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Posts tagged ‘christianity’

Buried Treasure Inside You

Matthew 13:44-46
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sell all that they have and buy that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went and sold all and bought it.

treasureHave you ever searched for hidden treasure? What about buried treasure, pirate treasure? There are treasures around the world that are hidden and waiting to be found, like the treasure of Lima, Peru; the golden owl of France; Lake Guatavita “el Dorado” in Colombia, and many others…

Guatavita-lagoonWhen I was a kid I used to go out into the rural expanse of Iowa and look for treasure in fields and grasslands. Sometimes I found First Nations arrowheads, other times amazing creatures living underground like massive ant colonies, centipedes, chipmunks, and more. At times I found coins or pieces of what seemed like pots or something.

Either way, I always believed that there was more treasure out there, just waiting to be found…

In religious traditions of the ancient worlds the idea of buried treasure within the natural world and within human beings was a common thread. It came to be known as the Divine Spark. The idea of a divine spark is that every human being possesses either a connection with God or a “part” of God. The goal of life, then, is to allow the divine spark to influence us toward love, peace, and harmony. Upon death, the divine spark returns to God. There are current expressions of this in most Western Mystical Traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism and many Eastern spiritual traditions teach it.

lightinyourheartI know it may seem that the major world religions that dominate the landscape these days [especially in the West] seem to teach or display something contrary–saying that the Divine [God] is far too big and powerful to be close or hidden within these lands, streams, trees, and in the people on the earth. It is true that Christianity as a religion moved away from what was called Gnosticism by some in the time of Jesus, the idea of mysticism and Divine-Human connection. As time passed and as people formulated more and more perspectives about Jesus of Nazareth, they moved towards a more distant God that they chose to express as Creator, Son Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Of course, for many Christians, this is a doctrine: the Trinity. But what if we were to embrace the truth that the Trinity and this idea of God being far away was not a 1st and 2nd century Jesus-taught idea? What if we were to hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, in the Jewish tradition, written so long before Jesus:

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (45:3).

And one of the many times that Jesus was believed to have said this in the Gospels, like this instance in Luke 17:21: The kingdom of God is within you.

The idea that each of us contains within ourselves a portion of God, a Divine Spark, is old but also new. It is the idea that each time we quiet ourselves and sit in the grass and look deeper into it, what will we see?

Hidden treasure.

Life we didn’t notice before. When we are patient and look out on the water and pay attention, we see it. The spark is there. When we look deeply within ourselves and realize that we are indeed connected to something more, something deeper, something that is love and compassion and wholeness. It is there. You may not see it today because it may be buried within you for lots of reasons. You may have been told a false story that your life is not life or that your existence is not important. You may have been lied to and told that you are dirty or sinful or unworthy. You may have been hurt, rejected, or isolated because of the way you look, who you love, or how you express yourself. But none of these change this fact—that you have within you a Divine Spark. God has not left you and never will. That treasure, within all of us, is worth looking for, worth focusing on, worth finding and embracing.

 

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Hidden Histories: What’s Cookin’

Matthew 13:31-35
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with* three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:*
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’*

A common remark I hear a lot these days goes something like this:

I can’t watch the news or stay informed with what’s going on the world, because it’s just so negative and divisive. I’m tired and I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling. How can I make a difference?  

I feel/have felt this too. Life in this world can wear us down and even seem to defeat us. Particularly those of us who are going through deep depression, anxiety, or who are consistently mistreated. This can lead to feeling that pretty much all things are out of our control and so what’s the point

I hope that in this message [and in two symbols] anyone feeling this way can find even a small bit of encouragement to keep living. I certainly don’t have all the answers and neither does any religious writing including the Bible, but in my experience [and in the experience of many others as well] there is a healthy balance of life we can live, even in a world so heavy and difficult.

Before we look at two symbols that will lead us there, allow me to mention briefly a philosophy that you may have heard of. Stoicism was a prominent school of thought in the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century. Stoics looked first to the natural world and found that there was one overall force balancing it all. They called this many names, including the Divine, or logos. Now if that sounds familiar, it should, be throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters these concepts resurface. Christianity, many historians believe, was influenced by Stoicism. The main aspect I want to focus on is that the Stoics thought that for human beings, the path to happiness was in accepting that which they had already been given [i.e. the life-logos], and then not allowing themselves to be controlled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. This is an understanding that the overall logos balancing all the world is also in us and then compels us to work together with others and to treat them fairly and justly.

