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Posts tagged ‘interfaith’

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.

Walking with the Spirit of Peace

John 14:23-29

peacewalk2On Sunday, May 1st, more than 400 hundred people from the Greater Philadelphia area participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk. I walked, as I have the past 5 years.

peacewalk6peacewalk3peacewalk4PeaceWalk1Some have asked me: what is the point of such a walk? I appreciate the question, as it usually comes from a place of curiosity and not judgment. People are quite interested in any gathering of people who identify as Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Christian, Jewish, Secular Humanist, Hindu, Jain, agnostic, atheist, etc….Why?

Most people you meet on the walk answer the question in their own way, but for the most part, we do share a common answer: Inner peace and outer peace.

Now, what do I mean by that?

Inner peace [however you choose to define it] is obviously an internal feeling/state of being in which you feel balanced, accept yourself, forgive yourself and others, and become self-aware. This is a constant, never-ending process.

By outer peace, I mean connecting to others in a cooperative, compassionate, and humanity-building spirit. The inner peace leads to the outer peace.

Along the peace walk I have met all kinds of people who have gone through a lot of difficult circumstances. Some have been discriminated against because of their religious tradition or cultural background.

peacewalk5They walk to forgive and to stand with others who stand with them. Some peace walkers participate because they are tired of seeing all the violence in the world—be it wars or gun violence or religious violence. They walk to stand for justice and to work towards peacemaking in our communities and in the world. Still other peace walkers show up out of curiosity. They wonder: what is this all about? They have never talked to someone who wears a turban. They have never experienced the Muslim call to prayer. They absolutely don’t know anyone of the Baha’i faith and had never heard of that tradition before. They walk out of curiosity. Even on a bike.

peacebike

And then there are those in the Philly neighborhoods, along the walk. They may not be “official” peace walkers; they didn’t know about the walk; they just noticed a large group of people walking through their neighborhood. And so they come out of their row houses and apartments. Kids wave. Some students ask: what is this walk about? When they learn that it is an interfaith peace walk, they shake hands and give a thumbs up. Other neighbors cheer as we walk by, or smile. They walk with us, too.

peacethumbs

Personally, I walk each year because of what I mentioned earlier. I seek inner peace for myself and know how essential it is to practice this. But I also recognize that things like meditation, prayer, or any personal spiritual practice must then lead to public practice, i.e. how I treat others and connect to others. So this walk is a continued commitment to make peace with others.

Working with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia provides opportunities for me and the Christian congregation I serve to pursue inner and outer peace. For example, we work regularly with Urban Tree Connection, and organization that cleans up vacant lots in Philly and transforms them into beautiful community gardens where roses and other flowers, vegetables and fruits grow. Residents in the neighborhoods where Urban Tree develops the gardens help out and connect with the volunteers. Certain areas of Philly that were once prime spots for drug deals and even violence are now peaceful and useful green spaces that the local residents take pride in.

UTC1UTC2

It is for this reason that UTC was recognized recently as a Zone of Peace.

Zones of Peace is a region-wide interfaith movement of churches, synagogues, mosques, other houses of worship, schools, and community-based organizations working to address the root causes of violence and make us safer in the communities where we live, work, and play. Zones of Peace recognizes organizations that are pioneering creative responses to violence and elevates their leadership. I am glad that we have been able to partner with peacemakers like Urban Tree. I have seen firsthand how this kind of work helps individuals to be at peace with themselves but also to be at peace with others.

Speaking of peace, like most religions, Christianity [or the following of Christ] was founded on the principles of peace. Jesus of Nazareth was most certainly a person of inner and outer peace; this is indeed what he taught to his disciples. Whether or not people who call themselves “Christians” in this day and age are actively seeking inner and outer peace is up to them. But this peace-seeking and peacemaking is most certainly at the center of the NT Gospels. In this particular segment of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his friends the disciples for his departure, i.e. his death. His words to them are both comforting and challenging. Allow me a moment to lift up some of the context.

Those who love me will keep my word…

This does not mean that those who love Jesus keep up to date with certain religious rules or even the Bible for that matter. The word Jesus spoke of was and is a reality of being. The word is how you orient yourself, how you love, how you treat others, how you live. Jesus’ disciples were taught to follow Jesus’ example of living in love.

