Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘empathy’

Seeing People

Luke 16:19-31

 Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  ― Confucius

Last time I talked a bit about empathy—how it can be defined and how in most people it is an innate quality, though something we have to cultivate and choose to do. We’ll keep going with that theme, but we are going to explore a side of empathy that, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll call “seeing.”

Now what do I mean by seeing?

Well, seeing a person is seeing them as they are—not judging their experience or trying to talk them out of what they feel, but seeing them as they are—even if accepting them and what they feel makes you uncomfortable. This has been on my mind A LOT recently. Maybe it has for you, too. I mean, if your eyes and ears are open, you have been noticing that there are a ton of people in the United States who are hurting, mourning, suffering. Many of them are Black. Why is this happening? Why were two more Black men’s lives taken away this past week? Their names were Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. Why? I’m left with that burning question as my heart mourns with Charlotte and Tulsa. What’s going on with us right now?

I certainly don’t have all answers. I certainly do not understand what it’s like to be Black in America. I can only listen to what my Black friends and colleagues say; I can only sit with them in their anger, sadness, and fear. I can only see them. I can only see them. We all should decide to do this—to see them. We should stop trying to tell them how to feel or what to say or how to protest. If Kolin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, wants to take a knee during the national anthem to call attention to this issue, he should do it.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

And if others want to stand with a fist raised, they should do it. They have a right to express what they feel.

And we have responsibility to SEE them.

We can reduce these issues so quickly to be about other things like patriotism and politics, but if you take the time to get the facts straight, and to truly see those who are protesting, you will discover that they are being more “patriotic” than I will ever be. They are protesting because no one is listening and nothing is changing. Kaepernick is meeting with police officers and lawmakers to try to open up a dialogue. We must see this. And we also must see the people of Charlotte, who have been protesting for days now, because they are angry, sad, and scared.

Friends, this isn’t about politics or patriotism. This is about people. We need to see this.

I’ve been asking why there are still far too many white people who refuse to even acknowledge the plight of Black people in the U.S. For a while, I couldn’t make sense of it. Why counteract BlackLivesMatter and the protests that challenge the overuse of police force and the killing of unarmed civilians? Why tweet or post in a scolding, condescending way, telling Black people to settle down, protest a certain way, or to get over it? I couldn’t understand. But I think now I do. Because they are choosing not to see. It would be uncomfortable for them to see, because then they would have to admit the uncomfortable truth that racism is systemic, a real, everyday thing for Black people, and they would have to admit that even police officers can be racist. That’s uncomfortable to admit in the country that many of us claim to be the best country in the world. Isn’t it? So they choose not to see the people in Charlotte and Tulsa and elsewhere.

Just like the rich man refusing to see Lazarus. See, Jesus of Nazareth told lots of stories, and sometimes his stories had really, really strong messages. This is one of those cases. The rich man chose not to see Lazarus and his suffering, even though Lazarus was right on his doorstep. To the rich man, Lazarus should just be quiet and also grateful that he got any scraps at all and that the dog licked his sores. Don’t complain, Lazarus. It would be way to uncomfortable for the rich man to see Lazarus, because then he might have to do something. Help him. Get him to a doctor. Find him some real food. Become his friend.

As everyone does, the two people in this story die. But don’t jump to the conclusion that Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. That’s not what the story says. Lazarus ends up in the lap of Abraham, akin to the reign of God. The rich man goes to Hades, the idea of Sheol [a place of isolation and desolation even on earth] in Jewish tradition. Now, the ironic twist. For the first time in his life, the rich man acknowledges that Lazarus exists. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue. So, in other words, the rich man only acknowledges Lazarus because he’s now suffering. But it’s not possible. The chasm is too wide between were Lazarus is and where the rich man is.

It’s a harsh story, maybe, but I actually think It’s right on the money. Pun intended. The rich man refused to see Lazarus, but God most certainly did see Lazarus. He is named in the story, and the rich man is not. Now you may hear this today and think: “Well, I’m not the rich man, because I’m not wealthy, I don’t have poor people begging outside my property.” But look closer, please, and see with me.

Yes, any of us who refuses to see people—to accept them as they are and to sit with them in their grief, sadness, anger, or fear—we are the rich man. And we are in torment. Because we lose our God-given humanity when we don’t see people as people.

So see the man who has always identified as a woman, and who is considering surgery and asks you to call her she; see the person who asks you to use non-gender specific pronouns. See the Black woman who is angry over the loss of her son and protesting on the streets, asking for justice. See the Black teen who is scared to say or do anything on the street whenever a police officer is near; see the police officers who are meeting with people like Colin Kaepernick and protecting BlacklivesMatter protestors; see those who suffer and let them make you uncomfortable, because the world can be a painful place to live. It can also be beautiful, and it is beautiful when we truly see each other, when we decide to see the beauty in everyone and see them as equals.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me;
My eye and God’s eye are one eye,
One seeing, one knowing, One love.
–Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhar

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For…Give.

