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Posts tagged ‘giving’

Giving to Receive

Malachi 3:1-3; 10   The Message [MSG]

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

But who will be able to stand up to that coming? Who can survive his appearance? He’ll be like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes.

Bring your full tithe to the Temple treasury so there will be ample provisions in my Temple. Test me in this and see if I don’t open up heaven itself to you and pour out blessings beyond your wildest dreams. 

giveselfDuring Advent and the Christmas season, it is important for us to be mindful of our Western biases when it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus and also the characters in the drama we think we know so well. Specifically, it is a must for us to accept the fact that the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi were not talking about Jesus of Nazareth, nor were they writing to a Christian audience. Those writings are much more ancient than the NT Gospels, and Jesus of Nazareth was not on anyone’s radar screen, of course. But in all fairness to the casual Bible reader, those who put the Bible together didn’t do us any favors. The order of OT books is set in such a way as to point the Christian reader to “aha” and foreshadowing moments that seem to draw connections for us between OT prophets [and other books] and the NT stories of Jesus.

Malachi is one such example. In the Christian Bible Malachi is the last OT prophet. This is not all the case in the Jewish canon. Obviously, the Christians who put together the order of their Bibles wanted Malachi last so as to draw connections between the OT prophecy and the birth of Jesus.

But I think it’s our responsibility to read the OT [as much as possible] through a Jewish lens, being careful not to jump to Jesus conclusions so easily. Why? First, because it’s honest and truer to the text. Secondly, because by doing so we can glean even more meaning from the text and not settle for cookie-cutter, Christmasy conclusions that limit our understanding of an ancient culture and religion. Okay, I’m off my soapbox.

What’s Malachi, and what’s it all about if it’s not about Jesus?

Malachi, not a name, but the actual Hebrew words “my messenger” is a book about the corruption of religion and the need for change. The priests in the Israelite temple of Jerusalem [the rebuilt one] are apathetic; there is corruption in the temple. Many scholars think that Malachi was written somewhere around 450 B.C.E.

Malachi’s audience, if that date is correct, is pre-Babylonian exile, and post-second-building of the Jerusalem temple. So basically, the people had ample time to get apathetic and lax in their treatment of people and their worship of Adonai. Yes, they had the big temple and their religious rituals, but as people they weren’t all that impressive.

So Adonai [the Lord of Hosts] is coming, and who can stand when Adonai appears? Adonai will be like a refiner’s fire, and a harsh soap [reminds me a bit of Ralphie in A Christmas Story].

Ralphie-SoapAdonai will help the people be the best people they can be, on the inside, and in their worship.

But that is not enough.

The refining and the harsh soap serve to remind people of what is important. Are they talking smack behind people’s backs? Are they ignoring the oppressed workers? Are they looking away from the widows, the orphans, and the refugees? For Malachi, it’s not enough for the priests and the people to be good, religious people, doing the right kinds of rituals in the right way.

Worship of Adonai must be paired with good behavior in the world.

How the Israelites treat people is more important. Otherwise, their worship is false.

Malachi is, as Professor John Holbert states, more than a mere warm-up act for the main stage appearance of Jesus.[1] He is a truth-teller rather than a predictor. And all of us would benefit from hearing this message. What would it be like if instead of focusing on the birth of a little baby boy, we actually focused on how we treat people in our community? What if instead we focused on the refugees, the lonely, the forgotten, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What if our worship was about being kind and compassionate to others?

You see, Adonai, the one who comes as a refining fire and cleansing soap–comes into our lives to help us realize our full potential. We are not limited to rituals or even religious practice itself, thinking that such things please God. Instead, we are refined in order to understand that we are so very capable of healing, caring, empathizing, and giving. The tithe acceptable to God [borrowing from Isaiah], is the giving of ourselves in the world. It’s not just money.

The tithe is our humanity, who we are.

Sometimes we forget that our humanity is such a gift to others if we share it with them.

When we give someone our time without distractions.
When we perform an act of kindness without expecting anything in return.
When share an honest, but difficult feeling we have with someone because we trust him/her.
When we listen intently and compassionately to someone going through hell.

Consider this:

What if God only cared about how much we truly gave of ourselves?
What if we focused more on that and less on everything else?
How would that change things for us as people?

[1] The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4, John C. Holbert, December 02, 2012.

 

Light Overcoming

John 18:33-37, John 1

Thanksgiving is over. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have ceased. Giving Tuesday came to an end.

