Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘friendship’

LOVE Incarnate in the Upside Down

Luke 1:39-41; 46-49; 52,53  

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.

The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.

Otherwise, the story has no meaning.

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.

Image result for perfect baby jesus funny
Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.

maryElizArtwork by He Qi 

Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.

anunciationAnd yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.

Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.

I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.

And where, in all those stories, is love?

That is the right question to ask.

I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?

upsideDownteeThis is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.

ELsmilingShe has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.


And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.

ELcrucifixShe descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”

You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.

May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.


Joy Rising Out of Trauma

In the brilliant sci-fi/fantasy Netflix series Stranger Things the main characters all go through trauma:

Joyce loses her son, Will. Jonathan loses his little brother.

Eleven/Jane is experimented on, deprived of parental care, tortured, and manipulated psychologically.

Dustin, Mike, and Lucas lose their friend and think he’s dead.

Will is taken by a creature to another dimension and no one on the other side knows he’s alive. He is called “zombie boy” by his peers and haunted by nightmarish visions and flashbacks of the Upside Down.

Kali was experimented on and given a number, like Eleven.

Sherriff Hopper lost his child to cancer and his marriage ended.

The list goes on. Trauma. PTSD.

Life in the Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2 also explores the heritage of trauma, and how it can be passed from one person to another. Consider Billy, a bully and the older stepbrother to Max.

Billy is pretty much your standard jerk, screaming at Max, pushing around Steve on the basketball court, and warning Max to stay away from Lucas. But the show reveals eventually that Billy is tyrannized by his own father, physically beaten, emotionally abused, and is now repeating what his father wants.

What the show does well is to give us an opportunity to talk about/deal with something that is often very difficult to handle. Anyone who has suffered great trauma in life knows just how hard it can be to address it. Time and time again, the characters of Stranger Things are in a back-and-forth state of post-traumatic stress. They are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects. This is the Demogorgon.

demoAnd it is extremely difficult to defeat.

In one scene, Joyce, Bob, and the boys are looking for the location of vines that are growing beneath the surface, in the upside down.

mapBobBob’s puzzle-solving skills come in handy, as he is able to draw a map using Will’s seemingly random drawings. This scene is a metaphor for navigating trauma. It’s beneath the surface, but it can be difficult to find a map to heal the lingering emotional wounds.

This is why a sweet kid like Eleven feels like both girl and monster. This is why Will feels like a zombie or a freak.

So how does Stranger Things offer a path to healing?

The show does a great job, I think, of demonstrating shared trauma: many of the main characters stand with each other in solidarity, encourage each other, and find deeper connections as a result. They construct a “new” family. The honesty and connectedness of shared trauma and acceptance can lead to realization, aha moments, personal growth, and even joy/gratitude. Examples from the show:

Kali “grew up” with El in the lab but they had not seen each other for years. When they reunited Kali shared: “I just feel whole, like a piece of me was missing and now it’s not.” Kali also understands El’s pain and protects her. She offers her a new purpose and encourages El to develop her special abilities. Sadly, Kali chooses to use her powers to get violent revenge. Because of this, El decides to return to her original place of trauma.

And in spite of Kali telling El that Going back to Hawkins and her friends is pointless and empty, El cones to the realization that what and who she was searching for was there all the time. She wasn’t a monster or someone to blame for the upside down. She didn’t have to be an outcast either.

She could help her friends.

Stories like this one can offer us a way of communicating what can’t always be said out loud. They provide a chance to experiment with emotions that society often demands us to keep hidden. But stories can also make the intangible fears into literal things; in other words, indistinct kinds of anxiety can be channeled into flesh-and-blood enemies like the Demogorgon or Shadow Monster.

The darkness of trauma [the Upside Down], Stranger Things explains to us, is always there, in this dimension and in others. But there is a path to surviving it—not a quick fix, but a slow, arduous path to healing and recovery. And along that path are people who share our trauma, sit with us in times of loss, pain, and suffering. We find solidarity with them, friendship, and the kind of joy that goes far beyond surface happiness. It is the joy in knowing that your seemingly messed up, freakish existence is more than that. The trauma that you have suffered doesn’t tell your whole story. You are writing your story each day, right now. And others are interested in your fresh and unique narrative.

