Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘identity’

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.

 

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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.

 

Come Out & Come Spring Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

butterrain
The season of spring is one that many people point to as their favorite season–at least for those who live in places where winter cold is a reality and the arrival of spring’s warmth and sunshine is a welcome change. Even in other places where the weather doesn’t seem to change, like in Honolulu, Hawai’i where I once lived, one can sense the change. Though on the island of Oahu I never experienced cold weather and grey skies, I did experience a rainy season that eventually gave way to sunshine…and rainbows. I’ve also been to a place called the city of eternal spring or la ciudad de la eternal primavera, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

1280px-Cuernavaca_c274_oCuernavaca is located in a tropical region, but its temperature stays pretty much in the 70s Fahrenheit, because it is situated on the southern slope of the Sierra de Chichinautzin mountains. When you wake up in the morning in Cuernavaca, warm air flows up the mountains from the valley below. When you’re having a coffee in the late afternoon, cooler air flows down from the higher elevations.

Spring as a season, of course, is full of symbolism. Rebirth, new life, flowers blooming, etc, etc. Across religious traditions there is a rich tapestry of spring-like themes and expressions. In the Christian tradition we read a story each springtime about Jesus of Nazareth disappearing from a tomb where a body was supposed to be, and then varied experiences of people seeing or hearing Jesus alive. It’s impossible for me to address all of the nuance and history of the resurrection stories in the four Gospel accounts. For the sake of our conversation, I’ll simply remind us all that each of the four Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection are different. The original story, in Mark, is really short and contains no actual appearance of the risen Jesus. Luke and Matthew expand Mark’s story, and John has a different take. The fact that all four stories differ from each other tells us that there was no established narrative about Jesus’ resurrection in the 50-100 years after Jesus’ death.

We are looking at Matthew’s version, a story that includes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb, but without spices and ointment. A great stone stood between them and the inside of the tomb. Matthew uses the word “behold” a lot in this version. Behold! A great earthquake! And behold! One lonely angel of the Lord [same wording Matthew uses when Jesus is born]. The angel is like the Incredible Hulk and thus able to move that great stone out of the way, and feeling quite pleased, the angel plops down on that great stone and takes a seat. The angel is wearing shiny, white clothes and looks quite like Jesus did in Matthew’s transfiguration story. A little resurrection bling-bling.

discoJesus

Kudos to the Disco Jesus creator.

Anyway, the Roman guards, symbols of power and strength and the military, are scared out of their minds and are shaken. They become like dead ones. Not so powerful now are ya? The angel, with a play on words, says to the women: Fear not! He is not here, he has been raised.

For the women, this would have been good news for many reasons. First, because they were all still upset about what had happened to Jesus. Also, the fact that Jesus had been raised to life meant that the work and words of Jesus would also not die, i.e. the way of compassion, gender equality, acceptance of the unclean, the sinners, and the marginalized being embraced.  The women are invited by the buff angel to look closer in the tomb to notice where Jesus once lay. But then, they are instructed to go right away and tell the others who followed Jesus. The angel must have a limited vocabulary in ancient Greek, because the angelic hulk keeps saying: Behold! He is going before you into Galilee, Behold! I have told you…and then Matthew adds one more in there: Behold! Jesus met them…

The women aren’t afraid and leave quickly to spread the news. And Behold! Jesus appears to them and greets them with xairete, a common phrase that was an everyday greeting. Funny, isn’t it? In spite of the earthquake, a great stone, an angel, and lots of Beholds! Jesus’ first words to the women are akin to: hey, what’s up, how you doin? The women are smart and go right for the feet of Jesus. And no, that’s not weird. You see, Matthew wants us to understand that this resurrected Jesus is not a ghost.

