Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘identity’

It’s a Human Evolution

Mark 8:27-32; 34-35   

From time to time people may say things like:

“Once you pass a certain age, you are who you are.”

“People don’t change much after age ___….”

“You can’t teach and old dog new tricks….”

While most of the time we don’t mean any harm when we say such things, it does highlight a tendency in our society and in the way we think—that at some point in adulthood we just stop changing, stop growing, stop evolving. In essence, we buy into the idea that as we get older, we slow down our human development and become less capable of change. Perhaps that’s why many adults of varied ages encounter strong opposition from family, friends, and co-workers when they do decide to make a major change or if they exhibit steady growth in another direction that does not resemble their past or even their present. Have you ever had that experience from either side? Have you seen someone you know change unexpectedly? How did you react? Or, have you gone through a major shift in you life and noticed strong reactions of others?

Just to be clear, when I talk about human evolution and change I’m not talking about human growth the way that the self-help industry does. Surely you’ve seen the overstocked shelves at your favorite bookstore. You have a million choices—books that tell you in their title that you should be able to tweak this or that or try this method, and change will be easy.

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Some real titles:

Improve Your Life the Quick Way [part one]
Anybody Can Be Cool…but Awesome Takes Practice
Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life
What to Say When You Talk to Yourself
Awaken the Giant Within
Just Stop Having Problems, Stupid!

And I didn’t even delve into the myriad of fad diet and exercise books. The basic premise of these books is to convince you that change is easy and fast. Just give your money, read the book, and you’re set. Go to the lectures or workshops. You’ll change quickly. Of course, none of it is true. Fad diets don’t work. Exercise methods and techniques are just made up and don’t work for most people. Mental exercises that are quick and easy don’t have a lasting effect. And anything you have to keep paying for in order to develop as a person is already set up to fail.

Because human evolution happens on the inside.

And it’s based on who you are, what you’ve experienced, and how you see the world. And human evolution is not easy or quick or simple. There are certainly obstacles in front of us if we engage in the continuing process of personal growth and change. One of the main obstacles is baggage, something I’m sure all of you are well aware of. Baggage is that part of our identity that is informed by what people have told us about ourselves, who they have said we are from the beginning and who they say we are today. Now some of that can be positive, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still an obstacle to growth, because the old paradigms that people give us are just that—old. They are past. When we engage in human evolution the old paradigms don’t work anymore. And that’s a conflict.

Image result for paradigm shiftFor example, psychologists like Robert Kegan refer to the idea of the terrible twos. You know, any parents out there, of what I speak. The toddler turns green and becomes a tiny ball of rage and fury. And their vocabulary seems to only include one word: NO!!!!!!

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Now there are two ways to view this. One: the kid is out to get us, terrible, and mad at the parents–just intolerable. The kid has only one goal in mind and that is to say and do the opposite of what we tell them to do and therefore to ruin our lives until they get a little older. And then it will happen again when they are a teenager.

Or, the second way of seeing this: the twos aren’t terrible at all.

The toddlers are becoming.

The constant No! is simply a denial of the old self [the baby]. It’s a repudiation of the old way of being.  The toddlers’ declaration is to their old self, which was embedded in the world they knew as a baby. Now, as two-year-olds, they are evolving. They are becoming.

Human evolution, simply put, is about asking these two questions:

What is self?
What is other?

Who am I? And what is the world around me? A example across cultures is related to how we talk about the weather. Say it’s a beautiful, sunny day—not too hot, not too cold. In the West, people would say: Wow, it is a nice day. But in other cultures, like the Amerindians of the Americas, they would say: I am in a nice day. See, in Western cultures the weather [the day] is separate from our being and is it whereas in other cultures, the weather is not separate from their being, and so they are in and the day is not an it. This matters, how we see ourselves and how we see the world.

This is reflected in a Gospel scene in which Jesus of Nazareth might as well have taught a Greek philosophy and psychology class 101. He asks his followers: “Who do people say that I am?” And of course, the disciples answer with all the identities that other people gave to Jesus–John the Baptist; Elijah; one of the prophets. And then Jesus asks his followers: But who do you say that I am? Peter, not known for tact or using his brain  much, blurts out: You are the Messiah. This made Jesus mad and so he told Peter and company to stop talking about him with other people.