Luke 16:1-13

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In life, we sometimes encounter confusing and difficult situations. Maybe you are in one of those situations right now. Regardless of the advice that people give you, or conventional wisdom, nothing seems to fit or work. You feel stuck. You are not sure how to move forward. There are no easy answers.

This kind of life narrative needs to be told. We need to share with others [and ourselves] that it’s okay to feel stuck sometimes and that there are situations without answers or solutions. For me, it has been a comfort throughout my life to hear these stories—to discover that many, many others struggle with some of the same things I do, and that I don’t always have to resolve things. This gives me peace.

So maybe that’s why I appreciate the so-called “hard parables” of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. These parables are the stories that Bible commentators, preachers, and teachers struggle to decipher. These are the parables that they avoid. They don’t have easy answers and they leave you hanging.

The parable of the unjust steward is one of those difficult stories. What does it mean? I don’t know, you tell me! But maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s left open, and it also seems to contradict some of the things we assume about the Bible, God, and Jesus. So let’s explore a bit and see what happens.

First off, one thing we do know is that this story can be connected to the story of the prodigal son. In both stories, a character squanders the wealth he has been given. Also, the audience would have been Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees. The story is pretty straightforward, as a guy wriggles himself out of trouble by doing something pretty dishonest, but at the same time is shrewd enough to put his boss in a tough situation where he cannot fire him. So basically, the boss chooses to save face and thus “saves” the dishonest, shrewd guy. Yes, this is a parable about money. Duh. It’s Luke. Luke’s Gospel is all about money and maybe that’s why many Western Christians avoid it. Oh snap, did I say that?

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Anyhoo, Many Western Christians know what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.” But do they know that this prayer is about money? Yep. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer is about forgiving debts—monetary debts. It’s literally saying that we should forgive the money that people owe us, therefore “releasing” them from the debt.

Okay, wow.

In terms of life application, I need to quote Sarah Dylan Breuer,[1] who has a wonderful blog that interprets various “difficult” Gospel texts. Ms. Breuer asserts that most commentators ask the standard questions like “Who is the steward?” and “Who is the master” but she asks a more pointed question: What does the steward actually do, without permission and dishonestly? 

The answer: the steward forgives debts. This is about forgiveness. So what’s the point of this supposedly confusing story?

Just forgive.

Forgive everything, forgive it today, forgive for any reason whatsoever and for no reason at all. Forgive. This applies to you and me, first of all. Forgive yourself. Just forgive yourself. For the things you regret, for the moments when you feel you failed, just forgive yourself. And then forgive others. That doesn’t mean forget any form of abuse or violence of oppression—but forgive means release the debt that exists between you and that person, because it is bringing YOU down. And it means forgive in the community, the nations, the world. Communities and nations should not be in debt to others. This is part of why the world is so screwed up. Forgive.

There is no bad reason to forgive, says the story, because keeping score is meant for sports and not for life. What does keeping score do for us anyway?

So what do you think?

Teaser for next week: Story of Lazarus and the rich man. What is it that causes some people to have someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them?

SHOUT OUT TO CHARLOTTE AND TULSA AND ALL WHO MOURN.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html

Losing and Finding Sheep: Empathy

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

How Do We Measure Success?

Luke 10:1-11

Speak Peace
This story, in my opinion, is about how one defines success.My initial thoughts on the background of this Luke story: it’s originally a Mark story, but instead of Jesus sending out 12 [as in Mark], Jesus sends 70, or is that 72? Some Bible translations go with 70, while others say 72. Why? I don’t have time to go into all that, but let’s just say it’s all about one little Greek word that appears in some of the copies of Gospel manuscripts and whether or not that particular manuscript copy changes the number, but it’s not really a huge deal. In my perspective, either 70 or 72 leads us right to the Old Testament, and more specifically, to Genesis 10. Often called the table of nations, Genesis 10 reveals all of Noah’s family and offspring. That family, of course, eventually led to the story of Moses, who in Numbers 11 appoints 70 elders and then two more. That’s 72. And these people were filled with “spirit.” Seems like a pretty strong connection to Luke’s Gospel story. The number 70/72 makes Jesus’ calling and sending of disciples a universal action and not some regional movement.

Those people are sent on the “way” to be with other people. They are sent to treat all people with equal respect, to heal social divisions, and to create and participate in open tables. They are “lambs in the midst of wolves,” which reminds them of their vulnerability. If they are to do this work, they will need to be vulnerable with the people they meet and accept their hospitality.

Without community, this work will not happen.

