Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘earth’

Wind, Water, and Life in Desolation

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

Seeing Wholly

John 9:1-7

Roots1943KahloRoots, Frida Kahlo, 1943

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?

How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

What does Jesus teach us about this?

In this John story, we once again find a character encountering Jesus of Nazareth. Previously it was Nicodemus and then a Samaritan woman at a well. Now we have a person who supposedly had been blind from birth. A couple of things to note here. First, the Greek word that is translated “man” in English could be a mistake. The Greek word in question here, anthropon, does not refer to a male, but to a human being. This would not be a stretch to consider, because in many Gospel stories the characters encountering Jesus are not specifically gendered in Greek, so as to allow for all of us to identify with the characters. It’s unfortunate the most translations don’t use “person” or “human being” but we will. A person was blind from birth.

Blindness is also something to not take literally, necessarily. Blindness was a metaphor for not seeing people or the world wholly. Consider, however, that in Jesus’ time someone who was “blind from birth” was considered to be a “sinner” by religious people, and that possibly the sins/mistakes of that person’s parents were passed on. Even Jesus’ own disciples tried to moralize the situation, asking whose fault it was that this person was born blind. Who was to blame?

Do you see how this story is relevant? A person is given an identity by other people and called a sinner because of being born something from birth. Then people say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and blame the parents, then the parents blame the circumstances or God, and in the end, the person is left with a pretty messed up perspective and an identity crisis.

So what does Jesus do? Jesus spits on the ground and mixes saliva with mud. Back to the symbols of water and spirit. Saliva is living water, which is also spirit. These are the born from above ingredients. Plus, mud represents the earth and probably hearkens back to the Genesis creation story in the Torah. That would make sense if you consider that John’s Gospel alludes to Genesis quite frequently.

Back to the story. Jesus tells the blind person to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. So the blind person does so, eyes full of mud and saliva. The person comes back seeing.

Should be a huge celebration, right? Not so fast. The story continues on and the neighbors are not too accepting. They remember the person as blind, as a sinner. And now, this person sees? They also knew this human as a beggar. Aha. Even though the person keeps on saying: I am me—I am that person you knew! They don’t buy it. Consider that the now “seeing” person uses Ego eimi, the I AM Greek version of the divine name of YHWH used in Exodus, I am who I am. The person was now born from above, made up of water and spirit. This is how the person saw newly and wholly. Eyes were opened. Positive and personal identity claimed.

So I want to return to the questions asked at the very beginning:

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?
How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

See. Yes, we need to see—ourselves and others, as human beings, as creatures made of water and spirit. We need to see each other. Personally, we are not the mistakes our predecessors or parents made. We are not the genders people or society assign to us. We are not the religious dogma we were raised with. We are not the sexual orientation others tell us we are. We are not the school we went to, the town or city or area we grew up in, we are not any of the categories that people assign to us. Instead, we are water mixed with spirit, connected to the good earth. We can all journey to the pool of Siloam together to see that we are beautifully, uniquely, and wonderfully made.

And along the way, We need to see others and stop assuming that someone is this or that based on those restrictive, linear categories. We need to hear someone say I am who I am and we need to celebrate it, accept it, and love that person as is. Identity is important for our health and wholeness.

What are you seeing in all this? What do you think?

A Fragile Peace

Isaiah 11:1-4a

stump_jesse21
It is December. It’s colder. The leaves are on the ground. Winter has come. Animals know it. They sense it—they go about their business getting ready for colder nights, gathering food and making more stable shelters. There is so much movement in nature at this time of year if you pay attention to it. Scurrying and gathering and preparing. Animals know a lot; they are obviously so much more connected to this good earth than we are. They understand instinctively that winter will come, but it’s not so bad. It’s necessary. Good stuff happens in nature during winter. There is a dormant period for plants and other living beings. But…in just a few months, just when all the humans like you and I are more than ready for winter to just GET IT OVER WITH PLEASE!….something happens. It starts with a bud—small and inconspicuous. It starts with tiny plants peeking out and then animals, both small and large, emerging earlier and later to drink water and find food. They know it’s coming. Spring is coming. The roots of the earth are strong; they will soon emerge and all of life will…be replenished, renewed, and delightful.

preparing-for-winterThe images of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah are indeed beautiful if you just embrace the metaphors of nature and life itself. Keep in mind the historical context of Isaiah and it becomes even richer, if you ask me. As I always say, if you identify as a Christian, do not be so quick as to jump to conclusions when you read Isaiah. Don’t make quick and easy connections between what Isaiah wrote so long before Jesus of Nazareth was born and the stories of the New Testament. Instead, embrace the beauty of Isaiah’s message and then understand why the New Testament Gospel writers [and even Jesus himself] borrowed from Isaiah.