Jesus could very well have been that infuriating toddler.

Who do people say I am? No! Who do you say I am? No!

Eventually, Jesus made it clear how he saw himself and how he saw the world and no one liked it. Jesus saw himself suffering alongside those who suffered, those who were pushed to the margins; Jesus saw himself far from the religious elites and the temple; Jesus saw himself as constantly evolving, towards a place and a goal that would never be realized. Jesus knew his evolution would take him to dangerous places and that he probably wouldn’t survive it physically. But Jesus also saw the world and the human beings in it as something worth fighting for, worth loving, worth showing compassion to. In essence, it was Jesus’ desire to pour his whole self out in the world, regardless of what others called him or tried to make him.

And I think this should be a really encouraging thing for us. We don’t have to be two years old to undergo an evolution. We don’t have to stop changing and growing after adolescence. We can keep going all through our lives. We can keep becoming. After all, we are human beings, are we not? We are humans who are being….we are people who are becoming.

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A Preceding Faith in a Touch

Mark 5:24b-34

I would like to ask you a question. Simple, but it may seem the opposite.

What is faith?

Sure, perhaps you are thinking:

Really? What is faith? Now that’s a loaded question. Are you referring to some kind of religious faith, or a faith in God or Jesus or Mohammad, or Buddha, or humanity, or the Philadelphia Eagles? What is faith? Really???

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Okay, I get it. It may seem like a question full of baggage. For this moment, if we can, I’d like to talk about faith without all that. Can we? Bear with me. When I refer to “faith” I’m not really talking about “belief.” Does that help?

Belief is an acceptance that something is true or adherence to a certain precept or doctrine. I’m not talking about that. I’m referring to faith, which, for the sake of our conversation, we’ll define as trust or confidence in someone or something.

So, what has been your experience with that?

I’d like to explore not an answer but a curious story, about a woman who had “faith” that does not look like anything often called “faith” today in the media, politics, or religion. It’s a story about a woman who had suffered for 12 years. She didn’t believe in anything. She didn’t have any reason to. Doctors had failed her. Priests- had failed her. Her own body had failed her. She was out of money. No medicine could cure her. She was really out of options and believed in nothing.

And yet, she had great faith.

A reminder: Jesus of Nazareth and his followers are on the Jewish side of the Lake of Galilee. So there’s this woman—she’s not given a name, which, in a literary context means that she’s a nobody. The Gospel writers were not disparaging her, just letting the reader know that she was a nobody in her time and place. She wasn’t rich, and more than that, she wasn’t touchable. She wasn’t even supposed to be in public, you know. See, she had been suffering from hemorrhaging for 12 years. This bleeding made her unclean according to the law of the Levites and therefore no one could touch her. She had been alone for a long, long time; she was isolated from her community, living on the outskirts. Apparently, she had had spent all of her money on doctors. None of them made her better; in fact, her disease had gotten worse. And she, of all people, broken down and without any reason to have faith, followed after Jesus.

She knew, without question–that according to the purity code, everyone she touched would be rendered unclean, and so she didn’t reach out to touch Jesus directly. She only reached for his clothes.

It’s hard to imagine this kind of respect and trust after so many years of being ignored and pushed to the side. This is faith.

And Mark’s writer rewards her as a hero. Her faith [and touch] leads to healing. Her bleeding stops.

And, oh yeah–Jesus noticed. Who touched my clothes? Jesus had no clue who it was. But the woman knew who had touched his cloak. She could have run away, all healed, and no one would have known. But she didn’t. She came back to Jesus, fearful, trembling, and she fell down before him, and told Jesus everything. To her great surprise, Jesus called her daughter. And not only that, but Jesus recognized that her healing was not as a result of his own action, but of her trust. Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.

Friends, this story is powerful, in my opinion.

What if faith is not what it is purported to be?

