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Posts tagged ‘isaiah’

A Fragile Peace

Isaiah 11:1-4a

stump_jesse21
It is December. It’s colder. The leaves are on the ground. Winter has come. Animals know it. They sense it—they go about their business getting ready for colder nights, gathering food and making more stable shelters. There is so much movement in nature at this time of year if you pay attention to it. Scurrying and gathering and preparing. Animals know a lot; they are obviously so much more connected to this good earth than we are. They understand instinctively that winter will come, but it’s not so bad. It’s necessary. Good stuff happens in nature during winter. There is a dormant period for plants and other living beings. But…in just a few months, just when all the humans like you and I are more than ready for winter to just GET IT OVER WITH PLEASE!….something happens. It starts with a bud—small and inconspicuous. It starts with tiny plants peeking out and then animals, both small and large, emerging earlier and later to drink water and find food. They know it’s coming. Spring is coming. The roots of the earth are strong; they will soon emerge and all of life will…be replenished, renewed, and delightful.

preparing-for-winterThe images of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah are indeed beautiful if you just embrace the metaphors of nature and life itself. Keep in mind the historical context of Isaiah and it becomes even richer, if you ask me. As I always say, if you identify as a Christian, do not be so quick as to jump to conclusions when you read Isaiah. Don’t make quick and easy connections between what Isaiah wrote so long before Jesus of Nazareth was born and the stories of the New Testament. Instead, embrace the beauty of Isaiah’s message and then understand why the New Testament Gospel writers [and even Jesus himself] borrowed from Isaiah.

This prophet, though writing during an incredibly difficult and bleak time for the ancient Israelites, Isaiah planted seeds of hope, of peace, of renewal. Too long had the Israelites experienced war, famine, and isolation. The stump is injured. But a root now grows out of it, then a branch. Of course, Isaiah was referring to a new leader of the Israelite people. Notice, though, the great disparity between Isaiah’s leader who comes out of a stump and what we typically would assume a “leader” would look like. This branch is wise and delights in knowledge, has understanding. This branch looks to the poor, the marginalized, and not to the rich, powerful, and privileged. This branch out of a stump seeks peace for all living beings.

I don’t know about you, but honestly, I don’t see this branch as being Jesus of Nazareth. Otherwise, the lion and lamb would be hanging out together with no Ultimate Fighting going on and our nations would stop killing each other and our communities would stop hating and targeting certain people.

Evil still exists in the world, poor people struggle more than ever, predators prey on the weak.

In this time where peace can seem incredibly far off; when LGBTQ beautiful people feel afraid and are targeted, when Latinx kids and youth are made fun of and told to “go home” and when Native Americans are sprayed with tear gas and hoses in the freezing cold as they seek to protect their lands, what do we say about Isaiah’s image of a peaceful world? Well, we say that it’s not yet here. We tell the truth. We say what is happening in our communities—what is not right or good or peaceful or loving and we say that this is not the Divine’s desire for the world.

We say that, but then we have to do something, too.

For while Jews waited for [and still wait for] this Messiah, Christians do, too. We wait for the same thing, for the world to change. To be a loving, accepting, and beautiful place as we believe it is meant to be.

So then, buds and branches of a broken stump we call the world, how will you bring peace to the world around you? How will you love people who feel unloved? How will you stand up for those who are bullied and marginalized? How will you be a part of Divine intervention, considering that we are all connected to this desire, to create and live in a world of peace, of understanding, and of love.

How will we create this together?

Matthew 3:1-6
Turning Around to Face the Light & the Dark

I’ve mentioned this before, but just as a reminder, the word repent in the Gospels is not a word telling you to get on your knees and say: “Please, Jesus, forgive me!” It’s not a formulaic faith affirmation either. Repent means turn around. Reorient your life path.

What a great message for all of us this season. So, here’s the thing–John the Baptist was craaaaazy. Yep. People thought he was nuts. He probably was. A little bit. But he quoted Isaiah, so at least people thought he might know something. The voice in the wilderness is important to note, because the wilderness was a metaphor for a time of introspection and a bit of wandering. You’ve had those times, right? When you weren’t sure where you were in life or where you were going? Maybe you are there now. The wilderness. A voice literally cries out and says: PREPARE! Make paths straight! Okay, so…what? Go back to Isaiah and the idea of a peaceful world. Remember that John’s Gospel was written long after Isaiah…people, we are talking more than 800 years, okay? Yeah. So the peaceful world that Isaiah envisioned didn’t happen in Jesus’ time, and it didn’t happen after Jesus’ death, and it didn’t happen after the Gospels like John were written. Get the picture? John wasn’t so crazy after all. He understood, right, that the world was still in need of more love, and peace, and connection? He said to anyone who would listen: turn around, it’s never too late.