This prophet, though writing during an incredibly difficult and bleak time for the ancient Israelites, Isaiah planted seeds of hope, of peace, of renewal. Too long had the Israelites experienced war, famine, and isolation. The stump is injured. But a root now grows out of it, then a branch. Of course, Isaiah was referring to a new leader of the Israelite people. Notice, though, the great disparity between Isaiah’s leader who comes out of a stump and what we typically would assume a “leader” would look like. This branch is wise and delights in knowledge, has understanding. This branch looks to the poor, the marginalized, and not to the rich, powerful, and privileged. This branch out of a stump seeks peace for all living beings.

I don’t know about you, but honestly, I don’t see this branch as being Jesus of Nazareth. Otherwise, the lion and lamb would be hanging out together with no Ultimate Fighting going on and our nations would stop killing each other and our communities would stop hating and targeting certain people.

Evil still exists in the world, poor people struggle more than ever, predators prey on the weak.

In this time where peace can seem incredibly far off; when LGBTQ beautiful people feel afraid and are targeted, when Latinx kids and youth are made fun of and told to “go home” and when Native Americans are sprayed with tear gas and hoses in the freezing cold as they seek to protect their lands, what do we say about Isaiah’s image of a peaceful world? Well, we say that it’s not yet here. We tell the truth. We say what is happening in our communities—what is not right or good or peaceful or loving and we say that this is not the Divine’s desire for the world.

We say that, but then we have to do something, too.

For while Jews waited for [and still wait for] this Messiah, Christians do, too. We wait for the same thing, for the world to change. To be a loving, accepting, and beautiful place as we believe it is meant to be.

So then, buds and branches of a broken stump we call the world, how will you bring peace to the world around you? How will you love people who feel unloved? How will you stand up for those who are bullied and marginalized? How will you be a part of Divine intervention, considering that we are all connected to this desire, to create and live in a world of peace, of understanding, and of love.

How will we create this together?

Matthew 3:1-6
Turning Around to Face the Light & the Dark

I’ve mentioned this before, but just as a reminder, the word repent in the Gospels is not a word telling you to get on your knees and say: “Please, Jesus, forgive me!” It’s not a formulaic faith affirmation either. Repent means turn around. Reorient your life path.

What a great message for all of us this season. So, here’s the thing–John the Baptist was craaaaazy. Yep. People thought he was nuts. He probably was. A little bit. But he quoted Isaiah, so at least people thought he might know something. The voice in the wilderness is important to note, because the wilderness was a metaphor for a time of introspection and a bit of wandering. You’ve had those times, right? When you weren’t sure where you were in life or where you were going? Maybe you are there now. The wilderness. A voice literally cries out and says: PREPARE! Make paths straight! Okay, so…what? Go back to Isaiah and the idea of a peaceful world. Remember that John’s Gospel was written long after Isaiah…people, we are talking more than 800 years, okay? Yeah. So the peaceful world that Isaiah envisioned didn’t happen in Jesus’ time, and it didn’t happen after Jesus’ death, and it didn’t happen after the Gospels like John were written. Get the picture? John wasn’t so crazy after all. He understood, right, that the world was still in need of more love, and peace, and connection? He said to anyone who would listen: turn around, it’s never too late.

Change your life path if you need to.

Yeah, I don’t know where you’re at today, but I’m realizing the need to face myself as I am. It’s not just the recent Presidential election, though that’s part of it. It’s everything. I’ve been asking myself: What am I really doing? Who am I? Who do I want to be? I’m trying my best, and failing a lot of the time, but I’m trying to face myself. I’m facing the darkness in me, my desire to give up sometimes, my fears, my heaviness. And I’m also facing the light within me: my desire to keep standing up for justice and peace and love, the creative imagination that lives within and the freedom to let go of the things that hold me back. I want to turn around, to reorient myself every day. I don’t always make it. But this is the path.

