Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘capernaum’

It’s Good to be a Kid!

Mark 9:30-37

kid1.jpegFear.

It is a feeling that all of us have. Fear is programmed into us. That’s okay, though, because fear is actually meant to protect us. We are born with a sense of fear so we can react to things or situations that could be dangerous or harmful to our emotional or physical health.

kid2.jpeg

Obviously, babies cry when they’re afraid, even if they are startled by a loud noise that is completely harmless—like an older sibling banging drums or something. Babies also experience stranger anxiety and will cling to their parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize.

Or maybe strange people like me who make scary faces at them.

As babies become toddlers, around 10-18 months old, they start to experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both caregivers/parents leave.

4-6 year old kids start to fear things that aren’t based in reality, like monsters or ghosts.

kid3.jpeg

…Or Great Aunt Martha’s sloppy kisses and awful casseroles.

Okay, maybe that last fear is a real one.

Anyway, once kids are 7-12 years old, their fears can reflect real things that could actually happen to them—like getting hurt physically or a natural disaster, like a tornado or something.[1]

It’s clear that what kids fear is different than what adults fear.

This is due to the many facets of mind development. Children have an incredible imaginative capacity, can repress reason, and also exhibit the condition of innocence. This is played out when a mom is scared of the next medical bill, while her five-year-old isn’t scared of that at all, as long as the medical bill isn’t delivered by the abominable snowman.

But as Tim Lott states, in his article “Children used to be scared of the dark – now they fear failure,” fear in children is starting to look more and more like the fear of adults. A recent survey from Johns Hopkins University found that the top five fears of kids thirty years ago were of animals, being in a dark room, high places, strangers and loud noises. But currently, in the updated survey, kids are now afraid of divorce, nuclear war, cancer, pollution, and being mugged.

Further, in another poll from the UK, researchers found that some traditional fears like spiders and bugs, witches, the dark, and clowns [eww yes, clowns] are still prevalent among children. But, today the fear of being bullied, being approached by strangers and the fear of failure in school performance are major players.[2]

In a society driven by achievement in school that leads to finding a high-paying job, children’s fears are starting to look less innocent and imaginative.

And while we could spend a lot of time discussing why this is the case, we’re going to move onto a story in Mark’s Gospel that all about fear and children. Perhaps this story will give us some insights.

So here’s the deal: Jesus of Nazareth is traveling with his followers from Galilee to Capernaum. Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know this is happening, because he is afraid [yes, that’s right, I said Jesus is afraid] of how the people might react if they knew he was passing through. He didn’t want to become a king or a religious leader, or a spiritual rockstar. It wasn’t just a fear of the crowds in Northern Galilee, though. Jesus was also concerned about his small band of followers on the road with him to Capernaum. He tells them that he’s going to die and introduces also the possibility of life after death [however you want to define that]. And yet, Jesus knows that his closest friends are afraid of such a possibility. They are confused and fearful of the unknown; so they don’t ask any questions. Instead, their fear leads them to arguing. As they walked to Capernaum, they bickered over who was the best disciple. Who had the most faith? Who did the best work? Who was the most loyal?

So when they get to Capernaum, Jesus tweaks them with a question:

And…what were you discussing on the road?

Uh-oh, he heard.

And the disciples, now afraid what Jesus would think of them, stay silent. Fear is driving this whole story!

So finally, Jesus sits down with them, in somebody’s house, maybe his own. And it’s a teaching moment. His disciples still saw the world as a hierarchical structure of kings and queens, religious elites, and then all those below who struggled to survive. And so they sought to move up in the world.

But this was not what Jesus called the “kingdom” or “reign” of G-d. This “kingdom” was not top-down. The most venerated politician or religious leader was no different than the no-name beggar on the street.

Or the smallest child.

Mark’s Gospel writer gives us a rare symbolic detail to supplement the teaching. Jesus picks up a kid and says:

Those of you who receive any of these children like this one receive me. And those of you who receive me receive not me but the one who sent me.

The child is a symbol—not necessarily that the disciples should physically receive children and honor them, but that they should receive and welcome the child inside themselves.

