Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘identity’

Casting into the Deep Water

Luke 5:1-11   

As human beings, do we remember that we are part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space? We often forget. Instead, we often experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. And this delusion can be a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. So said Albert Einstein, the Physicist & Nobel Laureate. And he also said that our task then is to “free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

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This is what I would call a paradigm shift—a movement away from what society conditions us to believe about ourselves.

See, most of us are socially conditioned to believe that the family we are born into is where we belong and it defines who we are. We also are conditioned to view others who look different as the other—not related to us. And, as we grow older, our personal desires [or individualistic impulses] can dominate our thinking and living. We also tend to show the greatest care and affection for those who are in our small social circles—particularly those circles in which people look similar and behave in a similar manner. We may wade in the waters of diversity and difference a bit, so to speak, or dip our toes in the water, but we won’t actually dive in to immerse ourselves in difference or diversity.

Not if we buy into the identity that society assigns us.  

And this is where we are today, is it not? We live in a world [and society] in which people are afraid of other types of people. People have a different skin color—someone else fears them. People live out their sexuality or their gender identity or expression differently—someone fears them. People practice different religions or no religion at all—someone fears them. Rather than seeing all of these human beings as part of this thing we call the universe, of which we are also a part—we end up being afraid of each other and seek isolation in our small, homogeneous social groups. And by doing that we are unable to empathize with other’s feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. We only see, hear, and feel our own. And eventually, we de-humanize those who are different.

And in the process we de-humanize ourselves.

That is why Einstein’s words are completely relevant today, about widening our circles, embracing all living beings, and the whole of nature and its beauty. In essence, we need to go much further than just testing the water of diversity, but we need to immerse ourselves in it.

We need to venture out into the deep water.

Now consider an interesting fact about water. If a body of water is shallow, it’s loud. Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Well, you know that closer to shore it’s tough to swim. The waves are crashing again and again, tossing you about. It’s fun, of course, to ride those waves, but not great for swimming. But have you even ventured out a bit further? If you have, then you know that the deeper you go the less you are tossed about. In fact, I have been in some oceans where the water was calm. I could swim easily. I didn’t feel the undertow. I glided across the water. It was quiet.

Image result for still waters run deep

There is a well-known phrase which I’m sure you’ll remember.

Still waters run deep.

It originated as a Latin proverb and lives on in English as an idiom.

Do you know it?

Still waters run deep.

Simply put, it means a mild exterior manner (“still waters”) may hide a more passionate or dangerous internal nature (“run deep”). For example, it can mean that someone who is quiet still contains great wisdom or a deep understanding, or that someone who seems so passive and shy is instead plotting world domination.

What you see on the surface doesn’t tell the whole story, in other words. 

Stay with the mental imagery of a body of water that sinks to great depth—it shows no flowing movements on the surface. You don’t see it moving, but it’s deep.

Let’s stay in the water and invite Jesus into our conversation. Luke’s Gospel tells a story about Jesus and the lake of Gennesaret. By this point in the story, a crowd was pressing in on Jesus. Luckily, he was able to get on a boat that was on the shore of the lake. He used the boat as his podium to teach the crowds, asking a man named Simon to push out a bit from the shore. Distance from the crowds. Jesus needed space. And after he taught them, he then engaged the local fishermen in conversation. He asked Simon to cast out his nets into the deep water.

Simon wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea. They had already worked all night long but hadn’t caught any fish. Notice he didn’t say that they had cast out into the deep water yet. He just said that they hadn’t caught anything. But eventually, Simon agreed to give it a try.

So he cast his nets out into the deep water.

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And they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. They had to call the other boat to come out and help them haul the fish in. Even so, the two boats were so full of fish that they started to sink. The people were amazed.

See, I know that oftentimes this story is used as some kind of evangelical tool. Go out and catch people. Convert them—that’s what Jesus was telling us.

Well, I’m not sure. What I see here instead is Jesus using extremely symbolic water as an invitation to a big paradigm shift.

Because society conditions us to stay on our side of the lake, to stay in our lanes, to not reach across lines of difference.

Don’t venture out to the deep water. The self-fulfilling prophecy we are given is that we should limit ourselves before we even try. We usually ask: what can or can’t I accomplish” meaning that we’ve already accepted the boxes we’ve been given. The fisherman only saw themselves as fisherman. And so they went through their routines and caught nothing. They assumed that this was their lot in life. This is who they were. But the paradigm shift came and they were challenged to cast their nets into the deep water, into places unknown, and to discover a part of themselves that was there all along but was never fully embraced. Jesus was pushing them to stop asking limiting questions like “what can we accomplish or not accomplish” and instead to ask “What do I want to accomplish?”

They moved from “I can’t catch any fish after a whole night’s work” to “I really want to catch fish so what avenues have we yet to explore, can we go deeper?”

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Water, Light, Spirit…BEGIN!


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Water is essential for life.

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Without water, we die. Without water, there is no life. Period.

Look around the world right now and you’ll notice that there are far too many people who struggle to survive…because they don’t have access to drinking water.