So friends, wherever you are on your journey today—whatever trauma you have suffered or are suffering, remember that you are not alone. Keep on writing your story anew. Much love to you in the Upside Down.

Life in the Upside Down II: Friendship as a Catalyst for Peace

If you haven’t seen the Netflix original show Stranger Things, I highly recommend it. I won’t give a full synopsis here, but even if you are not familiar with it, I think what follows will still be relevant and hopefully meaningful.

Let’s talk about friendship.

CinePOP-Stranger-Things-7-1-750x380In Stranger Things, friendship takes center stage. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and follows the lives of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and El, 12-year old kids. Mike, Dustin, Will, and Lucas have been friends since early childhood and they have their own club with secrets, pacts, etc. Something shakes them to their core, however, when one of their group, Will Byers, gets trapped in what’s called the Upside Down, an alternative dimension. The whole town of Hawkins starts the search, but to no avail. Everyone fears the worst, including his closest friends.

And then, a mysterious girl shows up. She is first called “Eleven” because of the number tattooed on her wrist. Mike eventually calls her El and despite the suspicions of Dustin and Lucas, El becomes part of their friendship club. It is El’s unsettling arrival into the lives of the three boys that is the catalyst for the writers of Stranger Things to define what the story is all about—friendship, and to define what that means in this tale.

We first get a glimpse in a scene with the three boys [minus the missing Will] and El, in the basement of Mike’s house one day after school. Lucas is upset that Mike hasn’t told his mom about El–that she’s living in his basement and probably has escaped from somewhere bad. Mike refuses to tell and so Lucas decides to take matters into his own hands. He opens the door to go upstairs to tell Mike’s mom. But the door slams shut by itself. Lucas tries again. It slams shut again. Then, the boys look at El.

ElmindbenderHer stare could cut through solid steel. Her nose is bleeding. All she says is: NO. It’s the first time that the boys recognize El’s mysterious powers and what she can move with her mind. They are in awe of her, afraid even.

“We never would have upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”

Dustin is really honest. And though they all seem to fear El at this moment, their fear doesn’t prevent them from seeking to form a bond of friendship with her.

Problem is, El doesn’t know what “friend” even means. So Mike explains:

“A friend is someone you’d do anything for…friends tell each other things. And…
A promise is something you can’t break — ever. A friend is someone that you’d do anything for … and they never break a promise … that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know. Friends tell each other the truth. And they definitely don’t lie to each other…”

This definition of friendship drives the story of Stranger Things. After all, El is someone who has no experience with trust. On the surface, Mike’s very dogmatic definition of a friend is very twelve-year-old cut-and-dry. But if we look closer, the friendship of this group of kids is really based on trust, reconciliation and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. This idea is demonstrated again and again, like when Will first goes missing and all the boys’ parents tell them it’s too dangerous to join the search party, but of course they go and look anyway. When El tells them that the Upside Down contains a monster, they still pull out their compasses to try to find the portal to that world.

I think much of the appeal of Stranger Things is the friendship theme. After all, we too long for honest, loving friendships with others. If we can say that we have only 1-2 friends like that well, then we are lucky, no? And I also think it’s a story worth telling and embracing during this season and any season for that matter, because friendship of this quality leads to acceptance and inner and outer peace. Friendship of this level, just like in Stranger Things, can be salvific, resurrecting, healing.

For Christians, the season of Advent is mean to be a time of deep reflection, service to others, and development of spiritual practices. The Scriptures people read tend to be Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, authors who paint a pretty bleak picture of humanity that is full of war, corruption, greed, and fear.

Tucked within that negative narrative, however, is the belief that light breaks through it all—that we and this world are meant to be so much more.

That there are voices crying out in the wilderness telling us to prepare a way of peace and reconciliation—a way forward in the middle of an endless desert. Thus, while the world around us and the people filling the earth can often cause us to fear or to isolate ourselves, we can count on one thing being constant. The Creator God of Isaiah is mighty and powerful, shaping the beauty and majesty of the natural world. And yet, this God/Elohim is also a gentle friend to humanity. The prophet flips the world upside down as the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low. The uneven ground is leveled, and the rough places are made plain. This is God’s doing and all of humanity sees it together.