Don’t let your hearts be troubled; don’t be afraid.

This was Jesus sending a clear message to his friends that in spite of challenges and uncertainty, inner peace and wholeness was still possible. If they were to live in love and love was the opposite of fear, well then, this makes sense. But to bring this home, Jesus spoke of a spirit that would help his friends remain connected and inspired. The Greek word here in John has been much debated. Some go with par-ak-letos, which means alongside and called. Sometimes English Bibles translate it as advocate. And further, the Greek word Paraclete borrows from the Hebrew language word nacham, which means comfort. So Paraclete, the promised spirit, is both helper and comforter.

Inner peace personified and offered to all. And finally…

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives to you, do I give to you.

In this case, peace is a loose translation of the Greek word Eirene. It may be helpful for you to consider Eirene and the Hebrew word shalom or the Arabic salaam. The word means the well-being of all people and the world—wholeness, reconciliation, harmony, and health. Outer peace.

To close, I return to this concept of inner peace leading to outer peace. As individuals, we first need to commit to alleviating personal suffering if we ever hope to work towards alleviating suffering in the world.

Swami Brahmananda from Bengali once said: When you find your peace there is one less person suffering.

Likewise, Kelsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk, wrote: Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.

So friends, first you must ask how often do you sense a spirit of inner peace within yourself. What practices fill you with a sense of wholeness and balance? Which practices or behaviors or relationships do not? Once you set yourself on a path of inner peace [and it’s a lifetime process, remember] you will find yourself on a path of peacemaking with others. Inner peace leads to outer peace and meaningful and positive connections with others.

So let us commit as individuals: to promote peace in our homes and communities. Let us commit to work with others to eliminate the causes of hatred, to honor dignity of all people, to lay down our weapons, and to find non-violent solutions when tempted to hurt another.  Let us commit to be an instrument of God’s peace: to make our homes and neighborhoods zones of peace, free of fear, filled with respect, and marked by deeds of kindness. Hope to meet you on this path as we walk it.

From Urban Tree Connection volunteer coordinator [and friend] Sue Witte:
As a 11 or 12 year old I was totally blown away by Jesus saying “Love your neighbor as yourself”, felt how very profound that is, and looked around to see where I could possibly find a mentor for that.  I even asked God why I wasn’t created at the time of Jesus, so that I could actually experience loving one’s neighbors as one’s self, truly, in the deepest sense. 
Later, I had the great good fortune of meeting Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, founder of the Sufi community and mosque in St. Joe’s area, who said “love all lives like your own life”.  I experienced him doing it and it became my life’s goal. I always think that if I am ever able to fully do that, it will be enough because it’s so inclusive of all of God’s beautiful qualities. We just have to get out of the way, clear our minds and hearts of all that stands in the way!  If we can do that, there will be nothing but love, equality, equity and peace. 

May peace prevail, may the hearts melt in love and may all lives truly be our own.

May we walk every day in such a way as to spread the vibration of peace far and wide.

Also, I encourage you to check out A Young Person’s Perspective on the Peace Walk, written by Rachel Steinig.

Choosing to Love No Matter What

John 13:31-35

love-is-a-choice
When did you choose to act out of love?

What I mean by that question is when did you choose to love someone you were not obligated to love? When you loved someone outside of your social circle, your family, colleagues or friends? When you chose to love someone….

Love is certainly a difficult word and concept to define. I’ve learned in my lifetime that the more I age, the more I realize how little I actually know about a lot of things—including love. Love is so much bigger, mysterious, random, and more undefinable than I ever dreamed possible. If you were to ask me: how do you know when someone really loves you? My answers may surprise you. Perhaps your answers to that question would surprise me!

I want you to take a moment and think about this.

When do you know that someone really chooses to love you? What does that kind of love look like? What does it feel like?

My personal answer is: I know someone loves me when they are not obligated to because of family or societal obligations, or money. I know someone loves me when they treat me well when I’m tired, angry, or annoyed, or not at my best. When someone chooses to love me even though we strongly disagree or we are on different paths.