Okay, I get it. Each one of us will have a different take on this story and the whole resurrection thing. Just like the conflicting accounts in the Gospels, we won’t have the same view of it all. And that’s just fine, because the whole point of the resurrection story isn’t to prove something or disprove it, the point is not to claim that one religion is better than all the others because its prophet rose from the dead; the point is to find resurrection ourselves. That’s what each person who followed this Jesus were invited to discover–the resurrection in their own lives. This idea is all around us in nature with caterpillars, seeds, and eggs–going to dark places and seemingly lifeless–only to emerge reborn and beautifully alive. So no matter how you see this story, hear this:

Behold! You and I are invited to come out, to spring forth. It can be scary sometimes to do that, to be our true selves, to emerge just as we are. But we are encouraged to do so. We are encouraged with love and with healing to trade fear for emergence, for new life. Great stones and obstacles are moved to the side and we have room…to come out, to see this day [and every one after it] as a resurrection day, as a new start, as another opportunity to say and live: this is me. This is who I am. And I am loved. I am beautiful as I am. I may have scars and wounds and I may have felt dead on more than once occasion, but right now, in this moment, I am me. It is spring and I’m coming out, I’m blooming again.

And all around us are people with great stones holding them back and all around us are people who have been wounded and mistreated and pushed to the margins, and we have this chance, every day of this life, to say to them: Behold! I love you as you are; I accept you here and now and always; and you can come out and experience love and be who you are. This is resurrection. This is every day. Come on out. Behold! Your are loved, you are beautiful, and you are made to love, and to recognize the beauty in others, and in all life.

P.S. MUST listen to this song. It’s great. It says this better than I can.

 

Seeing Wholly

John 9:1-7

Roots1943KahloRoots, Frida Kahlo, 1943

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?

How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

What does Jesus teach us about this?

In this John story, we once again find a character encountering Jesus of Nazareth. Previously it was Nicodemus and then a Samaritan woman at a well. Now we have a person who supposedly had been blind from birth. A couple of things to note here. First, the Greek word that is translated “man” in English could be a mistake. The Greek word in question here, anthropon, does not refer to a male, but to a human being. This would not be a stretch to consider, because in many Gospel stories the characters encountering Jesus are not specifically gendered in Greek, so as to allow for all of us to identify with the characters. It’s unfortunate the most translations don’t use “person” or “human being” but we will. A person was blind from birth.

Blindness is also something to not take literally, necessarily. Blindness was a metaphor for not seeing people or the world wholly. Consider, however, that in Jesus’ time someone who was “blind from birth” was considered to be a “sinner” by religious people, and that possibly the sins/mistakes of that person’s parents were passed on. Even Jesus’ own disciples tried to moralize the situation, asking whose fault it was that this person was born blind. Who was to blame?

Do you see how this story is relevant? A person is given an identity by other people and called a sinner because of being born something from birth. Then people say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and blame the parents, then the parents blame the circumstances or God, and in the end, the person is left with a pretty messed up perspective and an identity crisis.

So what does Jesus do? Jesus spits on the ground and mixes saliva with mud. Back to the symbols of water and spirit. Saliva is living water, which is also spirit. These are the born from above ingredients. Plus, mud represents the earth and probably hearkens back to the Genesis creation story in the Torah. That would make sense if you consider that John’s Gospel alludes to Genesis quite frequently.

Back to the story. Jesus tells the blind person to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. So the blind person does so, eyes full of mud and saliva. The person comes back seeing.

Should be a huge celebration, right? Not so fast. The story continues on and the neighbors are not too accepting. They remember the person as blind, as a sinner. And now, this person sees? They also knew this human as a beggar. Aha. Even though the person keeps on saying: I am me—I am that person you knew! They don’t buy it. Consider that the now “seeing” person uses Ego eimi, the I AM Greek version of the divine name of YHWH used in Exodus, I am who I am. The person was now born from above, made up of water and spirit. This is how the person saw newly and wholly. Eyes were opened. Positive and personal identity claimed.