Now what?

Advent.

Whaaaaat?

Yes, the season of Advent began on November 29th for Western Christians. I have to say Western Christians, because the season of Advent is indeed a Western creation, and it would not be a stretch to say that our observance of Advent in the U.S. is its own thing, too.

We actually shouldn’t assume that Christians around the world observe Advent at all. In fact, Eastern Christians [the first ones, mind you], don’t observe Advent at all. Instead, they observe what’s called the Nativity Fast. Depending on which Eastern culture we’re talking about, Christians abstain from eating any meats or animal-related products. In essence, the Nativity Fast puts one on a vegan diet. Some Eastern Christians fast for 40 days [an important number, of course, and the same number of days in the season of Lent]. They usually start the fast in mid November. A strict fast occurs on December 24th—no food is consumed, if physically possible for people.

The emphasis on fasting is not about depriving the body of nutrients or some kind of punishment. Fasting is a spiritual act, one that humbles the person doing the fasting. It allows someone to make deep connections between her body, mind, and spirit. Fasting is supposed to help us appreciate the food provided to us. Also during the Nativity Fast, Christians are encouraged to give of themselves to others—in the form of financial resources, time, or talents. In essence, Eastern Christians’ Nativity Fast is similar to Muslims’ observance of Ramadan.

I bring this up, because each November and December I feel that our U.S. version of Advent has become more and more of a race and less and less of a spiritual observance. I’m not going to spend a lot of time focusing on why that is—I think you can make your own conclusions just based on observation. But I do hope to provide you with some opportunities to claim Advent as a time to reflect spiritually and to focus on treating people and all living things with respect, love, and compassion. After all, that’s the ONLY reason to even observe any religious or spiritual season.

It’s supposed to make us better people.

So whether you choose to fast in some way, or to give of your time, energy and gifts to others this season—do so because it encourages you and brings peace into your life—not out of any obligation.

During Advent, there are a variety of symbols. One symbol is of course candles, which obviously represent light. Advent is indeed a season of light. And this should not be a surprise, because this time of year, other religious traditions also focus on light.

For example, recently, ten of us from the United Church of Christ in Warminster went to Bharatiya Hindu/Jain Temple to observe and participate in a special festival that takes place right after Diwali.

diwali

Diwali or Deepavali, is the “festival of lights.” It is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn (where we live, i.e. the northern hemisphere) or in the spring (southern hemisphere). Do you like candles? Well, Diwali might be for you! Actually, Diwali is for everyone, not only Hindus. People who celebrate Diwali? Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and yes–Christians.

But our group got to participate in a unique festival native to the South Indian state of Tamil: the Skanda Shashti festival.

lord_muruganSkanda Shashti, typically a six-day festival, commemorates the destruction of evil by the Kartikeya also called Lord Murugan, Subramanya, son of Shiva, and is celebrated with the enactment of Sura Samharam, a story of struggle, triumph, and enlightenment.

The pujas [Sanskrit for reverence or worship] end with a victory celebration of spiritual light over darkness. Many fast, pray, and reflect during the festival. One prayer is a six-part prayer for protection, called the Skanda Sashti Kavacham, which is chanted. Six is a number associated with the divine presence.

Keep in mind that Hindus are often misunderstood. Many think Hindus are polytheistic [meaning that they worship many gods]; others assume that they are idol worshipers because of the various statues and representations of deities. This is not the case. In fact, Hindus do not worship a stone or metal idol as god. They worship god through the image. A good illustration from a helpful Hindu publication puts it this way:

Worship may be likened to using a telephone to talk across long distances with another person. When you do that, you’re not talking to the phone, right? You’re just using the phone to talk to the person.

The focus of what we saw on Tuesday at the temple was on Skanda, the god of many attributes, often shown as having six faces and twelve arms. Skanda is the commader of the army of light, defender of righteousness. Skanda is a healer and guide towards light, and is known to have a childlike love and compassion for all people.

skanda.jpegWe saw various ceremonial acts, including a small statue of Muruga being bathed in an array of sacred substances including milk, yoghurt, honey, sandlepaste and vibhuti.

skanda1

Then, a teenager from our congregation and I were asked by one of the priests to join others who were carrying one of the representations of Skanda. Here are some pictures of the dramatic presentation in India.

 

It was a fun and meaningful experience.

