Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘God’

Still Seeking and Searching, Still Breathing

Acts 17:22-28

unknownGodBefore we start, a few things to keep in mind: the writer of Acts was the writer of Luke’s Gospel. Simply put, there are many purposes that the author of Luke and Acts could have had while writing. First, it was the 2nd century. Jesus was dead. The Roman Empire saw the followers of Jesus as a threat. Also, it was confusing. How was it that a Jewish Rabbi had attracted so many Gentile followers? Many see both Luke and Act as an apologetic writing—one that tries to make the case that Jesus’ message was for the Jews but was also accepted by the Gentiles. And there are even some who argue that these two NT books were trying to convince Roman authorities that followers of Jesus would not be a threat to their empire.

Wrap your mind around that.

Regardless, what we are looking at is a scene with the apostle Paul, one of the new followers of Jesus of Nazareth, addressing a crowd of people in Greece. Things to note about the people in Greece: apparently, they were “religious,” so says Paul. What does that mean to you? Also, they had objects of worship, altars, with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

The author of Luke [via Paul’s words] then challenged those who listened. The challenge was to shift the Greek’s thinking that God was distant and lived in religious temples to a mindset that God was present and gave life to everything and everyone. The point of this speech, in this context, was to encourage the listeners to become seekers of God, expecting to find God near to them, realizing that God was not far away. And then the author of Luke throws in, for good measure, a quote from a Cretan philosopher called Epimenides: For in God we live and move and have our being. And a quote from Cilician Stoic Aratus: We are God’s children. It’s almost as if Luke and Act’s author is pulling out all the stops.

Rightly so. Fast forward from the 2nd century to this century and what has changed in terms of our view of the divine? The status-quo mindset of religious institutions and people still is that “God is so big, far away, so powerful, that God has no business being present in our day to day lives.” Why would God care about our problems, our suffering, our joys, our challenges? And God is stuck in history. This, in my opinion, is why people are still prejudice against LGBT people, those of other nationalities, cultures, and religions, because God is stuck in the past.

And while I appreciate amazing architecture [including religious structures], and also embrace the mysticism of religions that view God with awe, I argue that many times we project God onto those massive religious structures constructed with gold and other precious elements [often built by slaves]; and, many people who view God with awe as some distant force have a lot of trouble dealing with hardship and setbacks in their own lives, as they continually wait for the distant God to act or as they think that they have committed some sin and therefore are being punished.

So I wonder in this moment, if it is possible for you, can we put aside the grand structures of religion, the awe-inspiring histories, the belief systems that have lasted for centuries, and the idea that the divine is so far away and unknown?

Is it possible for you today, whatever your background, to refer to the divine not as lord but as friend?

What would it mean for you to look at God not as a Lord [with you as subject] but instead the divine friend, who relates to you out of love?

friendhandsAllow me to share the thoughts of Abu’l-Hasan Kharaqani, a Muslim mystic, a person one could call a mentor to the famous poet Rumi. Kharaqani was a Persian Muslim who experienced much hardship in his life before passing away in 1033. But for him, a relationship with God was a mutual seeking of friendship. In other words, God is seeking us just as we are seeking God.

Kharaqani wrote:

One night I saw God Almighty in a dream. I said to God: “It’s been sixty years that I have spent in the hope of being your friend, of desiring you.”

God Almighty answered me: “You’ve been seeking me for sixty years?
I’ve spent an eternity to eternity befriending you.”  

Also, for Kharaqani, being a friend of God meant being a friend to humanity, regardless of race, creed, background, etc.

See, this is where I’m at today. I have no interest in maintaining a religious institution [called church] that proclaims a big, powerful, distant God, and then uses that to control people and harbor material wealth and ignore the marginalized. What rings true for me is the idea that the Divine is seeking us, and we are seeking the Divine. When we search and seek, we find. We find and discover that we are still breathing—even when the world knocks us down and threatens to take our breath away. It is encouraging to me, and I hope to you, that the One who created and keeps creating doesn’t have to be Lord, doesn’t have to be distant, doesn’t have to live in a religious temple, doesn’t even have to live in a religion! Whoever seeks and searches for the divine, whoever loves the stranger and feeds them in whatever context—will find joy in being a friend of God, and wholeness in being a friend to anyone they encounter. May it be so.

