Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘choice’

The Power of Love: a Different Joy

Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

Resultado de imagen para no mud no lotus

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

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

Resultado de imagen para lord of the rings characters

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

A little context please? Okay, yes.

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

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

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

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

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

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

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

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.

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Choosing to Love No Matter What

John 13:31-35

love-is-a-choice
When did you choose to act out of love?

What I mean by that question is when did you choose to love someone you were not obligated to love? When you loved someone outside of your social circle, your family, colleagues or friends? When you chose to love someone….

Love is certainly a difficult word and concept to define. I’ve learned in my lifetime that the more I age, the more I realize how little I actually know about a lot of things—including love. Love is so much bigger, mysterious, random, and more undefinable than I ever dreamed possible. If you were to ask me: how do you know when someone really loves you? My answers may surprise you. Perhaps your answers to that question would surprise me!

I want you to take a moment and think about this.

When do you know that someone really chooses to love you? What does that kind of love look like? What does it feel like?

My personal answer is: I know someone loves me when they are not obligated to because of family or societal obligations, or money. I know someone loves me when they treat me well when I’m tired, angry, or annoyed, or not at my best. When someone chooses to love me even though we strongly disagree or we are on different paths.

But allow me to clarify—this kind of love [for me] isn’t dependence masquerading as love. In other words, there are people look for other people who are needy. Why? Because they want to appear loving by attaching themselves to someone who will be dependent on them. This is, of course, co-dependency and not really love. I had a friend in high school who experienced this first hand. His parents showered him with “love” his whole life, but at the same time, they wouldn’t let him choose anything, wouldn’t let him find his own path or make mistakes. They sheltered him from life’s realities. And so he was so co-dependent that none of it felt like love. He resented them. Sadly, this happens all too often in our relationships.

So we are exploring a love that might make us uncomfortable. It will challenge our preconceived notions and societal constructs. This love is not conventional.

Speaking of non-conventional, how about the Gospel of John? The story we are looking at in John 13 is in fact about love, but before we get into it, let’s set the context. It’s right before Jesus of Nazareth gets arrested. He just had a meal with his friends, the disciples. Jesus just finished washing their feet. That was something a servant would do—not a rabbi, or a prophet, and certainly not a powerful leader. But that’s what he chose to do. And Peter [as well as others] didn’t like it one bit. Peter even refused. But Jesus insisted. Then, after the contested foot washing, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ close companions, leaves with some bread. This was significant, because next in the story, Judas sells out. He accepts some money from Roman authorities and tells them where Jesus will be at a certain point so they can ambush him and arrest him. Jesus, in John’s story, already knows that Judas is about to do this. After Judas leaves, Jesus announces a new commandment: love one another.

Now let’s look this word love in its Greek linguistic context. Love is agape in the ancient Greek. A loose definition of agape is: the highest form of love and compassion that is unconditional and transcends love of family or friends, regardless of circumstances. But please keep in mind that agape was not a religious concept and certainly not a Christian concept until many centuries later. In Hellenistic culture and in Israel and Palestine, this type of love was known, but as a cultural concept apart from religion. That being said, there are many other traditions around the world that define this higher love in a similar way.

For example, in Sanskrit [the ancient language of India], there is mettā, which means loving-kindness or friendliness.

mettaAnd in the Arab tradition, the Arabic word ishq, which means divine love.

ishq

Again, don’t assume some lofty, religious, non-concrete love. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Agape, or the higher love, was based on real, human experience. It wasn’t something you talked about; it was something you did. So it makes sense that in John’s story, Jesus of Nazareth keeps on setting concrete examples of what this higher love looks like and feels like. Foot washing—the rejection of social constructs that separate people and make others lesser. Agape love transcends social levels. Forgiveness—which involved debt forgiveness. Agape love did not keep a record of debts. And here’s the most difficult question: what to do with Judas?

I mean the guy did betray Jesus, right?

But after Judas leaves the room, Jesus lays this down: I have loved you so that you also might love one another. This would have been difficult to hear, because we know that the disciples were already bickering over who was the best. They just found out that Judas, one of them, had betrayed. No doubt they were ready to rip into Judas after he left. But they didn’t get that chance. Instead, they were to love each other [including Judas! Come on, you can’t leave Judas out], and they were to love each other in the way that Jesus had loved. This would be the way that they would continue to feel Jesus’ presence, long after he was gone. And this higher love would be what defined them; it would be their primary characteristic.

By this higher love they would be known.

Look, I’ve been to many different religious communities and I have many colleagues and friends from a variety of religious or non-religious backgrounds. I’ve seen how families treat each other and how friends and colleagues treat each other. In all cases, there are people who choose to love, and there are people who choose not to.