I am always of the mind that storytelling via interactive drama, puppets, colorful costumes, and songs is the kind of storytelling that impacts us the most. I also think that in any form of worship, symbols, smells, sounds, visuals, and hands-on participation enhance the experience and our connection to the Divine.

But religious observances aren’t about just going through the motions—lighting some candles around a wreath each week, singing some familiar carols, and going Christmas shopping.

It’s another thing entirely to view different seasons of the year as opportunities to be enlightened and to serve—to grow as people.

When Christians observe the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is an opportunity to observe the light in all of us, and in others. It is a chance to be stubborn about light, saying and showing that light can overcome evil, despair, and apathy in us and in the world.

The stories that Christians tell are colorful, interactive, and meaningful, too—if we decide to embrace them as we are, with what we have.

Jesus, Jeshua, was known to many as a lord, a teacher, a friend, a healer, a prophet, a spiritual leader, and even some considered him a king.

Yes, it can be tempting for us in the Western world to behave just like Pilate in John’s Gospel story, to only think and talk about Jesus in the ways that others tell us to, or to limit our perspectives to small religious and doctrinal views, convincing ourselves that we are somehow entitled or more deserving.

But why?

A question I want you to consider is this:
Will you believe something just because someone told you to?

Or, will you ask questions on your own, look for light on your own journey, and come up with our own conclusions as to how you will be light for others?

In the end, Pilate’s best question was:
What is truth?

And one of the answers we get in John’s Gospel is that truth is logos, or, in other words, truth is light.

So give yourself a fresh start this season, wherever you are. Start seeking this truth, this light, right now, in your own life. Start looking for this light in others. Look for this light in the world.

Find more info about Skanda Shashti and Hinduism here: https://vegeyum.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/skanda-shashti/

Info gathered from Hindu Festival Outreach

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/festivals

Photos courtesy of Soumya Sitaraman and Usha Kris, respectively author and photographer of Follow the Hindu Moon, hindumoon.com.

 

Powerful & Prophetic Women be Heard!

Mark 12:38-44

Ruth

WomenPower

It’s important to recognize that all sacred books are grounded in a certain time and place. In the case of the Bible, it is also important to accept that the writers of the NT books and the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely all men. Women’s voices [and even their names] are not as prevalent as those of men. This is not an opinion; it is fact.

So, yes—often we have to look deeper at scripture stories to hear the voices of women and to hear the wisdom within their stories.

One rare story in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] is that of Ruth.

RuthFieldThis story is all about a female protagonist. Sure, there are some men involved, but for the most part, as a reader, we want to know what happens to Ruth, what she’s thinking, etc.

I encourage you to read the whole story yourself. That way, you can notice certain details and let your imagination go to work. Read Ruth like you would any short story.

But for the sake of this conversation with you, we need to at least summarize the story:

Ruth, the Cliffnotes Version:
Once upon a time, there was this nice Jewish family. But they had a problem. A famine had hit their hometown. So the heads of the household, Elimelech and wife Naomi, moved east to Moab with their two sons to find something to eat. In Moab, they established roots. They ended up staying there for about ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Their two sons met two girls from the area and they got married. Their names were Ruth and Orpah [not to be confused with Oprah]. Everybody was pretty happy in Moab. But then….

Those two now-married sons, one by one, passed away; so did Elimelech. None of them left behind good life insurance policies, so the three women were in trouble financially.

So Naomi decided that she should go back to her hometown of Bethlehem; maybe the famine would be over? Her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth packed up and started to go with her. But Naomi didn’t feel right about this and she asked the two women to stay in Moab. Orpah took her advice and went right on back. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. She even pledged her devotion to Naomi, deciding to leave her religion and her culture to stay connected to Naomi. What could Naomi say? She let Ruth join her.

Once in Bethlehem, things didn’t get any better. Naomi was depressed. Ruth was working a manual labor job in the barley fields for very little pay.

But as it so happens, while working out there Ruth met a famous rich guy called Boaz. Boaz thought Ruth was pretty hot [apparently] but also respected her enough to give her special privileges at the workplace. Ironically, Boaz happened to be related to Naomi’s late husband Elimelech.

Naomi figured it out. Boaz, by family law and custom, would be obligated to marry Ruth. So Naomi had a plan. She told Ruth to visit Boaz at night in secret and to lie at his feet. Yes, this is a PG-13 reference. It’s an erotic move.