Like the kids in Stranger Things who fear El’s mighty powers, we too can come to fear this Divine Elohim. But if we look closer, we can soon realize that fear is not what our relationship should be built on. No, in a world that is dangerous and alienating enough we long for connections that build peace and trust–including any relationship we have with the Divine. Some of us feel like outcasts, strangers, or someone on the outside looking in. We seek belonging and people who we can trust. Thus, finding a true friend can mean that we find a home or a family. Discovering friends who form bonds with us of acceptance and understanding, who are willing to recognize our suffering and share our love, make life worth living.

El was not to be feared, but loved and accepted. So too are we made to seek out friendships with others who choose to hear us, who encourage us to fully be ourselves, who love us as we are.

Friendship of this kind can move us towards peace. It’s not easy, to be sure, and peace does not mean the absence of conflict. In the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, peace is shalom, and this means “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight…a rich state in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…a state that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in. Shalom is the way things ought to be.” [1]

So kudos to the friends in Stranger Things. May we learn from them. May friendship open doors for you and welcome you in. May bonds of love and acceptance drive you forward. Make shalom reality.

[1] “Shalom: The Real Utopia”.

Alarming Love

Romans 13:8-11a

Matthew 18:15-20

Sell your crap.

Pay your debt.

Do what you love.

This was the title of Adam Baker’s TED TALK in 2011—the story of how his family moved away from being the “typical” debt-laden U.S. family trapped by the next thing to buy to a family that envisioned freedom from that debt and then took the necessary steps to truly be free.

Let’s listen to a bit.

Adam argues that most of us live a life based on a script.

And we did not write that script—someone else did, or perhaps even a government, or a company, or an institution wrote that script for us.

The script, sadly, can become our life.

And that script involves debt.

debtFinancially, many people in the world are born into debt. Those who are fortunate enough to be born into a family without debt have a better chance, but even so, they often accumulate debt of their own. It piles up, because we follow the script of what we are supposed to buy, what is the next “logical” step in our relationships, when to get the house with the yard, the new car, and where to send our kids to college.

But is this really freedom?

I don’t think so—not if we’re following someone else’s script.

Not if we’re buying things because we think we need them or because that celebrity or that commercial told us to.

Not if we’re moving from one life decision to the next without actually reflecting on those decisions because…

We’re just following someone else’s script for our lives.

So I want to talk about debt; obviously, so far we have been talking about the financial kind of debt, because that will help us in the rest of this discussion.

In order to understand relationship debt, we first have to understand financial debt.

I include two Bible passages—one from Matthew [words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth] and the other from Romans [Paul’s letter to the Roman church] to help us honestly reflect and hopefully act.

First, Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew’s discussion about debt is based on human relationships and Torah Law. The Torah is the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Matthew’s debt discussion, the author includes references to Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Jesus of Matthew is concerned about how people treat each other. There was [and is] conflict between humans. How do we deal with such conflict?

The root of said human conflicts is a problem—which happens to be a problematic word—and that word is sin.

Not enough time to break down just how misunderstood this word is. So let’s just stick to Matthew’s view.

Sin isn’t about morality but more about missing the mark. Sin is a failure to be human—as we are created to be.

So when two people fight about something, talk behind each other’s back, hurt one another—this is sin or missing the mark showing itself. And there is no prayer, or physical offering at the altar, or religious duty that one can do to solve such conflicts. Notice here that it is completely up to the humans themselves to work this out. There is no mediator-priest.

The first step is to confront the other person directly. Honesty and direct communication come first. The goal of the confrontation, however, is to prove who is “right” or “wrong” but to reconcile. The goal is reconciliation and thus the direct confrontation is motivated by love.

Jesus concludes the relationship debt teaching with this:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Just in case we weren’t paying attention, we have the ball in our court.

Whatever we hold onto, we carry with us.

Any debts we have weigh us down.
If we keep others in debt to us, they are weighed down.