Change your life path if you need to.

Yeah, I don’t know where you’re at today, but I’m realizing the need to face myself as I am. It’s not just the recent Presidential election, though that’s part of it. It’s everything. I’ve been asking myself: What am I really doing? Who am I? Who do I want to be? I’m trying my best, and failing a lot of the time, but I’m trying to face myself. I’m facing the darkness in me, my desire to give up sometimes, my fears, my heaviness. And I’m also facing the light within me: my desire to keep standing up for justice and peace and love, the creative imagination that lives within and the freedom to let go of the things that hold me back. I want to turn around, to reorient myself every day. I don’t always make it. But this is the path.

May you see yourself as you are; may you find ways to love yourself and be at peace with yourself; if you need to turn around from things or relationships that hurt you or isolate you, do it; and be free to love, be free embrace all of your darkness and light. In doing so, I tell you this—you will encounter other people doing the same. You will connect to them and it will be marvelous. You will find love, acceptance, and peace with them. And then we create this reality together.

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The Generosity Fast & Paradox

Isaiah 58:1-12

Isaiah, the prophet says:
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! It’s announcement, but an announcement about hypocrisy. This is often a common issue for religious people—that they say they love God and they claim to do all the right religious rituals and they think themselves to be righteous. But truthfully, their lives do not reflect what they claim.

Oftentimes I get asked this question:

Why are less and less people participating in the Christian church? What is happening?

It is probably the easiest question to answer.

It’s the hypocrisy thing again. People on the outside of the institutional church know more about the Bible and the religion of Christianity than churchgoers assume. And those on the outside see that most churches don’t do what they say; they are not living as Jesus taught. So it should come as no surprise that most people are completely skeptical of and turned off by the church as a whole. No, it’s not about flashy programs, the “right theology” or the coolest music. It’s about being real.

It’s about doing as we say and being authentic.

Which is why Isaiah is so ticked off. People of faith spend WAY too much time fighting over whose religious fast is better. Our theology is superior to yours; our Bible interpretations are the best; our social justice outreach is exemplary; look at what we do and say—we’re awesome!

But instead of tooting our horns to pat ourselves on the back, Isaiah [and later Jesus of Nazareth] tell us to do the opposite. Yeah, toot your horns, but do so to call attention to those who are truly suffering in the world. Do so to shout out the truth! People are marginalized because of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification, and the language they speak.

And all the religious rituals, the ceremonial fasting, and the talking about God doesn’t cut it.

The chosen fast, says Isaiah and Jesus, is to loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break down every barrier or limitation. The chosen fast is to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; and to clothe the naked; and to not turn away from all the humans around you who may need some encouragement or help.

And look—this spiritual fast [which becomes a living fast] is not some sort of guilt trip that God is laying on us. There are so many benefits to this fast. Light breaks forth like the dawn, healing springs up quickly; protection is provided. You call out and your voice is heard. You need help, and you’re not alone. Needs are satisfied; you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Broken relationships are reconciled and streets are safe and toppled structures rebuilt.

The acceptable fast is generosity.

Think about generosity for a moment. It is paradoxical, is it not? Those who give, receive something back. If we let go of something we own, we better secure our own lives. If we give a part of ourselves, we ourselves move toward fulfillment. This is not philosophy or religious jabber; it is a sociological fact.[1]

e_chinese_symbols_proverbs_generosityThe generosity paradox can go the other way, too. Instead of giving, if we hold onto what we currently have, we actually lose out on better things we might have experienced. If we keep possessions, we shortchange ourselves long-term. For example, one may think that she needs to protect herself from an uncertain future or possible problems, so she holds tightly to what she has. But this behavior makes her more anxious about more vulnerable to future misfortunes. If we do not give of ourselves to care for others, we do not practice self-care.

This paradox of generosity is reflected in many religious traditions. Consider the ancient Hebrew proverb: One gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but ends up impoverished.

Or, this teaching of The Buddha: Giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression.

And this Hindu proverb: They who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing.

And anyone hear these Jesus words echoing?
Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.

For the last three years Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have been leading a study called the Science of Generosity Initiative. They have conducted a nationally representative survey of Americans’ practices and beliefs about generosity, hundreds of interviews with Americans around the country on generosity, and participant-observation studies of local religious congregations.

