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Posts tagged ‘humanity’

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

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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.

Hidden Histories: What’s Cookin’

Matthew 13:31-35
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with* three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:*
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’*

A common remark I hear a lot these days goes something like this:

I can’t watch the news or stay informed with what’s going on the world, because it’s just so negative and divisive. I’m tired and I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling. How can I make a difference?  

I feel/have felt this too. Life in this world can wear us down and even seem to defeat us. Particularly those of us who are going through deep depression, anxiety, or who are consistently mistreated. This can lead to feeling that pretty much all things are out of our control and so what’s the point

I hope that in this message [and in two symbols] anyone feeling this way can find even a small bit of encouragement to keep living. I certainly don’t have all the answers and neither does any religious writing including the Bible, but in my experience [and in the experience of many others as well] there is a healthy balance of life we can live, even in a world so heavy and difficult.

Before we look at two symbols that will lead us there, allow me to mention briefly a philosophy that you may have heard of. Stoicism was a prominent school of thought in the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century. Stoics looked first to the natural world and found that there was one overall force balancing it all. They called this many names, including the Divine, or logos. Now if that sounds familiar, it should, be throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters these concepts resurface. Christianity, many historians believe, was influenced by Stoicism. The main aspect I want to focus on is that the Stoics thought that for human beings, the path to happiness was in accepting that which they had already been given [i.e. the life-logos], and then not allowing themselves to be controlled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. This is an understanding that the overall logos balancing all the world is also in us and then compels us to work together with others and to treat them fairly and justly.

And now the two symbols: the mustard seed and yeast.

seeds.jpegNow the mustard seed is a tiny little thing. You may not notice it. It’s hidden. The mustard seed comes from the mustard greens plant. You can eat the greens and also, if you allow the plant to flower, you can harvest the seeds and use them as spices, in sauces and other delicious sides and condiments. So Jesus makes good use of hyperbole by mentioning the tiniest of seeds that will eventually grow like crazy and add spice to whatever it touches. Matthew’s author was clearly writing from a Jewish perspective and to a mostly-Jewish audience. So these references to trees and plants would have been familiar. And this naturalistic focus is akin to the Stoic view of nature-humanity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the prophetic books, seeds, plants, and trees play a prominent role. Listen to this section of the book of Daniel, chapter 4:
11The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.

About-The-Tree-of-LifeIn this case, the tree is God’s domain of provision, rest, and safety. So essentially, if you recognize that God is in a tree of life and in the tiniest of seemingly insignificant seeds, then you get it. God is big and balancing it all, but even the smallest of creatures participate in this.

We cannot control everything, but we can still be part of everything.

Any of us who have ever felt [or still feel] that our lives don’t matter or that we are so small, we are reminded that yes, we are small, but we are still important, still loved, still valued.

Then there’s the symbol of yeast.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThis time, we find ourselves in a kitchen, and God is the chef, and God is a female. The divine baker is making bread and she uses a large amount of flour as if she is baking bread for hundreds of people. Then comes the yeast or leaven, which you may recognize as a common image in 1st Century Jewish life, but typically a negative symbol. Leaven was often a symbol of corruption. One rotten strawberry can spoil a whole basketful. But not this time. Now yeast is a positive force of growth and something that causes the hidden to be seen. The baker hides the yeast in the dough. After much kneading, she has made it so that the yeast is not visible or detectable. It’s now a part of the dough completely.

The yeast gives life to the dough. It’s creating something.

Left alone and covered, the dough starts to rise—it doubles in size. And then, in the heat of an oven, more rising, golden brown crust on the outside, and light and airy on the inside. You hungry yet?

So here’s my take. We are not meant to gloss over the heaviness of this life. We are meant to express what we feel as being part of our existence. And yet, if we can recognize the logos, the nature inside us, we can make progress towards love, towards wholeness, towards healing. A lot of us feel like mustard seeds. We may feel unnoticed, very small, and sometimes even without value. The heaviness and hatred in the world can make us feel that way. But mustard seeds can grow into something beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and spicy. They can bear flowers and eventually produce seeds. Even when you feel small and unnoticed, you are still capable of life. And your unique personality and gifts can add needed flavor to the community and to the world.

And yeast. It’s hidden growth and life. What and who you are on the inside is often not visible to others. You are made with the divine inside you. Life has already been breathed into you [like the CO2 air produced by yeast]. Sometimes you may not always notice that life, but it’s still there. Eventually, that life emerges from you and becomes visible on the outside. It grows and can even encourage others. Any small step when you embrace yourself, any small movement towards being more kind to yourself and to others, and the growth is accelerated. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

Who Do You Meet on the Road?