And now the two symbols: the mustard seed and yeast.

seeds.jpegNow the mustard seed is a tiny little thing. You may not notice it. It’s hidden. The mustard seed comes from the mustard greens plant. You can eat the greens and also, if you allow the plant to flower, you can harvest the seeds and use them as spices, in sauces and other delicious sides and condiments. So Jesus makes good use of hyperbole by mentioning the tiniest of seeds that will eventually grow like crazy and add spice to whatever it touches. Matthew’s author was clearly writing from a Jewish perspective and to a mostly-Jewish audience. So these references to trees and plants would have been familiar. And this naturalistic focus is akin to the Stoic view of nature-humanity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the prophetic books, seeds, plants, and trees play a prominent role. Listen to this section of the book of Daniel, chapter 4:
11The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.

About-The-Tree-of-LifeIn this case, the tree is God’s domain of provision, rest, and safety. So essentially, if you recognize that God is in a tree of life and in the tiniest of seemingly insignificant seeds, then you get it. God is big and balancing it all, but even the smallest of creatures participate in this.

We cannot control everything, but we can still be part of everything.

Any of us who have ever felt [or still feel] that our lives don’t matter or that we are so small, we are reminded that yes, we are small, but we are still important, still loved, still valued.

Then there’s the symbol of yeast.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThis time, we find ourselves in a kitchen, and God is the chef, and God is a female. The divine baker is making bread and she uses a large amount of flour as if she is baking bread for hundreds of people. Then comes the yeast or leaven, which you may recognize as a common image in 1st Century Jewish life, but typically a negative symbol. Leaven was often a symbol of corruption. One rotten strawberry can spoil a whole basketful. But not this time. Now yeast is a positive force of growth and something that causes the hidden to be seen. The baker hides the yeast in the dough. After much kneading, she has made it so that the yeast is not visible or detectable. It’s now a part of the dough completely.

The yeast gives life to the dough. It’s creating something.

Left alone and covered, the dough starts to rise—it doubles in size. And then, in the heat of an oven, more rising, golden brown crust on the outside, and light and airy on the inside. You hungry yet?

So here’s my take. We are not meant to gloss over the heaviness of this life. We are meant to express what we feel as being part of our existence. And yet, if we can recognize the logos, the nature inside us, we can make progress towards love, towards wholeness, towards healing. A lot of us feel like mustard seeds. We may feel unnoticed, very small, and sometimes even without value. The heaviness and hatred in the world can make us feel that way. But mustard seeds can grow into something beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and spicy. They can bear flowers and eventually produce seeds. Even when you feel small and unnoticed, you are still capable of life. And your unique personality and gifts can add needed flavor to the community and to the world.

And yeast. It’s hidden growth and life. What and who you are on the inside is often not visible to others. You are made with the divine inside you. Life has already been breathed into you [like the CO2 air produced by yeast]. Sometimes you may not always notice that life, but it’s still there. Eventually, that life emerges from you and becomes visible on the outside. It grows and can even encourage others. Any small step when you embrace yourself, any small movement towards being more kind to yourself and to others, and the growth is accelerated. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

Sacred Connections

John 17:6-11 NRSV

Perhaps you’ve heard of a little movie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

IamOneForce
One particular character in the story is called Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen). Chirrut says a mantra throughout the film:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

He repeats this phrase over and over again, especially when he is in dire situations. Whether fighting hordes of storm troopers, imperial walkers, massive weapons of destruction or the stigma of his blindness—Chirrut remains calm and confident as he says:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

Check out this trailer with a clip of one of his scenes.

Because this movie [and the Star Wars story in general] is pretty well-know, I thought I’d ask some of the members of our faith community what they think this phrase means to them. Here is what they said:

The force links us all…it flows through all living things.

I am one with everything and everything is within me.

I can change the world by changing minds.

The force is everywhere and it gives me strength.

We channel the energy of the universe so much that we embody that energy.

When I am connected spiritually, I become an active part of God. Like a cell in a body.

I’m in a state of strength of mind and body that keeps me focused.

