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Posts tagged ‘galilee’

A Hand Reaches Out in The Storm

Matthew 14:22-33

walkingonwaterLet’s talk about miracles and metaphors and how the two can actually be friends or coexist–let’s talk about miracles. All religious traditions have miracles stories—things that happen and cannot be explained by science, biology, or empirical evidence. People turn into animals and vice versa, an entire sea parts in the middle and then closes up, someone blinds an entire army with a handful of dust, someone lifts a mountain and saves an entire village, someone rises in the air and divides his body into pieces and then rejoins them, someone walks on water. Those are just a few examples of miracles in folk religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.

For the sake of our exploration, I choose to use the definition of miracles presented in Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Woodward defines miracles as:

…an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others, that finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that is the result of a special act of God or the gods or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own through asceticism and meditation.

Woodward also argues that miracles are best understood through stories and should not be seen within the framework of the laws of nature or “proving” something.

Each specific religious tradition defines what a miracle is according to the context of the religion. As Woodward states, when it comes to miracles, we shouldn’t ask: did it really happen? but instead what does it mean?

So let’s do that.

Let’s look at this specific so-called miracle of Jesus, walking on water, not asking whether it happened or not, but what it means.

Jesus’ followers were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had gone up to a mountain to be by himself. When evening came, a storm started to rage the waters and the boat was tossed about violently. Morning came, and Jesus came walking towards the boat, seemingly on top of the water. The people in the boat were terrified and thought he might be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them and told them to not be afraid. Peter then got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus, on the water. But he noticed that a strong wind was blowing and he got scared again and started to sink. He cried out for help. Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter.

So what does this mean?

In many ancient cultures and religions, including Christianity, it was normal to compare the difficult times of life with a stormy sea or some sort of choppy waters. So the people on the boat are us. They are life, and then the stormy sea represents the trials and tribulations of our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, walking on this stormy sea, represents the ability to rise above the difficulties of life, internally transcending the external. Jesus offered this ability to the people in the boat. Peter took Jesus up on his offer and was initially able to rise above the stormy sea. Eventually though, the wind distracted him and he was afraid. Fear then, was the thing that sunk Peter.

So by asking: what does this miracle story mean, I hope that you can glean some meaning for yourself. What stands out to me is that the story does not paint this life as an easy, pleasant experience. There is acknowledgement of the difficulty and suffering in life. We all face stormy seas; we all have moments when we feel that we are stranded in a boat in the middle of stormy waters, with not land in sight. This is human. This is real.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently was real. White supremacists caused violence and spread hatred. One of those white supremacists drove a car into people–into people. Heather Heyer was killed. Two state police troopers were killed in a helicopter crash. Others were injured. “Unite the Right” organized the hateful rally. I cannot imagine what Heather’s and the two officer’s family and friends feel. I cannot imagine what African-Americans feel when these things keep happening. This is not new. This is consistently awful. Makes me think that those affected by racism and white supremacist violence and hate crimes feel like they are in a boat in the middle of a raging sea, but their boat has capsized and there is no end in sight. Where is the shore? When will this end?

resistHateCharlottesvilleThe rallies, gatherings, and protests since Charlottesville tell a different story, don’t they? People are together, standing up against hate, against prejudice of any kind. You see, it’s one thing to retweet things and post on Facebook, but it’s another thing to walk side by side with people and to stand in solidarity with those who feel targeted and marginalized. This is rising above.

Whatever you faith background [or lack thereof] I think it’s clear that Jesus stands with those who are oppressed, targeted, and on the margins. And Jesus points all of us to the possibility of being at peace even when life is full of storms. Being at peace does not mean ignoring the problems or suffering of life [and certainly not ignoring white supremacism or hatred of any kind], but rather, not letting those stormy seas take over our lives or keep us from being our whole selves.

In short, if we realize that it is human to go through these storms and we couple that with the thought that we are capable of rising above, of walking on water, then the storms aren’t the end of our stories.

There is shore somewhere.

And lastly, it is important to note that Jesus, in all of the miracle stories of the Gospels, is not supposed to be presented as a supernatural force performing magic tricks, but rather, a person who broke down societal norms and worked towards bringing more balance to the injustices of the world. He sought to change the narratives of those who were marginalized, teaching them and leading by example, that they too could rise above stormy waters and find wholeness.

Whom am I to say any of this? I’m no one. I’m someone with way too much privilege. But this will not keep me from helping others rise above the storms, extending a hand when needed, hoisting a sign in protest, speaking out against racism and prejudice, and stepping back when other voices need to be heard. This will not keep me from believing that being widening my circle of friends and colleagues to include more and more people who don’t think or look like me. I keep thinking, praying, meditating, hoping–that there is shore somewhere. But we will have to face these storms together.

P.S. Dear friends, family, colleagues, whomever who is experiencing racism, prejudice, discrimination, targeting–it’s evil and terrible. It’s inhuman. It’s the opposite of what the world is supposed to be. We won’t be complicit. We won’t be silent. We love you. You are us and we are you.

It’s Good to be a Kid!

Mark 9:30-37

kid1.jpegFear.

It is a feeling that all of us have. Fear is programmed into us. That’s okay, though, because fear is actually meant to protect us. We are born with a sense of fear so we can react to things or situations that could be dangerous or harmful to our emotional or physical health.

kid2.jpeg

Obviously, babies cry when they’re afraid, even if they are startled by a loud noise that is completely harmless—like an older sibling banging drums or something. Babies also experience stranger anxiety and will cling to their parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize.

Or maybe strange people like me who make scary faces at them.

As babies become toddlers, around 10-18 months old, they start to experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both caregivers/parents leave.