But if we choose to lose our own personal debts and release the debts of others, there is great freedom for all.

But clearly, Jesus leaves it up to us.
If two or more of us AGREE on earth, it will be done.

Do we agree to forgive the debts of others?

Do we agree to clear our lives of the debt that weighs us down?


And now to Paul and his letter to the Roman church—a church under an empire and in great debt.

Time to WAKE UP!

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Paul flips things around: owe no one [including Rome] any THING.

But love one another.

Loving fulfills the law.

Then he lists some of the commandments [back to the Torah again, like in Matthew] but adds an emphasis that was Jesus’ teaching:
Any can be summed up in this word,
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The reasoning?
Love does not harm another person.
So love does indeed fulfill all the law.

If you don’t harm people, you won’t break commandments.
You only owe one thing this to the world and all its creatures—love.

And we are invited to wake up to this reality every day.

It’s not a script; it’s not predictable; it’s not popular; it’s not mainstream; it won’t be easy; it will be risky; love is like that when it’s actually lived out.

It’s like theologian Karl Barth once wrote:
Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.

Friends, owe nothing to empires, institutions, companies, things, and even people! Don’t allow debt of any kind to weigh down your life and your humanity.

True freedom is letting go of any debts that exist.
And in true freedom you will learn how to love.

The Great Life Adventure

Matthew 14:22-33

Hobbit_coverThe Hobbit, a book by JRR Tolkien, begins with this line: “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The author Tolkien lets us the reader know that this is not a nasty or unkempt hole, like the lair of a mouse, but rather a cozy place, filled with fine furniture, doilies, and a well-stocked kitchen. Bilbo Baggins is this particular hobbit, and it is from this comfortable space that he is called to a great adventure.

It is Gandalf, a wizard, who initially interrupts Bilbo’s comfortable life.

Let’s watch a scene from the movie version of the story: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.


Obviously, Bilbo is not very enthusiastic about the idea.

And after meeting the large group of dwarves who will “contract” him for this adventure—Bilbo is even less enthusiastic. They are messy and rambunctious and not of his kind. Why would he choose to go on an adventure with them?

Of course.

Why leave a place of complete comfort and predictability to enter a life of challenge, risk, and uncertainty?


This is the theme presented to us in another story of adventure—the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. We are looking at Matthew’s version.

It’s easy to get distracted in these stories by the seemingly “miraculous” things that Jesus does. Case in point—walking on water as if it’s nobody’s bizness.

But we shouldn’t let ourselves get too distracted by the “miracles” that we so often associate Jesus with. The push of Matthew’s story is not to dazzle us with Jesus’ magic tricks. Matthew’s author wants the reader to recognize the calling of Jesus of Nazareth—to that group of friends he called disciples—but also a calling to the wider community. It is up to you how you want to interpret the so-called miracles stories of the Bible. My point of view is that miracles do not require Divine intervention to be a miracle. I think that unexpected, extraordinary things happen each day when we participate in the world and when we are fully human.

And there’s another twist to this story, of course—one that I invite you to think about. Consider this scene of the disciples on a boat without Jesus. When they “see” him, they see a ghost. They hear familiar words [take heart, do not be afraid] and then Peter makes his attempt to scurry across the lake like one of those cool, green lizards in the rain forest. To me, this story looks just like the other resurrection appearance/vision stories after Jesus’ death. The disciples were alone, Jesus appears; they see a ghost or something else, Jesus assures them with peace and do not be afraid; then, someone in the disciples group says or does something that makes it a teaching moment. Then, the group as a whole finds renewed strength to continue their journey.

As I always say, it’s up to you. I choose to see this story in that way [and not literally at all], but you need to develop your own perspective.

Regardless, one of the clear themes of the story is getting rid of fear and then journeying out to the unknown. It’s about a great adventure that involves taking risks and facing doubts and fears.

I think Bilbo’s story is quite similar in the Hobbit.

Let’s watch another clip of The Hobbit, in which Bilbo’s cozy house is back to normal. The dwarves and Gandalf the Wizard have gone. His dishes, bowls, and plates are all in order. It seems like nothing ever happened. Perhaps Bilbo was able to rid himself of that adventure idea that he was so set against.