The force, in Star Wars lore, is an energy field that connects all living things in the galaxy. The power of the Force can be used by individuals who are sensitive to it. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi who uses the force, states:

ObiWanHS-SWE

“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

So when Chirrut says I am one with the force and the force is with me he is affirming the ancient teaching that all living beings are connected and can access a strength, a power, within themselves if they are sensitive to it. Chirrut himself is not a Jedi who would then use the force in obvious ways. And yet, Chirrut, as a blind person, is often able to see better than those around him who are not blind. He can read people’s feelings. He can sense movement. He is convinced that the force lives within him and therefore connects him to the greater, which is the force itself—the dynamic, connecting energy of all life.

Take a glance at Social Media and you’ll notice that people are really connecting to this Chirrut’s catchphrase—and not just because it’s related to Star Wars. I think we all have a deep sense within us of wanting to be connected to something greater, and being able to access that connection within ourselves. We are all seeking meaning in this life, this world, our everyday existence. Yes, it’s that age-old question: why am I here? But it’s universal, this question. Why do we do the things we do, get out of bed in the morning, go to work, to school, eat, interact, etc? Why are we alive? What am I connected to that has purpose? Don’t all religious traditions ask these questions?

Now look, I wish I could say right now that this idea that we are all one and part of a whole, that Jesus also taught and lived, I wish I could say that all the religions practice it. Most of them teach it, for sure. But sadly, because religions are made up by people with agendas and sometimes greed, we drift from this core ideal of sacred connection to God and each other. But I am choosing to focus on the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and not the many, many mistakes that the religion of Western Christianity has made.

In John’s Gospel, I might add, the most eclectic Gospel—Jesus prays an incredibly long prayer in this chapter 17 and it is called, by many scholars, the most universal and cosmic prayer of the Gospels and probably of the whole New Testament. It is likely that this prayer was not something said by Jesus in one setting, rather that it is a mashup of various prayers/teachings of Jesus while with friends and disciples. Such is oral tradition. People pass things on that they experienced.

The general idea of the prayer is belonging and connection. We belong to God, to Jesus, and to each other. Reciprocity:  all that has been given to Jesus has been given to us. End result: we are one. So, you may ask, what happened? How did Christianity become exclusivist and even militaristic? Not because of Jesus. Not because of the Bible either. Historically, each religion develops over time. Well, Western Christianity, after experiencing a mystical period in which people like Origen of Alexandria, Egypt and Gregory of Nyssa saw Jesus as the union of the human and the Divine in one person and thus the possibility for the Divine and the human to co-exist in all living beings, later councils and church leaders moved towards dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the Divine and the human are two separate entities. Over time, Jesus went from cosmic and connected to individualistic and separate. The Divine and the human in Christianity parted ways.

It’s a shame, but it does explain why we see many so-called Christians deal with absolutes and clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. Binary thinking. And it speaks to the fact that in the U.S. we are often “here and there” people. You are Muslim? You are there. I am Christian and so I am here. You are gay and I’m straight? You there, me here. You are trans? You are over there and I’ll stay here. You are Black, Brown, or Asian and I’m White Anglo? Let’s stay in our lanes.

But that’s not a narrative I’m buying into.

I’m hearing the Jesus of John tell us another story, that we are all connected by something greater. Hear the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action of Contemplation, from his writing the Cosmic Christ:

We eventually know that Someone Else is working through us, in us, for us, and in spite of us. After enlightenment, our life is not our own. Now we draw from the One Big Life, the Christ mystery, the Christ nature, the Christ source. We stop fretting about our smallness. The individual will never be fully worthy or correct, but that same individual can still remain utterly connected if it stops over-defending itself. Our yes deeply matters. The word for that yes and that connection is, quite simply, love.

In Christ, we become Love.

That’s what is in us; that is what surrounds us.

You know why this is important, right? Because life is scary sometimes; because there are bullies out there who will try to steal your joy and weigh you down; because sometimes we can feel so lonely and empty that we ache with sadness. So we must return to that sacred place, that place of connection that Jesus spoke of. God is in you, in me, in everyone, in all living beings. Love is in you, in me, in all living things. We are connected by this. It gives us energy, strength, and even the ability to do things we thought were impossible.

So embrace that you are part of the whole.
Embrace all living creatures as they are and with compassion.

You are one with this Sacred Love; and the Sacred Love is with you.