Here is what they learned:

  1. The more generous people are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.
  2. Generous practices actually cause enhanced personal well-being.
  3. The way we talk about generosity confirms and illustrates the first two points.

The third finding is important to notice and very similar to Isaiah’s point about generosity:

We cannot fake generosity.

We can’t choose to be generous just so we can get something. We must desire the good of other people. Fake generosity, just like false humility, will not make us happier, healthier, and more purposeful in life. Generosity must be authentic. And this is the good news that the world needs to hear and experience. So embrace the generosity paradox. May your forty days of Lent be an opportunity to decide to make generosity your lifestyle. Amen.

 

[1] Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. The Generosity Paradox.

The Lighthouse

Luke 21:25-28   NRSV

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

The New Testament Gospels often quote Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, or at least, they paraphrase. Jesus of Nazareth, at various points in the Gospel stories, uses the words of Hebrew prophets to speak to the context in which people were living. In this Luke passage, Jesus refers to the chaos and confusion in the world, but also a breaking through of a new kind of era.

This is what is called apocalyptic literature, i.e. a writing that imagines the end of an era. It’s not necessarily the “end times” as some often refer to it. The end of the world is not a literal end like the earth exploding or a mass extinction or the planet disappearing or something like that. Save that for Hollywood and maybe The Leftovers.

the-leftovers-season-2dApocalyptic literature, however, is more about symbolism—that the sun, moon, stars, oceans, and land all reflect what people are feeling inside.

In this case, people are scared and worried. So nature reflects that. But Luke’s writer encourages the reader to not hide or give up. Why? Because the Son of Man [literally human one] is coming. This is a direct reference to another Hebrew scripture book, Daniel. Instead of hiding in fear, people are encouraged to stand up and raise their heads.

Luke’s apocalyptic writing is imaginative just like Isaiah. The Gospel is imagining this current moment as hopeful, redemptive, healing, and character-building—in spite of the external things all around that seem so daunting.

But in order for us to personalize this, we’ll have to do some imagining of our own. So let’s try this simple yet effective activity. It’s called lighthouse.

Visualize this: You are lost at sea on a stormy night, far, far away from the shore, in a rowboat. But off in the distance you notice a glimmer of light, leading you to land. If you row hard, you can make it. You reach the shore only to find someone waiting for you with a warm meal, dry clothes, and a place to rest.
lighthouse.jpeg

Take a moment to draw, color, or paint an image of a lighthouse on a piece of paper or any sort of medium. Depict yourself in the image, either in the boat on the water, in the lighthouse, or wherever you choose.

Who are the people who greet you there? They are the ones who fill you with love, encouragement, and peace. They accept you as you are; they help you become a better person.

What kind of food will you eat there? How does it smell and taste? Who do you share the food with?

How soft is the bed waiting for you inside the lighthouse? How does it feel to put on warm and dry clothes after such a long, wet, and cold journey?

This lighthouse is the source of guidance in your life—a place to stand up and raise your head and look for—especially when things are confusing, tense, worrisome, or fearful. This place of rest, peace, and strength is always there; you can always return to it.

We are at our most human when we admit that things are not perfect, when we admit that sometimes we feel broken or lost. We fully embrace our humanity when we put aside all the superficial things and false appearances that we maintain to look good for others.

Everyone deserves a lighthouse within themselves. Everyone deserves to feel loved and cared for and accepted. That lighthouse exists in all of us. We don’t have to wait for it or allow others to build it for us, because each one of us is enough. We have inside of us the capacity to love and care for ourselves. When we do, we are able to weather any storm and to find that flicker of light off in the distance.

Put your lighthouse drawing somewhere in your house or apartment or room where you can easily find it. Throughout this season, return to it. Remember that imagining wholeness and hope in this moment will lead you to wisdom and strength.

 

Hope on the Journey

Isaiah 60:1-5 (NRSV)

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice…

rekindle
How do you define hope?

This could be a trick question, but thinking about it will lead you to some wisdom. How do you define hope?

For many people [myself included], hope can seem like an insufficient thing. After all, look at the world. It’s easy for someone to tell another to hope when she is suffering or being discriminated against, or if she is stuck in a terrible situation. What do you tell Syrian refugees who are torn from their homes, only to be turned away by others? Should they have hope? Really?

Seems insufficient to me.

What do you tell the mother of the child who is gunned down randomly, for no reason, other than the fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Do you tell her to hope?

What about the young woman who is dying of cancer. She knows she’s terminal; the doctors say so. Do you tell her to hope?

I’m just being honest. I think sometimes we use the word and concept of hope to try to answer questions we cannot answer or to try to make us feel better about horrible situations.