 

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God Is Still Wrestling…

Genesis 32:24-31   NRSV
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

jacob

Marc Chagall

The other week I went to my first Bris. Actually, a bris is Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision. The wife of one of my friends just recently gave birth to a boy. In her practice of Judaism, the bris is an important religious and community-centered ceremony to celebrate this child’s identity and connection to his ancestors and current family. I was honored to be invited to such an event.

As my partner Maria and I entered the home in NE Philly, we spotted the ceremonial table, the empty chair for Elijah, the wine, the bris instruments, and an anxious group of family and friends.
The Mohel, an observant Jew who is educated in relevant Jewish law and surgery, was delightful in his explanations of the bris. He led us in singing and prayer. He made us laugh.
The Sandek [like a godfather], held the child on a pillow. Prayers and blessings were recited.
And then, the Mohel performed the procedure of circumcision.

On a personal note, I felt fine. I had none of those feelings of queasiness that some of my Jewish friends and colleagues warned me about. It seemed like I would make it through the ceremony without any problem at all.

But I was wrong….

The Mohel was done with the circumcision. He gave the child some wine and the little guy stopped crying. We sang again.

And then I felt nauseous; and then dizzy; and then the world started to fade to black.
I whispered to Maria:
I have to go outside for some fresh air.

I stumbled past the ceremonial table, trying not to make a fuss. I found the front door of the house and nearly fell on it. I struggled with the handle and finally got it open, only to collapse on a bench just outside. I put my head down and took deep breaths.

I was soaking wet–a cold sweat.

Meanwhile, inside the house, a little girl who was there with her family, stared at me curiously through the glass door as if to say:

I told you so. Don’t stand too close to the table!

Okay, so eventually, I felt better and was able to attend the rest of the ceremony. It was very nice. Mom and dad read words they had written about the child and his name. The mother talked about her relatives and how this boy’s name would connect to their lives and experiences. Afterwards, we ate food.

I celebrated the fact that hardly anyone seemed to notice that I had almost fainted and fallen right into Elijah’s chair.
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

In the Jewish tradition, naming and identify formation is important. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter stories about people from infancy to death–often learning their names and journeying with them through the various stages of their lives.
In this case, we are journeying with Jacob.
He’s middle-aged now. He has some money, a family, a herd of livestock—he seems pretty set. But he’s having a mid-life crisis, for sure. His brother Esau, if you remember, was the guy from whom Jacob “stole” their father’s blessing. Apparently, Esau is still angry about it and wants to take his birthright back. So previously in the story, Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming, that he is rich, and that he hopes that Esau will favor him. But Esau isn’t buying it. He instead approaches Jacob’s camp with an army of 400 people. Jacob is scared. So he prays to God out of desperation, asking for help. But Jacob isn’t satisfied with just prayer. He reserves a bit of his wealth and sends it ahead to give to Esau. Maybe that will calm him down.

Jacob doesn’t hear from his messengers. This cannot be good.
Esau will surely arrive with a fury and possibly kill him. So Jacob sends his wives and kids to meet Esau and his 400 strong!

Then, that night, Jacob [all alone] encounters a stranger. The person he does not recognize starts wrestling with him—throws him to the ground. It’s WWE of the Bible! Turnbuckles, full nelsons, flying elbows.

wwe
But Jacob holds his own. It’s a tie.

Jacob’s wrestling opponent is smart, though. He does some move that throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. What irony this his, because Jacob’s name means the Heel. Now the guy who was born grabbing his brother Esau’s heel can’t even stand up straight. He’s out of balance.

The wrestler tells Jacob that it’s time to go. The sun is rising. But Jacob hasn’t had enough.
“I won’t let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.”

“What’s your name? says the wrestler.

“Jacob.”

“You are no longer called Jacob. Now you are called Israel. You have wrestled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”

“But what’s your name?” Jacob wanted to know.

“Why do you want to know my name?” The wrestler refused to tell.

The blessing finally comes to Jacob—after this whole process. Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, so he names the place Peniel. He limps off, heading to meet his angry brother Esau.