 

Come Out & Come Spring Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

butterrain
The season of spring is one that many people point to as their favorite season–at least for those who live in places where winter cold is a reality and the arrival of spring’s warmth and sunshine is a welcome change. Even in other places where the weather doesn’t seem to change, like in Honolulu, Hawai’i where I once lived, one can sense the change. Though on the island of Oahu I never experienced cold weather and grey skies, I did experience a rainy season that eventually gave way to sunshine…and rainbows. I’ve also been to a place called the city of eternal spring or la ciudad de la eternal primavera, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

1280px-Cuernavaca_c274_oCuernavaca is located in a tropical region, but its temperature stays pretty much in the 70s Fahrenheit, because it is situated on the southern slope of the Sierra de Chichinautzin mountains. When you wake up in the morning in Cuernavaca, warm air flows up the mountains from the valley below. When you’re having a coffee in the late afternoon, cooler air flows down from the higher elevations.

Spring as a season, of course, is full of symbolism. Rebirth, new life, flowers blooming, etc, etc. Across religious traditions there is a rich tapestry of spring-like themes and expressions. In the Christian tradition we read a story each springtime about Jesus of Nazareth disappearing from a tomb where a body was supposed to be, and then varied experiences of people seeing or hearing Jesus alive. It’s impossible for me to address all of the nuance and history of the resurrection stories in the four Gospel accounts. For the sake of our conversation, I’ll simply remind us all that each of the four Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection are different. The original story, in Mark, is really short and contains no actual appearance of the risen Jesus. Luke and Matthew expand Mark’s story, and John has a different take. The fact that all four stories differ from each other tells us that there was no established narrative about Jesus’ resurrection in the 50-100 years after Jesus’ death.

We are looking at Matthew’s version, a story that includes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb, but without spices and ointment. A great stone stood between them and the inside of the tomb. Matthew uses the word “behold” a lot in this version. Behold! A great earthquake! And behold! One lonely angel of the Lord [same wording Matthew uses when Jesus is born]. The angel is like the Incredible Hulk and thus able to move that great stone out of the way, and feeling quite pleased, the angel plops down on that great stone and takes a seat. The angel is wearing shiny, white clothes and looks quite like Jesus did in Matthew’s transfiguration story. A little resurrection bling-bling.

discoJesus

Kudos to the Disco Jesus creator.

Anyway, the Roman guards, symbols of power and strength and the military, are scared out of their minds and are shaken. They become like dead ones. Not so powerful now are ya? The angel, with a play on words, says to the women: Fear not! He is not here, he has been raised.

For the women, this would have been good news for many reasons. First, because they were all still upset about what had happened to Jesus. Also, the fact that Jesus had been raised to life meant that the work and words of Jesus would also not die, i.e. the way of compassion, gender equality, acceptance of the unclean, the sinners, and the marginalized being embraced.  The women are invited by the buff angel to look closer in the tomb to notice where Jesus once lay. But then, they are instructed to go right away and tell the others who followed Jesus. The angel must have a limited vocabulary in ancient Greek, because the angelic hulk keeps saying: Behold! He is going before you into Galilee, Behold! I have told you…and then Matthew adds one more in there: Behold! Jesus met them…

The women aren’t afraid and leave quickly to spread the news. And Behold! Jesus appears to them and greets them with xairete, a common phrase that was an everyday greeting. Funny, isn’t it? In spite of the earthquake, a great stone, an angel, and lots of Beholds! Jesus’ first words to the women are akin to: hey, what’s up, how you doin? The women are smart and go right for the feet of Jesus. And no, that’s not weird. You see, Matthew wants us to understand that this resurrected Jesus is not a ghost.

Okay, I get it. Each one of us will have a different take on this story and the whole resurrection thing. Just like the conflicting accounts in the Gospels, we won’t have the same view of it all. And that’s just fine, because the whole point of the resurrection story isn’t to prove something or disprove it, the point is not to claim that one religion is better than all the others because its prophet rose from the dead; the point is to find resurrection ourselves. That’s what each person who followed this Jesus were invited to discover–the resurrection in their own lives. This idea is all around us in nature with caterpillars, seeds, and eggs–going to dark places and seemingly lifeless–only to emerge reborn and beautifully alive. So no matter how you see this story, hear this:

Behold! You and I are invited to come out, to spring forth. It can be scary sometimes to do that, to be our true selves, to emerge just as we are. But we are encouraged to do so. We are encouraged with love and with healing to trade fear for emergence, for new life. Great stones and obstacles are moved to the side and we have room…to come out, to see this day [and every one after it] as a resurrection day, as a new start, as another opportunity to say and live: this is me. This is who I am. And I am loved. I am beautiful as I am. I may have scars and wounds and I may have felt dead on more than once occasion, but right now, in this moment, I am me. It is spring and I’m coming out, I’m blooming again.

