Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘creation’

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

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

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

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

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

What does unity mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, stay with me here.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temptation to Imagination

Luke 4:1-13

Temptation

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

Think about that for a moment.

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

For Christians, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a period of 40 days [not counting Sundays]. The forty days of Lent is about one tenth of a year. So observing Lent is like giving one tenth of your year to do something different. Of course, many people assume that Lent is all about giving up something for forty days, like chocolate or TV. But it’s not really about that. You don’t have to give up something for Lent. This period of forty days is supposed to be about self-reflection that leads to personal growth and also to doing good in the world and helping others.

So during Lent, I’ll be asking myself [and you] to use our imaginations. Return to the initial question:

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

The Gospel stories, including Luke, say in their story, that after being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus of Nazareth went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking: what does it mean to be me, Jesus of Nazareth?

And during that process, the stories tell us that Jesus faced temptations. I’ll leave it up to you how you wish to interpret the symbolism in the story. From my perspective, I don’t take it literally, but certainly embrace the symbolic meaning in the text. For example, it’s no secret that the Gospels have Jesus start his ministry in the wilderness and then end it in Jerusalem. The wilderness, in the Hebrew tradition, was a symbolic place where people were challenged and pushed to their limits; but the wilderness was also where people learned and grew as human beings. Jesus starts there, but he eventually makes it to the religious and cultural epicenter of that part of the world—Jerusalem. The Gospels tell the story in this way to remind us that it was necessary for Jesus to have sufficient time in the wilderness before tackling the challenges he would face in Jerusalem.

Also, there is the obvious parallel to the Moses story. Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Then, eventually they made it to Jerusalem. So you’ll need to embrace the symbolism of the number 40 to dig deeper into the meaning. The 40 days of Lent don’t necessarily have to be a literal 40 days. It’s just symbolism to remind us that at certain times in life we need a time in the wilderness for learning and growth.

wildernessSpecifically, the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness have their own symbolic meaning. First, Jesus was hungry because he had been fasting, like many other religious ascetics did in his time. After his fast Jesus was tempted by bread. But this was not just about controlling his appetite. Later in the Gospel stories this same Jesus would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. He chose to help them find nourishment because they were in need. This is important to note, because Jesus did NOT choose to feed, heal, or bless people because he was driven by fear or by the voice of someone or something else in his head. He chose to do those things himself because it came naturally to him. So perhaps the first temptation was more about facing the common temptation to act out of fear or desperation. Trusting that bread will be provided enables one to provide bread for others.

The second temptation is also fear-related.

Prove, says the tempter’s voice, that you are God’s Son and jump off the pinnacle of the temple. I think that Jesus was most certainly human in every way, and so I also think that from time to time he feared failure and felt inadequate. Any leader feels this sometimes. So the second temptation was to face the possibility that things would not always go as he hoped—that his followers and friends may not always join with him and that others would criticize and reject him. I mean, who doesn’t fear rejection, right? So by not jumping off the temple roof, Jesus claims a truth that regardless of what people say or do, his real self will not be harmed.

The third and final temptation is all about power. Even good people with good intentions struggle with this. If you know that you want the best for people and the world, shouldn’t the world then conform to your ideas of how things should be? Who better to rule the world than the person who has good intentions, right? I mean, who would blame Jesus for claiming the throne to better spread his message and revolution of love? But that’s the temptation.

Regardless of how good our intentions may be, taking power eventually leads to trampling others.

Perhaps this was the hardest temptation. Would Jesus claim the power that so many wanted him to have? His answer of “no” to that question changed the whole story, didn’t it?

Speaking of the story, the very next thing that happened after Jesus’ time in the wilderness should come as no surprise. Jesus left the wilderness and found people [in this case, Peter, James, and John]. He shared his experience with them and they made connections. You see, Jesus’ personal spiritual experience of 40 days wasn’t just an isolated time of prayer and meditation. It was purposeful. His self-reflection led to deeper connections with other human beings.

That’s what inspires me the most, because often spiritual practices like prayer and meditation and even worship stay in the wilderness or the sanctuary or a building.

Unfortunately, it is tempting in every religion to become isolated from others in the world and to forget that any spiritual practice should not only make you a better person, but it should connect you to others in a meaningful way.

So may your forty days be a time for self-reflection, asking the question: what does it mean for you to truly be yourself, and may you discover not only who you are but what you are becoming. This process truly is worthwhile.

