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Posts tagged ‘inclusion’

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.[1]

Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone. Realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.[2]

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.[3]

You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.[4]

What does unity mean to you?

bettertogetherWISC
Say or think the first few things that come to mind. What is unity? According to a mash-up dictionary definition, unity is defined as:

Being together or at one with someone or something.
Unity is the opposite of being divided.

In the world, we certainly see divisions in many aspects of society—divisions in religions, politics, culture, nationality, race, gender, world view, and many more. Keep in mind that I am referring to divisions, and not difference. Having different religions, cultures, languages, and world views is what makes us human. Difference is good; difference is humanity.

Division is something else. Case in point: I have different political views from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. Some of us can actually talk about these differences without getting angry or defensive. But others who have different political views than I do cannot even engage in discourse with me. They see only their own point of view and also see my different view as a threat, or as flat out wrong. And that my friends, is division.
Last week, as many of you know, I participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk for Reconciliation in Philadelphia with hundreds of people from various religious and secular backgrounds.

peace-walk-gallery-header_0Now to some, this kind of walk is pointless, because in their view, the actual event accomplishes nothing.

So what? People go on a walk. But they are still divided! Muslim women in hijabs; Wiccan women with no head coverings; Sikh men with turbans; Jewish men with kippas; Catholic men and women with cross necklaces; Buddhists with mala beads; Hindu women with saris; hippie and hipster folk with peace signs and long hair.

From the outside, the walk doesn’t seem like anything unified at all if one thinks that differences only separate us. What they don’t know is that throughout the year, the real influence of the walk is evident. It is not about one day or one walk. It is about the relationships that are formed. People build bridges of understanding, trust, and friendship across lines of difference. A Christian woman now sees her Muslim friend not as a Muslim, but just a friend. Likewise, a Sikh college student sees a Buddhist classmate as a colleague and does not identify him by his religious tradition.

That’s what this walk is about: a commitment of individuals [and communities] to embrace difference as healthy and beautiful, and to not see difference as division.

The Christian Bible most certainly addresses the theme of division and unity in both the Old and New Testaments. I will say, however, that American Christians often understand unity to be something only within their own religious circles. So, if you happen to be Catholic, unity might mean that various Catholics should get together, be on the same page, and cooperate. Mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, do the same thing. They create regional and national events to try to make unified decisions and also to join for unified worship and prayer. And ecumenical groups have joint worship services to express unity across denominations.

By no means am I saying that such things are negative—they are not. But this is not the kind of unity that the Bible speaks of.
Remember that the various authors who wrote the Bible did so over the course of centuries. And none of them had any idea about the religion of Christianity. Zero. It did not exist. It is really important to keep that in mind when you read the Bible. Instead of Christians, there were all kinds of people who were considered to be of the Jewish tradition [and they were not all the same]. There were also Greeks, and Romans, and Samaritans, and Africans, and Arabs, and many, many more. Religiously and culturally, even in the small area around where Jesus and his followers lived, there was diversity and difference. Later on, when Paul and other followers of Jesus of Nazareth started to branch out farther into Europe and the Middle East, they encountered even more difference.

All that being said, John’s Gospel was written well after that—even after Paul’s letters. So look at this prayer that is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in John 14:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

We don’t have adequate time to dissect every part of this prayer so we will focus on unity as it is expressed here as being one. In order to do that, I’m going to borrow from Richard Rohr and his work, the Cosmic Christ. For those of you unfamiliar with Richard Rohr, he is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

In The Cosmic Christ, Rohr speaks about the Incarnation of God that we assume happened in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Rohr states that the incarnation actually happened 14.5 billion years ago with a moment that many scientists call “The Big Bang.” In other words, two thousand years ago, according to the New Testament of the Bible, the human incarnation of God in Jesus took place, but before that there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast” according to the story in Genesis of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 1:3-25).

This, Rohr says, was the “Cosmic Christ.” Christ is in fact not Jesus’ last name, but the title for his life’s purpose. Jesus is the very concrete truth revealing and standing in for the universal truth.[5]

This idea is nothing new. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that the world was created by one God and that this God manifested in a human or in humans. So do many, many other traditions like the Baha’i faith, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, etc. Some traditions call that divine manifestation light. This concept is often called non-duality.

Okay, stay with me here.

Nonduality or nondualism, means “not two” or “one undivided without a second.”

Across religious and philosophical traditions around the world, nondualism takes different shapes. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s take nondualism to mean that there is no absolute, transcendent reality beyond our everyday reality. The universe is one reality, and we are part of it. Explore more about this idea and you will find that there is so much harmony across religious and non-religious traditions when it comes to this perspective, i.e. that we are all part of the same universe and connected to it.