You see, we say that we value children in society. In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine, people said the same things. But children were property and they were cared for by women, who were also considered property. They were bought and sold. And children, for the most part, were not to speak unless spoken to; they were to be seen and not heard.

Sounds familiar.

Jesus’ teaching is significant in many ways, but here’s what I’m hearing.

First, we need to admit that we are often hypocritical when we talk about children. We say that we love them, we appreciate their cuteness, and we encourage [and sometimes pressure] people to have more babies.

And yet, so, so many children are not cared for, not loved, not mentored. Far too many children are born into households of violence, neglect, and abuse. And some children, forced from their homes in Syria, or Honduras, or West Africa, are left to starve and are turned away by governments, religious institutions, and whole countries. These children have done nothing wrong. And yet, as a society we are ignoring them.

And secondly, we need to learn to embrace the inner child in us in order to face our fears in a healthy way. There is no reason for us to lose our imaginations.

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There’s no reason for us to stop laughing at silly things, or to cease exploring or to halt our curiosity.

Though as stubborn adults we don’t want to admit it, our fears for the most part are useless. Our fears do nothing to protect us from the things we are anxious about

Aung San Suu Kyi, Noble Peace Prize winner and Burmese [Myanmar] political leader, once said: “The only real prison is fear and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”

kid5.jpegFriends, ask yourselves these questions:

Are your life stories often driven by fear?

Are your decisions based out of fear?

Do you behave in certain ways simply because you are afraid?

From time to time, we may all answer yes to these questions.
But we have an opportunity to seek and follow a simpler way, to accept that which we don’t understand or know, and not fear the unknown.

To embrace the child in each one of us is to think imaginatively like a child, to move away from fear to trust, love, and wholeness.

It is kicking up your feet on an Amsterdam bicycle, just because.

kid6.jpeg

All are invited to embrace the inner child, the child who knows that faith is not about certainty, but about wonder; not about answers, but questions.

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[1] http://kidshealth.org/PageManager.jsp?dn=KidsHealth&lic=1&article_set=21758&cat_id=145&&ps=105
KidsHealth®, © 1995- 2015 . The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. All rights reserved.

[2] Lott, Tim, “Children used to be scared of the dark – now they fear failure,” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/29/children-used-to-be-scared-of-the-dark-now-they-fear-failure

Bread of Love

John 6:24-35

breadLOVEPreviously, in this chapter of John’s story, something like 5000 people were fed when there seemed to be a scarcity of food. A handful of loaves and fishes proved to be enough to feed everyone. After the event, Jesus and his disciples took a boat over to Capernaum, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And this is where we pick up in the story. The crowds of people who were fed followed them to Capernaum. And then when they found Jesus, they asked him:

Teacher, when did you come here?

Notice that they say teacher and not prophet or lord. Seems like after they ate their fill, they forgot that earlier they called Jesus prophet.

This is not lost on Jesus. He knows that the right question to ask isn’t when he arrived in Capernaum. The right question to ask is why are these people still looking for him? The answer to that question was pretty simple: the people were looking for Jesus because they ran out of food.

They were hungry.

hungry

The “signs” they had seen during the great feeding has faded away into a distant memory. The crowds no longer saw signs, which I will define as “aha moments” or “time to stop and pay attention,” but instead they heard only their growling stomachs.

That is why the seemingly amazing event of the feeding of the 5000 was now a mere afterthought. So Jesus contrasts the food that perishes with the food that lasts. Of course, the food that perishes was and is the actual food they ate. The bread and the fish was great while it lasted, but once it ran out—everyone got hungry again. This is just true. If you’ve ever eaten a great meal–one that you thoroughly enjoyed—in spite of its greatness, that meal will eventually fade away. Your stomach will process the food. Chemicals and acids will break it down. And then, it will be released from your body. It’s temporary.

But not the food that lasts, according to Jesus. So what is this food? Is it some kind of magical energy bar that your body cannot break down, constantly providing nutrients, vitamins, and sustenance? Is it the miracle bar we’ve all been waiting for?

ML_MiracleReds_Berri_BARNo, it’s not. Jesus isn’t talking about food. He’s talking about presence.