But allow me to clarify—this kind of love [for me] isn’t dependence masquerading as love. In other words, there are people look for other people who are needy. Why? Because they want to appear loving by attaching themselves to someone who will be dependent on them. This is, of course, co-dependency and not really love. I had a friend in high school who experienced this first hand. His parents showered him with “love” his whole life, but at the same time, they wouldn’t let him choose anything, wouldn’t let him find his own path or make mistakes. They sheltered him from life’s realities. And so he was so co-dependent that none of it felt like love. He resented them. Sadly, this happens all too often in our relationships.

So we are exploring a love that might make us uncomfortable. It will challenge our preconceived notions and societal constructs. This love is not conventional.

Speaking of non-conventional, how about the Gospel of John? The story we are looking at in John 13 is in fact about love, but before we get into it, let’s set the context. It’s right before Jesus of Nazareth gets arrested. He just had a meal with his friends, the disciples. Jesus just finished washing their feet. That was something a servant would do—not a rabbi, or a prophet, and certainly not a powerful leader. But that’s what he chose to do. And Peter [as well as others] didn’t like it one bit. Peter even refused. But Jesus insisted. Then, after the contested foot washing, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ close companions, leaves with some bread. This was significant, because next in the story, Judas sells out. He accepts some money from Roman authorities and tells them where Jesus will be at a certain point so they can ambush him and arrest him. Jesus, in John’s story, already knows that Judas is about to do this. After Judas leaves, Jesus announces a new commandment: love one another.

Now let’s look this word love in its Greek linguistic context. Love is agape in the ancient Greek. A loose definition of agape is: the highest form of love and compassion that is unconditional and transcends love of family or friends, regardless of circumstances. But please keep in mind that agape was not a religious concept and certainly not a Christian concept until many centuries later. In Hellenistic culture and in Israel and Palestine, this type of love was known, but as a cultural concept apart from religion. That being said, there are many other traditions around the world that define this higher love in a similar way.

For example, in Sanskrit [the ancient language of India], there is mettā, which means loving-kindness or friendliness.

mettaAnd in the Arab tradition, the Arabic word ishq, which means divine love.

ishq

Again, don’t assume some lofty, religious, non-concrete love. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Agape, or the higher love, was based on real, human experience. It wasn’t something you talked about; it was something you did. So it makes sense that in John’s story, Jesus of Nazareth keeps on setting concrete examples of what this higher love looks like and feels like. Foot washing—the rejection of social constructs that separate people and make others lesser. Agape love transcends social levels. Forgiveness—which involved debt forgiveness. Agape love did not keep a record of debts. And here’s the most difficult question: what to do with Judas?

I mean the guy did betray Jesus, right?

But after Judas leaves the room, Jesus lays this down: I have loved you so that you also might love one another. This would have been difficult to hear, because we know that the disciples were already bickering over who was the best. They just found out that Judas, one of them, had betrayed. No doubt they were ready to rip into Judas after he left. But they didn’t get that chance. Instead, they were to love each other [including Judas! Come on, you can’t leave Judas out], and they were to love each other in the way that Jesus had loved. This would be the way that they would continue to feel Jesus’ presence, long after he was gone. And this higher love would be what defined them; it would be their primary characteristic.

By this higher love they would be known.

Look, I’ve been to many different religious communities and I have many colleagues and friends from a variety of religious or non-religious backgrounds. I’ve seen how families treat each other and how friends and colleagues treat each other. In all cases, there are people who choose to love, and there are people who choose not to.

I’ve seen a parent choose to accept and love her grown child who now identifies as non-binary. Though it may be outside of this mother’s thinking and difficult to understand that her child does not clearly identify as one gender, she chooses to love.

One colleague of mine [who happens to be Muslim] was once asked: if your college-age son decided to leave Islam and no longer be a Muslim, what would you do? His answer: I would be disappointed, because I do think that following Islam can help him become a better person, but that’s less important and not really my answer. My answer is that I would choose to love him.

I know it’s not the norm in society and I know it’s rarely seen in churches [sad, but we all know it’s the truth], but this choosing to love is the real deal. It’s action; it’s not easy. It transcends. It can change someone’s life and remind them that they matter.