So I want to return to the questions asked at the very beginning:

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?
How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

See. Yes, we need to see—ourselves and others, as human beings, as creatures made of water and spirit. We need to see each other. Personally, we are not the mistakes our predecessors or parents made. We are not the genders people or society assign to us. We are not the religious dogma we were raised with. We are not the sexual orientation others tell us we are. We are not the school we went to, the town or city or area we grew up in, we are not any of the categories that people assign to us. Instead, we are water mixed with spirit, connected to the good earth. We can all journey to the pool of Siloam together to see that we are beautifully, uniquely, and wonderfully made.

And along the way, We need to see others and stop assuming that someone is this or that based on those restrictive, linear categories. We need to hear someone say I am who I am and we need to celebrate it, accept it, and love that person as is. Identity is important for our health and wholeness.

What are you seeing in all this? What do you think?

Do You Know Your H2O?

John 4:5-15

ebooA couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Dare to Understand Awards event. The featured speaker was Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. I have met with Eboo various times and consider him to be one of my mentors. He inspired me in 2007 when I met him for the first time and read his memoir, Acts of Faith. There was so much in his story that I resonated with and since then, I have been committed to the work of interfaith cooperation and understanding. Eboo, a Muslim, teaches in Seminaries and other religious schools, often encountering American Evangelical Christians, who tend to be the most skeptical or even fearful of people from other faith traditions—especially Muslims. And yet, this is the challenging and important work that Eboo does. He is not afraid to reach across lines of difference. He embraces the most difficult questions and faces the various conflicts.

Recently, Eboo has been focusing on the need for people of faith backgrounds to live out their faith more honestly and publicly. The reason for that is because today many of the most open-minded Christians are mostly silent about their own faith tradition, fearing that they will offend someone or sensing the practice of the Christian faith has nothing positive to offer Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secular humanists, etc. For example, Cassie Meyer, who works with Eboo at Interfaith Youth Core, says that most Christians have been conditioned to think that there are two ways to engage people of other faiths.

Liberal Christians feel they need to let go of any unique identity and affirm all religions as the same. Call it religious relativism.

Conservative Christians do the opposite. They hold on even tighter to their beliefs and sometimes see other religions as the enemy. Call it fundamentalism.

In both cases, this way of seeing the world does not lead to understanding and cooperation.

But there is another way. What about religious pluralism?  Pluralism claims that we are a diverse culture, worldwide. We have different truth claims. The real question is: how can we live together while being our true selves? The answer, at least, for Jesus of Nazareth, is to encounter the other, the one who others say is untouchable or unreachable. Enter the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, though it is not often talked about, was one who did not shy away from engaging with diversity—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic. He sought out those who were “untouchable” and on the margins. This is why he ended up in Samaria with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews like Jesus were not supposed to go to Samaria. Just consider that Jesus, a Jew, and this woman, a Samaritan, should not have met. The Jews believed their sacred temple was in Jerusalem and the Samaritans that their sacred site was on Mount Gerizim. They read different scriptures. They had competing truth claims about G-d. And yet, Jesus seeks her out and breaks the rules—only to offer her living water.

In this case, living water is a new identity. For the Samaritan woman, this was being fully human. She had been told that her life didn’t matter and that she was lesser. Jesus, though he was of another religious and cultural background, sought her out to tell her that her life did indeed matter, and that she was full of living water. This is the narrative the Gospels tell about this Jesus—that Jesus seeks people out who feel lost, broken, devalued, marginalized, and forgotten.

That story is good news for all of us.

And yet, within that narrative I also hear another one—that we live in a world in which certain people of certain cultural, political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds cannot meet; they cannot talk to each other. Those meetups are even banned by governments and the rich and powerful. And many of us are conditioned [or at least jaded enough] to start believing this narrative. Christians cannot meet up with Muslims; materially poor people cannot meet up with the materially wealthy; a 16-year-old from West Philly cannot be friends with a 16-year-old from Warrington; a gender-fluid person can never meet up with someone who has no idea about alternative pronouns or even what transgender means; Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians—they cannot meet up.

These types of meetup groups are prohibited and even impossible, so we are told.