What if faith is instead determination, even when things are bleak, extra challenging, even desperate? What if faith is that determination to still reach out to try to make a positive change, no matter the circumstances? What if faith is about recognizing what is already inside you, what you are capable of, what wholeness feel and look like for you? What if faith is a skeptical thought coupled with determined action—thinking that your situation is difficult and uncertain, not believing in the things people say or try to convince you of, but still reaching out, still acting, still faith-ing with your hands and feet? What if faith is determined action to not let hate win?

Just Out of Reach

Gilbert Ruiz

Maybe you feel like the person in this painting.

If you’re feeling like you’re stuck or that feeling alive and whole is out of your reach, keep on reaching.

You are loved; really. You are not alone; really.

Keep on reaching. One of us will notice; someone will find you. And most importantly, keep reaching, because that shows that you’re alive and that there’s a spark inside of you, a divine consciousness, that can help you move forward and discover healing.

Keep reaching.

 

Restored to Wholeness: Full Self

Mark 1:29-34a

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

I’m inspired periodically by those of you with the courage to be yourselves.

I mean it—most people are not themselves. In fact, we spend most of our lives trying to fit into other people’s categories or playing characters we think others have written for us to play.

Image result for be yourselfThere are lots of reasons for this—psychological, emotional, physical, and cognitive. As humans, we are constantly creating and re-creating reality as we see it and feel it and how we think about it as individuals. We are not stuck with one framework of our human existence; on the contrary, we are moving through stages and developing new frameworks. Though we often assume such things are true about human existence when we are children and youth, this re-framing of our identity and the world can and does continue throughout adulthood.

So allow me to return to what I said at the very start: I’m encouraged, inspired by people with the courage to be themselves.

The reason I say that is because there seems to be so much around us that discourages this framing and re-framing of self, and of this expressing of a self that is truer to who we are. There seem to be more boxes these days for people to try to fit into. All this does is make us feel inadequate, anxious, or sad. At our core I do think we wish to be free—free to change/adapt/evolve in our own way—to express ourselves as we are.

Perhaps part of the problem with the society that we have created is that, overall, it is a society based on specializations and not the whole self. If you are a teacher, for example, you are specialized/categorized according to the subject you teach or age group/academic level/demographic you deal with. As a “teacher” you are not a teacher of the whole; in other words, you are not expected to consider the spiritual, mental, physical, emotional, and social state of each student. You are charged with teaching a subject or a theme and hopefully you will see certain outcomes in the student’s learning. The same goes for many doctors, care practitioners, clergy, and therapists, who increasingly specialize. I am not making a judgment either way, just observing. We rarely focus on the whole person. The whole self.

There is fragmentation.

Image result for fragmentation of selfAnd I think that this fragmentation in society contributes to a fragmentation of self. In other words, if most structures and social groups around you are very specialized and categorized, you had better be specialized and categorized also, if you hope to fit in. For example, most religious communities are homogeneous—people in those communities tend to vote for the same political candidates, look similar, speak the same language, etc.

I’ll continue to speak out against this, because I think this is where churches and other religious institutions have failed. We’re not meant to create fragmented and homogeneous communities, we’re meant to embrace the differences and uniqueness of each other, wherever we are on life’s journey. That’s what makes this community special and courageous to me.

Case in point—in the faith community I work with some of them do not identify with one particular gender. Some are in transition. Others identify with various parts of the sexuality spectrum. Some people identify as Black, or as African-American, and some don’t. Among our partners and members some identify as Mexican, or Latin American or Latino or Latinx, some don’t. Some identify as Korean or Filipino or Asian-American. Some don’t. Some identify with a particular religious tradition and say I’m Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish, or Jain, Sikh, Christian, Baha’i, or Hare Krishna. Or I’m agnostic, secular humanist, Wiccan or otherwise.

Actually, if we step back and think about it, why is this even an issue?

So what? There are some of us who don’t identify with the gender given at birth. Okay. So what? There are some of us who are attracted to males, or to females, or to both. Okay. So what? Some of us don’t’ really identify as any specific gender. All right. So what? Some of us don’t identify ourselves by skin color or nationality or religion, and some do. Okay. The only reason this IS an issue, friends, is because we’ve stopped thinking about our whole humanity and we’ve specialized and made categories that we must fit into. Without those “required” categories, we wouldn’t care how someone identified themselves or didn’t.