So keep asking yourself: How do I know that someone chooses to love me?
Surround yourself with those people—even if they are only a few.

And then, consider that if you are obligated to love or pressured to love, this is not the same thing as choosing to love.

To close, I couldn’t resist. I listened to Prince a lot in the 80s and 90s. He was an oft-misunderstood artist and person, but much of his music spoke to the deeper levels of identity, sexuality, and spirituality—all at the same time. So I close with a few stanzas from his song Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed:

If I were ever to write my life story
I could truly say through all the pain and glory
I was just a piece of clay in need of the potter’s hand
Cause when you whispered in my ear
The words I so now understand, oh

Beautiful, loved and blessed
I’m better than the day before
Cause you made me confess that I am,
Beautiful, loved and blessed
When you’re free you’re really free indeed

All you gotta do is just plant the seed[1]

Yeah, Prince.

Choose to love. Plant that seed.
[1] Songwriters: NELSON, PRINCE ROGERS / DAVIS, ASHLEY TAMAR

Beautiful, Loved And Blessed lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

I’ll admit it. During this particular Holy Week and then, on Resurrection or “Easter” Sunday, I didn’t feel so up to painting eggs, eating candy, or singing hallelujah, Christ is risen! My role here is not to be a Debbie Downer–it’s just to be honest. I’m not up to it. Because, doesn’t it just seem like yesterday that people were changing their Facebook profiles and creating Twitter hashtags like #jesuiparis [i.e. I am Paris], after terrorist attacks?

jesuisparis
And then the attacks in Brussels. And then another attack outside of Baghdad, Iraq at a soccer game; a bomb in Turkey; and then, on Good Friday, bombs in a Nigeria mosque that take the lives of worshipers. And on Easter Sunday, a bombing in a park in Pakistan where Muslims and Christians [many of them children] mingled and played and enjoyed the outdoor festivities.

pakistanLike the Paris attacks, Brussels was trending on Twitter and on the news–along with some guy named Ted Cruz, another guy with a squirrel on his head, a Spice Girls reunion, and peeps. Lots of peeps.

peepsBut Baghdad? Turkey? Nigeria? Pakistan? Not so much. Really, I’m not bringing this up to bring you down. I’m just being honest.

So before I seemingly ruin your holiday, let me explain. This is not about despair, or pointing fingers, or whatever else.

This is about being honest and being connected.

We live in a world with many people in it, who speak different languages and practice different religions [or no religion] and who eat different things and wear different clothes. It’s always been like that. This is humanity. When we get into this kind of violence and fear is when we forget our humanity.

When we think that “our” way is the best way, or even worse, the only way, we impose that way on anyone who gets in the way.

And let’s not go down this road of accusing Muslims or Arabs for being the group of people that is doing this the most. It’s not true. Anglos in America have done it [and do it], Europeans do it, too. You can blame whole religions if you wish [though it’s misguided], because people kill others because they choose to, or are moved to by charismatic, evil-crafty leaders with authority, power, and money do it. Individual people decide to commit violence, and yes, some are desperate and destitute and coerced into it. But we can make no blanket statements anymore. When we accuse a whole religion [or cultural group] of something as terrible as these violent acts, we show our ignorance and unwillingness to embrace a difficult truth: we are all connected. So if we propagate hateful and prejudice rhetoric about ANY group of people, we are contributing to this awful mess.

So don’t do it.

This is why I refuse to stand by and watch while many people [whether religious or not] give into fear. This is the last thing we should do. Fear only creates more fear, and then more misunderstanding, less connection and cooperation, and more violence. In wake of such violence and tragedy, fear should not be an option. Understanding, relationship-building, and cooperation are the options. For as much as we move from hashtag to hashtag and headline to headline, we are not governed by these things. We choose whether or not we will know our neighbors and even those outside our neighborhood and community. We choose whether or not we shrink back in fear or whether we respond with love and empathy.

In this very moment, there is a Muslim refugee family from Syria that just arrived in the Warminster, PA area. The United Church of Christ in Warminster and other congregations and non-religious folk too will be involved in helping them get settled here via co-sponsorship, housing provision, transportation, language courses, job assistance, etc. So they feel welcome.