Let me say that certainly for people who are marginalized or discriminated against, they have every right to be skeptical about such meetings. If as a transgender person you have been told more than once that your “new” pronouns aren’t real and even that your gender identification or expression is invalid or unnatural—well, you should not be subjected to that harsh treatment. If you’re Black in America and have experienced both the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and tokenism on many occasions—you have every right to disengage from those who have treated you like this. If you are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Jain and have been mistreated or misrepresented when you encountered Christians, you have every right to walk away from those encounters.

Let me be clear—just because there are nice stories about Jesus encountering and meeting marginalized people as they are and where they are does not mean that it’s easy and happens all the time in society. It doesn’t, and that’s the point. What Jesus did was radical, considered dangerous, and counter-culture. Also, Jesus was the one reaching out. He wasn’t the marginalized. He looked for and befriended those on the margins.

And that’s where the narrative can be beautiful and powerful. As a Christian [and as a human being] I have committed to befriending Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and others from marginalized religious communities. It is up to me to do that. Likewise, I have made a commitment to be a friend and a student when I am with my LGBTQIA friends, colleagues, and family—to learn from them, because there is so much I do not know.

Friends, as people with H20 in our DNA, we can be water for each other in these encounters. We can make a positive social impact in society if those of us not on the margins seek out those on the margins and listen to their stories, honor and accept them, value their lives, and then join them on the journey. In life, you will encounter people who are worried, who carry way too heavy burdens, and they feel like their life doesn’t matter. You can decide to be water by being a listening ear, a helping hand, a ship out in the middle of the ocean, a glass of water in the middle of desert sand. There will be times when all of our own wells will run dry, and in those moments we will need someone to offer us a refreshing drink and to remind us that our life has value. Whether on the margin or not, water is in your physical and spiritual DNA. Let us be water for each other and refresh and heal the community.

How Are We Clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

Not Looking Back: How Do We Move Forward?

Luke 9:51-62

journeyhobbitAs a kid, I read The Hobbit numerous times. I’ve reread it as an adult, too. There are many reasons why I like it—the good storytelling, the characters, creatures, languages, and cultures. The overarching theme, though, is what always draws me in. Bilbo Baggins, the little Hobbit with the hairy feet, is the protagonist. And he’s joined by others who are pulled from their comfortable or seemingly routine lives into an adventure they could never have imagined. Elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, ghost kings, giant spiders, and oh yes, a dragon that talks.

Bilbo, at nearly every step of his journey, is reluctant to move forward.

He resists. From time to time, he looks back at his once-comfortable, mundane life in his hobbit hole called Bag End in the village of Hobbiton. He misses his plates and forks, his full pantry, his wine, ale, food, and pipe. But those moments of looking back don’t last long. Bilbo must keep moving forward on his journey towards the Misty Mountain. And even at the end of his story [at least the end of the book], it is obvious that Bilbo cannot go back to his old life. Sure, his hobbit hole will still be there, but he is forever changed. He is not the same Hobbit that a bunch of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf met some time ago. Since leaving Hobbiton, Bilbo can never go back. The Hobbit lifts up these themes: giving up control; taking risks; Compassionate, loving, reckless abandon.

Let’s take a closer look at another story about the journey, in Luke’s Gospel. Like Bilbo, Jesus of Nazareth sets out on a new journey. He is no longer in Galilee. Now, Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. This is a new trajectory, a new journey, and one that will be paved with many adventures, much risk, and great danger. By this point, people are taking notice of this Jesus. So he sends messengers ahead to check things out, as they near Jerusalem and approach a village of Samaritans. Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not like each other. They were close in culture and religion, but a violent past had caused both parties to be resentful of each other. So it is no surprise that the Samaritans in this particular village on the way to Jerusalem blocked Jesus and co. Anything to do with Jerusalem was anti-Samaritan, as far as they were concerned.