And all around us are people with great stones holding them back and all around us are people who have been wounded and mistreated and pushed to the margins, and we have this chance, every day of this life, to say to them: Behold! I love you as you are; I accept you here and now and always; and you can come out and experience love and be who you are. This is resurrection. This is every day. Come on out. Behold! Your are loved, you are beautiful, and you are made to love, and to recognize the beauty in others, and in all life.

P.S. MUST listen to this song. It’s great. It says this better than I can.

 

Standing Up to Bullying Inside and Out

Matthew 21:1-11

Here we are reading a story that is usually associated with palm branches and hosannas. For many Christians, this is the story they hear each Sunday before Easter, called Palm Sunday. It’s a strange and complicated tale, because shortly after this weird parade, things go really bad for Jesus and co. Betrayals, arrests, torture, even death. I’ll never tell you what to think or how to interpret these stories—I simply share my thoughts, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve heard. Considering all that, I’ve never been one to think that Jesus of Nazareth knew that he actually would be tortured and crucified once in Jerusalem. I know that some of the Gospel writers allude to Jesus knowing and predicting it, but keep in mind how these stories were written and when they were written. These authors had the benefit of knowing what was going to happen, and they were also speaking to various groups of people who needed context. In my view, this doesn’t taint the story. I actually think it makes it better. Consider that if Jesus didn’t know what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Consider that even after Jesus’ death Jesus’ friends and family and didn’t know how to interpret all that happened. And consider that it was a LONG time after that people finally decided to write down what stories they had heard about it.

In other words, I’m saying that the story gets richer for me when we ask the identity questions again:

Who was this Jesus? Who did people say Jesus was? What did Jesus say and do?

And who are we?

Because religion created the Jesus figure. Each and every form of Christianity, whether Eastern Christianity, Roman Christianity, American Christianity, etc. came up with their own version of Jesus. And so that work shouldn’t end. The story continues. Who is this Jesus? What did Jesus say and do? Who are we?

Let’s get to the story of the day, shall we? Jesus of Nazareth was finally reaching the climatic destination that all the Gospel writers foreshadow: Jerusalem, the mecca, the epicenter of religion and culture and language and…the Roman Empire.

Yeah, there’s that.

Consider that as Jesus and the ragtag band of followers processed towards the city for Passover, there was another procession. The Roman army came to the city from the west. They were the riot police before they were called riot police. They had one job during Passover: keep the peace. Because Jerusalem’s population would explode to more than 200,000 people for the festival. Because crazy, trouble-making fools like Jesus of Nazareth would be coming.

The stage is set.

Meanwhile, our storyteller throws in some quirky twists. Before they get to the city, Jesus sends people ahead—they have one job—go find a certain donkey and a colt. It’s a weird request, right? Or is it? It’s all setup beforehand. Because of the threat of danger, things are more secretive now—kind of a like a really good spy movie.

Daniel-Craig-james-bond-BWJesus. Jesus Bond?

Only Jesus doesn’t do the martini shaken not stirred. He’s more into red wine.

wineSink

Oh right—the donkey business. Matthew‘s author is asking us to pay attention [once again] to a story written mostly for Jews. The donkey, metaphorical or not, is meant to point to Jewish prophetic literature, and in this case, Zechariah: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Keep in mind also that the people with Jesus, i.e. those called disciples or followers, were now at this point the loyal and close counterparts of Jesus. Those who met them outside Jerusalem, however, and put their cloaks on the ground, were not all sympathetic to their cause. And once inside the city, things got even worse. People did not celebrate Jesus and his little parade—instead there was confusion, skepticism, and in some cases, even anger. It was never really a celebratory parade. It was a messy protest.

And all this leads us back to the questions. Who is Jesus? What did Jesus say and do?

Who are we?