This is a choice.

And on resurrection Sunday, there is a story that presents a choice as well. Most of you have heard or read this story in the four Gospels, so it may seem familiar. This time, we’re in Luke’s Gospel, pretty similar to the oldest Gospel, Mark, but with its own nuances. The story begins as all the resurrection accounts do–without fanfare and quite gloomy. Women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed for burial [which is a cave] and they come with spices. They see, however, that the protective stone placed in front of the tomb has been rolled away. So they go in. To their surprise, the body of Jesus of Nazareth is missing. Luke offers no details here and leaves room for us to ask questions like: was the body stolen by fanatic followers of Jesus? Was the body removed by the Romans? Or the temple authorities? Was the body ever put in that cave in the first place?

As we are asking these questions, two men in shining clothes appear to the women and ask a different question: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised. REMEMBER what he spoke to you, in Galilee? It is necessary for the son of man to be delivered into the hands of sinful human beings, and to be crucified, and on the third day to rise.

And now, Luke’s author is making us do our homework. First, the two men in shining clothes are JUST like Moses and Elijah in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain that Luke told in chapter 9. So it’s an identity moment for Jesus. He’s on the same level now as those great prophets.

And then, the questions. The women are asked to remember. In Luke, remembering is a constant theme. Jesus asks his friends the disciples to remember, time and time again. Now, the women are asked to remember. The son of man [i.e., the son of adam, or son of humanity] is delivered into the hands of sinful people, and crucified, and then will rise on the third day.

Consider that for the entire Gospel of Luke, the sinners were always the ones who hung out with Jesus–the marginalized, the oppressed, the left out. Now, the sinners are the authorities who led to Jesus’ death.

The women choose to remember.

So they don’t stay in the tomb, crying out of sadness. They don’t shrink away from the situation out of fear. Instead, they leave the empty tomb and tell the disciples about it. They are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary of James, etc. These courageous women are met with not only skepticism, but are considered crazy by some of Jesus’ closest followers. In fact, the only guy who considers their story is Peter. He goes to the tomb [running] and finds linen burial clothes [but no body]. And he leaves the empty tomb wondering what actually happened.

Here’s what I take from this story, and I don’t know if what I say matters, but I do think the story can matter, that is, if it moves you to do things in your life that matter. Ultimately, how we decide to act–how we treat people, matters the most. So here goes:

Why did Jesus die? A question we have to ask if we plan on talking about resurrection. Why did he die? I’m not one who thinks that he had to die. I know that many, many people will disagree, and that’s fine. But I don’t think his dying was the whole point. I think he died because he was a threat–not as a violent revolutionary, but because Jesus of Nazareth challenged the whole societal system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the reign of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.[1]

Ask yourself: what do violent religious fanatics, power-wielding authorities and fear mongers have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against certain groups of people, separating us and creating more chaos and less cooperation. Rather than raising our children to be peacemakers and to have friends from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, we are told to be fearful and to shrink back, protect our own, and to shelter children and youth from the world. What killed Jesus was indeed fear.

But this story tells us that we are not supposed to give into that fear.

The resurrection story isn’t flashy at all. Maybe that’s why the bunnies and baskets and painted eggs and peeps need to be there. Because really–the tomb is empty and we’re left to ponder: what happened? The real symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. No pageants, no lights, no trumpets or angels. Nobody is exchanging gifts under a tree or singing old songs.

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

The emptiness makes space for us in our distress and sadness about what’s happening all over the world. The emptiness leaves space for us to ponder like Peter: what happened? The emptiness leaves space for us to make decisions. How will we react? Will we respond out of fear? Or possibility, promise, new life? Will we react like Mary Magdalene, the one who kept on searching for the face of mercy and love, in spite of the uncertainty and despair all around?

Friends, there is room in the tomb for your doubts, your questions, and even your despair. But there is also room for your dreams, your joys, your whole selves. What will we choose? There is room. There is room. There is ALWAYS room for you. Love is that big, that wide, that accessible. So make room in yourselves for new life, for love, for mercy, for empathy, for light. Find yourself and embrace your uniqueness.