Ruth did what Naomi asked and actually, Boaz was a bit surprised that Ruth had any interest in him at all. He was happy, though. He told Ruth that he would really like to marry her, but the problem was that there was another relative with even closer ties to Ruth’s in-laws. But Boaz had a plan. He would meet with this close relative to see what was up.

It’s high drama. Everyone’s holding their breath.

What Boaz found out was good news. The close relative was more interested in buying Naomi’s land than marrying her daughter-in-law. So a win-win deal was made. The closer relative renounced his obligation to marry Ruth, freeing Boaz to marry her.

So they get married.

This made Naomi really happy. Later on, Ruth and Boaz had a son and named him Obed. Obed, just for history’s sake, would eventually be the grandfather of King David. The end.

I said in the beginning that we have to keep culture, place, and history in mind when we read stories in sacred books. In 2015 you may see the story of Ruth as quite patriarchal and male-dominated. After all, Ruth [and other women] were just like property. We cannot deny that.

And yet, there are particular moments in this story that are rare examples of lifting up women as more than just wives for men who have babies and keep a house.

I’m struck by the comments said by the women in Bethlehem about Ruth. They tell Naomi that Ruth who loves her is of more worth than seven sons.

Now that’s a strong statement, for women’s worth was not a common subject. In this case, though, Ruth as a character is given her due. She’s more than just loyal, she’s full of love as a friend and committed to staying connected to that friend. She pushes aside even her religion and her homeland in order to stay connected to Naomi. She has no obligation to do this. Naomi tells her to go back. But Ruth insists on staying with her out of love. This is significant.

Ruth is a role model. Love is only mentioned once in the story, and it’s the love of Ruth for Naomi.

It’s that deep, devoted friendship that exists not out of obligation, but empathy for the other.

Thanks, Ruth!

widows-miteStory #2 I’d like to look at is in the New Testament in Mark’s gospel. It begins with Jesus of Nazareth warning anyone who will listen about pompous scribes who parade around in long robes screaming “Look at me!” and feel entitled to the best seats in synagogues and parties. They ignore the plight of widows [and even gain from their misfortune] and in the end, they say long prayers in public, for people to see and hear.

This warning is followed by another woman’s story. This time, she is not given a name. We only know that she was a widow, which also meant that she was poor.

She could have been Ruth.
Or Orpah.
Or Naomi.

Jesus sat outside the temple, staring at people putting money into the temple’s treasury. It was a charity box, supposedly. Rich people came and put large amounts in the box, for all to see. But then a widow approached the treasury and put in merely two copper coins. Barely worth anything.

After seeing this unfold, Jesus called his disciples together and made his point.

The widow, to the world, was only worth a few pennies. That’s it. But Jesus disagreed. She had actually put in more to the treasury than all of the rich people combined. She was worth so much more. She didn’t contribute out of obligation or abundance, but simply out of love. She gave all that she had—all that she was.

It’s not a stretch to see these two ladies, Ruth and the poor widow, as sister stories. Both were widows; both were poor; Ruth was also a foreigner and of another religion. Both were ignored, manipulated, forgotten. And yet, both were lifted up as prime examples of how we are supposed to live.

Both women were and are models of love and giving.

What stands out for me in both cases, what is prophetic about their stories, is that both of them overcame so much: a patriarchal system that was set up to oppress them; a lack of financial means; no significant place in society; tragedy and isolation.

In spite of all of that, they showed love. But it was real love, because they weren’t obligated to do so. They chose to love.

They chose to have empathy for the people around them.

They chose to call the other “my people” instead of other.
They truly loved.

And so I’ll stop now, and be quiet. May these women’s voices be heard! May their legacy live on in us.

The Start of Lent

Isaiah 58:3–12     

Fast Actions

carbonFast

In 2011 and 2012, more than 10,000 people participated in the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, sponsored by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. Each day, participants [including me] received an email with one concrete suggestion for the day, an action that would lessen their carbon footprint. Leadership of this effort interviewed a number of individuals who had participated in the Carbon Fast to explore the impact of this fasting experience on people’s environmental awareness, spiritual practice, and stewardship. These interviews were part of a study about climate change from a psychological and spiritual perspective, trying to gain insight on how people could be inspired to make concrete changes in their lives that would affect the environment and the world.