May you see yourself as you are; may you find ways to love yourself and be at peace with yourself; if you need to turn around from things or relationships that hurt you or isolate you, do it; and be free to love, be free embrace all of your darkness and light. In doing so, I tell you this—you will encounter other people doing the same. You will connect to them and it will be marvelous. You will find love, acceptance, and peace with them. And then we create this reality together.

Consumed by Life

John 6:35-44; 48-51

Bienaventurado el que no cambia el sueño de su vida por el pan de cada día.

Blessed are those who do not exchange the dreams of their lives for their daily bread.

Facundo-Cabral―Facundo Cabral, Argentina

Daily bread is the thing we all need to survive.

We need to eat. Sadly, because we’re still not good at sharing, some people don’t always get their daily bread. But even for those of us who do, that daily bread doesn’t last long. The very next day, we’re asking for it again. So it’s important to differentiate between “daily bread” and “living bread.”

To be frank, I’m wondering just how many times we need to talk about bread before we can move on to another metaphor. I get it, though, why the author of John’s Gospel has to have Jesus reiterate it again and again. The crowds in Capernaum or wherever he goes take time to “get” what’s going on. And Jesus’ disciples usually don’t get it either. And we often don’t get it.

So here we go again with bread.

This time, though, John’s Gospel makes sure that we as readers are not confused. He has Jesus say:

Ego Eimi.

Yes, it’s Greek, and it means I AM.

You may be familiar with I AM from the story of the burning bush and Moses encountering G-d. I AM is a “G-d” declaration.

So in essence, Jesus is saying: I AM G-d, and G-d is the bread of life.

The twist is that the divine name of God is now linked to something earthly, i.e. bread.
It’s an inflammatory statement, to be sure. And John wants us to think as much. There’s high drama and conflict here, but not as some paint it, i.e. a battle between “Jews” and “Jesus followers.”

John’s Gospel was reaching out to a variety of people, including Jews, non-Jews, and Jews who were Hellenized or outside of typical Jewish circles. It’s an unfortunate translation to assume that “the Jews” rejected Jesus’ message. It’s better to say that the Temple Authorities of Judea weren’t too happy about it.

Keep in mind that John’s Gospel was most likely written by a Jewish person, about Jewish disciples, and of course, written to promote the message and life of a Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. John was written about the conflicts within Judaism itself and how people saw Jesus. So, yeah—put away the anti-Semitism, please.

Anyhoo….the Judeans, probably overly emotional, got the message wrong. They claimed that Jesus himself said that he was “the bread that came down out of heaven” but actually, Jesus said earlier: “the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven” (6:33), and then: “I am the bread of life” (6:35).

It happens to all of us. Sometimes we let our emotions take over, and we push aside common sense.

sassJesus’ statements were only inflammatory because the temple authorities were looking for something inflammatory. He probably could have said:

I’m Jesus, and I make things out of wood. That’s what carpenters do. How cool is that, Judeans?

And they still would have found fault with it.

Often people [including us] don’t like to wake up to a new reality. We prefer the status quo, even if it’s false. Jesus was trying to help people [including the Judeans] to see a new reality. Jesus uses the phrase “truly, truly” to grab their attention, and what follows is oft-misinterpreted/mistranslated:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever ­­­______ has eternal life.

Yes, believe is inserted in the blank as an English translation for a Greek word that really means faith in or trust.

This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] in order to obtain eternal life.
This is about reorienting one’s thinking in order to live differently and more fully.

So I thought about that, and what that might mean today.

In this life, with all the distractions and all the things that people tell us we should do or think or believe, it’s easy to feel down about it all sometimes, isn’t it? Depression, fear, and loneliness can soon become our realities.

Now, they are real emotions and I’m not discounting that.

But rather than saying “I am depressed, fearful, or lonely” what if we limit them to what they are?
They are feelings.
And if so, perhaps we might be able to see depression or fear or loneliness as mere distractions from what is real.