At other times in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the vine and the people the branches.
Abide in me, just as I abide in the vinegrower.

Once again, this Gospel is reiterating that Jesus’ presence [called logos in chapter one] is a divine presence that doesn’t go away—one not limited to ritual, religion, or social construct. The divine presence is constantly fulfilling.

But the people in the crowds want more nutritional information. Like how many carbs? And what kinds of religious things must they do to perform works of God? Rather than embracing the divine presence as something that just is, they still want to figure it out and to limit it to certain rituals or moral standards.

Jesus, talking on another level, tells them:
This is the work of God, that you trust in the one whom God has sent.

Now I changed the wording for a reason. I’ve mentioned before that “believing” things about Jesus is not really what John’s Gospel focuses on. It’s a language issue. In Greek, this text should be translated: faith into the one sent. But faith is not a verb in English. So many translators unfortunately change faith to believe.

What the original language says is that the people are to orient themselves towards the divine presence, and to trust in it. So this is not a passage appropriate for any bully pulpit, to claim that people need to believe this or that about Jesus.

This is about trust and re-orientation.

But the crowds still aren’t convinced. In order for them to “trust” and “reorient” themselves, they will need some proof. So they ask for signs, which to them are miracles. They cite Moses, of course. Bread from heaven [manna] came down and the Israelites ate. So, Jesus, what ya got, huh? You better than Moses?

But Jesus is ready for their superficial request. He tells them that manna from heaven didn’t come from Moses, but from the Creator. Likewise, the true bread from heaven comes from the Creator. And this true bread gives life to the world.

The crowds finally seem to understand and so they respond much like the Samaritan woman at the well, who when told about living water, said to Jesus: Lord, give me this water always. In this case, the crowds say: Lord, give us this bread always. All of a sudden, Jesus is no longer just a teacher, but now a lord.

I think that the more we honestly examine John’s Gospel, the more we find out how just how much of our thinking about G-d [theology] and Jesus [Christology] is based on “going backwards.” What I mean by that is the fact that most of us are taught some interpretation or theological view as kids or youth in a church or at home, and we start there. Eventually, we may make it to the scripture itself, but by that time, we are already reading the scripture with a set perspective and interpretation. Rarely do we read a scripture story coldly without some agenda or bias leading. That’s why I argue that it is important and worthwhile to reread scripture stories that you think you know so well.

Because a typical interpretation of all this is that Jesus is the bread of life, and so it follow that those who “believe” in Jesus are fed and those who don’t go hungry. Also, this story is often a basis for the institution of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/Communion, which uses the symbol of bread to represent Jesus’ body.

But John’s Gospel isn’t establishing any institution of this sort. Instead of the so-called “last supper” that the other three Gospels include, John includes the foot washing story.

What if we read this story without thinking about Communion or some church sacrament? What if the story is about presence and trust and moving past the superficial? What if the story is about bringing people together—those who are hungry for something more than they see in the world and in society, people who crave much more than conventions or the status quo?

What if this story is about the Creator raining down this lasting bread of presence on all people out of love, with the desired result of it being an awakening and re-orienting of life?

It can be easy to react like the crowds and to view Jesus as some kind of delicious, glutinous bread that we crave, only to fill our stomachs for a short while. It’s easier to make a list of things we need to do in order to perform the works of G-d or to profess certain beliefs that we think punch our ticket to salvation.

It’s a challenge to seek more than just sandwich bread and black-and-white theology. Instead, it’s a wonder and sign, I think, when people at odds come together out of passion for a cause; when warring factions make peace because they love their future generations more than their anger; when someone chooses to make unpopular decisions because she feels it’s right; when people don’t just buy into the easy, conventional way of life, because they seek something deeper and more inclusive; when the symbol of bread becomes more than just a ritualistic item in worship or a temporary fix for hunger; when bread truly becomes life, and love, and humanity, and cooperation, and connection, and the divine presence.

Like the Samaritan woman at the well and the people in Capernaum, we are meant to wake up and re-orient ourselves. We are meant to go after more than just the quick fix or easy out. So may we listen more to our beautiful minds and hearts. May we feed them with love, compassion, and community.