Luke 24  

 path

Not that long ago if we needed to walk, drive, or take public transportation to a place we asked other people how to get there. Then, we used paper maps. After that, we typed the address into a computer and printed out Mapquest directions. Remember that?

mapquest

Then the GPS with the somewhat unreliable suction. And now, of course, when we want to go somewhere we simply tell our phone where want to go, the mode of transportation, and we not only get directions to that place, but how long it will take us, alternative routes due to traffic, construction, or a Godzilla attack, and also we get to see our progress on the screen, right before our eyes.

The roads we travel have seemingly become more accessible with this kind of technology. It is true—we are traveling more now as a human species than ever before. We honestly don’t have the same excuses for not going places and the whole “I got lost” argument usually falls pretty flat these days. All that aside, traveling the road to a destination is an important metaphor in life. I invite you to think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on—and all the different kinds of places those roads led you to.

When I was younger and living in rural Iowa, country roads [and even gravel roads] were part of life. I spent a lot of my time walking down these roads, as public transportation was scarce and I didn’t have a car. Where we lived in Central Iowa, the roads rolled over hills [yes, Iowa has hills!] and at the top of certain hills you could see for miles. Before you got to the top of the hill, though, you couldn’t see anything. Gravel roads are interesting, mainly because anything or anyone that has traveled ahead of you kicks up dust. The general rule when you are walking on a gravel road is to wear sunglasses or to walk backwards. Otherwise, you’ll be begging for eye drops in a hot second. The other type of road in Iowa I remember distinctly is highway 65/69. That thing went on forever, and when we had to go to faraway places, at times I felt that it would never end. The speed limit is 75 and you still feel like you’re crawling along. Maybe it’s the eternal stretch of cornfields on your way through Nebraska? Think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on.

The reason that the road is a an oft-used metaphor for life isn’t hard to understand, is it? Because all of us use all kinds of roads to get from one place to another. The roads wind and turn and go up and down and stretch for miles. They are made of dirt, cobblestone, gravel, asphalt, grass, and rock.

Sometimes we can see what’s ahead on the road; sometimes we can’t see anything at all.

The other part of the road is life metaphor is who you meet on that road. Believe it or not, even on lonely, country roads in rural Iowa I met people, or sometimes other living beings. As you can imagine, along a country road in Iowa, there were animals. Cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, and all sorts of creatures. Just when I thought I was completely alone on the road, they greeted me with a sound or a smell or a movement. And from time to time I encountered a farmer, or a person walking their dog, or someone on a tractor. Kids would appear on bikes or motorcycles. Cars whizzed past. It honestly makes me think a lot about life. There have been many times when I have felt like I was walking down a lonely stretch of rural Iowa roads—not sure if I would encounter anyone, not convinced that the road would ever come to an end. And then, I was surprised. I was surprised by life I didn’t expect to see—connections with people that recharged my batteries and picked me up off the mat.

Those connections with people on the road of life, whether short or long ones, helped me get to know myself better and reminded me that I was not alone.

Of course, part of the road has also included recognizing that unfortunately, some people I meet on the road are not kind and not healthy for me to be around. Those encounters [and the consequent walking on/moving on from those relationships] taught me a lot about the kinds of people who really do care and truly accept me.

The story in the Gospel of Luke 24 is often called “The Road to Emmaus.” It involves two people, former followers of Jesus of Nazareth, walking on a road after Jesus’ death. Emmaus, according to historians and scholars, probably was not a real place at all. Further, the two people on the road are not identifiable. So this is the storyteller saying to us: You are Cleopas. You are walking on that road with someone. You don’t know where that road will take you—Emmaus? Timbuktu? A hole in the space-time continuum? We are walking down that road. And we don’t know where it leads. But where we are going/where the two disciples are going, isn’t the point.

The point is who they meet on the road.

A stranger. Any random person you may encounter while at the grocery store, a park, on a street corner. A stranger. You have no expectations for this encounter. But the stranger seems to care about what you’re going though. You’re sad, lost, distracted. The stranger listens. This stranger then seems to share some of your sacred stories and important feelings. The stranger accepts you as you are, where you are on that road to seemingly nowhere. Eventually, the two travelers in the story recognize the stranger. It was Jesus—their teacher, their friend. They felt connected again, but only after they ate together. Must have reminded them of their favorite moments on the road. In fact, their eyes were open and they even saw themselves as newly alive.

Now I know that for many of you, maybe Jesus won’t be the stranger you meet on the road. Maybe that religious narrative isn’t where you are right now. We get caught up with the name and concept of Jesus too much, if you ask me. So just consider—if you were to meet a stranger on the road who listened to you, accepted you, and inspired you to open your eyes—who would that person be?