And always make room for others–all others. Make the choice to work for peace and cooperation, and empathy. Speak life to the death of prejudice and violence.

May every day be resurrection day.

[1] Ericksen, Adam, Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance, March 25, 2016.

The Subdued Entry and a Path to Peace

Luke 19:28-40

Peace sayings from various traditions

Hindu tradition
Oh God, lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.  God’s peace, peace, peace to all.

Buddhist tradition
May all beings everywhere be happy, Peaceful, and free.

Jain tradition
Peace and universal love is the essence of all the teachings.
Forgive do I creatures all, and let all creatures forgive me.

Confucian tradition
First there must be order and harmony within your own heart.
Only then can there be peace and harmony in the world.

Native American tradition
Give us the wisdom to teach our children to love, to respect and to be kind to one another that we may grow with peace in mind.

Muslim tradition
Praise be to the Lord of the Universe. Who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not despise each other.

Have you ever heard a story that you thought you knew so well, only to discover that you really didn’t know it at all?

It happens all the time, actually. We remember events or moments in our lives and tell stories about them. But often the details of those stories change, according to the new experiences we have had in life and because we’ve had time to interpret what happened. This is very, very human and actually helps us to grow as people and to develop new perspectives and worldviews.

So Palm Sunday, at least the idea of it, is all about a story and how we tell it. Honestly, I understand why some Christian traditions do not observe Palm Sunday, because they are taking the stance that it has become an institutional holiday and not something that inspires us to develop our spirituality or to serve others. Perhaps in some cases that is true, but you could say that about most if not all of Christian traditions. A tradition is only worth something if its purpose is to inspire us to be better people and to treat others better. Otherwise, it’s just a story that we keep making up to serve our own purposes.

So let’s look at the story we always read on Palm Sunday, this time in Luke’s Gospel. Alert: though we’re looking at Luke, we’re really looking at Mark. The Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written and so the other Gospels often borrow from Mark’s story. In this case, Luke borrows a lot of Mark’s original version of Jesus finally getting close to Jerusalem. There are a few subtle changes, though, that are worth noting. First, I have mentioned before that Luke uses the word “journey” in some way shape or form many, many times. So here again, Luke changes the story to say that Jesus was journeying ahead and going up to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story and the author of Luke refers to Jerusalem more than any of the other Gospels. But before Jerusalem, Jesus journeys through Bethphage-Bethany-the Mount of Olives. Though geographical markers, these places were also significant symbols. In the OT book of Zechariah, the Lord approaches Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives [14:4]. So right away, we get some king and lord references.

And it continues. Jesus sends two of his pals to a village nearby to find a little donkey that has not been ridden. Yet another reference to Zechariah: Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he; humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey [9:9]. So they do find the colt and bring it to Jesus and then they put their cloaks on the colt. Again, Luke says that Jesus is journeying—this time on the donkey.

Along the way, people start spreading their cloaks on the road. Another royal kind of sign. Notice there are no palms in Luke’s version. We’ll get to that in a moment. The people are shouting things, but not hosannas.

Luke has them shout out a portion of Psalm 118, though Luke changes it. The people don’t say, as the Psalm does, blessed is the one, but they say: blessed is the king who comes in the name of the lord. So now that Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem, Luke finally acknowledges Jesus as some sort of king. And just in case we have forgotten Luke’s story that we read at Christmas, Luke calls the cloak throwing crowd a “multitude of disciples” rejoicing and praising God in a loud voice for mighty works, and in heaven, peace, and glory in the highest!

Cue Linus.

linus-van-peltCue Gloria in Egg-Shell-Seas-Day-O

Cue Christmas carols that you know you don’ t want to hear EVER again….

r-LOUD-NOISE-large570

Luke’s entry to Jerusalem seems happy. A little TOO happy?

At least, for one brief moment. Luke adds verses 39-40, as they don’t appear in Mark’s story.  Some Pharisees speak. They call on Jesus to make his disciples stop their affirmation of him as king.  Jesus responds: “I say to you, if they will hold their peace, the stones will cry out.” The use of the future tense here indicates Jesus’ role as a prophet. This is consistent with Luke’s story, for Luke presents Jesus as a prophetic voice much more than a king or religious ruler. In this story, those who follow Jesus are speaking joyfully of the peace they have found in him. If Pharisees or anyone else try to silence that joy and peacefulness, nature itself will chime in.