844 million people don’t have clean water.
(WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2017)

31% of schools don’t have clean water.
(UNICEF, Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring, 2015)

Every minute a newborn dies from infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
(WHO, 2015)

Worldwide, 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is due to a water-related disease.

And here’s the thing—access to water affects a person’s whole life. If a kid, for example, has access to clean water, he/she does not need to travel miles to fetch water. That kid can then stay in school and get an education. Also, with clean water, disease and sickness is lessened, and the child can grow up healthy with access to more opportunities. And, with clean water access comes better food security and reduction of hunger. Access to water can break the cycle of poverty.

Now for many living in the U.S., water scarcity is not a thing. Many of us used to think that that kind of thing happened in far away places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Flint, Michigan happened. You remember that? Also, as recently as last year, there were a few days in certain Philadelphia suburbs when the water was unsafe to drink due to septic issues. Imagine if that problem were to last weeks, months, even a year?

Many of us take water for granted. It’s coming out of our faucets, shower heads, flushing our toilets, and making our coffee. But what if you had to travel miles on foot just to have access to water? How would that change your view of it? Water would become precious to you. Water would become life for you. Water would be more valuable than money.

We ought to view water in this way—as a precious treasure, and something that all people [and all living things] deserve access to. For without it, life is no more.

I hope that you can embrace water as a tangible thing but also as a symbol of life, of wholeness. For that is what a small story found in all four canonical Gospels is all about—water.

You may have heard of this tale. Jesus of Nazareth, now a grownup, heads to the river Jordan in the middle of nowhere to meet up with this crazy preacher named John. Now, there’s context here, right? John is Elizabeth’s kid, and Elizabeth is somehow related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Were they cousins? Very possible. But the Gospels seem to point out that John and Jesus didn’t know each other yet. How could that be? Well, it’s possible that when King Herod was trying to kill all the first-born sons of Judah back in the day that while Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah and John went somewhere else to hide. Perhaps Jesus and John grew up apart from each other. And then, it’s possible that Jesus heard about this crazy preacher by the river Jordan and wanted to meet him. It’s possible. But we really don’t know. What we do know is that the first version of this story, in Mark, is shorter and just says that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to where John was and got baptized, i.e. submerged in the water of the river. Then, the heavens opened [I’ve always taken this to mean that it may have rained], and then the Spirit came down [fluttering like a bird] and a voice told Jesus that he was a pretty good dude.

But the later Gospel writers added some commentary, because honestly, this story is problematic. I mean, think about it—many people believed [and still believe] that Jesus of Nazareth was without sin. So, why in the world would a sinless Jesus need to be baptized by John, who was doing that so as to forgive people’s sins? Um, yeah. So the later Gospels try to explain it away and in my opinion, they fail at it. I actually think this whole “sin” thing isn’t the point of the story at all.

The point is the water.

Image result for water

See, John and Jesus were doing the same thing, in their own ways. They were preaching and teaching what the ancient Hebrew prophets did, like Isaiah, telling anyone who would listen that the world was messed up, out of balance, and injust [especially to the vulnerable and marginalized], and that Yahweh had just about had it. Time to repent [which means turn around], time for a 180 and the water was a symbol of that. You submerge yourself in that river, you make a decision to move forward in a new way. You leave behind whatever was dragging you down. You commit to being just and compassionate to others. You decide to be just and compassionate with yourself.

The water is the tangible element in nature that everyone needs to survive. There is not one single living thing on this earth that doesn’t know about water. Every day water is part of our lives. So it’s the perfect, universal, tangible symbol for something that may seem not so universal or tangible—the Spirit.

See, many read this story as Jesus’ big moment when God pretty much certifies Jesus as the Messiah and some type of demi-god. In fact, that’s what most people wanted. Truth be told, if you read the whole story in the Gospels, John had his own views about who the Messiah would be. We have NO IDEA how John really reacted to meeting Jesus. We just know from the earlier story in Mark that John baptized Jesus. And then they went their separate ways. So make your own conclusions.

But what resonates for me is what is consistent in the story—the water. The water changes the people who are baptized in the Jordan river. The water changes Jesus of Nazareth. After the water, Jesus launches a movement of ragtag, poor, marginalized people who promote justice, peace, and love. They go from town to town, and eventually make it to the epicenter, Jerusalem.  The water-spirit drives them there, keeps them together, motivates them when they lose momentum, fills them when they feel empty.

The last thing I’ll say about this story is that the voice coming from heaven was mostly likely heard by lots of people. In other words, don’t take the story so literally that you see these events as happening all in the same linear time frame. The voice was meant for Jesus, yes, but was also meant to be heard by others, and was also meant to be heard by you and me in 2019, reading this story.

Because we’re invited to the water ourselves.