And, are you open enough to affirm that this person could actually be anyone? The person next to you pumping gas? The child laughing at the playground? A teacher? An acquaintance at church, or school, or work?

See, I think that Jesus never meant for us to be so reliant on some religious idea of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. I think that Jesus meant for his followers and friends to find resurrection in themselves, along the journey, on the road, and to have their eyes opened by the encounters with people on that road. Because when we share with each other, we feel less alone and more connected. When we open ourselves to random encounters and distance ourselves from the unhealthy encounters—the ones that try to change our story and don’t accept us as we are. When we do that, I think we can be surprised. We can meet each other on the road and find encouragement and connection. Because this road is not a straight line. And sometimes you will feel alone and disconnected. But keep walking your unique road. Encounter people who will truly listen to you and accept you. May our eyes be opened.

Spirit Sightings Inviting Change

John 3:9-17

Spiritdove.jpeg
Identity is theme of the 40 days of Lent. Who am I? Who is Jesus? Who are my neighbors? These identity questions should stay with Christians throughout this season, and lead to growth, connection, and cooperation. The Gospel stories of the New Testament give us an opportunity to ask these questions, and then to embrace a journey towards light and compassion. Though most of Lent we have been looking at Mathew’s Gospel, this time we take a detour and look at John’s Gospel, the last Gospel written, and the Gospel that stands alone much of the time, as it is very different from Matthew, Luke, and Mark.

The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is an intriguing one, and as our Lenten journey is about questions, so is this story. Now I’ve read and examined this story so much that sometimes I feel that there isn’t much left to explore. But for some reason, my reading of the story this time led me to a different take. You see, much of the time we tend to focus on the characters who encounter Jesus [like Nicodemus] as having some sort of problem, or as being in opposition to Jesus. But I don’t think this is the case with Nicodemus. He is a good question-asker, and Jesus loves questions. This type of question-asking was and is prevalent in many religious traditions, including Judaism and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student asks the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider.

So the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory.” He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice. The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.

The storyteller writes that Nicodemus met Jesus at night. My take on that is that Nicodemus had respect for Jesus. He didn’t wish to make a spectacle of the conversation; he preferred a one-on-one talk. We also must keep in mind that John’s Gospel often uses the light-dark symbolism. This could be one of those cases. Nicodemus came in the dark. He was about to meet the light.

The conversation started off reasonably well. Nicodemus showered Jesus with praise and respect. Jesus wasn’t all that interested, though. Instead, Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ perspective by saying something strange:

No one can see God’s presence without being born from above.

Born from above refers to the new vision for life that Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples and led them towards, and is not a statement of belief or some superior knowledge.

Nicodemus was curious but confused, as anyone would be. After all, humans are physically born only once, right? But again, Jesus was pushing Nicodemus to think beyond narrow and linear categories. For Jesus, being born from above meant being born of water and spirit.

stillwater
Water. Probably the most essential resource in all of creation. We all need water to survive. But more than that—water is powerful and creative. It goes around, under, and through things. It carves mountains and forges new habitats. It brings life wherever it flows. Pause for a moment. How are we like water? How does that affect the way you see others?

wind
Spirit.
For Jesus of Nazareth, spirit and wind were interchangeable. The spirit/wind is wild—it blows where it wishes and cannot be controlled. You don’t even see it. It is free of and at large in the world. Pause for a moment. How are we like wind? How does that change the way you see others?

I simply want to focus on these two identity images of water and wind.

As we ask: who am I? during this season, how are we like water and like wind?

And, if we consider that the people around us are also born of water and wind, how will that affect the way we interact and treat others?

A Fragile Peace

Isaiah 11:1-4a

stump_jesse21
It is December. It’s colder. The leaves are on the ground. Winter has come. Animals know it. They sense it—they go about their business getting ready for colder nights, gathering food and making more stable shelters. There is so much movement in nature at this time of year if you pay attention to it. Scurrying and gathering and preparing. Animals know a lot; they are obviously so much more connected to this good earth than we are. They understand instinctively that winter will come, but it’s not so bad. It’s necessary. Good stuff happens in nature during winter. There is a dormant period for plants and other living beings. But…in just a few months, just when all the humans like you and I are more than ready for winter to just GET IT OVER WITH PLEASE!….something happens. It starts with a bud—small and inconspicuous. It starts with tiny plants peeking out and then animals, both small and large, emerging earlier and later to drink water and find food. They know it’s coming. Spring is coming. The roots of the earth are strong; they will soon emerge and all of life will…be replenished, renewed, and delightful.

preparing-for-winterThe images of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah are indeed beautiful if you just embrace the metaphors of nature and life itself. Keep in mind the historical context of Isaiah and it becomes even richer, if you ask me. As I always say, if you identify as a Christian, do not be so quick as to jump to conclusions when you read Isaiah. Don’t make quick and easy connections between what Isaiah wrote so long before Jesus of Nazareth was born and the stories of the New Testament. Instead, embrace the beauty of Isaiah’s message and then understand why the New Testament Gospel writers [and even Jesus himself] borrowed from Isaiah.