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And that leads me to another Gospel story where we find Jesus of Nazareth encountering someone in need of healing, in need of restoration to her true self. She was categorized, too. She is Simon’s Mother-in-law and that’s all we get. She’s a woman, and so, her name isn’t given in the story. She has a fever and is laid up in bed. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to serve. Well, by “serve” the text means show hospitality to Jesus and those who accompanied him. It was a cultural rule to serve food and drink to those who had traveled distances to your home. At first glance, this story may seem easy pickings for those who want to preach about women being silent in churches and homemakers above all else. But a closer look at the Greek [and our own bias] may help. First, she is “healed” but the word in Greek translates to “made whole.” The woman is made whole again. She is restored to her true self. When she is made whole, she engages in showing hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Again, this is not some statement about gender and more a cultural expression of what one does when one is grateful or visited by strangers.

See, our bias wants the woman to fit neatly into a gender or cultural role. But really, none of the people Jesus heals in the Gospel stories fit neatly into our categories. So I ask, what if this woman, and all the others who were made whole, were just humans, like any of us? What if this fever-ridden woman was just a human who, when Jesus met her, was taken by the hand, lifted up, and made whole? And what if we sought to do the same with others right now? Friends, there is so much courage, beauty, and encouragement in the lives of people who are seeking to be themselves, even when it’s difficult or not accepted, or the norm. For when we accept someone on their own journey, we also start to see the possibilities we have for evolving, for changing, for being our whole selves.

So whether you’re in the process of transition, or you’re laid up in bed, or if you need a hand to lift you up, or if you’re feeling empty and heavy because you just don’t feel like yourself—know this—you are not made to fit into a box or a category. You are you. And that “you” will keep framing and re-framing and that’s a good thing. And those along your journey of self-discovery who laugh, cry, and celebrate with you not only help and love you, but they are positively impacted by your courage to keep journeying forward.

Love Builds Up

Mark 1:21-39

Let’s talk demons, afflictions, identity and love.

Cool with you?

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Okay, first, a story about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s making his way to Capernaum–perhaps the most important and well-connected community in the region of Galilee. There was a temple there, and Jesus was about to darken its door. Mark’s Gospel is the speed Gospel, going right to the point. Jesus has already been baptized by John, has experienced temptation in the wilderness, and then he formed new community by calling fishermen. Now, after all that in just a few verses, Jesus moves on to engage the religious authorities of the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. On the Sabbath, Jesus started to teach within the temple walls. The “they” in this case probably refers to the people in general—those who were present to receive a teaching. But they didn’t expect this action-oriented teaching they were about to get.

For something strange then happened. Something out of the Exorcist maybe? A man, in the synagogue, cried out. He was unclean, with a spirit inside him. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

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For sure, the people had to be a little freaked out.

But oh, it wasn’t over. Be silent, and come out of him! Jesus spoke with authority. And then, the unclean spirit left the man after much convulsing and crying out. Okay, yes, Mark tells us, the people were freaked out and amazed by this. What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. People all of a sudden didn’t care that Jesus was from Nazareth or some so-called sh&thole country.

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Just then, the people didn’t care about Jesus’ place of origin. Go figure. They liked what they heard and saw. They saw him doing something good and forgot about their prejudice. Hmmm…..

Let’s get this out of the way. Demon possession? It’s something reserved for horror movies or superstition, right? It’s the scary story my conservative youth group leader use to tell us as teenagers about some kid she claimed was possessed by the devil and then cured by the prayers said by church leaders. Yes, that really happened. It was a religious anecdote meant to scare us into the fear of God and steer us away from the many, many things that tempt teenagers and well—everyone. Is that what we’re talking about here?

No, this is not a story about fear or scaring people into certain moral choices.

This is about healing.