I close with an excerpt from Edwina Gateley’s poem, Called to Become from There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013):

You are called to become a perfect creation.
No one is called to become who you are called to be.
This becoming may be gentle or harsh.
Subtle or violent.
But it never ceases.
Never pauses or hesitates.
Only is—Creative force—Calling you.

Calling you to become a perfect creation.

 

New Things, Beautiful and Changed

Mark 2:21-22  

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

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

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

It’s overwhelming.

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

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

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

Again.

You feel liberated.

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

Why is that?

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

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

My attachment to memories and places.

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

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

 

But the song continues with a realization:

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

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

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

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

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

And such a change should not scare us.

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

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

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

It all sounds so familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember when…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new wine was bursting the old wineskin.

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

The wine spilled out.

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

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

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

Because the Creator is always doing NEW things.

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

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

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

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

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

Inner Peace and a Path

Isaiah 40:4-8, Psalm 85: 8, 10, 11, 13  

This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:

 Peace.

 PeaceUnfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.

Do we really believe in peace?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.

So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?

What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?

Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.

The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.

Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.

path

Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.

And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.

And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.

But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.

People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.

They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.

A highway.
A vessel.
A space where the divine can live and act.

And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Inner peace.

Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.

Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.

Inner peace is about accepting yourself.

But how do people discover acceptance?

Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.

And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.

Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.

Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.

If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.

And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
Right now.

One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.

tillichTillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.

In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:

…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.

It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.

It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.

For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.

We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.

But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.

And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.

[1] The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).

Living on the Dry Ground

EXODUS 14:15-16; 19-22  

I grew up in Indiana and Iowa. Tornadoes happen there.

tornadoI remember one day in the summer when I was a kid. I was walking home; this was in Indiana. The weather was so strange. Everything was eerily calm. It was like listening to music really, really loud and then someone pulls the plug and it all goes silent all of a sudden. It’s weird. No wind, no sound, nothing. Storm clouds did not appear on the horizon; it didn’t smell like rain. There was absolutely nothing that would serve as a warning sign for extreme weather. The sky was a beautiful orange color and then it almost looked purple? Did I mention how calm it was?

But then, as I got about halfway home, the wind picked up. It wasn’t gradual either. From one moment of calm, things got crazy in a second. Leaves and branches and debris started blowing behind, in front—all around me. I shielded my face and covered my eyes…

And I started to run.

That’s what we did in the Midwest when the eerie calm turned into a malevolent, strong wind. You don’t look back; you don’t take your time; while the sirens blare, you just run to the nearest place. I made it home. The winds got worse and a funnel cloud formed a few miles away. It’s amazing to see such a thing if you are looking at it from a distance. It’s beautiful. It’s short-lived.

Tornadoes, for the most part, last less than 10 minutes. That’s it.

Some tornadoes only last for a few seconds and then they’re gone.

But in a short time, a lot can happen.

Consider my former front porch in Iowa. The entire thing was lifted off by a tornado. Ask the farmers who discover farm equipment miles away from where they left it.

Weather is really not something we can control, right? Sadly, though, some are trying to control it with chemicals and other things. Perhaps one of our most fatal human mistakes is when we try to control nature. It always ends badly, doesn’t it?

Just ask the great Pharaoh of Egypt–perhaps Ramses II [and thousands of ancient Egyptians]–the ones mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Insects, plagues, strong weather, and parting seas bombarded them. This is the Exodus story, a tale rich with natural images, but also a story that displays a two-sided, yin and yang theme. Nature can act beautifully and protectively. But on the other hand, that beauty can turn ugly and the protection can turn to destruction.

Moses and the Israelites, seeking to escape slavery and Egypt, cross the Red Sea because Moses lifts up his staff and the waters part for the Israelites. They cross unharmed, but the Egyptians, in hot pursuit, do not make it. The once-dry land spills over with raging waters and they all drown. The Israelites win and the Egyptians lose.

Even as the Israelites journey on to the Jordan River, they see the floating Egyptian corpses in the water.

There is a cloud by day and fire by night.

There is dry ground and there is flood.

There is a great escape from slavery, but then a famine.

There’s a heck of a lot more to this story than meets the eye, don’t you think?

For example, most Christians know that the New Testament contains Gospels [4 of them made it into what we call the canon]. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John passed the test and are printed in the various translations of the Bible. These Gospels tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but they do so in different ways. Each one adds and subtracts details and inserts different viewpoints about the same stories.

