquisitive and skeptical teenagers; suburban, urban, and rural folk; those with money and jobs and those with neither; families with kids and those without; single moms and dads; straight and gay couples…

The wine spilled out.

The old wineskin just didn’t function anymore. The heavy religious stuff didn’t make sense.

And for those who were able to embrace this, it freed them.

Yes, it’s true. Though it is difficult sometimes to do, we should not fear change.
We should actually embrace change.

Because the Creator is always doing NEW things.

And we are created and can become creators ourselves of new things.

We are all liberated from the way it’s always been done

You have the opportunity to be new–to embrace all people for real, and to show them that something new is being created in them and in you.

And whatever those heavy things are from your past—whatever weighs you down—know that you have the freedom to let go.

Today [and every day] new wine is poured.
New things are created.
So welcome it.

Contentment

Philippians 4

All life is suffering.

This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.

And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.

Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.

Suffering.

So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?

He wrote:
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.

Really, Paul?

What would you know about suffering anyway?

Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.

Okay, maybe I’m listening…..

Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.

It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.

First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.

Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.

Allow me to explain.

All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”

Or:
“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”

It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.

It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.

Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.

Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.

We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.

Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.

Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.

And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.

I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.

white_lotus_flowerThe lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.

Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.

The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.

They are always expecting to eventually bloom.

I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.

That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.

If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.

Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.

It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.

Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.

Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.

And that’s okay.

Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?

Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?

No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.

But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.

Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.

May you find contentment.

How Can This Be?

John 3:1-9

ASBWISCLast week, I participated in the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break program for college students. I journeyed with students, faculty, and college staff professionals to encounter seven different religious traditions, including: Reconstructionist Jewish; Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian; Sikh; Quaker; Won Buddhist; Hindu; Black Muslim and Sunni Muslim. There is no way to express how much I learned and experienced during that week. I am sure that as time passes, the stories will come to the surface and I will continue to discover meaning as a result of what we saw, heard, and felt. Keep in mind that this week was not about touring religious communities simply in order to gather information and knowledge about religions. This week was about meeting people and experiencing their cultural and religious practices. It was about connections between faith practice and actual life practice.

This week was about embracing my full humanity and the full humanity of others.

After all, if you are capable of stripping away all the surface stuff that we obsess over [how we dress, what we eat, how we pray, how we believe or don’t believe in a god, what language we speak, how we worship, what sacred books we read and claim]—if we look past those things—we can discover that any religious encounters we have with others are human encounters. Throughout the course of the week, we met people and shared stories; and food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. We sat together; stood together; bowed together; we lived together and cooperated across lines of difference.

Last Saturday, in the first few hours we spent together, our group discussed asking good questions and what that would look like during our week. After all, we wanted to be respectful and curious as we interacted with people from various traditions. We talked about the difference between a curious question and a judgmental question. Then, I asked all the students to write down a major question they had about what they were going to experience during the week. They wrote it on the back of their name tags so as to carry it with them the entire time.

Questions are important. They don’t have to lead us to answers, though. Sometimes asking honest and curious questions leads us to more questions…and even better questions.

So the questions I am asking today after this experience are:

How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together as human beings of diverse traditions?

How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence?

And what do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?

The story in the gospel of John is about questions. This question-asking is prevalent in most religious traditions and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student will ask the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider. This teaching method is utilized by Jesus of Nazareth quite often.

In this case, the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory” and is a name of a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice.

The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.
Now THAT sounds familiar….

Nicodemus met Jesus at night. And in place of asking a curious question, Nicodemus made a statement full of assumptions. We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Jesus, however, changed the subject. No one can see God’s kingdom without being born from above. That phrase “born from above” is not the US version “born again.” Born from above is about a new vision for life and not about having superior knowledge.

Then, Nicodemus does indeed ask a good and curious question:

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coat

Jesus’ answer is not very scientific: Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Or maybe it was actually scientific. Water, after all, is a real thing. It is one of the known elements of nature and human beings. We are mostly water. Water goes around, under, and through things. Spirit, or wind, as Jesus calls it, is wild and free and creative. It blows where it wants to and cannot be controlled. You also don’t see it.

wind

Nicodemus’ mind was blown. Previously, his categories for life and religion were limited to what he saw in a temple and what he had read.

And I interpret Nicodemus’ final question to Jesus as a really, really good one:

How can these things be?

Yes, I’m with you, Nicodemus…how can these things be?

How can we live by water and spirit—free and unattached to traditions and dogmas and doctrines and prejudices? How can our religious practices make us alive in such a way that we actually live as better human beings?

How can these things be…

In me?

In you?

In all of us?

There were many surprises for us this past week. One such surprise happened at the Egyptian Coptic Church. A baby was baptized; the same baby was then immediately confirmed by the priest; the same baby then immediately received the sacrament of communion. The community walked around in circles with this baby. Everyone sang and some people shouted in celebration. The water was free. The baby was free. The community celebrated.

On Tuesday, at the Buddhist temple, during silent meditation, the wind blew outside. We could hear it. We could sense it. But we couldn’t see it. Our soft gazes continued with eyes half shut. And the wind blew. It blew as it wished. It was free.