I hope the details help you discover some meaning in the story or at the very least, they help you see another perspective about this think people call Palm Sunday.

Because maybe buying palm branches and waving them around sanctuaries, taking them home and pinning them up until they rot and then throwing them away isn’t leading us anywhere special. Maybe we should pay more attention to the people who spread their cloaks and coats on the ground, and even on the back of a donkey. Perhaps they were “all in” for this peaceful and joyful journey in a world that was not so peaceful and joyful.

For there were no trumpets or choral anthems or pretty palms. Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem with the sounds of only a few enthusiastic people. The rest were skeptical, angry, jealous–even violent about this idea of breaking down the walls of separation to create peace within people and peace around the world. And yet, that was this prophet’s wish and all he taught and lived asserted this path to peace.

To close, here these words from Frederick Buechner:

That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if they are about anything that matters. That you and I also, each in our own puny but crucial way, will work and witness and pray for the things that make for peace, true peace, both in our own lives and in the life of this land. Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take – despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in the one who travels the road with us and for us…approaching every human heart like a city.[1]

May we continue to journey towards peace—peace within ourselves, peace with others, peace around the world.

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The Things That Make For Peace” from A Room Called Remember:

Love that Gets its Hands Dirty

Luke 13:31-35

rumiSelections from Jalal al-Din Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every mornin
g a new arrival.

A joy, A depression, A meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.
First to let go of life.
Finally, to take a step without feet.

We continue to focus on being and self-discovery these 40 days of Lent, focusing on Jesus of Nazareth’s own journey to self-realization—his path to Jerusalem and the end of his life. Each week, please consider this question:

How do you know when you are truly yourself?

The Gospel of Luke is keen on the theme of the journey. In fact, journeying occurs 88 times in Luke and in Acts, the NT book that the same author of Luke wrote. In this particular part of Luke’s story, the Pharisees [a sect of Judaism] try to convince Jesus to journey elsewhere; Jesus then tells them to journey back to Herod; and then finally, it becomes necessary for Jesus to journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and Herod Antipas.

Jesus calls Herod a fox. Thus, Herod was clever, but small. This is the same Herod, remember, who killed John the Baptist; but he was not even close to as powerful as the leaders in Jerusalem.So in spite of the danger, Jesus does not alter his journey or timetable nor give in to Herod’s supposed threats.

During this journey, Jesus expresses his sadness for the situation in Jerusalem. It resembles the laments of the Hebrew prophets. In this short rant, Jesus expresses his frustration and sadness over the Jerusalem people’s stubbornness and close-mindedness.

And yet, Jesus at the same time expresses his great love and compassion for them.

He wished to gather the people of Jerusalem just like a hen would gather her chicks under her wing. There is a play on words here. Thelo, a Greek word, appears three times. It means will, desire, want, or wish. First, Herod wishes to kill Jesus; then Jesus wished to gather the children of Jerusalem under his wing; finally the children did not desire it. These three wishes are in conflict with one another. And there’s no genie involved.

Genie

Returning again to the theme of journey, notice again that Jesus did not deviate from his course or the timing of it, even if there were obstacles or people trying to convince him to go another way. This is important.

How many times do we change directions, even when we know we are on the right path, because of external circumstances or because people convince us to? Often, we are tossed and turned by the latest trends, what our peers do, or what we see on TV or in other media. Essentially, we just start copying each other. A friend gets married, has kids, and buys a house? Well, we better do the same, even that is not our path. Someone gets a certain job, buys a big car, dresses a certain way? Well, we ought to follow suit. Why is that?

I think it’s because we start to believe that we don’t actually have our own journey, or that we are not worthy to have one. This is an unhealthy mistake and can rob us of opportunities, moments of grace, wholeness, and healing.

We all have our own path.

Internally, we need to journey on it. Even when things get tough or when others try to misdirect us, we need to stay the course.