You see, so much of what we think and do in this world today is not actually what we WANT to do; or even what we feel is right, healthy, wonderful, and life-giving.

We often feel depressed, fearful, or lonely because our behaviors and our lifestyle don’t bring us any joy or fulfillment. We go about daily routines without blinking, even if those routines are killing us little by little.

We are so distracted away from what is truly life.

If you feel depressed, perhaps it is because of something or someone you feel that you have lost. Consider this, however: can we really lose someone or something? Isn’t it true that everything you have was given to you? How can you lose that which was never yours?

Fernando Cabral wrote:

Life does not subtract things, it liberates you from them. It makes you lighter so that you can fly higher and reach the fullness. From cradle to grave, it is a school, and that is why those predicaments that you call problems are lessons, indeed. You lost nobody; the one who died is just going ahead, because we all are going there. Besides this, the best of him/her, his/her love, is still in your heart. 

If you feel fearful, perhaps this is because the unknown is out of your control and so even the very thought of tomorrow becomes something to be afraid of. And yet, tomorrow does not exist. Only this moment does. You are absolutely able to be aware of the present moment, and entirely capable of embracing it as it is. And in doing so, tomorrow becomes less important, because honestly, none of us can know if we will even wake up tomorrow.

And if you feel lonely, first of all, consider that time by yourself is a treasure. Don’t let others tell you that being by yourself is bad. Many people never experience it, because we’re so conditioned to think that being alone is weird or unhealthy. But there is so much you can learn about yourself and the world by spending time alone! You are the only one who truly knows what you feel and what you think; embrace that. And keep in mind that there are billions of others on this planet—not to mention the billions of living creatures all around you. We are not alone.

For me, reorientation and waking up means recognizing feelings for what they are and then allowing myself to be consumed by life itself. It means doing what we love with reckless abandon. It means letting things come to you naturally, and moving with the flow of the world around you. It means being free of shame, guilt, obligation, and grudges—things which only cause harm and separate us. Reorientation means caring for yourself so that you are freer to be your whole self and freer to love others.

In my view, this is what the metaphor of bread of life is about.

Each one of us chooses whether to see this bread [which is life] as freedom, or as limitation.

I choose freedom, and I hope you will, too.

I choose life and fulfillment, and pursuing the things and the relationships that make me happy, challenge me to be a better person, and encourage me to be fully me.

What will you choose? Friends, every day can be a waking up and reorientation day for you. Each moment you can be consumed by life itself.

wakeupLive

Gravity

John 17:12-19    

What is gravity?

Gravity is a force of nature that you experience every day. It’s produced by all matter in the universe and attracts all pieces of matter, regardless of type. The Earth produces gravity and so do the sun, other planets, your car, your house, and your body.

Gravity pulls things and beings towards the center of the earth.

In 1687, the story goes that Isaac Newton wasn’t paying attention while sitting under a tree [I guess kind of like Buddha?], and then an apple fell on his head.

Eventually, Newton—busted up head and all—came up with the law of universal gravitation.

gravityappleEvery object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe. The amount (force) of the attraction depends on the mass of the object.

So, for example, you’re sitting in front of your laptop. That laptop is actually attracting you, but you don’t feel it, because the mass of your laptop is so small compared to the mass of the Earth, there is no physical pull.

Newton’s law also says that the greater the distance between two objects, the less the objects will attract each other. So the farther away an object is from the Earth (or any large body), the less it will weigh. If you stand at the top of a tall building or a massive mountain, you will weigh less than you do when your feet are on the ground at sea level.[1]

Gravity has inspired that well-known phrase:

What goes up must come down.

In fact, some of you may remember a song that begins that way; a little Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Spinning Wheel

Now you may be wondering why the heck I am talking about gravity. Well, this part of John’s Gospel is all about a really, really, REALLY long prayer of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s a prayer for and about the cosmos.

And it’s a prayer worthy of a bigger space [like outer space]; but most importantly, it’s also a symbolic affirmation of gravity itself.

What goes up must come down.

You see, when most people think or talk about this thing called prayer, they assume that prayers are said to some god far off in the heavens. So prayers are lifted up to the heavens, right? That’s why incense is often used during prayers. In my opinion, this is why many people in the West actually don’t pray or meditate all that often, because prayer is reduced to some sort of religious ceremony in a temple, sanctuary, or building. Many people even claim that they cannot pray without the presence of a religious leader who can tell them what to pray.