The same goes for the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Genesis, we get more than one perspective about how the earth, sky, waters, animals and plants were created. We also get different points of view about how man and woman came to be. And in Exodus, we have varied perspectives, too.

How, you ask?

Well, just like in the NT, the OT books were not all written by just one author. Books like Exodus are compilations of different writers with different perspectives. Oral traditions got handed down and were added into the mix.

This particular Moses and Pharaoh story is told in three different ways.

The first version, and most likely the earliest version, is often called the Song of Moses; it appears in Exodus 15. It is a retelling of the Red Sea event in the form of a poem.

The second version appears in selected verses of Exodus 14.
This is considered a non-priestly version. A nice summary of this second version is provided by my OT professor from Princeton, Dr. Dennis Olson:

1. The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites

 2. The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)

 3. Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned

 That version is dated much earlier than the third and final version, called a priestly version. This third version, also selected verses of chapter 14, could be summarized as such [again, thanks, Dr. Olson]:

1. The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD

 2. The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide

 3. A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides

 4. The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side

 5. After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians

 Okay, why does this matter?

Because there is always more than one perspective to the story.

There is always more than one way to look at life.

Sometimes we are walking on dry ground and we feel like we’re being overwhelmed with floods of water.
Other times we may be inundated with rain and feel that we’re in a desert.

Sometimes a cloud can be wonderful. It can bring rain that sustains crops and provides sustenance. It cleans. It refreshes.
But other times clouds hide things from our vision. Literally, they “cloud” our path. They can also signal an upcoming, destructive storm.

A victory for some people means a loss for others.
Life for some means death for others.

We’re meant to live in this tension of duality the yin and yang [light and dark].

Creation and new beginnings are like that.

Yahweh creates something new.
People are invited to start over again.

They are asked to let go and to walk forward.

But it is not easy to do.
There will painful changes that people must make.

Letting go is really, really hard.
Complaining is really, really easy.

We all crave the “greener grass” on the other side of the fence, but when it comes time to do what is necessary to make a significant change in our lives, we lose our enthusiasm all of a sudden.

Walk on dry ground?

Maybe not…

But that’s just it.
We have to let go and walk forward if we are to create and refresh.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Egyptians in the story [or any oppressors for that matter] and try to keep the status quo going, refuse change—at any cost. We are capable of enslaving ourselves and enslaving others.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Israelites did, and complain that the grass is always greener and that our current situation is always worse than somebody else’s.

When we don’t let go to let newness come, we drown in our stubbornness.

So the story invites all of us.

Let go.
Walk forward.
Live on the dry ground.

Live in the tension.

We are invited to see each day of our lives as an opportunity to be refreshed, re-created, and propelled forward.

After all, we cannot control the weather of life. And remember, weather changes pretty quickly.

Will we embrace the dry ground?

 

Perfectly Imperfect in Every Way

Matthew 5:38-48

Question for the audience:

How do you define perfection?

If you are a student, think back to a time when you prepared that bit of homework so carefully. You worked very hard, you spent lots of time on it—you felt good about it. When you turned in your work to the teacher, you felt a surge of confidence because…

It was perfect.

Surely you would be rewarded for what you did.

But when the teacher returned your homework, shock fell over you. Apparently, the teacher thought that what you did what anything but perfect! You just couldn’t understand why your teacher didn’t see the perfection in all the time, creativity, and effort you put into that project. But the lower-than-perfect grade, marked clearly in red on your paper, left a permanent, bad taste in your mouth and in your experience.

Just like poor Ralphie from a Christmas Story.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect…

Right. This word perfect rubs me the wrong way.

But the word in the original language of this New Testament passage is telos [Greek], and perhaps perfect is not an adequate English translation. Because telos is not about being morally perfect but more about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity.

That is, telos is like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit.
Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in the growth.

In fact, let’s take this notion of perfection further. Let’s say that be perfect is like saying be like nature in its perfection.

Have you ever stopped to notice nature’s perfection recently? It’s amazing. There is harmony there. Nature is balanced. Just when you think nature is unbalanced, it recuperates and reminds you of its…perfection.

CR1You see, it’s not about doing things the “right” way all the time [whatever that means]; or following a bunch of rules; or even trying to make New Year’s resolutions or religious promises that you obviously won’t be able to keep.