The story continues. Jacob does in fact make it to see his brother Esau the next day. Surprise, surprise, it is a joyful encounter! Esau embraces him with tears of happiness. Forgiveness. They are brothers again. And Jacob says something important:

“I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God.” [Genesis 33:10]

Jacob thought that he had met God Almighty in the nighttime. He thought he wrestled with Jehovah and won. But the next day, he realized that the whole time he was wrestling with himself. He grappled with his fear, his selfishness, and the avoidance of the truth of his past. The face of God awaited him on the other side of the river, where his brother Esau waited with 400. Jacob was a coward. He had sent his messengers, even his own family ahead to meet Esau! But he could not face his fears himself! So after the wrestling match with himself—after sorting through his own fears, guilt, and issues—Jacob emerged with a limp. The limp is a sign of Jacob’s imperfections. He still needs to mature. He still needs to grow and find balance in his life.

The story does end happily with the brothers’ reunion and forgiveness.
But Jacob is never the same. He is no longer Jacob the Heel. He is now called Israel. He walks with a limp. He will always remember.

Friends, this story can speak clearly to all of us. Oftentimes, in our struggles of life, we wonder if God is our adversary. Why is this bad stuff happening to me? How come I have so much bad luck, God? Why don’t you favor me more? Can I get a blessing, God? Come on!

We want to steal a blessing.
We hold on for dear life to whomever or whatever; we attach ourselves until we get the blessing or the relief from our suffering. We cling to the illusion that what we feel inside [fear, resentment, depression, self-loathing]—we cling to the idea that we feel these things, because everyone else or external forces are causing them. The walls, we claim, are put up by others. We cannot be whole; we cannot be at peace, because others won’t let us.

But our opponent is not God. And most of the time, our opponents are not people either; or circumstances.

Our opponent is ourselves.

In the dark of night, our minds race to thoughts of regret. Things undone. Maybe like Jacob we have broken relationships with family or friends. For years, we have blamed the other person. After a while, we are afraid to even cross the river to try to make amends. There is no way, we think, that this person will accept us or offer forgiveness. Perhaps this is true, in some cases. Not always do we have to cross the river and encounter the person face to face.

But we DO have to wrestle with ourselves.
We do have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
We do have to admit that our fear is inside us and not coming from the outside.

So here is the blessing that we don’t have to steal.
If we do wrestle with ourselves in an honest way and stop blaming God or external circumstances, or whatever—we find a special blessing.

Like my friend’s baby boy, like Jacob–we are blessed with new identity.

You see, throughout our lives we can start to take on the identity that the world or others give us. Our past experiences give us names. Sometimes they are good and healthy, but other times they are destructive and hurtful names. Those names can haunt us at night, fill our minds with fear and depression—even take over our physical bodies. Our failures, disappointments, resentment, and regrets can solidify such names.

But the blessing we don’t have to steal is God’s willingness to help us discover a renewed and refreshed identity. God is still speaking, still acting, and still encouraging us to keep wrestling with ourselves.

And it is never too late to be renewed.

Friends, it won’t be easy to wrestle with yourselves. Sometimes, in the nighttime, you will struggle with your past and sometimes you will fear the future. It will be painful. You may wish for some instant relief—for God to swoop in and tell you a bedtime story and tuck you in.

But God will do something surprising instead. Your God will speak to you and fill you, encouraging you to wrestle.

Who are the Esaus in your life?
What rivers do you need to cross?
And God will meet you in that place where hope seems far away. And you’ll wrestle.
And then you’ll discover a new name, a renewed purpose for yourself.
And God will lead you to the Esaus of your life.
And God will lead you to whatever rivers you need to cross.
And a bridge will be built for you to cross over.
And when you do, tears of joy, kisses of greeting, forgiveness, and wholeness await you.

So may you find strength to limp over to the other side of the river.
May you find wholeness, peace, and forgiveness inside yourself.
And may others see the face of God in your forgiving, and blessing of them.

Amen.