Pure and simple. Healing. You see, in Jesus’ time and in ours, there were and are many people afflicted by disease, illness, mental anguish, depression, and loneliness. There are many suffering from addictions, OCD, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, chemical imbalance, genetic tendency, etc., etc. What Jesus healed [and the disciples, too] was affliction—and not something out of a Hollywood movie. People were possessed by unclean spirits that did not allow them to live their lives. Sometimes those unclean spirits were physical ailments; sometimes mental afflictions; sometimes, lifestyle habits; other times, vicious family cycles; sometimes injustice, oppression, or discrimination. But the demons were real. And today, they are still real.

Because people [and governments] still deny a person’s full humanity. They tell them that they are lesser, unworthy, or unnatural. There are lots of reasons why, they say—based on a person’s gender identity or expression; who they love; the color of their skin; what language they speak; what religion they practice; where they grew up or how much money they have. This denial of a person’s true self causes terrible anxiety and depression in people whose beauty deserves to be seen and recognized.

Those who demonize others don’t bless, they curse. They ban people from hospitality and refuge. They use religions and politics to hide behind their prejudice and hate. They tear down instead of building up. There are even those in today’s society who quote Bible passages and even mention Jesus in their hateful rhetoric against certain people and then are conveniently silent when people are unjustly treated.

But Jesus and those who followed him told a different story. Healing was accessible to all—even if they were poor, marginalized, unclean, or forgotten. Jesus recognized that poverty, sickness, injustice, and the denial of someone’s humanity were systemic problems. Even he could not solve this in a blink of an eye or a healing touch. But he could heal one person in her own context, listening to her story, and offering whatever kind of healing touch she needed. It’s like Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth, you can gain all the knowledge you want, and that’s great, but it is love that builds something. Love builds something.

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Why do we need to create accepting, affirming, raw-messy-beautiful communities? Because it’s needed. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. And sadly, far too many religions and governments deny some people’s full humanity. So community is needed—a community that loves and heals together. See, we can claim to know this or that about Jesus or God or whatever, but that knowledge takes us only so far. Eventually, we are tasked with acting out of love. Because there will always be people standing outside our gates, or entering in, who need healing of some kind. We can shower them with knowledge and prayers but that’s not enough and sometimes it’s not relevant. But love is always relevant. Love builds up. It is the one thing in this mess of a world that makes any sense.

Progress and Purpose

Mark 1:14-20

Free-yourselfSometimes we see ourselves as only what others tell us, or what the world tells us. Are we just our jobs? Are we just defined by appearance? Are we meant to fit into other people’s boxes?

Or, are we invited to be ourselves in a free-flowing, surprising way? Are we invited to follow the movement of a freeing, creative Spirit that moves us to love and to be loved?

At times, we can feel like we are stumbling around in the dark, and discovering ourselves is difficult. We can feel like Jean Valjean in the story of Les Miserables, asking Who am I and starting out by defining self as the numbers [24601] that society gives us, or the names we are called.

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And so, life can seem monotonous and also heavy, particularly if we feel bombarded/overwhelmed by society’s expectations for us. I think most of us want to believe that we are on a journey, but it can be hard sometimes to sense progress or even know where that journey starts. As kids, adults often tell us to “chase our dreams” and “use our imaginations” but that quickly changes in adolescence and in adulthood, sadly we are told to “stop dreaming” and to “be realistic” or to “settle down.” Fantine, another character in Les Mis, expresses this in the song “I Dreamed a Dream.”

So the idea of waking up to a new reality and way of being, at any age or season of life—can often be looked upon as silly or impossible.

But I don’t think we’re wired that way—to stay the same or to fit into categories.

I think we’re made to be in a state of constant change or evolution or transformation or whatever word you wish to use. Yes, we are made to keep changing, discovering ourselves, and even changing paths, just as the characters in Les Miserables change perspective about their identities, because eventually, Jean Valjean leaves the prisoner number behind and embraces his new identity, and in doing so, discovers light and realizes that to love another person is in fact to see the face of God.