And yet, any devout Muslim, Christian, Jew, Baha’i, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, or Pagan will tell you that prayers can be said anywhere.

There are no “more important” prayers that one can lift up than the humble prayer of a small child hoping that her mom’s illness will get better; or the dad praying that he will find a job; or the teenager praying that the bullying will stop; or the old woman praying that she will feel no pain when she passes from the earth.

But of course, we’re only human, and so we still have the tendency to place greater importance on certain prayers, and in this case a prayer attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel. It’s a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor, as Jesus is hoping that his friends the disciples and all his followers, and all the world, may be one as he is one with his Abba.

If you think this prayer seems long, you’re right. Its text takes up nearly 1/5 of John’s Gospel. For sure, this prayer has been analyzed to death as people try to make sense of its apocalyptic nature, theology, John’s community and context, etc.

And there are traditions like “ascension day” in certain Christian circles that may include this prayer as Jesus’ farewell before he disappears into the heavens.

Or, until he ascends, that is.

And while I’m no “high church” expert, and nor am I one who observes ascension day, I will say that this concept is gaining some ground with me.

After all, what goes up must come down.

Think about this for a moment.

All of this prayer is about unity. It is about relationship; and interconnectedness; it is about protection, comfort, and assurance. And God’s reign of love and mercy and peace on this earth, as it apparently is in heaven.

What goes up must come down.

So if we take gravity as not just a physical force, but also a holistic force that is included in our spiritual and mental practice, prayers lifted up must come down.

What ascends to the heavens eventually descends.

So rather than thinking of Jesus and his life and teachings as something that POOF! went away in the blink of an eye, because, well, he went up to heaven, we say….

What if this unifying, beautiful prayer was lifted up so that it would come back down?

What if Jesus, as John’s Gospel clearly says a million times, was “lifted up” for more than just disappearing, but for the purpose of reappearing?

What goes up must come down.

Imagine if we stopped obsessing over what Jesus or God do in heaven or what we need to do to get to this heaven.

Imagine if we thought that everything we prayed for was lifted up, only so it could come back down to us?

Maybe our prayers would be different?

What if prayers always come back to the earth to stay, in the form of everyday life?

What if there is no such thing as the divine presence staying up there in heaven?

What if the divine is here, feet on the ground, in you and in me?

Now that’s pulling us to the center of something, isn’t it?

Prayer, meditation, or any sort of conversation within yourself that seeks a deeper connection with the divine, or a deeper connection with yourself—pulls you towards your center. You are grounded, on this earth, and this is your identity.

We are all children of the earth, and not of heaven.

We are meant [and made] to be one together—not just with Christians or with those who look and act like us—with all children of this earth. We are meant to be one in our humanity, because we all utter prayers or look up sometimes or cry out or wonder or worry or cry or shout joyfully or calmly sit or clasp hands or lift hands or simply wish for things to be better, or more connected, or more peaceful, or more compassionate.

And this binds us together, because what goes up must come down.

If we express our desires for a better world and for loving and compassionate relationships, and for justice, and for love—what goes up must come down.

This day, take a moment for meditation, or prayer, or whatever best suits you. Take a moment. Lift up all that you wish for your life and the lives of others, and for the world. And then, be aware, that what you lift up will eventually come down.

And then you’ll have the opportunity to make those desires a reality on this earth.

[1] For Dummies, Boning Up on Gravity.

Contentment

Philippians 4

All life is suffering.

This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.

And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.

Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.

Suffering.

So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?

He wrote:
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.

Really, Paul?

What would you know about suffering anyway?

Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.

Okay, maybe I’m listening…..

Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.

It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.

First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.

Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.

Allow me to explain.

All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”

Or:
“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”

It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.

It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.

Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.

Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.

We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.

Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.

Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.

And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.

I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.

white_lotus_flowerThe lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.

Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.

The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.

They are always expecting to eventually bloom.

I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.

That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.

If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.

Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.

It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.

Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.

Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.

And that’s okay.

Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?

Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?

No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.

But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.

Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.

May you find contentment.

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?

 

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