We’re invited there no matter how long it takes us to get there, or where we come from, or who we call ourselves. We are invited to the water, invited to submerge ourselves in it, to feel its drops trickle down our face, to feel the sensation of cool water in the middle of a hot desert. Yes, we’re invited to the water and we NEED this water to live. It turns us around, it reminds us of who we are and who we are becoming, and then we just might have a chance to embrace this Spirit-thing that is sometimes hard to understand or accept. The voice is also for you and for me, for all of us, telling us that we are just fine as we are made, we are beloved as-is, but that also at any time we can go back to this water and make a change.

We can turn around. We can do a 180. We can keep becoming.

An Ally Identity

Mark 9:38-41; 49-50     The Message (MSG)

38 John spoke up, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

39-41 Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.

49-50 “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”

What is an ally?

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The organization GLAAD [not an acronym] defines an LGBTQIA+ ally as:

-a listener.
-open-minded.
-willing to talk.
-inclusive and inviting of LGBT friends to hang out with your friends and family.
-not assuming that friends and co-workers are straight.
-not afraid to speak out when Anti-LGBT comments and jokes are made.
-someone who confronts their own prejudices and bias
-a defender against discrimination.
-a believer that all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, should be treated with dignity and respect.

At the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto this November, I’ll be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How to Be an Interfaith Ally.” Here are some highlights of the definition of an interfaith ally:

Image result for interfaith allyAn interfaith ally:

-Is aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings about spiritual identity.
-Builds religious literacy
-Is aware of current social and political events.
-Treats everyone as individuals
-Does not obligate anyone, regardless of their outward appearance, to share or speak about that in any context.
-Avoids assumptions and gossip. Allows the individual to share his/her/their identity in their time.
-Uses inclusive and appropriate language and confronts harmful, oppressive language.
-Shows support for or encourages creation of the Interfaith community.

See, there are many specific ways to contextualize what an ally is. An LGBTQIA+ ally will look different than an interfaith ally in certain cases. There are specific actions that apply to specific situations. Overall, though, an ally in any context shares important characteristics and behaviors.

For the sake of this conversation, allow me to define an ally as someone who:

-stands with those who are not heard, marginalized, disenfranchised, or oppressed.
-listens well and does not judge.
-learns, learns, and learns some more!
-recognizes diversity and difference, not as a threat, but as an essential fabric of humanity.
-knows when to step back and when to step up.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about human development [evolution, change, becoming].

I’ve noticed that many adults in our society sadly believe a narrative about themselves—that they are incapable of change. That their perspectives are locked in place and that the way they see themselves and the world is static. I don’t buy this for one second. I fully believe in the capacity of all humans [no matter the age] to continue to develop and grow, to evolve, to become. We are built that way. But yes, as adults it does require us to make more of an effort in our development. We first have to embrace the possibility of growth change; then we have to seek it out, care for it, be willing to leave behind old paradigms, and be willing to listen and learn.

This relates directly to being an ally in any context, because in order to be an ally we have to confront our own prejudices and assumptions. It is necessary for us to consider other perspectives that we previously viewed as impossible or crazy, or perhaps we never even considered such perspectives.

So to be an ally we have to evolve.

I look at Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel stories and it jumps out at me—Jesus was an ally. Jesus stood with and for those who were voiceless and oppressed, including but not limited to:

Widows, children, lepers, the sick, the materially poor, Samaritans [the ethnically oppressed], the homeless, the unclean [religiously marginalized people].

Jesus was an ally. And if you look close enough, Jesus was trying to teach and mentor others to be allies. Those who followed Jesus didn’t join a religion or a church. They followed a path. They lived a new kind of way. They shifted away from old paradigms to new ones. They sought to create heaven on earth by balancing what was out of whack in society. They were changing, developing, becoming. And they were called to be allies.

But the followers of Jesus struggled with this. They argued over who was the best ally, the greatest follower. They struggled to listen to each other. They carried deep and historical prejudices with them. It wasn’t easy for them to learn how to be allies. Case in point—in this particular Mark story Jesus’ followers aren’t happy that someone outside of their group is healing someone. How dare someone else do the good work THEY were supposed to be doing! But Jesus called them out on this. “If someone is for us, they are not against us.” Quite the paradigm shift, no? We often hear the opposite of that phrase. See, Jesus didn’t care if the insider group did the work of healing or if people outside the group did it. Part of being an ally is not letting your ego get the best of you. It’s celebrating the good things others are doing, even if you don’t get any credit or benefit from it.

And Jesus, in this Markan section, closes with a healing word of wisdom: Everyone will be salted with fire. Remain salty, and be at peace. Salt and fire were symbols and actual tools of healing in Jesus’ time. This remark is about the ally community—that yes, there will be times when we screw up. We will say or do something hurtful, even if we don’t mean it. But there’s always a chance to heal. Fire and salt. Wounds are healed. People are welcomed again. We learn and grow from our mistakes. And this leads us to be at peace with one another.

This ally thing is hard, no doubt. It’s messy, it’s risky, and it’s sometimes unpopular. But it’s SO WORTH IT.

Add to this discussion. How do you know when someone is your ally? Reply in the comment section.

Further, if you wish to have some resources about how you can be an ally, visit here.

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.

Image result for self help books
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.

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.

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