It is this pursuit of identity and light within that identity that dominates the Gospels. In the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth calling people to follow him, it isn’t as we often paint it in Western culture. It’s not like Jesus was going around converting people to a new religion or recruiting people for some type of church. Instead, Jesus was calling people to be alive, and that meant something different for each person. For those fishing in lakes and rivers and oceans for a living, controlled by a Roman tax system and seeing no other options, Jesus offered them a new perspective about life. Perhaps fishing was not all they were capable of doing. Perhaps there was more to their personal narrative and if they were willing to try a new path, rediscover themselves, well, that new existence could be filled with adventure, gratitude, and love.

See, Jesus said that the time was now, that God’s presence was near, and so people could turn their lives around, and experience good news. So what IS good news?

It’s the news that you’re not done.

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It’s the news that your life is a creative, changing, beautiful chaos of connections, mistakes, joys, sorrows, friendships, epiphanies, and wonder. Many, many people keep looking for their purpose in life. They look in their careers or in their families or in a religion or in other places. None of those pursuits are good or bad as long as “purpose” isn’t limited to those things. The journey and the seasons of life are meant to be fluid, creative, and unpredictable. I know some of us need some control and get anxious when things are not set. But I invite you to be open to the possibility of your life not being set in stone, that your identity can change and so can your perspectives.

You are not just what you do in a job or career. You are not just a mom or dad or a student or a grandparent or a single person. Neither are you limited to just one gender expression or identification, or type of love. You are not boxed in by religion or a church or what some weird pastor says. You’re not the mistakes you’ve made, nor any of the things that caused you pain; not the pieces of the dream left behind; you are light. You are not the color of your eyes nor your skin on the outside, not your age or your bank account. Inside you are all light.

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You are purposefully on a journey of self-discovery. And along the way you will be invited to turn around and experience new perspectives and new people. This is the breath of the Great Spirit, in each and every one of us, moving us and calling us to keep on beginning and failing, to keep on just doing you, going with the flow, gravitating towards love wherever we encounter it. Whatever season of life you are experiencing now, whatever people or society have told you, You are inherently gifted with uniqueness and ability to change, to evolve, to grow. It will look different for each and every one of us. Embrace that. Embrace that change in others.

Identify Yourself

Matthew 16:13-20

partySo you’re at a party or social engagement of some sort. You don’t know everybody there. Whether introvert or extrovert, at some point in the evening you inevitably encounter someone you don’t know. You make eye contact.

Let the social awkwardness begin!

You: Hello. I’m _________

Person: Nice to meet you, I’m _______

You: Nice to meet you.

[Pause]

Cue more awkwardness. You wait for something distracting to happen. Quick! Someone spill a drink or break a plate. Where’s that random squirrel when you need it? No such luck.

You: So, how do you know _____?

Person: Ah, we used to work together.

And then it comes.

Person: So, how about you? Tell me about yourself.

Tell me about yourself.

And it begins. The conversation moves to “What do you do exactly?” and “Where are you from?” which really, is to ask “Who are you?” You’re coerced, so it seems, into revealing your true identity in a few seconds by stating what you do for your job and where you were born/grew up. If you were given a choice, would this really be how you would identify yourself? I mean, what if you are in between jobs or out of work, what if you’re not sure what you do for a living, and what if you don’t really call any particular place home?

Regardless of how that conversation goes, eventually you will leave the room. You’ll go home and so will everyone else. And the people who have met you [and even some who haven’t] will tell others a story about you. The question, then, shifts to

“Who do other people say I am?”

Inevitably, when we’re not in the room, people talk about us. And they make identity claims about us. Take me for example. Maybe people say, when I’m not there: Josh is a minister. Josh is an actor. Josh is from Iowa and Indiana. Josh is insane. Josh is weird. Josh is…

We do this all the time. We say who other people are. And sometimes, we don’t have any clue who they are. Sometimes we don’t realize how harmful our words can be—when we say who someone is without really knowing them.

In this Gospel story about Jesus of Nazareth, we are looking at identity, but in two ways. First, personal identity—how you see yourself and express yourself. Second, community identity—how others see you and how you express yourself within community.