I’ve seen a parent choose to accept and love her grown child who now identifies as non-binary. Though it may be outside of this mother’s thinking and difficult to understand that her child does not clearly identify as one gender, she chooses to love.

One colleague of mine [who happens to be Muslim] was once asked: if your college-age son decided to leave Islam and no longer be a Muslim, what would you do? His answer: I would be disappointed, because I do think that following Islam can help him become a better person, but that’s less important and not really my answer. My answer is that I would choose to love him.

I know it’s not the norm in society and I know it’s rarely seen in churches [sad, but we all know it’s the truth], but this choosing to love is the real deal. It’s action; it’s not easy. It transcends. It can change someone’s life and remind them that they matter.

So keep asking yourself: How do I know that someone chooses to love me?
Surround yourself with those people—even if they are only a few.

And then, consider that if you are obligated to love or pressured to love, this is not the same thing as choosing to love.

To close, I couldn’t resist. I listened to Prince a lot in the 80s and 90s. He was an oft-misunderstood artist and person, but much of his music spoke to the deeper levels of identity, sexuality, and spirituality—all at the same time. So I close with a few stanzas from his song Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed:

If I were ever to write my life story
I could truly say through all the pain and glory
I was just a piece of clay in need of the potter’s hand
Cause when you whispered in my ear
The words I so now understand, oh

Beautiful, loved and blessed
I’m better than the day before
Cause you made me confess that I am,
Beautiful, loved and blessed
When you’re free you’re really free indeed

All you gotta do is just plant the seed[1]

Yeah, Prince.

Choose to love. Plant that seed.
[1] Songwriters: NELSON, PRINCE ROGERS / DAVIS, ASHLEY TAMAR

Beautiful, Loved And Blessed lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

I’ll admit it. During this particular Holy Week and then, on Resurrection or “Easter” Sunday, I didn’t feel so up to painting eggs, eating candy, or singing hallelujah, Christ is risen! My role here is not to be a Debbie Downer–it’s just to be honest. I’m not up to it. Because, doesn’t it just seem like yesterday that people were changing their Facebook profiles and creating Twitter hashtags like #jesuiparis [i.e. I am Paris], after terrorist attacks?

jesuisparis
And then the attacks in Brussels. And then another attack outside of Baghdad, Iraq at a soccer game; a bomb in Turkey; and then, on Good Friday, bombs in a Nigeria mosque that take the lives of worshipers. And on Easter Sunday, a bombing in a park in Pakistan where Muslims and Christians [many of them children] mingled and played and enjoyed the outdoor festivities.

pakistanLike the Paris attacks, Brussels was trending on Twitter and on the news–along with some guy named Ted Cruz, another guy with a squirrel on his head, a Spice Girls reunion, and peeps. Lots of peeps.

peepsBut Baghdad? Turkey? Nigeria? Pakistan? Not so much. Really, I’m not bringing this up to bring you down. I’m just being honest.

So before I seemingly ruin your holiday, let me explain. This is not about despair, or pointing fingers, or whatever else.

This is about being honest and being connected.

We live in a world with many people in it, who speak different languages and practice different religions [or no religion] and who eat different things and wear different clothes. It’s always been like that. This is humanity. When we get into this kind of violence and fear is when we forget our humanity.

When we think that “our” way is the best way, or even worse, the only way, we impose that way on anyone who gets in the way.

And let’s not go down this road of accusing Muslims or Arabs for being the group of people that is doing this the most. It’s not true. Anglos in America have done it [and do it], Europeans do it, too. You can blame whole religions if you wish [though it’s misguided], because people kill others because they choose to, or are moved to by charismatic, evil-crafty leaders with authority, power, and money do it. Individual people decide to commit violence, and yes, some are desperate and destitute and coerced into it. But we can make no blanket statements anymore. When we accuse a whole religion [or cultural group] of something as terrible as these violent acts, we show our ignorance and unwillingness to embrace a difficult truth: we are all connected. So if we propagate hateful and prejudice rhetoric about ANY group of people, we are contributing to this awful mess.

So don’t do it.

This is why I refuse to stand by and watch while many people [whether religious or not] give into fear. This is the last thing we should do. Fear only creates more fear, and then more misunderstanding, less connection and cooperation, and more violence. In wake of such violence and tragedy, fear should not be an option. Understanding, relationship-building, and cooperation are the options. For as much as we move from hashtag to hashtag and headline to headline, we are not governed by these things. We choose whether or not we will know our neighbors and even those outside our neighborhood and community. We choose whether or not we shrink back in fear or whether we respond with love and empathy.