This prophet, though writing during an incredibly difficult and bleak time for the ancient Israelites, Isaiah planted seeds of hope, of peace, of renewal. Too long had the Israelites experienced war, famine, and isolation. The stump is injured. But a root now grows out of it, then a branch. Of course, Isaiah was referring to a new leader of the Israelite people. Notice, though, the great disparity between Isaiah’s leader who comes out of a stump and what we typically would assume a “leader” would look like. This branch is wise and delights in knowledge, has understanding. This branch looks to the poor, the marginalized, and not to the rich, powerful, and privileged. This branch out of a stump seeks peace for all living beings.

I don’t know about you, but honestly, I don’t see this branch as being Jesus of Nazareth. Otherwise, the lion and lamb would be hanging out together with no Ultimate Fighting going on and our nations would stop killing each other and our communities would stop hating and targeting certain people.

Evil still exists in the world, poor people struggle more than ever, predators prey on the weak.

In this time where peace can seem incredibly far off; when LGBTQ beautiful people feel afraid and are targeted, when Latinx kids and youth are made fun of and told to “go home” and when Native Americans are sprayed with tear gas and hoses in the freezing cold as they seek to protect their lands, what do we say about Isaiah’s image of a peaceful world? Well, we say that it’s not yet here. We tell the truth. We say what is happening in our communities—what is not right or good or peaceful or loving and we say that this is not the Divine’s desire for the world.

We say that, but then we have to do something, too.

For while Jews waited for [and still wait for] this Messiah, Christians do, too. We wait for the same thing, for the world to change. To be a loving, accepting, and beautiful place as we believe it is meant to be.

So then, buds and branches of a broken stump we call the world, how will you bring peace to the world around you? How will you love people who feel unloved? How will you stand up for those who are bullied and marginalized? How will you be a part of Divine intervention, considering that we are all connected to this desire, to create and live in a world of peace, of understanding, and of love.

How will we create this together?

Matthew 3:1-6
Turning Around to Face the Light & the Dark

I’ve mentioned this before, but just as a reminder, the word repent in the Gospels is not a word telling you to get on your knees and say: “Please, Jesus, forgive me!” It’s not a formulaic faith affirmation either. Repent means turn around. Reorient your life path.

What a great message for all of us this season. So, here’s the thing–John the Baptist was craaaaazy. Yep. People thought he was nuts. He probably was. A little bit. But he quoted Isaiah, so at least people thought he might know something. The voice in the wilderness is important to note, because the wilderness was a metaphor for a time of introspection and a bit of wandering. You’ve had those times, right? When you weren’t sure where you were in life or where you were going? Maybe you are there now. The wilderness. A voice literally cries out and says: PREPARE! Make paths straight! Okay, so…what? Go back to Isaiah and the idea of a peaceful world. Remember that John’s Gospel was written long after Isaiah…people, we are talking more than 800 years, okay? Yeah. So the peaceful world that Isaiah envisioned didn’t happen in Jesus’ time, and it didn’t happen after Jesus’ death, and it didn’t happen after the Gospels like John were written. Get the picture? John wasn’t so crazy after all. He understood, right, that the world was still in need of more love, and peace, and connection? He said to anyone who would listen: turn around, it’s never too late.

Change your life path if you need to.

Yeah, I don’t know where you’re at today, but I’m realizing the need to face myself as I am. It’s not just the recent Presidential election, though that’s part of it. It’s everything. I’ve been asking myself: What am I really doing? Who am I? Who do I want to be? I’m trying my best, and failing a lot of the time, but I’m trying to face myself. I’m facing the darkness in me, my desire to give up sometimes, my fears, my heaviness. And I’m also facing the light within me: my desire to keep standing up for justice and peace and love, the creative imagination that lives within and the freedom to let go of the things that hold me back. I want to turn around, to reorient myself every day. I don’t always make it. But this is the path.