What if, instead, we thought about our identity differently. Like nature–like that tree–God purposes for all of us to grow up , to mature, in our love, compassion, our joy, our peacefulness, and our wholeness.

What if we thought about the whole journey of life as walking towards that tall tree that eventually bears delicious fruit?

It’s not checking things off on a list or striving for the kind of perfection that garners applause or scores of 10 by judges.

If I were to ask you:

How can you love perfectly?

What would you say?

Well, Jesus would say:
Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways and with different actions according to where they are in life.

Love isn’t abstract in this sense.
Love is a concrete act of compassion, understanding, and empathy with no borders, limits, rules, or formulas. Love just is.

Sometimes love will hurt, and that’s the point.
Love that is easy and comfortable and always wonderful is not really love.
Love requires us to grow up when we don’t want to—leaving resentment behind.
Love asks us to bear fruit for others—no matter who they are or where they are from.

Love is perfect as nature is.
Love has seasons and rainy and snowy times, and sunny and blue-sky times.

But here’s the challenge—many times a sermon on a mount or a sermon in a church means very little once it’s over. I can talk and talk, but what will we all DO?

So I have to ask myself and you have to ask yourself:
What gets in the way of you being a tree that keeps growing?
What keeps you from identifying as someone who is loved by God?
What keeps you from loving people as they need to be loved?

Answer this.

Because these words:
Don’t take revenge on another.
Be generous without expecting a pat on the back.
Love your enemies.
Love those who don’t love you.
Love those outside of your tribe and social circles.
Just love people.

The words ought to inspire us to be telos: complete.

Imperfectly perfect in every way.

Accept how you are made. You are not perfect and you never will be.
But you can love someone as they need to be loved.
You can be compassionate with someone who has been left on the curb.
You can choose to reject the evil idea that some people count and some people don’t.
And you can choose to let your life grow and move and fill up with opportunities to love.

That can be a decision you make.

And look—nobody is saying that this is easy. Jesus himself never painted this whole love your neighbor and your enemy thing as easy. It is hard, hard work. And you will encounter disappointments and times when your tree will lose its leaves and need more water and feel that its branches cannot support any more.

But it’s like Jose Luis Sampedro, humanist, writer, and economist from Spain once said:

sanpedroTree

We should live as much as possible like trees
That after passing through a bad year
Grow new leaves and
Begin again.

 So may you begin again to discover how you are loved and can love.

May the sermon be nothing other than a memory.

May your day to day actions of love and compassion be the road you travel on.

 Stop focusing on being perfect; focus on being whole.

Grow up, spread your branches, provide shelter for other living beings.

Mature, walk towards wholeness, embrace the life that is in you.

 

Jars of Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-6

 

Art in Me is a song written by Dan Haseltine, Steve Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell–otherwise known as the band “Jars of Clay.”

jarsofclay They are three-time Grammy award winners who recently released their 11th album [Inland]—this time under a new label. Jars of Clay, in 2007, left the contemporary Christian label called Essential Records and started their own label, Gray Matters. Why? On paper it seems that they have enjoyed a lot of success claiming the label of a Christian music group. But the members of Jars of Clay have never felt completely comfortable within the confines of this label. Dan Haseltine has remarked that the “Christian” label led to limitations.

“It’s a ghetto, frankly,” Steve Mason says of the category. “Unfortunately, it loops us in politically and socially to a bunch of things that we don’t necessarily buy. It is frustrating, sometimes, because we feel like what we’re doing is good art, and we want what we’re doing to stand up with the stuff that’s out right now.”[1]

The questions that Jars of Clay ask in their music can be identified by all walks of life — all faiths, no faith. They are honest questions. As Mason commented in an interview, Jars wants to make “room at the table for everybody.”

jars_of_clayGroupSad, isn’t it? This music group has encountered so much pressure to just “fit” into a category called Christian—to be lumped together with others who are completely different from them. I am glad, though, that the band decided not to change its name. Jars of Clay is an appropriate name for their honest, meaning-filled music. After all, clay jars are earthenware, pots, things made out of earth. They are formed, shaped, pulled, pushed, and molded until they are cooked in a kiln.

And all the pots are different; they are not the same.