Healing from Every Angle

Luke 7:1-10

Two weeks ago I was asked to be a part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Disparities in Health Care Symposium. My role was to find members of particular religious traditions who had medical experience to participate in a panel. The symposium’s purpose was to educate medical students about minority health disparities in cancer treatment and also Spirituality and Health matters for religious minorities. In other words, what is the role of spirituality in health care, especially for minority groups? How can doctors, nurses, and other health practitioners partner with faith-based organizations to improve health outcomes for people? I worked on the questions for the panelists with members of Jefferson Health faculty. I spoke with the panelists. I sat with the nurses, students, and doctors. I heard the presentation of the main speaker, Mr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. I learned about the various cancer statistics and how certain communities have less access to quality care.

But the morning didn’t get really interesting until the panelists started to talk about faith and healing. One of the panelists, Dr. Rehana Jan, a Muslim woman, shared how in her faith community’s tradition, a chaplain or a priest/pastor is not part of the equation. When someone is sick or in the hospital, the Muslim community goes to that person. She shared a story about being in the hospital on her shift and hearing a question from one of her doctor colleagues. “There must be someone really, really important in that particular room. There are crowds of people spilling out of the room over there.” Dr. Jan laughed. “Well, that person is not a celebrity. He is a Muslim, though. And his community is there to be with him, to pray with him. That is what we do.”

Another panelist, Dr. Gity Etemad, who is of the Baha’i faith, shared that in her tradition, when a person is sick or hospitalized, the Bahai’s get to work praying. One calls another. Then another calls someone else. And so on. It is not all that formal, but it just happens. She shared a story of a Baha’i man who knew that he was at the end of his earthly life. He called his friends in the faith community and asked them to stay with him during his last days. Each day, and most of the hours of each day, a different person went to sit with him. And they prayed. That is what he wanted. He passed away with members of his faith community at his side.

Those present at the symposium were energized. The medical students asked surprising questions related to faith, prayer, healing, and partnerships between doctors, nurses, and people of faith. By the end of the morning, it was obvious to me that people were truly wondering: what role does faith play in medical care and healing?

Today’s story in Luke’s gospel—a tale about a Roman soldier, a sick servant, and Jesus’ absentee healing power—is a treasure-filled narrative full of surprises. It comes right after Jesus gives his famous sermon on the mount. This story has characters we need to examine more closely.

First, the Centurion. What’s a centurion? Well, a centurion was a professional soldier in the Roman Empire’s army. A centurion could command up to 100 soldiers. In the first century, centurions were part of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee. They were the oppressors. And yet, this centurion shares the spotlight with Jesus of Nazareth.

Look, it gets even stranger…

This centurion, who is used to ordering people around, tells some Judean elders to find Jesus. Apparently, one of the centurion’s slaves is very sick and needs healing. Shockingly, the elders go to Jesus without hesitation and actually beg Jesus to help the centurion’s slave.

He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.

This centurion seems to be somewhat smart. First of all, he knows that he himself cannot approach Jesus to ask for the healing. That would be too dangerous. A Roman soldier begging a Jewish rabbi to heal a servant? But the centurion also was familiar with Jewish faith practices in the home. He understood that inviting Jesus, a Jew, into his Gentile home would be considered unclean.

But it keeps getting stranger. The centurion stops Jesus before he gets to the house. He says:

Do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.

Humility from a centurion?

But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

But only speak the word.

The centurion then goes on to compare himself to Jesus. He as a Roman officer has authority over other soldiers. They jump when he says jump, they come and go as he tells them to. Jesus, to the centurion, had the same authority, though not as it pertained to orders.

The centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal.

And the surprising finish to the story is Jesus’ reaction to this Roman.

Jesus was amazed.

He turned to the crowd following him and said:

Not even in Israel have I found such faith.

And oh, by the way, just in case we have forgotten, the slave did heal.

There is so much to explore in this story. First, the Gospel of Luke’s audience. We must keep in mind that Luke is aimed at Gentiles, or in other words, those who were not Jewish. The authors of Luke seek to show that the message Jesus taught was a message also meant for Gentiles. This Gospel wishes to illustrate, via the stories, that the Gentiles [and Jews] who followed Jesus were actually now Roman citizens trying to make their way in the world without more violence. Luke is a collection of Greco-Roman stories for Greco-Roman people. They received Jesus’ message in a way that would have made sense to them. They would have understood the connection between Jesus having authority from God and the centurion having authority from Rome.