Jesus, throughout the Gospel narrative, seems to be involved in an identity crisis—at least others make it appear so. Jesus spends a lot of time asking the same question of those who followed and those who he encountered: “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a literal question, i.e. to be answered: well, Jesus, you are the son of Joseph and Mary, you’re from Nazareth, you are a Rabbi, etc. Instead, it was a bigger question for those who sought to follow Jesus on the way of love and compassion and justice. Because the follow-up questions to “Who do you say I am” include:

What and who will you stand up for? What is important to you? When are you loud? When are you silent? Who do you choose to spend your time with? Who do you avoid?

See, those questions get to the heart of it, do they not? This question of who do you say Jesus is exposes you, puts you out there. There’s no hiding behind theology, religion, the church—if you answer this question honestly. You don’t have to be religious to answer it either. In fact, those who called themselves “religious” in the 1st and 2nd Century were the ones who struggled the most to answer it honestly. It’s a big question, to be sure, but it’s also a simple one that exposes us. For if we answer who do you say Jesus is with cookie cutter responses that we’ve memorized or simply regurgitate, we make it clear that we don’t have our own answer to the question. If we scoff at the question and say things like duh, obviously, I mean Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, duh, isn’t it obvious then we show our inability to grasp concepts beyond absolutism and we display our fear of uncertainty and nuance. In either of these cases, we open ourselves up to silence and hypocrisy—two things that Jesus of Nazareth clearly taught against.

The silence of Christians when Black and Brown people are targeted by racists and white supremacists. The inaction of Christians when transgender people are victimized and scapegoated. The non-commitment comments like “there is trouble on both sides” or “I don’t see color, I’m colorblind; why can’t everyone else be?” Or “I have nothing against LGBT people, but can’t they just use another bathroom and stop causing so much division?” or “shame on those NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem; can’t they just be quiet and do their job; they make so much money anyway…” The pardoning of those who oppress and the victimizing of those who are marginalized. And the silence…

Yes, it is true that our silence and inaction as they pertain to social justice are rooted in our identities. Who do we say we are? But also, if you are a Christian [again, identity!] who do you say Jesus is, because if you limit Jesus to a religious icon, figure, personal savior, then this Jesus won’t move you to stand with those who are on the margins. This Jesus won’t light a fire under you, make you uncomfortable, even tick you off and challenge your assumptions. Your Jesus will just be the nice god-figure that makes you feel comfortable and safe when the world around you is not. By no means am I against feeling comfortable and safe when everything around you is uncomfortable and scary, but we all know that those feelings of security are fleeting. Eventually, that kind of safe Jesus fades in reality and can even isolate us from others.

So what if we seek to answer these identity questions honestly? I’ll do my best, though I’ll fail. To me, Jesus of Nazareth was and is a teacher and activist for the embracing of wholeness in all of humanity. Jesus wanted people to be their whole selves—whatever that meant—and then to take those whole selves out into the world to love people, to help them heal, to show compassion to those who were victimized, and well, to help others be their whole selves. And Jesus was the opposite of silent when it came to calling out injustice against the truly marginalized.

Because, friends, as with Jesus, people [and the world] will try to tell you who you are. If they hear you express your true identity, they may not like it. And so, they may try to pray it away, to fix you, so your identity fits into their categories and makes them less uncomfortable. Others will flat out reject your true self because you scare them—you expose their prejudice, you challenge so-called norms of society. So they may call you names.

Shame on them!

For however you identity yourself, that is your beauty, your uniqueness, your wholeness. They don’t know you. And they are afraid. And in God, in this Jesus, there is no fear of being yourself. There is encouragement to be yourself fully, to be known as a child of God, as you are.

And collectively, community-wise, we don’t have to agree on theology or the Bible or other religious stuff. But we do have to come clean about how we identify Jesus. It’s a lot easier to be neutral about controversial issues and to hide behind hymns and prayers when things are divisive and chaotic. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus taught and lived for those who followed, that this crap called evil and injustice and hate is real? That we are made to join together to work for justice and peace? So wherever you are today, embrace yourself as you are. Don’t let any false narratives that others tell you about your identity stick. You are unique and beautiful. And also, may that identity wholeness move you to embrace others as they are, and to stand up against anyone or anything that calls people names or strips away identity. May it be so.