Then James and John, part of Jesus’ entourage, figured it was time to bring down the hammer on the Samaritans. Why not? Jesus was like Elijah the prophet to them and they remembered an old story in the Hebrew Scriptures about getting rid of people who resisted Yahweh’s work. So they asked Jesus if it would be appropriate for them to command fire to come down and consume the Samaritans.

Really?

If there ever was a moment when I thought that Jesus’ disciples were totally lost, this is it. Are you kidding? It turns my stomach. Obviously, Jesus rebukes them, but still. What in the world were those disciples thinking?

So they go to another village (obviously) and now some people along the road are wishing to join Jesus’ entourage. But it wasn’t Jay Z’s entourage. There were no perks, free lunches, or nice hotel rooms.

Jay-Z-008
Even animals have a place to live, right? But according to Jesus, that was not a guarantee for his followers. This was no cush journey.

Then, yet another person seems to be close to joining Jesus on the journey, but he has some family business to take care of. Burying one’s father is a metaphor for family obligations. He wasn’t able to let go of those obligations to take this new journey. And then another would-be follower expresses willingness to follow Jesus, but he still needs to say goodbye to some people. Not good enough, says Jesus. Let the dead bury the dead and don’t look back.

In my perspective, this is a story about letting go—about moving forward, which means not looking back so much. Often people assume that being a Christ-ian, or a follower of Christ, is about believing something or following a particular religious tradition. That may be true for the various branches of Christianity over the centuries, but it was not true in the Gospels. Jesus was not leading a religion. Jesus was asking people to follow him to a new way of being. And this new way of being was different for each and every person.

For some, Jesus invited them to follow him, because they needed that. Perhaps they had never been invited in their entire lives. They were the outcasts, the untouchables, those whom the religious people didn’t want to hang out with. So Jesus healed them, invited them, and they joined the entourage of the mercy train.

But also, there were those who wanted to follow Jesus. They asked to follow. And each time, Jesus asked them if they were really sure about that. I mean, this would be no prosperity gospel; they would not gain anything materially; they might actually lose material wealth. They wouldn’t be heralded or esteemed; they might even be ridiculed or thought of as strange. And above all, they would have to let go—let go of their world views that were harmful; let go of their prejudices; let go of their attachments to beautiful temples and powerful armies and governments; they would even need to let go of family obligations and guilt. In short, for those who said they wanted to follow Jesus, it was the most difficult, because unlike the outcasts, these would-be followers struggled to let go.

I’ll close with some thoughts about letting go, because I know for many of you, letting go is hard. Let me start by saying what I don’t mean. By letting go I don’t mean that those of you who have been abused in any way, or who have suffered great trauma in the past [and are still obviously dealing with it], I don’t mean that you ought to just get over it. The things that were done to you were of course not your fault, and the healing process of coping with such trauma lasts a lifetime and is an everyday enterprise. Also, keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth never said “get over it” to any of those who were considered outcasts or who were in need of healing. They were healed and invited on the journey.

What I mean by letting go refers to those reluctant people in the story [and any of us] who are attached to material things and human obligations so much that we cannot move forward. Those of us who are consistently looking back and so full of nostalgia [both good and bad] that the present day is less important and life is stagnant.

Here are some things that have helped me let go of such things obligations. I hope this is helpful for you:

Finding stillness and breathing. Okay, maybe this is weird for some? For me, meditation is helpful, but by meditation I mean just pausing. Really pausing. Stop, even for a few moments, and listen to your breathe. Try it.

Understanding. What has happened in your life? Don’t judge those things. Observe them. Be aware.

Accepting your history. Don’t try to change it. It’s done.

Letting go of judgements, expectations, and material things, as much as possible.

Assessing. What matters most to you in life? Are you pursuing this?

Allowing the Path to be revealed. Don’t force it.

Contributing to the well-being of others, even when you feel angry, sad, or hopeless.

Having fun and laughing. Life actually is short.

Being grateful. Let your gratefulness overcome any complaining.

What things help you to move forward and to let go?

Next week’s teaser: Luke 10:1-11: How Do You Measure Success?

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