Furthermore, I notice in this story the great vulnerability that Jesus showed to people, out of compassion. I’ve mentioned before the researcher Brené Brown and her work on shame and vulnerability. She gave a recent Ted Talk that I think speaks to the heart of the matter and relates to what Jesus expressed on the way to Jerusalem. Watch the whole talk here, or if you wish, watch from 17:30 to the end, for the purposes of this discussion.

 

Ms. Brown, after six years and thousands of interviews and case studies with a variety of people, has come to the conclusion that the people who are the most whole, the happiest, the most themselves—are the ones who practice vulnerability.

Look at Jesus of Nazareth’s treatment of other people. He wasn’t afraid to hang out with those who were considered dirty, unclean, outsiders. He didn’t take the easy road when others told him to, because he walked a path that led him to people in need of acceptance and healing. In spite of what some think, Jesus of Nazareth was not a meek, nice guy who glowed with some holy halo when we walked the earth. He was a troublemaker; he was an instigator and an annoying presence; he told the truth when it hurt; he chose to be with people who were difficult and who lacked power and authority; he did not hesitate to touch or to say a kind word to those who were pushed the margins of society. He put himself out there; he was authentic and vulnerable.

And his journey to Jerusalem was vulnerable—the whole way. Eventually, when he got there, he was as vulnerable as one could be. He didn’t do it to be a martyr or a ruler or to leave a legacy. He did it out of compassion for others. And he was only able to do that because he was true to himself.

So as your journey continues, remember that you’re imperfect but worthy of love and belonging.

And it is our job to say that and to show that to others and to ourselves. Vulnerability. It’s the other way, the journey, the path. To let yourself be seen as you are. To love with all your whole hearts without any guarantee. To practice gratitude and joy, even in difficult moments. To believe that you are enough.

May you continue to get to know yourself, to keep on journeying on your unique path, and may you be real, authentic, and vulnerable along the way.

Faithing

Luke 3:7-18

I have mentioned before that the word faith is nuanced in the Bible.

So what should the Koine Greek Word in the New Testament that is often translated into the English noun faith really be?

How about faithing?

What is faithing? Well, according to the Urban Dictionary:

The act of walking quickly to a class, or just quickly in general, almost running.

kids-running-to-class-300x170

Okay, but another question:
Have you heard of speed dating? I’m sure you have.

But have you heard of speed faithing? Maybe not.

SpeedFaithing_WebSlider_1_v2-741x510Speedfaithing, per Interfaith Youth Core, founded and headed by Eboo Patel [a man I have met twice and an organization I have worked with and support] is all about creating an opportunity to learn about another worldview from the perspective of a person who identifies with that worldview. Speedfaithing has spread around the country, mainly hosted at universities and college campuses. Organizers encourage participants to listen and ask thoughtful questions rather than debate or argue, and to also keep it short. The point isn’t to convert someone in 10 minutes — it’s to explain basic tenets of a faith and answer any questions the other speedfaithers might have.

One of my colleagues at IFYC, Cassie Meyer, says this: “The stereotype of speed-dating is you have two minutes to judge someone. There’s something to be said for speaking really quickly off the cuff about something. You’ll have a chance to be thoughtful, but you don’t have a chance to obsess about it.”[1] So here’s how it works:

  1. Someone shares the basics of his/her worldview with a group of curious people
  2. She/he talks about what her/his religious or philosophical background means personally
  3. It ends by answering questions from the people listening

According to Interfaith Youth Core [and people like me who have done this], speedfaithing provides a great opportunity for you to say all those things you wish people knew about the beauty of your beliefs.

Let’s watch a short video from an IFYC Conference during which students participated in Speedfaithing.

I think that the speedfaithing movement is awesome!

And I think that John the baptizer would approve.

Faith is not some abstract concept and certainly not only a noun.
Faith is a verb.

Therefore, we should encourage questioning, struggling, and doubting. We should walk away from simplistic ways of talking about faith and move towards faithing, which is about continually discarding and acquiring perspective that informs how we make meaning of our lives. This is only natural on our journey.

Your take-home for this week is to consider what you would say about your worldview, your religious or philosophical background to a complete stranger, or to someone of another faith. And, be prepared, because soon enough, you will have this opportunity. Faithing is what we are called to do. And this is freeing.

[1] 2011.

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