Friends, let’s ask good and curious questions about our faith practices.

How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together? How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence? What do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?

After all, every single human being is of water and spirit—regardless of the categories we place on ourselves and others.

We are all made of water and spirit.

May we meet all people and share and embrace all stories; and may we share food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. May we sit together; and stand together; bow together; help together; work for justice and peace together; may we live together.

How will this be in us?

Interfaith Encounters Day 4

UrbanTree

Our day began with Sue Witte and the folks from Urban Tree Connection! And…what amazing weather!

Urban Tree Connection  is a nonprofit organization that engages children and adults from some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods in community-based, urban-greening projects.

UTC believes that community-based urban greening is a great way for residents of all ages to bring about positive change in their neighborhood. In addition to beautifying the neighborhood, urban greening projects also provide a variety of economic, environmental, health-related and social benefits.

We met Sue and others at the Merion Ave. site where amazing projects will soon begin. Currently, the huge lot is an open space with still quite a bit of brush to clear. But in a few months…

utc5

utc6

utc

utc3

utc2

utc4

Volunteering with Urban Tree Connection is something you cannot do just once. You want to return and check on the soil that you cared for earlier; or the seeds you planted in the spring; or the flower beds you prepared for winter. Eventually, this vacant lot we helped clear will be transformed. Fruits, vegetables…green, green, green! It was a pleasure to be part of the positive movement to engage Philly’s neighborhoods in creating more green space and more accessibility to fresh produce.

MORE PICS HERE: https://www.facebook.com/urbantreeconnection

DAY 4 Part II: Ravel/Unravel Workshop: What’s Your Story?

Next up was a workshop led by yours truly, making good use of Project Interfaith’s Ravel/Unravel project.

ravelunravel

Ravel/Unravel is  a multimedia exploration of the tapestry of spiritual and religious identities that make up the world. The project seeks to ignite a movement for people to openly and respectfully learn, talk and share about topics which are typically taboo but often define our interactions and experiences as humans: identity, religion, spirituality and culture.

Ravel/Unravel is a community-based project. All the people are real people and not actors and were interviewed in the Omaha, Nebraska general region.

This project is about identity.
Its purpose is not to examine, judge, or monitor the orthodoxy of one person’s statements.

RavelUnravel is designed to foster understanding, conversation, and community, not agreement.

I asked the students to explore 3 traditions with which they were less familiar. Each of the two groups watched videos of people who share their perspective about their tradition. Afterwards, I asked the students to share what they learned and appreciated, and surprised them.

I also asked them to share their thoughts about what types of questions are most helpful and effective when people are asked to share about a particular tradition. I learned a lot from the students and have much to think about.

In the end, the most important conclusion I came to after this was that everyone has a legitimate story to tell and we ought to tell it! The more we share our authentic stories, the less we categorize, judge, and misinterpret. I’m hoping that I also will continue to find ways to tell my own story so as to promote pluralism and cooperation for the common good of all.

DAY 4 Part III: Won Buddhist Temple Faith Encounter

Tuesday night ended with an incredibly wonderful experience at Won Buddhist Temple.

IMG_6255Won Buddhism is considered a reformed Buddhism in that it embraces the original Buddha’s teachings and makes it relevant and suitable to contemporary society. It revitalizes and modernizes Buddhism, so that an ever increasing number of people can use Buddha’s teaching for practical and useful purposes.

The name Won Buddhism (Won-bul-kyo in Korean) is a compound word meaning the universal truth, enlightenment, and teaching. Won means unitary circle, which symbolizes the ultimate truth; Bul means enlighten to the Truth; and Kyo means to teach the Truth. Won Buddhism is a religion that teaches the ultimate Truth so that people can awaken to this Truth and carry it out in their daily life.

The members of the Won Buddhist community embrace and accept those of other faiths and have made a lot of effort in inter-religious dialogue.

Once inside the temple, we were greeted by members of their community and Rev. Sungsim Lee. Strikingly, Won Buddhist temples do not have a statue of the Buddha inside the prayer space. Instead, they have, at the center of the temple, the Il-Won-Sang, a circular symbol representing the origin of all beings in the universe, the truth that all buddhas and sages enlighten to, and the original nature of all living beings.

IMG_6261

Inside the temple, we sat down in a circle to prepare for meditation.

WonFullMeditationCircle  wonmeditation2

One of Won’s community leaders and Rev. Lee led us in some chanting and then we practiced silent meditation for about 25 minutes.

wonMeditationAfter stretching a bit, we practiced walking meditation.

One foot.

Then the other.

Slowly around in a circle.

IMG_6264 IMG_6265One of the students at Won Institute then shared a message with us.

wonSpeaker (2)

Afterwards, we spent some time in small groups for Q&A.

   wonsmallgroup WonSmallgroup2 WonSmalGroup3 Upon leaving the Temple, Rev. Lee sent us off with many good memories, fruit, and cookies!

IMG_6279 IMG_6278

Message that sticks with me:
You can read scripture and practice meditation, but above all, you must practice the scriptures and apply the meditation to your real life–doing good and treating others compassionately.

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