What made Bilbo decide to leave his cozy house and comfortable existence?

Why did he choose the adventure?

After all, the adventure would be scary at times. Hungry trolls who rather enjoy the taste of hobbits; nasty orcs; giant spiders; a fire-breathing dragon.

But Bilbo chose to go on this adventure anyway.

He chose to leave behind the comforts of his material things.
He chose to befriend and share life with creatures of different kinds and cultures.
He chose to journey into the unknown.
He chose to face the evils in the world—the scary things.

Bilbo faced his doubts, his fears, his complacency, and his attachments.

And on the adventure, Bilbo learned about gifts and talents he never knew he had; he learned how to love; how to give; how to be an adventurous hobbit.

And so it is, friends.

The world is indeed a scary place sometimes
There are winds that blow and we feel unstable.
There are times when we feel alone and useless.
Sometimes you may feel that you don’t have a purpose at all.

But the great adventure of life itself is a gift worth embracing.

Jesus of Nazareth called his friends and companions to greater things. They were asked to take risks and to leave their places of comfort.

Because on the journey of their adventure, they discovered, learned, grew, and transformed.

Will you consider the adventure of life over the routine of comfort?

You have undiscovered gifts and talents to explore and try out.
You can discover how to love people in honest ways.
You can learn how to give freely without expecting something.
You can learn how to empty yourself of all the fears and anxieties that keep you locked behind closed doors.

On the adventure, you can learn to be free of attachments.

No matter what stage of life you are in, the adventure can begin again.


You are staring at the door; will you venture out into the open?


Matthew 5:13-20   

We’re about to talk about NaCl. But before we dig into salt, some things to think about: Prior to this, Jesus of Nazareth gave his famous speech called the beatitudes and here we find the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel continuing with some words you can also find in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, though their versions are shorter:[1] Mark 8:49: For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” And Luke 14:34-35: Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored [or used for seasoning?] It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Matthew’s take is a bit different, isn’t it? In Matthew’s story, Jesus actually compares humans to salt. You are the salt of the earth. So let’s talk NaCl. Salt is important, is it not? saltcrystalsMost historical records say that the use of salt dates back to 6000 B.C.E. Egyptians used salt for a variety of things, including religious ceremonies and even money.[2] That’s right, salt was money. We get the word salary from the word salt, actually.   When something is not worth its salt that means of course that it is not fulfilling your expectations. Salt is worthy of its lofty, historical status. Consider that we are talking about Dead Sea salt from Galilee. deadseaSaltYes, that wonderful salt that comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. In fact, there are more than 14,000 uses for salt.

So that’s pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

But does salt actually lose flavor? You may think that it doesn’t, but sure it does. Salt from the Dead Sea or any other body of water is mixed with sand and other things. It is not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. The chemical impurities can decompose. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mixture can indeed lose its saltiness. So it was true that in the time of Jesus, merchants in Galilee would sometimes encounter a salt mixture that was not useful because it had lost its flavor. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt. So back to the metaphor.

How are humans like salt?

Matthew’s story has Jesus talking in the present and not the future tense. He says: You ARE the salt of the earth. So the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were already grounded in the identity of coming from the earth [and the sea], and having flavor, and also being incredibly useful for a thousand different things. This is important to note, because in the sad history [and present day] of human existence, we continue to say that some people are more important than others, more useful, more full of flavor, etc. But Jesus, in this case, says you all [plural] are the salt of the earth. Everyone is useful and has flavor and is uniquely salty. Even Homer J. Simpson. 24820BPThe-Simpsons-Homer-Mmm-SaltyBut Jesus [and Matthew] are not finished.

Not only are people salt of the earth, but also light of the world.