May we not try to fill ourselves with the superficial and the easy, cookie-cutter answers.

May we be awakened by life, filled with it, and therefore full of life in this way.

Life As Vocation

Matthew 4:12-23

womenFishing

Women fishing in Bangladesh

Here’s how this story goes: Jesus just got tested in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee after his cousin John is arrested for eating too many locusts; or something like that. Then Jesus finds two willing fishermen and begins an adventurous journey with them.

This story originates in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew mostly copies Mark, but also adds the Isaiah reference and changes what Jesus is quoted as saying, eliminating The time is fulfilled and changing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of heaven. Also, Matthew leaves out the bit about Simon [Peter] and Andrew leaving their hired hands behind along with their dad in the fishing boat.

The story takes place in Capernaum–a major port city. It was a great trading and meeting center. It would have been a great locale in which to spread news or to communicate with a wide variety of people. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee [actually a lake, as you can see].

capernaum1

But the story also references Naphtali and Zebulon. This is less geographical and more cultural. Naphtali and Zebulon were the names of two tribes of people who lived in the northern region of Israel [also west of the lake of Galilee].

naphtali So consider that while Matthew includes the reference from the prophet Isaiah, it is not about predicting that Jesus would walk from Nazareth to Capernaum. If this were an actual literal prophetic prediction, Matthew would actually look stupid. Why? Because Naphtali and Zebulun were two separate regions. Capernaum was only in Naphtali and not Zebulun. You can see this on this map. Also, look at the actual Isaiah text from which Matthew borrows:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.[1]

Isaiah says by way of the sea [meaning the Mediterranean Sea there on the left] while Jesus in Matthew’s story traveled by the Sea [or Lake] of Galilee. Keep in mind that while some love to jump to prophetic conclusions and put two and two together by using OT passages to predict NT Jesus events—this alters the spirit and meaning of the story. Matthew uses the Isaiah reference [and geography and culture] to show that Jesus didn’t just care about the Jewish people, but also about those who were called Gentiles. We are supposed to notice the Zebulun and Naphtali reference and also the phrase repent for the kingdom of heaven is near because John said that earlier in the story in the wilderness of Judah [Jewish land] and now Jesus was saying the same thing in the Northern territories where there were more Gentiles. You see the movement of the story? I hope this helps.

Let’s continue on the journey. Nazareth to Capernaum was about 26 miles, depending on the route one decided to take.

Put it in context. If you traveled from the address of the United Church of Christ in Warminster, PA to where the University of Pennsylvania is in University City, you have just gone from Nazareth to Capernaum. Yes, keep in mind that most of the stories about Jesus take place in a very small geographical area.

So we have journeyed to Capernaum and we’re on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, there is fresh water and lots of fish. The lake is controlled by the wealthy Greeks and Romans and Jewish folk who were in with King Herod. Fishermen worked for them. Yes, that’s right—local fishermen had to buy fishing licenses just so they could fish. It was all regulated and of course, everything, including the fish, was taxed. Much like today, those who worked tirelessly raising crops on land or those who fished the sea–sadly they saw most of their food exported to other lands and they gained very little for their own families. It is to this group of people that Jesus appeals. Keep in mind that in Matthew’s Gospel and the other three, the issue of debt and money comes up a lot. We need to notice this in the story.

But most of the time we’re obsessed with the “fishers of people” idea and kind of end up thinking like Peter in this cartoon:

peter.stupid.fishIt’s true. Recently, a smart little girl inquisitively asked:

Why would they fish for people? And why did the other people go in the water in the first place?

Uh, yeah. This is a weird thing to say: go fish for people.

That’s why I really believe that details in a story are important. You see, we often see this Biblical story of calling disciples as some up-in-the-clouds, impossible tale. And so we are disconnected from it. But like most of the stories about Jesus, this one is quite ordinary and human, and therefore it is a story with which we can identify.

I still have a question, though: why did Peter and Andrew listen to this Jesus of Nazareth, leave behind their fishing equipment, and then follow him on a crazy adventure? Why?