The way I see it—Jesus wasn’t a king, at least not the type of king or ruler we usually imagine. Jesus didn’t wield power, didn’t sit up on some throne barking orders, didn’t stand far off aloof from the common people, didn’t press buttons to launch war weapons, didn’t see violence as any kind of answer. Neither was Jesus a religious leader who wore a big and funny hat with extra jewelry and long prayers and holier than thou attitude. But neither was Jesus a political revolutionary who used weapons to make change or who held up the end far above the means.

Jesus was and is to me, someone who represented the best of what our humanity full-expressed can be: Jesus loved and accepted people as they were, and encouraged them to heal in any way they needed to.

And Jesus stood up to bullies.

Oh yes, he did. He stood up against his own people the Pharisees and called them out for their hypocrisy. He stood up to the Roman bullies who hid behind their forums and pillars to avoid seeing the horrific aftermath of their wars, the extreme poverty caused by their taxation, and the inhumanity of their occupations of other’s lands. Jesus stood up to the bullies. And yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it was difficult. But Jesus’ love for people moved him to stand up.

Friends, I don’t know where you are today or what you’re thinking now. I’m asking myself: Who are you today? What do you do and say, how are you loving and accepting people as they are, and how are you standing up to the bullies? Because there is no fear in love. If we love, we cannot let fear overwhelm us and hold us back. We love. We must stand up.

What is happening in Syria, what happened in Rwanda and South Sudan, and all other places where genocide and war and inhuman acts reign, these tragedies and unspeakable acts are and were made up of moments when a group turned into a crowd, when people turned on an imagined enemy because someone planted that evil seed. It happens here and everywhere. Mosques and Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues have been attacked and vandalized — hate graffiti is painted on walls and cemeteries are vandalized. Trans people are beat up in the street and terrorized, bullied in bathrooms, made to live in fear, made to feel lesser. Those who are homeless are robbed, beaten, and left to die. Black and Brown people are targeted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes even wrongfully killed.  Anyone who “looks” Mexican is told “Go back to your country, we don’t want you here!” Look, as a humanity, we have to face something—that we can find ourselves getting swept up into a parade of emotion and fear and misunderstanding, and before we know it, we are participating either directly or indirectly in bullying. We may want to walk with Jesus and the disciples from the East, but we can easily join the Roman legions from the West.

And that’s why Jesus’ example and the story matter. We cannot stop all the suffering in the world, no. But we can be aware, we can stand in witness, we can stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or victimized. What we cannot change, we can acknowledge. We can love by doing this, by listening to someone’s story and saying: I hear you, I love you. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen.

And I’ll stand with you—I’ll stand with all of you who are hurt or lonely or rejected. I’ll choose not to follow the bullying crowd and instead I’ll stand close to you, on the margins, loving you. In doing this, we stand as close as we can to the Spirit, to the Divine presence, who is constantly offering love, offering healing, offering identity.

 

Saltiness Leads to Light

Matthew 5:13-16curry.jpg

I’m not a big fan of bland food. If you are, no problem—no judgements. Everyone has different tastes and certainly, what you grew up eating affects your taste buds. But for me, I like strong flavors in food. I gravitate towards spicy and tangy curries and sauces, a wide variety of chili peppers, and accent flavors in herbs like cilantro.

And I cannot imagine what certain bland foods would be like without…salt.

dead-sea-salt-crystals-12Dead Sea Salt Crystal Formations

Everybody uses salt to some extent in their food. Of course, salt isn’t just to add flavor, because it also can be a preservative. Ancient cultures around the world used salt for a variety of reasons—even religious ceremonies and currency. For the sake of our conversation, though, we are not talking about your everyday table salt. We are talking about sea salt.

Sea salt comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. There are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, as the story in Matthew’s Gospel assumes, salt can lose its flavor. Salt from places like the Dead Sea or any other body of water obviously can mix with sand and other things, thus making it not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mix loses its saltiness. In Jesus’ day, merchants in the region of Galilee would deal with this on a regular basis, as they would encounter salt mixtures that were not usable because they were flavorless. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt.

That’s the context for the humans being as salt metaphor.