4-6 year old kids start to fear things that aren’t based in reality, like monsters or ghosts.

kid3.jpeg

…Or Great Aunt Martha’s sloppy kisses and awful casseroles.

Okay, maybe that last fear is a real one.

Anyway, once kids are 7-12 years old, their fears can reflect real things that could actually happen to them—like getting hurt physically or a natural disaster, like a tornado or something.[1]

It’s clear that what kids fear is different than what adults fear.

This is due to the many facets of mind development. Children have an incredible imaginative capacity, can repress reason, and also exhibit the condition of innocence. This is played out when a mom is scared of the next medical bill, while her five-year-old isn’t scared of that at all, as long as the medical bill isn’t delivered by the abominable snowman.

But as Tim Lott states, in his article “Children used to be scared of the dark – now they fear failure,” fear in children is starting to look more and more like the fear of adults. A recent survey from Johns Hopkins University found that the top five fears of kids thirty years ago were of animals, being in a dark room, high places, strangers and loud noises. But currently, in the updated survey, kids are now afraid of divorce, nuclear war, cancer, pollution, and being mugged.

Further, in another poll from the UK, researchers found that some traditional fears like spiders and bugs, witches, the dark, and clowns [eww yes, clowns] are still prevalent among children. But, today the fear of being bullied, being approached by strangers and the fear of failure in school performance are major players.[2]

In a society driven by achievement in school that leads to finding a high-paying job, children’s fears are starting to look less innocent and imaginative.

And while we could spend a lot of time discussing why this is the case, we’re going to move onto a story in Mark’s Gospel that all about fear and children. Perhaps this story will give us some insights.

So here’s the deal: Jesus of Nazareth is traveling with his followers from Galilee to Capernaum. Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know this is happening, because he is afraid [yes, that’s right, I said Jesus is afraid] of how the people might react if they knew he was passing through. He didn’t want to become a king or a religious leader, or a spiritual rockstar. It wasn’t just a fear of the crowds in Northern Galilee, though. Jesus was also concerned about his small band of followers on the road with him to Capernaum. He tells them that he’s going to die and introduces also the possibility of life after death [however you want to define that]. And yet, Jesus knows that his closest friends are afraid of such a possibility. They are confused and fearful of the unknown; so they don’t ask any questions. Instead, their fear leads them to arguing. As they walked to Capernaum, they bickered over who was the best disciple. Who had the most faith? Who did the best work? Who was the most loyal?

So when they get to Capernaum, Jesus tweaks them with a question:

And…what were you discussing on the road?

Uh-oh, he heard.

And the disciples, now afraid what Jesus would think of them, stay silent. Fear is driving this whole story!

So finally, Jesus sits down with them, in somebody’s house, maybe his own. And it’s a teaching moment. His disciples still saw the world as a hierarchical structure of kings and queens, religious elites, and then all those below who struggled to survive. And so they sought to move up in the world.

But this was not what Jesus called the “kingdom” or “reign” of G-d. This “kingdom” was not top-down. The most venerated politician or religious leader was no different than the no-name beggar on the street.

Or the smallest child.

Mark’s Gospel writer gives us a rare symbolic detail to supplement the teaching. Jesus picks up a kid and says:

Those of you who receive any of these children like this one receive me. And those of you who receive me receive not me but the one who sent me.

The child is a symbol—not necessarily that the disciples should physically receive children and honor them, but that they should receive and welcome the child inside themselves.

You see, we say that we value children in society. In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine, people said the same things. But children were property and they were cared for by women, who were also considered property. They were bought and sold. And children, for the most part, were not to speak unless spoken to; they were to be seen and not heard.

Sounds familiar.

Jesus’ teaching is significant in many ways, but here’s what I’m hearing.

First, we need to admit that we are often hypocritical when we talk about children. We say that we love them, we appreciate their cuteness, and we encourage [and sometimes pressure] people to have more babies.

And yet, so, so many children are not cared for, not loved, not mentored. Far too many children are born into households of violence, neglect, and abuse. And some children, forced from their homes in Syria, or Honduras, or West Africa, are left to starve and are turned away by governments, religious institutions, and whole countries. These children have done nothing wrong. And yet, as a society we are ignoring them.

And secondly, we need to learn to embrace the inner child in us in order to face our fears in a healthy way. There is no reason for us to lose our imaginations.

kid4.jpeg

There’s no reason for us to stop laughing at silly things, or to cease exploring or to halt our curiosity.

Though as stubborn adults we don’t want to admit it, our fears for the most part are useless. Our fears do nothing to protect us from the things we are anxious about

Aung San Suu Kyi, Noble Peace Prize winner and Burmese [Myanmar] political leader, once said: “The only real prison is fear and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”

kid5.jpegFriends, ask yourselves these questions:

Are your life stories often driven by fear?

Are your decisions based out of fear?

Do you behave in certain ways simply because you are afraid?

From time to time, we may all answer yes to these questions.
But we have an opportunity to seek and follow a simpler way, to accept that which we don’t understand or know, and not fear the unknown.

To embrace the child in each one of us is to think imaginatively like a child, to move away from fear to trust, love, and wholeness.

It is kicking up your feet on an Amsterdam bicycle, just because.

kid6.jpeg

All are invited to embrace the inner child, the child who knows that faith is not about certainty, but about wonder; not about answers, but questions.

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[1] http://kidshealth.org/PageManager.jsp?dn=KidsHealth&lic=1&article_set=21758&cat_id=145&&ps=105
KidsHealth®, © 1995- 2015 . The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. All rights reserved.

[2] Lott, Tim, “Children used to be scared of the dark – now they fear failure,” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/29/children-used-to-be-scared-of-the-dark-now-they-fear-failure

Life As Vocation

Matthew 4:12-23

womenFishing

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].

capernaum1

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.

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