I think most people assume that these two guys just picked up and left their previous lives to make some sort of incredible religious commitment. Many look at any story and assume that anyone who follows Jesus has to drop everything and make an overwhelming pledge to change their lives completely. Perhaps that’s why there are so many people who relate Christianity to fanaticism.

And they would be right, in many cases.

But I’m certainly not criticizing people who really do need to drop everything because they may live destructively and need this type of major change. Certainly, I have known people for whom practicing the Christian faith helped them to overcome addictions or destructive behaviors that kept them from living full lives. I don’t underestimate the joy and healing they discovered. But I think everyone’s experience is different. And I also think that religion itself is so very limited and also created by us, so being “called” or “following” Jesus will look different for every person.

That’s the point.

Your life is a calling.

You don’t have to be a fisherperson, a pastor, overtly religious, or someone who experiences an enlightening moment or a conversion. Your life, from its very beginning, has been and is a calling.

But yes—we are called to live with more imagination. And with more love. And with less hate. And we are called to live with more mercy, forgiveness, and more honesty. And we are called out of comfort and into conflict, recognizing that the conflict leads us to meet new and amazing people who will journey with us. Along the way, we start to realize that comfort is overrated. We can even find strength to leave it behind, as well as all the attachments to material things and prejudices that limit us so much and keep us from living a full life. And yes–we’re called out of fear to love—a very difficult calling, for sure, because we are called to face our fears and to stop ignoring them or  running away from them. And all of this looks so different for each and every person, doesn’t it?

Recently, the Lilly Foundation, an endowment organization that funds religious research, interviewed pastors, seminarians, church and ministry leaders, etc. about their careers. The study found that most of these people felt called to their vocation. Okay, but the problem is that most people don’t feel the same way. They don’t feel called like most pastors do. They hear sermons and read religious stuff but often they don’t think that what they do outside of the church has much to do with some calling worthy of God’s attention. Most people see Peter and Andrew or any of the other 1st or 2nd century disciples as super Jesus followers and faith heroes who they could never measure up to and with whom they cannot identify.

Well, that’s a big problem.

We are missing the whole point, then. I mean, it’s all well and good to interview pastors and seminarians and other professionals, but being a pastor myself, I see great limitations here. Look, personally I do find joy and fulfillment in my work as an ordained minister—both with UCCW and also with the Interfaith Center. But my “calling” [vocation] is not any higher or more worthy of God’s attention than anyone else’s. I don’t think of what I do as more Christian or more faithful to following Jesus.

And no, I did not put down my nets and follow Jesus like Andrew and Peter. I just didn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried my best to be myself and to treat people well, and to love fearlessly and to speak and act creatively and compassionately. But that has zero to do with me being a pastor. That’s just my life. And for me, following Jesus’ life and teachings has helped to make me a better person. It has helped me forgive and help and empathize and heal.

Your life and calling is just as special as mine. Look, this Lily Foundation study discovered something much more important than what religious professionals think. They found that all these people had the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose—not because of their religious jobs–but because of their relationships.

Relationships. With people.

In Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t call the two fishermen [or any others for that matter] to change jobs. Jesus instead calls them into relationship. They are to be fishers of people. And while this sounds weird to most of us because we are not casting nets, you get the idea. We are called into relationships and we always have been.

And this is creative and not limited. Just like fishing. Check out the creativity of these guys:

creativefishingYour relationship with God, with this, Jesus—should be a good thing. It should add joy, healing, wisdom, wholeness. It should not limit you or take away your playful imagination or your creativity or make you think that you need to change who you are. No way. Likewise with your relationships in this life here on this planet. You should be challenged, uplifted, inspired, strengthened, and fulfilled by your relationships with people. Others should feel the same when they are in relationship with you. And no, you don’t have to have some really religious conversion story or some so-called “higher” calling to do that.

No way. Just be you.

And so, ask yourself:

How will I step out of my comfort zone and be in relationship with others?
How will I be a compassionate friend?
How will I be a loving partner?
How will I be creative, free, and joyful at work and at school and with others?
How will my relationship with God inspire and heal me?
How will this relationship with God move me to healthy relationships with others?

Live the story.


[1] Isaiah 9:1-2, NRSV.

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