And so, away they go, in pairs. They are to speak peace to every house, which is shalom, the wholeness. If someone reciprocates that peace, peace will rest on that person. If not, the peace comes back to them. Finally, they are to heal the weak. We’re not talking about sick people as we often assume. Healing the weak entails addressing the unjust societal structures that separate people and oppress. Healing can be physical, mental, spiritual, or societal, or all of the above.

So in short, this mission, this living out the Reign of God looks like this: eating, drinking, healing, and fellowship. Oh, and also not dwelling on those who reject the peace and the healing. Shaking the dust off of one’s sandals, in my view, is about moving on and not resenting people, even if they reject you.

In Luke, this is Jesus’ version of success. How does it compare to what churches actually do and say? Hmm…..

I think it’s obvious that most churches today are more concerned than ever before about measuring success. How many people sit in the pews or attend worship? How much money are we taking in? How many new members did we receive last month? Do people remark about our beautiful building? Are we well-respected in the community? I could go on, but you get the idea. The institutional church bases most of its measurement of success on business models or societal structures. For generations, the U.S. Christian church was a standard, old reliable institution in each town, city, and suburb. Then post-modernism came and went. People in those towns, cities, and communities began to see the church institution as no different than any other. Where was the meaning? What made the church uniquely wonderful and different? In fact, most people saw or experienced awful and hurtful things in the church. No wonder they left. No wonder the institution started to decline and continues to decline.

But the institution is not the church, and thank god.

The church is community.

As Jesus sent out people to heal and reconcile, he sent them out in community to be community. Buildings didn’t matter. Strategic financial planning or marketing didn’t matter. What mattered was community, and what that community stood for: justice and peace.

As such, any faith community is our group of 72. We are not in this alone. Faith and spirituality are communal and we make a huge mistake when we try to make it isolated, like when people say: my Bible says, or my God does or says…In our church structures, we struggle the most when our leaders and volunteers are completely autonomous. We become fragmented, burned out, and disconnected. Why? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to work. We are supposed to be a community of staff, volunteers, leaders, etc. Males and females, non-binary zes, children, teenagers, young adults, older adults, people behind the scenes and people in front, creative and visionary minds and detail-oriented and task-oriented minds. We are supposed to be radically together in community. This means that every little and big thing we do in our faith communities is for the good of the whole, for something bigger than ourselves.

How do you measure success? It matters how you answer that. People struggle their whole lives trying to achieve goals they never reach and end up feeling tired, disappointed, and out of balance. But what if this story offers us some insight? What if success is not measured by numbers, money, degrees, and prestige?

What if success is measured by community, and how people treat each other within that community?

What if success is welcoming all to the table?

Consider this from St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.

Note: next week I’ll post something about Luke 10:25-37 and ask the question: Who Are Our Neighbors?
I’ll say right now, however, that #BlackLivesMatter!
BLM
And all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice, we won’t stand by and watch it happen; we won’t be silent. You should have the space to express your anger, frustration, and sadness. We love you. We will stand with you. Let’s put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism. And let’s stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.

Being Bound, Being Free

Luke 8:26-39

freedomDoves

Okay, this might start off a little strange. We’re going to talk about a very important theme for all of us as individuals, and extremely important for the health of humanity. But to do so, we’ll look at an incredibly weird and confusing story. Are you ready? Let’s give it a go…

Demons. Really?

I’m no expert on demons, evil spirits, or whatever you wish to call them. I like Hellboy a lot, but he’s kind of an anti-demon + anti-hero, wouldn’t you say?

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In fact, I should probably go to my friend and amazing author, Lucas Mangum. Flesh and Fire just might help set some context as to how demons are presented in literature [both religious on secular].

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Maybe Lucas will even chime in! Lucas, are you down there in the comments?

Anyway, this Luke Gospel story is about a bunch of demons. Jesus steps onto gentile territory and he is met immediately by a demon-possessed man. He is called a man of the city, like the woman of the city with the alabaster jar whose tears washed Jesus’ feet in the previous Luke story.

He is an outcast.

He doesn’t have a home, he doesn’t even have clothes. The people of his community even tied him up in shackles. They bound him to try to control him. Jesus, however, approaches him and commands the oppressive spirits to leave the man. Jesus sees him as a human being. But the man is tensed up and yells at Jesus to leave him alone. When Jesus asks him his name, he is able to get out: Legion.

This name makes sense, because a legion of demons was oppressing him. Apparently, the demons are reasonably smart and have thought things through; they have considered their options. The abyss? Not such a great place for demons to have a summer home. The abyss, in ancient Judaism, was a place where evil spirits were tormented. So yeah…no. So the demons beg Jesus to let them escape into some nearby pigs that were minding their own business. Jesus agrees and the demons enter the pigs and the poor animals rush down the steep bank of the lake and drown.