Luke is exposing this society to us. A centurion, clearly someone of high social status, an oppressor in an oppressive empire, is an unexpected character. After all, this guy has slaves. Yes, that’s right–slaves. We don’t like to say that word, but the silent [very important] character in the story is indeed a slave. Though we are reading about the Greco-Roman world of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel, Palestine, and Greece—it is impossible to ignore our own context. In the United States, slavery is part of our horrific past. Today, though we don’t use the word slave to describe individuals, this horrible kind of oppression still exists.

There are still many people in this country who are treated as inferior to others—they are manipulated, underpaid or never paid for hard work; they are bought and sold; they are often abused. Sadly, in our society, some still believe that certain human beings are superior to others. Some believe that God favors people over others. Some are oppressors and some are slaves.

This is a sickness of society.

Luke’s story takes us to that difficult place and pushes us. The Jesus we follow is the one who transcended such manipulative and oppressive social norms. He was the one who ate with sinners and tax collectors; he hung out with the outcasts; he touched unclean people who were sick or even dead; he said that the last would be first. Jesus served the God who loosens the chains of those in bondage and rains down justice on those who are downtrodden. The God of great mercy and compassion, working through this Jesus of Nazareth, set free the minds and hearts of those who were enslaved by many things: disease, addiction, depression, mental illness, religious oppression, and brokenness. In fact, this same Gospel of Luke has Jesus say that he comes “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed.”[1]

So why does this centurion, someone who is an oppressor, amaze Jesus with his faith?

Maybe because the centurion also acted beyond social norms. He considered himself unworthy before Jesus, even when others called him worthy. In short, Luke challenges us all to not judge a book by its cover.

Maybe this miracle healing is about more than just a sick person getting better. Maybe this is about healing sickness in society, restoring healthy relationships, and embracing the full humanity of every person.

If you ask me, Jesus’ reaction to the centurion is much like his reaction to a sick, bleeding woman in another story—the one who reaches out to touch his cloak and is healed. You see, if we consider the Greek language in Luke, the text literally says that Jesus marveled at the centurion. Actually, this type of emotional response is very similar to the emotions expressed by other people when Jesus heals someone. This time, though, the tables are turned. Jesus himself marvels at the work of God in another. And that other happens to be a Roman soldier.

This story speaks to me and says:

Healing comes from all angles.

You see, we all have our ideas about how we heal. It’s not an easy thing to define, is it? Some people die of an illness at a young age. My sister-in-law died of cancer in her early thirties. Was there no centurion of great faith to heal her? Did Jesus choose not to pass by her house? There are others who suffer from addictions and need just as much healing. Their struggle is day to day. It never ends. Who believes in their ability to heal? Is it a lack of faith that keeps them from overcoming it?

I certainly don’t have the answers. But I do think that healing is bigger than how we define it. I think that there are people who are healed every day—mentally, physically, spiritually—because someone believed that they could heal and surrounded them with love and care. Because of those kind and patient people, they started to believe that they could heal, too. I’ve stood at deathbeds and watched people pass from this earth. No, their illness didn’t go away. But some of them were healed from other sicknesses. Sometimes they reunited with estranged family members or long-lost friends. Sometimes grownup children forgave past hurts and restored their relationship. Their bodies were overcome by disease, but they were still healed.

In every case, healing comes from all angles. God shows up when and where we don’t expect God at all. And then we are amazed. God shows up in the people who stand by us when we’re sick and in need of healing. God shows up on the day we choose to be sober and all the days we count after that. God shows up in the forgiveness in our families; God heals us from a tattered past and reminds us that every day when we open our eyes we have yet another chance to heal ourselves and to heal others.

God points us to this centurion and says:

You know all those times when you want to give up because you start to believe that lie that you are not capable of change, of love, of compassion, of breaking the cycle, of rising above social status?

Well, it is possible for you, too.

You can heal.

You can help others to heal.

You can marvel at a merciful God who doesn’t ever play favorites.

Healing from all angles—no matter where you are on your journey.

Amen.


[1] (Luke 4:18;cp. Isaiah 61:1).

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