 

What Gives You Life?

John 10:1-10

Open-Gate
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of religion and politics. Now before you run away after hearing this, please hear me out. I know some of us prefer to avoid that conversation, but I think it’s really important to address it. Religion and politics have been intertwined ever since human beings started saying and defining those two words. Though people who live in countries like the U.S. that claim to be democracies often think that religion and politics are separate, it’s time for some honesty. Religions have always influenced political policies; political movements and policies have influenced religions. Currently, many in the U.S. are perhaps recognizing this for the first time, even though it is nothing new. When things like health care are discussed, or marriage rights, or abortion, climate change, capital punishment, gender equality, trans rights, etc., it quickly becomes clear that a person’s religious tradition [or lack thereof] informs how they view these issues. If you haven’t noticed, since the new administration took office, many religious groups across the spectrum have been more vocal about government policies that are inhumane, harmful, and even evil.

We need to leave space for these conversations to happen and people of all religious traditions and secular traditions should not ever be afraid to stand up against any policy or political movement that threatens people’s humanity or rights. It is our responsibility to do so, even if said policies do not affect us personally, because they affect our neighbors. Of course, this is what Jesus taught and did—even though it was not popular. In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as the presence of the Divine as hoped for in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah—bringing justice, healing, and reconciliation to an unjust, wounded, and divided world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often expressed identity with I AM statements, in Greek the ego eimi. In fact, John’s Jesus uses this phrase seven times. I AM…the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. And in John 10 Jesus also expressed what Jesus is not. Jesus is not a thief or destroyer of life, but instead a giver of life, a full life. John’s metaphor involved sheep, a shepherd, and a gate. Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd, one who will lay down one’s own life for the sheep, stand with them when they are in trouble. In fact, this image of Jesus as good shepherd is a more ancient symbol for Jesus than the cross. Before Roman Christianity developed its own symbols, followers of Jesus resonated with the simple image of a shepherd who cares for sheep and knows them by name.

good-shepherd

Sadly, as mentioned previously, religions are created by humans and thus end up serving the desires of humans. That means that religions easily lose their way when they stray from the core elements of message and practice. Jesus, in no Gospel account, was violent, uncaring, exclusive, or judgmental.

Jesus didn’t try to steal people’s identities.

Jesus didn’t destroy people’s lives. Jesus was a giver of life to all. And yet, particular brands of Christianity [including American Christianity] have skewed Jesus’ message and even the image of the good shepherd to be about exclusion, judgement, and even violence. It is so sad to know that there are people who claim to be a follower of this Jesus and consistently mistreat people because of their cultural or linguistic heritage; their gender expression or identification; who they love; how much money they have; the color of their skin. This is why, as I mentioned, it is essential for us to not be silent while this is going on. We cannot hide from the wolves and thieves who seek to destroy. We must confront them, for the sake of our friends and neighbors who are being bullied, and excluded, and told that their lives do not have value.

And we need to tell the blessed story that gives life. Everyone deserves this type of love and care that the good shepherd offers to all. Everyone. And all of us should be loving and caring in this way, in the world. For if we choose to identify with this good shepherd, if we choose to believe that God offers us a full life and acceptance as we are, then doesn’t it follow that we should wish for others to experience the same thing?

You see, I think what gives us life as individuals is a good place to start. So ask yourself: what gives me life? Who are the people who give me life? Go to that place. Then, think about all those around you—regardless of their religious traditions or lack thereof; no matter what gender they express or identify with; no matter who they love or what they look like or how much they make or what language they speak. Think about those around you. Don’t you want them to feel alive, cared for, loved? My answer is yes. And all of us who do answer yes to that question, let’s do something about it. Be life-givers in your conversations, your interactions, your decisions, your tweets, and your connections. And if you feel bullied or destroyed or hurt or not invited—I am sorry that this has happened to you. It’s not something you deserve. What you do deserve is love and kindness and community. Let’s work on that together.

 

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