Just like with the salt, we need some context here if we are to get the light reference. Jesus was not talking to rich dudes; or political rulers; or even religious leaders. Jesus was talking to people who would be called poor by many and certainly would be considered poor in the material sense today. They were called salt and now they were called light. In their context, a house often had just one room. Therefore, anyone who enters such a house will immediately see the lamp on top of a stand. Remember, they did not have electricity—like many people in the Philly area this past week! So in Jesus’ time, many people would have an oil lamp on a stand, and the way they would put out the fire of the lamp was to put a bushel basket over the lamp. This is practical and necessary to do before going to bed so smoke and fumes stay inside the basket.[3] Keep in mind also that in this era, there were not hundreds of neon signs flashing, street lights, car headlights, or anything like that. When it was night, it was really, really dark. You could see the stars. So when the lamps were snuffed out, it was dark and hard to see. an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1 So, says Jesus, it is important that in calling these humans light, they should not put their light under a bushel basket. They should instead shine like a light on top of a hill. They should be bright. They should not be afraid to shine. They should be illuminating light—regardless of what others try to tell them they are or are not. And like the salt metaphor, people of light are connected to other people, and useful, and open. So there are two things that jump out at me here.

First of all, in Matthew’s story, Jesus is not calling religious people salt and light.

He’s not saying that if you believe this specific thing or if you go to this specific church—you are definitely salty and bright. Jesus is saying, to a group of often-marginalized and overlooked people, that they are already salty and bright. They don’t have to convert; they don’t have to follow certain moral codes; they don’t even have to join a certain religious club. They are already salt. They are already light.

As they are.

It’s just natural.

Secondly, the salty and bright people should not get discouraged or afraid.

Salt can lose its uniqueness and flavor. As people, we can, too. Enter stage left: assimilation and the pressure to fit in. Someone tells you that you need to change who you are because you do not fit their definition of a human being. You’re gay or lesbian…change your preference. You’re transgender…make up your mind. You’re poor…get a job. You’re sad a lot…take medication. You’re full of doubt…have more faith. You speak another language…learn English.

You don’t fit my definition of human…so change already!

We can be pressured to change who we are. But we shouldn’t. We don’t need to change the essence of who we are, because we are all unique. We are all salty. We all have flavor. We’re naturally ourselves. Actually, we can add a lot of good in the world if we are fully ourselves—honest and candid and real. In that way, we will also accept others as they are. So listen, don’t give power to others, allowing them to take away your saltiness or to cover up your light. You are already salty and bright. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t sing that way, or paint a picture like that, or that you should be just like them or that you’re not worthy to shine or to be salty. And don’t try to copy everyone else. Your light is uniquely bright because it comes from inside you. Likewise, don’t ever tell someone else that she/he cannot be salty or bright. Don’t force others to be just like you. Let their uniqueness shine through. And remember how Jesus closed this part of his Matthew speech. He talked about the Law, or in other words, the Torah commandments, which were summed up in: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[4] Being salty is being loving and compassionate. Being a light is shining love and compassion for all people. This does not mean that you save the world or make yourself famously salty and bright. It means that in your little, seemingly insignificant life, you have the salt and light already in you.

You have the capacity to love.

Because your so-called religiousness won’t do the trick; your holiness will never be enough; everybody breaks religious rules and fails to uphold religious doctrines and disciplines. Everyone. You will inevitably fall asleep praying; you will get tired of worship; you will sometimes not want to do the work of meetings and administration; you will get annoyed with church people; you will be sad and apathetic sometimes; your doubts about God will not fade away; and you may struggle with your spirituality every day of your life. You will have days and maybe months when you will struggle to get up in the morning and you may feel that you don’t have much of a purpose. You will sit in class at school and wonder if you matter. You will go to work only because you have to and not because you love what you do. You will stay in relationships because of obligation and not because of compassion. You will have moments when your light will dim and your saltiness will fade. Yes, you are human. But you can love. You can encourage someone who has been pushed down. You can welcome someone who has been left out. You can show compassion to someone who is barely hanging on. You can add flavor to someone’s day with laughter or a fresh perspective. You can treat people well—no matter where they are from or how they look. You can get up each day, and go to bed at night, with the realization that you were born salty and born with light. So be salty. Be bright. Recognize the beautiful flavor and light in all others. Be fully yourself and embrace the fullness of others. Amen.