What they found was that simple actions mattered. Small actions make people more aware. People who participated in the Carbon Fast were more aware of how their day-to-day actions actually made a difference—either positively or negatively. This awareness led to action; the action then led to a greater, longer-term commitment.

Taking action, then, can result in a transformation of the people who take them. People who act start to see themselves as agents rather than passive observers. This shift in self-perception is extremely important. After all, most of us feel like there so many problems in the world, and in this case, so much work to be done about the environment—that we start to feel despair and apathy about it. And we do nothing. But that is a vicious cycle. The hopeful reality is that even a small change can lead to a greater commitment and an improved overall awareness.

Some of the participants who were interviewed said: [The Carbon Fast] was a whole lot more meaningful than giving up something, like chocolate; another participant said: Lent is a time to be reminded of sacrifice and the unification that can come through that process. Changing from being in my car to riding my bike brought me the joy of moving my body, of seeing my neighbors, of having contact with the world around me.

All too often, Lent is merely a religious holiday of sorts—a time when we participate in rituals and traditions, but not much change happens. But religion that is not practiced is worthless.

Lent is about being aware of yourself and the world around you; that awareness leads you to actions, to small changes; those actions then lead you to a greater, longer-term commitment.

Yes, the world is an overwhelming place. Yes, the issues are huge and you are one person. But you have to start somewhere or you won’t start at all. The God of Isaiah chooses a fast that tears down walls of prejudice; a fast that shares with others; a fast that feeds the hungry; a fast that invites the stranger into our lives; a fast that is action performed in daily life. So consider what small changes you can make in your life; choose one or two positive changes that affect your neighbors and your lifestyle; be more aware of the world around you and of yourself; make the change. Commit to it. And see what happens.

Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

Praying with the Body

In this passage, attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, we find three things that connect to each other: giving, praying, and fasting.

Giving [what we sometimes call charity] should be done without any notoriety. In other words, if  you write that check or make the online donation to a just and worthy cause, don’t put your name on it. Hmmmm. I think that for sure there are times when our left hands have NO idea what our right hands are doing, but not usually in this case. In the Western world, if we give money, we have to know about it [and we make sure to get a receipt or a tax credit] and most of the time, we want others to know about it. Most churches have plaques with people’s names on them. So-and-so donated this pew; or this hymnal; or gave money to fix this roof. Even this doorknob is dedicated to Mr. Smith!

Now in all fairness to the people who gave those things, often they were never asked if they wanted a plaque to be noticed, but the church leadership keeps coming up with these things. Why? Why do we do this? Because we are disconnected from giving as a concept.

When we give, that’s supposed to be it. We don’t get. We give. There is no reward or even a thank you note that we should expect.

Prayer is the same, says Jesus. We don’t pray to get, we pray to give ourselves to relationship. That’s why we shouldn’t stand up in front and eloquently show people how much we think we know about God. We shouldn’t point to how many times we attended worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, or ministry conferences. In fact, says Jesus, don’t say much at all when you pray. Keep it simple. For if God is really God, don’t you think God is pretty much aware of what’s up inside our minds and hearts? Notice the “style” of prayer promoted here.

God, you are good. Start with this.

 May your good work happen here on earth—not just up in the clouds. And I will do it.

 Just give us what we need and that’s it.

 Forgive us, because wow—we have trouble forgiving others. Especially that dude who…!$#?!*

Don’t give us too much to handle and keep us from doing evil things. Yeah.

Back to that forgiveness thing, God, cuz man! It’s hard.

 So [*sigh*]

We accept that if we don’t forgive someone, we ourselves won’t be forgiven.

 And…may it be so.

Amen.

From prayer to fasting Jesus goes. Don’t be sad when you fast, he says, like hypocrites who want others to say:

“Hey look at her; look at him! They must be fasting! Good for them…”

 Instead, oil and water–symbols of cleansing and anointing–are to be used. But not in public; in private. Fasting is also about giving, but giving oneself to an awareness of the physical. Try this simple thing. Cut out meat for a couple of days if you are a meat eater. If not, cut out some food that you eat almost daily. This physical decision to change what you put into your body will make you aware.

All these three: giving, praying, and fasting—are intertwined. They are about humility and awareness.

We give because there is a need and we joyfully give, otherwise we shouldn’t at all.

We pray because it makes us aware and connects us to God, but less is more.

We fast because fasting connects our mental and spiritual selves to our physical selves, making us more aware of our bodies and how they connect to our minds and our hearts.

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