In this very moment, there is a Muslim refugee family from Syria that just arrived in the Warminster, PA area. The United Church of Christ in Warminster and other congregations and non-religious folk too will be involved in helping them get settled here via co-sponsorship, housing provision, transportation, language courses, job assistance, etc. So they feel welcome.

This is a choice.

And on resurrection Sunday, there is a story that presents a choice as well. Most of you have heard or read this story in the four Gospels, so it may seem familiar. This time, we’re in Luke’s Gospel, pretty similar to the oldest Gospel, Mark, but with its own nuances. The story begins as all the resurrection accounts do–without fanfare and quite gloomy. Women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed for burial [which is a cave] and they come with spices. They see, however, that the protective stone placed in front of the tomb has been rolled away. So they go in. To their surprise, the body of Jesus of Nazareth is missing. Luke offers no details here and leaves room for us to ask questions like: was the body stolen by fanatic followers of Jesus? Was the body removed by the Romans? Or the temple authorities? Was the body ever put in that cave in the first place?

As we are asking these questions, two men in shining clothes appear to the women and ask a different question: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised. REMEMBER what he spoke to you, in Galilee? It is necessary for the son of man to be delivered into the hands of sinful human beings, and to be crucified, and on the third day to rise.

And now, Luke’s author is making us do our homework. First, the two men in shining clothes are JUST like Moses and Elijah in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain that Luke told in chapter 9. So it’s an identity moment for Jesus. He’s on the same level now as those great prophets.

And then, the questions. The women are asked to remember. In Luke, remembering is a constant theme. Jesus asks his friends the disciples to remember, time and time again. Now, the women are asked to remember. The son of man [i.e., the son of adam, or son of humanity] is delivered into the hands of sinful people, and crucified, and then will rise on the third day.

Consider that for the entire Gospel of Luke, the sinners were always the ones who hung out with Jesus–the marginalized, the oppressed, the left out. Now, the sinners are the authorities who led to Jesus’ death.

The women choose to remember.

So they don’t stay in the tomb, crying out of sadness. They don’t shrink away from the situation out of fear. Instead, they leave the empty tomb and tell the disciples about it. They are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary of James, etc. These courageous women are met with not only skepticism, but are considered crazy by some of Jesus’ closest followers. In fact, the only guy who considers their story is Peter. He goes to the tomb [running] and finds linen burial clothes [but no body]. And he leaves the empty tomb wondering what actually happened.

Here’s what I take from this story, and I don’t know if what I say matters, but I do think the story can matter, that is, if it moves you to do things in your life that matter. Ultimately, how we decide to act–how we treat people, matters the most. So here goes:

Why did Jesus die? A question we have to ask if we plan on talking about resurrection. Why did he die? I’m not one who thinks that he had to die. I know that many, many people will disagree, and that’s fine. But I don’t think his dying was the whole point. I think he died because he was a threat–not as a violent revolutionary, but because Jesus of Nazareth challenged the whole societal system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the reign of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.[1]

Ask yourself: what do violent religious fanatics, power-wielding authorities and fear mongers have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against certain groups of people, separating us and creating more chaos and less cooperation. Rather than raising our children to be peacemakers and to have friends from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, we are told to be fearful and to shrink back, protect our own, and to shelter children and youth from the world. What killed Jesus was indeed fear.

But this story tells us that we are not supposed to give into that fear.

The resurrection story isn’t flashy at all. Maybe that’s why the bunnies and baskets and painted eggs and peeps need to be there. Because really–the tomb is empty and we’re left to ponder: what happened? The real symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. No pageants, no lights, no trumpets or angels. Nobody is exchanging gifts under a tree or singing old songs.

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

The emptiness makes space for us in our distress and sadness about what’s happening all over the world. The emptiness leaves space for us to ponder like Peter: what happened? The emptiness leaves space for us to make decisions. How will we react? Will we respond out of fear? Or possibility, promise, new life? Will we react like Mary Magdalene, the one who kept on searching for the face of mercy and love, in spite of the uncertainty and despair all around?

Friends, there is room in the tomb for your doubts, your questions, and even your despair. But there is also room for your dreams, your joys, your whole selves. What will we choose? There is room. There is room. There is ALWAYS room for you. Love is that big, that wide, that accessible. So make room in yourselves for new life, for love, for mercy, for empathy, for light. Find yourself and embrace your uniqueness.

And always make room for others–all others. Make the choice to work for peace and cooperation, and empathy. Speak life to the death of prejudice and violence.

May every day be resurrection day.

[1] Ericksen, Adam, Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance, March 25, 2016.

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