[1] New Revised Standard Version. For side-by-side Gospel comparing, check out:
[3] Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce J. Malina,
[4] Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV.

Life As Vocation

Matthew 4:12-23


Women fishing in Bangladesh

Here’s how this story goes: Jesus just got tested in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee after his cousin John is arrested for eating too many locusts; or something like that. Then Jesus finds two willing fishermen and begins an adventurous journey with them.

This story originates in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew mostly copies Mark, but also adds the Isaiah reference and changes what Jesus is quoted as saying, eliminating The time is fulfilled and changing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of heaven. Also, Matthew leaves out the bit about Simon [Peter] and Andrew leaving their hired hands behind along with their dad in the fishing boat.

The story takes place in Capernaum–a major port city. It was a great trading and meeting center. It would have been a great locale in which to spread news or to communicate with a wide variety of people. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee [actually a lake, as you can see].


But the story also references Naphtali and Zebulon. This is less geographical and more cultural. Naphtali and Zebulon were the names of two tribes of people who lived in the northern region of Israel [also west of the lake of Galilee].

naphtali So consider that while Matthew includes the reference from the prophet Isaiah, it is not about predicting that Jesus would walk from Nazareth to Capernaum. If this were an actual literal prophetic prediction, Matthew would actually look stupid. Why? Because Naphtali and Zebulun were two separate regions. Capernaum was only in Naphtali and not Zebulun. You can see this on this map. Also, look at the actual Isaiah text from which Matthew borrows:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.[1]

Isaiah says by way of the sea [meaning the Mediterranean Sea there on the left] while Jesus in Matthew’s story traveled by the Sea [or Lake] of Galilee. Keep in mind that while some love to jump to prophetic conclusions and put two and two together by using OT passages to predict NT Jesus events—this alters the spirit and meaning of the story. Matthew uses the Isaiah reference [and geography and culture] to show that Jesus didn’t just care about the Jewish people, but also about those who were called Gentiles. We are supposed to notice the Zebulun and Naphtali reference and also the phrase repent for the kingdom of heaven is near because John said that earlier in the story in the wilderness of Judah [Jewish land] and now Jesus was saying the same thing in the Northern territories where there were more Gentiles. You see the movement of the story? I hope this helps.

Let’s continue on the journey. Nazareth to Capernaum was about 26 miles, depending on the route one decided to take.

Put it in context. If you traveled from the address of the United Church of Christ in Warminster, PA to where the University of Pennsylvania is in University City, you have just gone from Nazareth to Capernaum. Yes, keep in mind that most of the stories about Jesus take place in a very small geographical area.

So we have journeyed to Capernaum and we’re on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, there is fresh water and lots of fish. The lake is controlled by the wealthy Greeks and Romans and Jewish folk who were in with King Herod. Fishermen worked for them. Yes, that’s right—local fishermen had to buy fishing licenses just so they could fish. It was all regulated and of course, everything, including the fish, was taxed. Much like today, those who worked tirelessly raising crops on land or those who fished the sea–sadly they saw most of their food exported to other lands and they gained very little for their own families. It is to this group of people that Jesus appeals. Keep in mind that in Matthew’s Gospel and the other three, the issue of debt and money comes up a lot. We need to notice this in the story.

But most of the time we’re obsessed with the “fishers of people” idea and kind of end up thinking like Peter in this cartoon:

peter.stupid.fishIt’s true. Recently, a smart little girl inquisitively asked:

Why would they fish for people? And why did the other people go in the water in the first place?

Uh, yeah. This is a weird thing to say: go fish for people.

That’s why I really believe that details in a story are important. You see, we often see this Biblical story of calling disciples as some up-in-the-clouds, impossible tale. And so we are disconnected from it. But like most of the stories about Jesus, this one is quite ordinary and human, and therefore it is a story with which we can identify.

I still have a question, though: why did Peter and Andrew listen to this Jesus of Nazareth, leave behind their fishing equipment, and then follow him on a crazy adventure? Why?

I think most people assume that these two guys just picked up and left their previous lives to make some sort of incredible religious commitment. Many look at any story and assume that anyone who follows Jesus has to drop everything and make an overwhelming pledge to change their lives completely. Perhaps that’s why there are so many people who relate Christianity to fanaticism.