Westerners struggle with nondualism. Why? Lots of answers to that question. In my experience, it is often because people have been raised to think that there are black-and-white answers to cosmic and nuanced problems, and also that there are clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. This is what we can refer to as binary thinking. For example, consider when countries like the United States wage a “war” thinking that it is on the side of good. At the same time, those on the other side of this war also think that their cause is right. So who is right? It depends on where you live, how you were raised, and your worldview, of course. Most people from the Eastern part of the world would understand this and not be freaked out by it. It is not relativism. It is non-dualism. Both sides of a war are seeking the same thing.

Contrarily, the opposite of nonduality is duality. In the West, as individuals, we see duality expressed with this idea—that I am here and you are there. All of you and the rest of the world is outside me. In other words, we are not connected.

What happens outside of my family or social circle, or house, or church is not related to me.

 

This is, unfortunately, how many Christians know Jesus.  They say they believe in and follow Jesus Christ, but they really have no idea what that entails. What they have actually done is to make two acts of faith, one in Jesus of Nazareth [the person] and another in Christ [the cosmic]. Jesus of Nazareth was a man—a human being who taught certain things and lived in a certain way. Christ is the “anointed” one who was and is divine. This concept of Christ is much bigger and older than Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion. This idea that the material and the divine co-exist is ancient and spans nearly all religious and philosophical traditions.

Imagine how a non-dualistic understanding of Jesus’ prayer in John 14 could be liberating and unifying. Imagine how it could embrace difference and combat division.

Jesus understood that to be divine was to be human, and vice versa.

He was well aware of his connection to all of nature, the communities around him, and the universe. He taught that anyone who hurt others hurt themselves. Understanding the connection between himself and God, Jesus was fully able empathize with another person’s pain and even the very cries of creation. Imagine if some of these highly-contested social issues were thought of in a nondualist way. There wouldn’t be so much fear of what or who is different. Case in point: I think the hurtful controversy about bathrooms and gender identifications would be less about the religious agendas like it is today and more about people—taking into account that non-binary is not a bad thing at all. And we are connected to each other. So if certain people do not feel welcomed to use a bathroom, we also do not feel welcomed.

gender-inclusive-bathroomsNot sure what your take is on whether Jesus was divine or not. Explore that on your own. What matters most is that if we separate God from humanity and vice versa, we’ll deal in division, absolutes, and binary things. We won’t be able to see God in the face of an enemy or in the faces of people in faraway lands or even in the faces of people next door who are different than us.

If this prayer teaches me anything, it is that our divisions are made up.

We are not divided. We are all connected. And the Divine is everywhere, in all of us. We are not alone. There is light in all things and in all people.

So take that idea with you—hold it close and express it in everyday life. We should all be one—with all our differences and uniqueness. We should be unified—as humanity and the natural world. Remember that you are not separated from the people and living things all around you. Remember that you are not separated from the Divine and the Divine is not separated from you. This is love and light.

[1] Gwendolyn Brooks
[2] Rumi
[3] Askhari Johnson Hodari, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs
[4] Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations
[5] From Radical Grace, April-May-June, Volume 23, Number 2, 2010.

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Giving Up Your Seat = Empathy

Luke 14:1-14

QUESTION: What is the worst seat you have ever had? Consider a concert, opera, game, classroom, etc.

What is the best seat you have ever had?

a-place-at-the-tableHere we are in Luke’s Gospel, and Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. Like a previous story about a bent-over woman, here we find a story in which a person is suffering from some sort of illness and then a healing takes place.

BACKGROUND ALERT: Jesus is warned about Herod of Antipas, the ruler of the region called Galilee. At this point in the journey, Jesus’ ideas have become dangerous to political leaders. Surprisingly, the Pharisees actually seem to be protecting Jesus from a possible threat. In spite of the danger, Jesus continues on.

And, like in Luke’s previous story about a bent-over woman, it is the Sabbath day.

Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. As I have mentioned before, in the 1st century in the Middle East, dinners were about more than just food. Great discussions [and debates] about politics, social issues, and religion would take place. Also, keep in mind that one who was hosting such a dinner would obviously invite people of the same social class [or higher], so as to guarantee an invite later on to a dinner at their house. People of low income levels would not have the home to offer so they would not be invited to such a dinner. They could not return the favor.

But we cannot ignore the man with dropsy, who is healed, on the Sabbath.

This man seems to be the male version of the healing story about the bent-over woman. Both stories occur on the Sabbath and in front of the Pharisees. So what is dropsy? The Greek word for dropsy is hudropikos, which is a derivation of the word for water. Dropsy carries with it symptoms of fluid retention and strangely, also great thirst. It’s not a disease really—just a side effect of another health problem. Just like with the bent-over woman, we do not know exactly what is causing his symptoms.