But clay jars don’t form themselves on their own. They need a potter. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and misunderstood metaphors for God in scripture is the image of the potter. The prophet Jeremiah, as all prophets, sees things in the natural world and in everyday life and applies a deeper meaning to them. Essentially, this is a prophet’s job—to see and hear a little bit deeper and then to share this insight with people. Sometimes, though, as in Jeremiah’s case, what prophets shared was not always pleasant. The image of God as potter and people as clay is both comforting and challenging.

In Jeremiah’s day, clay was used for lots of things. Of course, there were expensive clay items that the rich would decorate and display. But the most common pots were the ones that Judeans used every day for practical things around the house. Maybe the pots were not perfectly shaped or adorned with color. But they were perfect to store grain, wine, or oil. The pots were life-sustainers. That doesn’t mean that the pots themselves would last very long. Because they were used so much, from time to time they would crack or break.

That meant a trip to the potter’s house.

The potter’s job, of course, was to patch up any cracks or breaks and, on occasion, to completely destroy a pot and remake it. So Jeremiah is called to the house of the potter—a common trip that people of Judea would have made. But we need to pay attention to the Hebrew word for potter here. Potter [in English] is a translation of the verb yatsar which means to fashion or form.[2] It is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when YHWH [God] kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of wet clay, and forms a human being. It is the same image we see in the Muslim scriptures [the Qu’ran]: human beings formed by God from clay.[3] So this is a direct reference to the creation story—a story that hundreds of ancient cultures tell in a similar way with humans being created from clay. For example, the Incas of South America tell this story:

Viracocha [God] raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed.[4]

And the Hopis from North America tell this story:

The deity of the east made of clay first a woman and then a man, who were brought to life in exactly the same manner as the birds and animals before them.[5]

We must make this connection between the creation story and Jeremiah’s trip to the potter’s house. It shows us that this potter who Jeremiah must visit is constantly forming, shaping, dismantling, and remaking the clay. There is a reason for that.

The clay, now established as being human beings, is seemingly in constant need of repair.

Sometimes the clay pots even need to be broken up completely. At times, the potter’s hands slip on the clay and the potter has to restart the process. At moments the potter isn’t pleased with the pot’s shape and so it must be smashed back into a clump of clay and reshaped. If you’ve ever tried to work at a pottery wheel, you know that this is how it goes. It is a process full of trial and error, smashing, shaping, and remaking until you get the shape you desire. Making pottery requires a LOT of patience. And you have to get your hands dirty. And you have to make sure the clay is adequately moist and not too dry. And you have to spin the wheel just right so as to smoothly transition the clump into being a pot.

So the image of God as potter and humans as clay, shared by so many cultures and religious traditions, seems clear:

All of us come from the same natural, organic earth.
We share a formation by a patient, careful, detail-oriented potter.
Each pot formed from the clay is different—unique.
And the potter is never finished with the clay.

It is a powerful and wonderful metaphor, I think. But it can be misunderstood.

Sometimes we make the false assumption that all pieces of clay are exactly the same and so the pots need to look and act the same. Sometimes we can forget that it is normal for pots to develop cracks and imperfections. Often we look at overused, broken-down pots and assume that they are useless and cannot be remade. And also we can force other clay pots to be shaped in the same way we were—even though that is impossible. Each pot is formed uniquely. Each clump of clay needs a different amount of water and a different shaping technique. Homogenous pots do not emerge from the potter’s house.

And the metaphor hits home when we consider our own brokenness, our struggles, are cracks, fissures, and need for reshaping and remaking ourselves. Yes, we are cracked pots in need of patient care, love, mercy, and periodic trips to the potter’s house. And I think if we recognize that we share this with all others, then we’ll stop trying to force them into categories.

And we’ll embrace their clay-ness and their ability to be molded and shaped as the potter sees fit—not as we see fit.

So friends, recognize your clay-ness and recognize the clay-ness of others. Remember that you have something contained in that clay jar that is your life: a treasure. The treasure inside your cracked pot is the love and compassion of God that you share with others. May it be evident and may it shine through all the beautiful cracks and openings in your pot. Amen.


[1] “Jars of Clay Seek ‘Reintroduction’ With First Indie Release,” Hollywood Reporter, 9/4/2013, Rebecca Sun.

[2] Cracked Pots I Have Known and Loved, John C. Holbert

[3] Qu’ran 38:71: Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. Sahih International

[4] Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Cavendish. Silverdale Books. page 187.

[5] The Traditions of the Hopi, by H.R. Voth, [1905]

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