And they would be right, in many cases.

But I’m certainly not criticizing people who really do need to drop everything because they may live destructively and need this type of major change. Certainly, I have known people for whom practicing the Christian faith helped them to overcome addictions or destructive behaviors that kept them from living full lives. I don’t underestimate the joy and healing they discovered. But I think everyone’s experience is different. And I also think that religion itself is so very limited and also created by us, so being “called” or “following” Jesus will look different for every person.

That’s the point.

Your life is a calling.

You don’t have to be a fisherperson, a pastor, overtly religious, or someone who experiences an enlightening moment or a conversion. Your life, from its very beginning, has been and is a calling.

But yes—we are called to live with more imagination. And with more love. And with less hate. And we are called to live with more mercy, forgiveness, and more honesty. And we are called out of comfort and into conflict, recognizing that the conflict leads us to meet new and amazing people who will journey with us. Along the way, we start to realize that comfort is overrated. We can even find strength to leave it behind, as well as all the attachments to material things and prejudices that limit us so much and keep us from living a full life. And yes–we’re called out of fear to love—a very difficult calling, for sure, because we are called to face our fears and to stop ignoring them or  running away from them. And all of this looks so different for each and every person, doesn’t it?

Recently, the Lilly Foundation, an endowment organization that funds religious research, interviewed pastors, seminarians, church and ministry leaders, etc. about their careers. The study found that most of these people felt called to their vocation. Okay, but the problem is that most people don’t feel the same way. They don’t feel called like most pastors do. They hear sermons and read religious stuff but often they don’t think that what they do outside of the church has much to do with some calling worthy of God’s attention. Most people see Peter and Andrew or any of the other 1st or 2nd century disciples as super Jesus followers and faith heroes who they could never measure up to and with whom they cannot identify.

Well, that’s a big problem.

We are missing the whole point, then. I mean, it’s all well and good to interview pastors and seminarians and other professionals, but being a pastor myself, I see great limitations here. Look, personally I do find joy and fulfillment in my work as an ordained minister—both with UCCW and also with the Interfaith Center. But my “calling” [vocation] is not any higher or more worthy of God’s attention than anyone else’s. I don’t think of what I do as more Christian or more faithful to following Jesus.

And no, I did not put down my nets and follow Jesus like Andrew and Peter. I just didn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried my best to be myself and to treat people well, and to love fearlessly and to speak and act creatively and compassionately. But that has zero to do with me being a pastor. That’s just my life. And for me, following Jesus’ life and teachings has helped to make me a better person. It has helped me forgive and help and empathize and heal.

Your life and calling is just as special as mine. Look, this Lily Foundation study discovered something much more important than what religious professionals think. They found that all these people had the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose—not because of their religious jobs–but because of their relationships.

Relationships. With people.

In Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t call the two fishermen [or any others for that matter] to change jobs. Jesus instead calls them into relationship. They are to be fishers of people. And while this sounds weird to most of us because we are not casting nets, you get the idea. We are called into relationships and we always have been.

And this is creative and not limited. Just like fishing. Check out the creativity of these guys:

creativefishingYour relationship with God, with this, Jesus—should be a good thing. It should add joy, healing, wisdom, wholeness. It should not limit you or take away your playful imagination or your creativity or make you think that you need to change who you are. No way. Likewise with your relationships in this life here on this planet. You should be challenged, uplifted, inspired, strengthened, and fulfilled by your relationships with people. Others should feel the same when they are in relationship with you. And no, you don’t have to have some really religious conversion story or some so-called “higher” calling to do that.

No way. Just be you.

And so, ask yourself:

How will I step out of my comfort zone and be in relationship with others?
How will I be a compassionate friend?
How will I be a loving partner?
How will I be creative, free, and joyful at work and at school and with others?
How will my relationship with God inspire and heal me?
How will this relationship with God move me to healthy relationships with others?

Live the story.

[1] Isaiah 9:1-2, NRSV.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...


a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing


Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor


mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century