What we do know is that he is thirsty for the thing that he has the most of: water. A sad irony, don’t you think? He is retaining too much water, but is constantly thirsty.

Jesus asks the Pharisees a question, which we can probably guess the answer to:
Is it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath?

The Pharisees give no answer, though we can assume what many of them were thinking:
The Law says that one cannot work on the Sabbath.

So I guess the answer is no.

Then, the example of the wedding feast.

At the dinner table, always sit at the worst seat in the house—never the best seat.
At first, it seems that Jesus is giving the Pharisees some good advice as to how to be falsely humble.

Sure! I’ll take the worst seat at the table, and then, later on, someone will move me up to the best seat. Sounds great!

But as Jesus continues on, it becomes clear that his point has nothing to do with false humility.

Jesus’ point is all about empathy.

The great reversal, as it is called, that the last will be first and vice versa—is about empathy. Do not identify just with your own social class, but with those who you call poor; those you call marginalized; those you call unclean. Identify. Empathize with them.

Invite them to your dinners and give them the best seats. Give up your own seat, even though they won’t repay you. There is nothing that you will get out of it, actually. The world and its social order will reject this behavior. No one will applaud your efforts, you won’t get an award or your name in the paper, and you won’t get more money or status out of it.

In fact, the only thing that comes out of it is that you will participate in God’s kingdom on earth. In other words, God already says that all people are equal. There are no social classes in God’s eyes. So the great equalizing God asks this of you in order to display God’s mercy and love—give up your seat. Empathize.

So another question for you: who do you usually welcome?

Your families, right? Or, on occasion, you might invite over a good friend, too, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time who just moved into the area. Okay, and let’s admit, sometimes we invite someone over because they invited us, and so we feel obligated. Like the Pharisees, an invitation to our home often has more to do with an exchange of favors than empathy.

And, even if we “invite” someone into our lives who is a so-called “poor” person or someone who is “marginalized” we often do it with the hope of salvation in mind—some sort of heavenly reward.

This is why I’m not a big believer in altruism, or the idea that we as people can act completely unselfishly when we help another. For each time we help someone, we are helped, too. We feel better and useful and when we see someone go from sad to content because we helped her, this gives us satisfaction. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. This positive, pay-it-forward kind of idea can have a wonderful impact on our corners of the world. We help someone with his/her best interest in mind; that person helps us, too.

But for Jesus, the expectation of reward is the problem.

We are not entitled. Oh boy…

ohno

No reward that we should expect if we are to truly empathize. The resurrection of the righteous is not about an express ticket to heaven. It is about new life [resurrection] for all of God’s children.

When we invite those who are left out and pushed down, we empathize with them. We choose to say and show that they are just like us. We choose to say to the world that salvation is not reserved for us. We exhibit controversial, uncomfortable behavior when we radically accept people as they are.

Sadly, we live in a world that promotes an opposite idea [and many churches do, too]. We are not encouraged to empathize with others, but instead we are encouraged to stay close to those who are just like us. The media often portrays a so-called “Christian” perspective that is suspicious of this kind of empathy that leads to social justice—especially if it means giving up a good seat at the table. In fact, recently, a well-known television commentator addressed U.S. Christians, instructing them to avoid at all costs and to run away from “those churches that talk about or promote social justice.” Wow.

But friends, don’t let this kind of nonsense or propaganda make you apathetic.

We are called by Christ to be inclusive and to welcome all to our tables. We cannot say or claim the word “gospel” unless we are welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider.

We cannot preach, teach, or live gospel unless we welcome the gay man who was sent to “conversion camp” to get rid of his “gayness”;
or the two women who have loved each other for 13 years and still cannot get married;
the boy who learns differently than the other kids and needs more attention;
the young man who just got out of prison;
the young woman who battles addiction each day of her life;
the people of Syria who are dying and suffering;
the people of Egypt who are mourning;
the families split apart in the Sudan;
the family here in the U.S. that is undocumented and discriminated against;
the Muslim communities in NY or elsewhere who are spied on;
the atheist or the agnostic who has been spiritually wounded;
the teenager searching for acceptance and love in a cruel world.

Friends, we are made in the image of the still-speaking, still-welcoming God.

We have been given a place at the table. Grace and mercy are the place settings.

All of you are invited to the feast of great compassion by God.

So may your life be a table.

And may our tables be radically inclusive.

May our tables be set with no rewards in mind.

May the movement of the welcoming Spirit invade our personal space.

May we always invite those who will not return the favor.

May our church always reserve the best seats for those in great need.

May we choose to empathize with others and accept them as they are.

May our lives be inclusive tables. Amen.

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