Being salty is about having flavor, but also about being useful. What comes to my mind in this moment is that saltiness involves diversity. As a human race, we are full of flavors, full of beautiful colors, cultures, and ideas. What makes us salty isn’t that we are all the same or homogeneous. Our diversity makes us salty; our diversity makes us useful as well, because the more we encounter and cooperate with others who are different, we gain new perspectives about the world [and ourselves], we break down barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, and we better our world. Like I said, I’m all about the flavor, baby.

And then there’s light.

lightpersion
Pretty common religious reference across the board, right? But in this case, the light reference needs some explanation. Think 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine, as we know this area today. People of that time typically had just one room in their houses. When someone entered a home, they would immediately notice an oil lamp on top of a stand. When it was time to put the lamp out, the residents of the home would place a bushel basket over the lamp. Practically, that would keep the smoke and fumes in the basket and not blowing in your face. This context is important if we are to gain insight into this Jesus saying.

an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1

You see, Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew’s author, says that we should be like the lamp on that stand, except for one caveat—we shouldn’t put the basket on top of our light to snuff it out.

Jesus raises the stakes and says that humans should not just be a lamp, but a city, and not just on a stand, but on a hill.

We are supposed to be even brighter lights that illuminate the darkness, up on a hill where others can see.

I don’t know about you, but I want to SEE that. Who is tired of all the hateful speech, manipulation, fear tactics, and hypocrisy? I honestly do not care if you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Atheist, Wiccan, Republican, Democrat, Independent, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, bland food or spicy food lover.

Why not accept our saltiness? We are all unique, and this is SO GOOD.

Why not be light? Why not be light in this world, because the world needs us to be light, yes?

I’ll do my best. Won’t you shine your light and add yours to mine?

Transgender Remembrance: Freeing Ourselves, Freeing Others

John 11:38-44

trans-memorial-e1429817762401
The Binding of Gender
It is not a stretch to claim that religious people, more specifically Western Christians, have had quite a lot of trouble with the idea of gender. We could spend hours discussing the patriarchal history and embedded male dominance of the Christian Church from its inception to the current day. So it only follows that the church has a poor reputation as to how it treats people who identify as transgender or gender fluid. For example, the recent bathroom access controversy has been spurred on by so-called Christian groups. They claim that transgender use of public bathrooms poses a “danger” to others. Of course, this crazy and unfounded fear is based on their idea that God does “make” mistakes, and since they believe that male or female is the only possible gender identification or expression, God must then work only in binaries. Anything outside of that rigid definition cannot be from God. Of course, that is neither Biblical nor consistent with any of Jesus’ teachings. It does continue to confuse and frustrate me how so many Western Christians struggle to accept that God is bigger than us, and therefore, gender is bigger than our limited perspectives.

Of course, a lot of it goes back to the scriptures and how people interpret them. If someone interprets them literally, then they assume that this is the very Word of God, unchanged. But they never do take the Bible literally. Instead, they impose their own agendas and interpretations to fit their own social, political, and moral perspectives. We all do, really. Just for fun, let me say this: if those who claim to take the Bible literally really did, well, surprise!

Jesus would in fact be transgender.

I’ll get to that later, but first we have to recognize, in all seriousness, the great harm that the Christian church has done to transgender people. It goes beyond religious marginalization. The church has bullied trans folk, physically and mentally harmed them, and the church has even killed them. We must admit to this.

According to the Human Rights Campaign and GLADD, in 2015, there were 21 reported murders of transgender people. Already in 2016, there have been 26 reported murders. This is just in the United States alone. This does not take into account those who are bullied and pushed to the brink of suicide, and those who go through with it. Friends, in a time in which hateful rhetoric has amped up against certain people, this should wake us up. We are not talking about gang violence or narco trafficking. We are talking about people being targeted and killed because of their gender identity or expression. The church, all Christians, we are responsible. We cannot allow this to happen. We must take a stand. How, you may ask.

First, maybe some of us need to learn. I know that I admit to knowing very little. I do research, read all the transgender and LGBTQ literature I can get my hands on, I ask questions of my transgender friends, family, and colleagues. I still have a lot to learn. We all do. We must listen. We must learn. To start, here are some terms to be acquainted with:

Terminology

Gender Identity:  a person’s innate, deeply felt sense of being male or female (sometimes even both or neither)

Gender Expression: external, and based on individual and societal conceptions and expectations

Transgender: gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex

Gender Fluid: a more flexible range of expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day.