May you see yourself as you are; may you find ways to love yourself and be at peace with yourself; if you need to turn around from things or relationships that hurt you or isolate you, do it; and be free to love, be free embrace all of your darkness and light. In doing so, I tell you this—you will encounter other people doing the same. You will connect to them and it will be marvelous. You will find love, acceptance, and peace with them. And then we create this reality together.

Called to Be Unique, All Invited

John 17:20-23; 26

uniquesuess

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we see each other and treat each other.Sure, it is an election year and so that tends to contribute to all the crazies coming out. But it is disturbing just how many people right now [including the Republican candidate for president of the U.S.] say things against certain groups of people simply because of the way they look, what language they speak, and what religion they do or don’t practice. This is unacceptable and dehumanizing. Most people agree that this is true. If so, then there is no way that one can support any politician, leader, or person who participates in such harmful activity, using hate speech and subtle + not-so-subtle prejudice to separate people. This isn’t about “agreeing to disagree”–this is about humanity. We can disagree about politics and social issues, but we must be unified when it comes to our humanity and the humanity of those around us. If we don’t stand up against the hateful rhetoric and prejudice, then we are no better than those who are doing it.

What I’d like to focus on is uniqueness and unity. How do they go together?

The thing is friends, we focus a lot on our differences in this world—what we disagree on, how we look or act differently, the unique ways we dress or eat or talk or vote or live. Differences are good; they really are. We are ALL unique. We think differently and act differently. This is how we are made. Christians in particular have historically focused on difference. If you are not Christian, you are over there. If you are Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Baptist—you are over there. Denominations, sects, and classifications. And even more so when it comes to those who do not identify as Christians. Are you Muslim? Hindu? Jewish? Jain? Sikh? Buddhist? Baha’i? You are…over there. And if you are agnostic or atheist, well, you are far over there.

But I don’t see this as the vision of Jesus of Nazareth. The person that people based an entire religion on [the most prominent one in the world to this point] did not see difference as a problem or a separation. Oneness was possible for Jesus.

But oneness did not equal sameness.

Jesus felt the presence of the Divine in his life and that presence informed his world view. God, the Abba, was in Jesus. Jesus was in God. And Jesus had a vision that all people, regardless of background and status, could also be one with this God. The “glory” that Jesus speaks of in this John prayer is quite amusing. Glory? I mean, what type of glory did Jesus of Nazareth really experience? Right. Not much. Humiliation? Check. Isolation? Check. Torture and death? Check. So what is this glory that John’s Gospel speaks of? The way I see it [and it’s just my view] is that Jesus’ glory was in realizing that all people were children of God, and that especially included those who were always left on the outside of religious institutions. In Jesus’ time, it was the poor, the widows, the lepers, the tax collectors, the blind, lame, and the Samaritans. In every era the names change, but the issue doesn’t. Did Jesus give the glory he had to others so that they could start more churches, conquer land, and gain power? No. He gave glory to people so they could be one.

Completely one. This oneness is not ignoring difference or uniqueness. This oneness doesn’t mean we have to agree all the time, look the same, pray the same way, eat the same foods, speak the same languages, practice the same religions. This oneness means one thing. That the Divine loves us and loves Jesus. That this is the name of God—Love. And that the love between Jesus and this God is in people. In us.For me, this is our humanity. This is what binds us together.

I was raised a Christian, and so, Communion is a very familiar ritual for me, and for the most part, it has been a positive experience. I was raised in a tradition in which everyone could receive Communion. As a kid, I saw it as a fun event. As a youth, I saw it as a chance to eat and drink with others like a great big family. Then, as a young adult, I saw it as a community-building event in which people of all kinds could do something together and embrace each other as they were. Now, I see it as an agape feast. An invitation to everyone, no matter what, to be at the table, as they are. Bring your uniqueness. Bring your brokenness. Bring your doubt. Bring your enthusiasm. Bring your sadness, your skepticism, your pain. Bring yourself. And you have a place. As. You. Are.

At the end of the day, Communion, as any religious tradition, needs to mean something in our lives. For me, I still embrace Communion because it challenges me to open my table. It moves me to set a place for those who disagree with me, don’t look like me, don’t act like me. And it also reminds me that no matter how I feel or what kind of difficulty I am going through, I also am welcome at this table. I am accepted. I have a place here.

If we come to the table as we are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love.

If we accept and affirm all people as they are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love. So friends, be your unique selves and embrace the uniqueness of others. Anyone or anything who tries to make us all the same or disparages certain groups of people because of what they look like, their sexual orientation or gender identification, their religious tradition, nationality, language, etc–anyone or anything that does that, WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND AND SAY NO. With our honest and bridge-building words, with our kind and grateful actions. May it be so.

diversity2

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