I grew up in Iowa and while I did not live on a farm, the farms were all around me. And so were the pigs. So what’s up with that, Luke? Really? Poor pigs…

Obviously, this is not good news for the guys who work with the pigs. Can you imagine? They were eye witnesses. There they are, minding their own business, when their pigs start going crazy like lemmings and run down the lake’s bank to their death. I imagine that they were ticked off. Which is great for the story, because their anger moves them to run off and tell a bunch of people. Meanwhile, the once-bound and oppressed man is now sitting at the feet of Jesus [just like the lady with the alabaster jar], and now he has clothes on and his sane. But the people of the town don’t celebrate; instead, they are afraid and tell Jesus to get the Galilee out of town. The newly healed man, demon-free man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay in his town and tell everyone what happened.

I’ll get right to it. I’m not one who believes in demons or evil spirits—at least not the kind with horns and not the ones who make people’s heads turn in complete circles or spit out green fluid. I like reading about them in stories and comics, because I do think they point us to the real thing. That “real thing” is evil, or the personification of evil, and the way that evil can bind and oppress a person, a family, a community, etc. We have no clue as to what really afflicted this guy Gentile territory. Was it his past? Did he suffer abuse of some kind? Was it a chemical imbalance, addiction, what was it? I think Luke doesn’t say for a reason. The point is that he was afflicted by a myriad of things, so take your pick; put yourself in his shoes; put other people you know in his shoes. The first thing that stands out to me is that any kind of afflicted person is still a human being—even if people tie that person up, declare the person untouchable and even inhuman.

Still a human being.

The other thing that I notice is that not only was this man untouchable and marginalized, but the evil spirits themselves ended up in pigs, another untouchable, unclean living thing, at least for the Jews of that time. Remember, Jesus was in Gentile territory. Poor pigs.

And yet, in light of the recent horrific and tragic events in Orlando, Florida [and the sad, ignorant and hateful responses to it by politicians and others], I am going in this direction: you see, we seem to be able to talk about people who have drug or food or gambling addictions; it’s commonplace to talk about people who are bound by an abusive past. But how often do we admit to how many people are bound by prejudice? How many people have evil in their thoughts and worldviews, so much so, that they are willing to hurt others who are different than they are, using hateful words, bullying them, or even resorting to violence? It’s happening too often. And we rarely talk about it. Many of us have family members or friends who are clearly prejudiced against certain people. Gay? Lesbian? Transgender? Non-binary? Black, Asian, Latin American, African, Eastern European, Arab, Spanish-speaker, Atheist, Arabic speaker, Muslim?

They are afflicted, they are bound by their prejudice.

Some of it is a result of social conditioning. Maybe they were raised to hate a certain group of people. Perhaps they went along with their peers in school just to fit in. Or maybe at work it was just easier to put down the person who was different. Whatever the case, prejudice is evil. It is affliction. It binds people.

I, as many other people, I am tired of prayers for families of victims of hate crimes. I’m tired and angry. I’m not saying that prayers don’t matter. I AM saying that prayers are not enough and that sometimes we hide behind them. It’s easier to say we’re praying for the families and victims in Orlando; it’s a lot harder to actually do something about the prejudice and hatred in our own communities, families, schools, and churches. We live in a world in which is easy to spread hatred via social media with one click and a thousand shares. But it’s equally easy to do the opposite—to combat hatred and to cooperate, love, and embrace pluralism of all kinds. Churches pray, but what do churches do? I’m tired of all kinds of prejudice, including subtle prejudice and all the excuses that we continue to make as to why we won’t stand up and say enough is enough! Why we won’t be more courageous in our communities and risk upsetting relationships with friends, classmates, work colleagues, church friends, and even family. Our inaction binds us. Evil happens and we stand silent.

Jesus healed this seemingly untouchable, non-human. But then the newly-restored man was then told to tell the scared and prejudiced people of his town what God had done. What God had done. My take is that whether you believe in this god or not,there is a universal theme here. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human. People will make categories and draw border lines and spread hateful rhetoric to keep us separated. They do that because they gain something from it [usually money and power]. But we can’t make excuses anymore. It’s time to admit to the prejudice that binds us as individuals and communities. The moment is NOW to stand up against your family members, friends, or co-workers who spread hate to others. Unfold your hands, open your eyes, and actually do something. Spread humanity. Spread cooperation. Spread love and acceptance.

Teaser for next week: Luke 9:51-62: Is it difficult sometimes for you to move on from your past? How can we stop looking back so much and move forward?

 

Side note: to all my friends and family and colleagues who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, or Non-Binary—I love you and I’m angry, too. I pledge to do my best to stand up against hatred and prejudice. My prayers will be my actions. And the same goes for all my Muslim friends and colleagues. Love you, too. I stand with you.

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.

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

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

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

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

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

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

This is about being honest and being connected.

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

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

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

So don’t do it.

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

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

This is a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

The women choose to remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

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

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

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

May every day be resurrection day.

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

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