Gender Queer: a fluidity of gender expression that is not limiting

By no means an exhaustive or all-encompassing discussion. Please comment and add your thoughts and added insights and knowledge.

Lazarus Bound, We Are All Bound
mummy
This brings us to the Lazarus story. Lazarus, like many transgender friends of ours in this world, was bound. He was bound with mummy-like burial cloths in a cave, a tomb. His friends and family thought he was dead. Jesus came along and told his sister Mary not to be so depressed about it, that Lazarus would live. Mary, in her binary thinking, agreed, but she was thinking about heaven. But Jesus was talking about today. No one understood, but it didn’t matter to Jesus. He went to the cave, a metaphor in the Gospel tradition for transformation or metamorphosis—the caterpillar’s cocoon. Roll away that stone. Lazarus, COME OUT OF THE CAVE! He did come out of the cave, but he was still bound. He was not yet alive, that his, until Jesus spoke the all-important words: Unbind him; let him go. Unbind Lazarus, let him go. Let Lazarus be Lazarus, whoever that may be. Stop limiting his life to your perspectives, or religious beliefs, or social conditioning. Let Lazarus go. Unbind.

The Unbinding, Freeing Jesus
The people were sure they knew who Lazarus was [he was dead to them], but Jesus reminded them of how limited their thinking was—not just about God, but about people, too. Jesus of Nazareth could indeed heal Lazarus, but in order for Lazarus to be truly free, the people had to unbind him.

Honestly, I cannot imagine what transgender people have gone through and go through. I can only listen to their stories and then stand with them. I have never experienced what many of them have—to be criticized, marginalized, or even targeted—not because they committed a crime, or fought in a war against you, or did or said something bad to you. Just because they are. That is brutal. Absolutely devastating. And as Jesus taught, we cannot follow God if we do not stand with those who are truly marginalized. I’m not talking about fake marginalization, I’m talking about people who are clearly targeted and attacked physically, mentally, and spiritually—who are told that their bodies and minds don’t matter. This is beyond wrong. This is evil.

transgender-1030x1030
I told you I’d come back to this business about a transgender Jesus and the Biblical interpretations and so here we go. Suzanne DeWitt Hall, in her article Jesus the First Transgender Man in the Huffington Post, makes an interesting point. For all those who say that transgender people are outside of God’s natural order, let’s apply their so-called literal translations of the Bible. The teachings of the ancient church through today, in general, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood person. He was born of Miriam [Mary in Greek], so therefore, he was carrying her DNA. Also, the Bible [and Christian church] has taught that Jesus was the new Adam, born of the new Eve. Stay with me here. The Hebrew book of Genesis states that Eve came from Adam’s rib, obviously a male rib, right? And then Eve became female. So she was male, and then was female? Transgender Eve. Oh, and fast forward to Jesus. He was born of Miriam [Mary], but not of Joseph, if you believe in the whole incarnate birth thing. So…Mary was the new Eve, passing on her gender fluid identity to Jesus.

Add to that the creation stories in Genesis which state that God created humans in God’s likeness, male and female. So what is God? Man? Woman? Both? Neither? Uh-huh, you feeling me now?

It’s a joke when Christians try to say that transgender people or those who are gender fluid, are not living as God intends. They make their faulty arguments all the while ignoring the Bible itself. Most people will be quick to tell you that God is not a man, but if so, then why do they continue to insist on calling God “he” and not “she” or neither gender? Look, it’s time for the church, it’s time for Christians to grow up and to actually read the Bible. And it’s time for Christians to embrace people of all gender identifications and expressions as they are.

Take a quick glance at the dictionary definition for the prefix “trans.” It means across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly. Hello, Jesus. Christ crosses all borders and limitations; Christ is beyond the church, beyond religion; Christ is through all and in all; Christ changes people thoroughly and helps them feel alive again. So yes, Jesus was/is trans. Jesus showed us what it can be like to just love and accept people as they are. That kind of relationship is healing. Friends, we must see all of our trans neighbors, friends, family members, and colleagues as we see ourselves. They are beautiful, they are good creations, they are deserving of dignity, respect, and love. No more binding. No more hating. Time for all to be free.
lgbt_freedom_to_live_sign-r44734a8a393346fbbbbafcd1deea4df7_fomuj_8byvr_324

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