Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘conditioning’

What Do We Need?

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

A question for you, once again.

Right now, in this moment, what do you want?

Okay, a follow-up question.

What do you need?

It’s true, isn’t it, that what we want is often not what we actually need.

WANT-orSometimes what we want is based on social conditioning. We want material things like cars, clothes, jewelry, electronic devices, etc., because we’re taught to want them.

Other times what we want is a result of habits we have formed over many years. Our brains are trained to want certain things.

What we need, however, is another story. Sometimes we need rest and more sleep. Other times we need to eat healthier or exercise more. At times we need alone time; other times we need time with family and friends. Perhaps we need encouragement, or honesty, or motivation.

So allow me to expand the previous questions.

In this moment, wherever you are in life:

What do you need to feel whole, to be content, to live fulfilling lives, to make a difference in the world, to feel like you belong?

What do you need?

I’m interested in how you answer that. Feel free to comment on the blog, as you feel comfortable. Well, here’s how I answer that question in this moment:

To feel whole and content, I need to have creative freedom, and challenge, and partnerships with others. To live a fulfilling life, I need to sing and make funny faces, and laugh, and make a positive difference in even just a few people’s lives. To make a difference in this world, I need to be curious and proactive in making new friendships and finding new colleagues—all people who are different than me in many ways. I need to let go of things and people that hold me back from this. And, to feel like I belong, I need to shake hands and hug and high five and talk with people. I need to be in nature enough to hear birds and smell flowers and appreciate plants and animals and water and mountains. But I also need to be in bustling urban areas full of people and movement and action and all kinds of smells and sounds. And finally, I need people with which to share my life—people who love and accept me as I am and don’t expect me to be anyone I am not.

How did you answer?

This story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus and his followers could take us in a variety of directions. For example, is this story about rest, taking time off, even when it’s counter-culture? Or, is this story about paying attention to people and helping them, even when you don’t want to or when you’re exhausted?

Let’s explore some together.

We encounter the disciples and Jesus of Nazareth in a sharing moment. The disciples were telling Jesus what they had been doing and what they had been teaching. Then Jesus, possibly noticing their fatigue and burnout, says:

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

And to emphasize this point that Jesus’ followers were exhausted, Mark’s writer says that because of all the people coming to them for help or healing, the disciples didn’t even have time to eat! Makes me think about how things have shifted in culture—at least in the West. Now some people say it’s a “luxury” to be able to eat lunch off on your own. Most people “eat” their lunch at a desk, in front of a computer, in a car, or not at all. And we say this is “normal.” For 1st and 2nd century folks in that part of the Mediterranean world, eating meals was an important part of culture. And they weren’t called working lunches.

Eating is a major theme in Mark’s Gospel. Mark chapter 6, the part of the Gospel we are looking at, also includes the story of the feeding of the 5000. In that account, many people did not have enough to eat. The story is foreshadowing and not necessarily a literal, historical event. It points to a time when Jesus will no longer physically be on earth, but that his presence will be seen and felt in the open table fellowship of his followers—that everyone is welcomed and fed and accepted. But our part of Mark 6 is the story of when the disciples of Jesus did not have time to eat, and in their journey to find a place to rest, Jesus sees sheep without a shepherd.

Sheep without a shepherd is a phrase rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. Numbers 27:16-17 says:

Let the Lord…appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.  

Of course, in Numbers, this is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth. It’s about Joshua, or Yeshua, the name that translates in Greek to Jesus. So obviously, Mark is throwing a softball here. We’re supposed to notice this implied reference and connection. Secondly, Ezekiel 34 talks about shepherds who do not feed their sheep as a metaphor for elites or religious leaders who were ignoring the poor and those without food. So Mark’s Gospel is implying that Jesus of Nazareth is teaching his disciples to feed people [and not just with food, mind you]. And that there should be no sheep scattered and left without their needs fulfilled.

And so it was in Mark’s story. Jesus and the disciples made it to the other side of the water to Gennesaret. People saw them and rushed in from all over to be taught and healed, as they needed. And all who touched Jesus’ cloak were healed.

So let’s return to the question of the day: What do you need to feel whole, to be content, to live fulfilling lives, to make a difference in the world, to feel like you belong?

What do you need?

It is a beautiful and important question to ask.

If you ask it honestly, you’ll find yourself drifting away from the things you want.

The things you want won’t bring fulfillment or wholeness or peace into your life. You’ll end up feeling empty. Look, a lot of us on this planet, religious or not, pursue things just because we think we want them. And I don’t just mean material things like cars, houses, clothes, etc. I mean that we pursue lifestyles and social status because we think we want them.

But do we need them?

As an ordained minister, I do a lot of weddings. But I don’t say yes to everyone. Why? Because some want to get married, and according to them, “start a family,” but they really don’t need to. In fact, they probably shouldn’t. They are in no position to do so, and if they do have children, those kids will suffer the consequences. Not everyone needs to follow every convention of society. Some who get married and have children have fulfilling and whole lives and that’s wonderful! I’m so glad for that. But not everyone needs that life. Others need a different life full of different challenges and adventures.

Likewise, youth and young adults are pushed so hard to get into the best schools and then to make the most money in the highest-paying careers, and I wonder:

Do they need to do that? Does it fulfill them? Are they whole people?

More often than not—no.

More often than not, they give up passions, joys, creativity, and uniqueness for a desk job and corporate benefits. Maybe this is what they have been conditioned to want. But I would argue that it’s not what they need.

I could go on, but you get the point. Think of all the ways that you have been conditioned to want certain things out of life and whether or not those things brought you fulfillment, joy, and wholeness.

And then, ask yourself: what do I really need?

Jesus’ compassion for people continues to inspire me to do the same for myself, and for others. Let’s stop telling people and ourselves what they should want out of life. Let’s focus on what we all need to be fed, supported, loved, accepted, inspired, filled, and whole.

See yourself and others in this way.

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Love at the Core of Being

Psalm 85:1-8; 10

I want to begin with a question.

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

What your parents or family raised you to believe?

Or:

From the Bible?

Or:

From a church?

Or:

From a spiritual or enlightening experience?

Or:

From personal life experience?

homerThinking

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

Regardless, most likely you identified strongly with these options:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the conversation usually shifts to me.

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

My response reiterates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it a step further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, a desired result for himself and his nation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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