So, that being said, here is what comes to my mind when I ask myself the same question:

How do I define hope?

I define hope as imagination.

Maybe that makes sense to you, maybe it doesn’t.
I define hope as imagination.

Because I’ve seen people in horrific situations exhibit an incredibly creative and healing form of imagination. They don’t just hope things will get better. They imagine what good could possibly come out of a horrific situation. They imagine whether or not anything good at all could happen.

But they are not just imagining about the future; they are imagining about this very moment. Can it be possible for the Syrian refugee to find a new life, or safety, or community? Can it be possible for the grieving mother to find joy and purpose again? Can it be possible for the terminal cancer patient to enjoy her life and positively impact others?

These kinds of questions are not superficial. Neither are they cop-outs like hope statements are sometimes. These questions are honest, messy, and real. It takes time to ask them and the process can be long and even painful. But when people ask themselves individually what they can imagine about their current situation, they are building within themselves the capacity to move forward.

The Hebrew prophets were doing the same thing, you see. Prophets like Isaiah weren’t really predicting the future, as some might claim. Neither were they sharing history or documenting what was happening in their time. Prophets were imagining what things could be like in the world. None of what they imagined was realized. Isaiah, for example, most likely written by a variety of Israelite priests, was put together over a span of years, some of them during the Babylonian exile.

In other words, we’re talking about war, and people being ripped from their homes and exiled to a foreign country. Mmmmm……

So it’s not a “hopeful” book, really. Isaiah IS an imagining book, though. The authors imagine what good could possibly come of this situation. They imagine what their reality would be like if people actually loved G-d in the way they said they did and loved others also. They imagined if justice reigned over injustice. They imagined if poor people were actually lifted up and encouraged and given food and shelter. They imagined if wars would cease and people would stop killing each other over religion, land, and power.

Yes, go ahead. Insert your John Lennon reference here.

Imagine.

And so, have you reflected on how you answer the question?

How do you define hope?

I encourage you to use your imagination. Don’t be superficial or seek easy answers. Let the question hang there for a while. Let your imagination go crazy. In this current moment, in your life, what can you imagine? How can things be joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling?

Inner Peace and a Path

Isaiah 40:4-8, Psalm 85: 8, 10, 11, 13  

This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:

 Peace.

 PeaceUnfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.

Do we really believe in peace?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.

So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?

What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?

Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.

The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.

Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.

path

Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.

And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.

And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.

But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.

People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.

They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.

A highway.
A vessel.
A space where the divine can live and act.

And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Inner peace.

Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.

Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.

Inner peace is about accepting yourself.

But how do people discover acceptance?

Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.

And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.

Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.

Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.

If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.

And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
Right now.

One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.

tillichTillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.

In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:

…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.

It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.

It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.

For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.

We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.

But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.

And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.

[1] The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).

PEACE: What Is It?

Isaiah 11:1-10

I thought that there was no better way to start a message and conversation about peace than to hear from the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died at the age of 95 this past Thursday, December 5th. His life and work are a testimony to what real peacemaking looks like. And that is why as we ask the difficult question today: what is peace? I wish to include Mandela in our reflection.

Often during this time of year, Advent and Christmas, the word and concept of peace can be quite superficial and abstract. We talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we hear familiar words from prophets like Isaiah, we call the infant Jesus a peace child, and we sing silent night and peace on earth until we’re blue in the face. But what does it all mean really? Does one season and one day out of the year have any real, peaceful impact on our lives and on our world?

That is the question I am holding today. Do our words and beliefs about Jesus as the one who brings peace really mean anything? Or is it just a holiday tradition of hanging up pretty lights and tinsel and singing familiar carols and exchanging gifts? Is peace real? Is Christmas about peace? Do we really live peace in our lives?

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in being calm and comfortable for a few moments on Sundays in Advent and then on Christmas eve—no interest in entering a church and singing some songs, lighting some candles, doing the same Christmas traditions—when out into the real world all is conflict, tension, and suffering. For me, hiding the tension makes me feel worse. It’s hard to sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger without thinking about kids in Syria, Palestine, Southern Sudan, West Philly, and Camden. Peace? Not so much for them. It’s painful for me to put up lights and exchange gifts when I know for a fact that there are plenty of people who see no light in their lives and don’t want gifts, because they just want food…or a job…or safety….or health.

So what is peace?

I’m coming clean here, being honest with you. This second Advent candle of peace is a tough one for me. I myself am full of tension; I’m full of conflict internally. And the world around me doesn’t seem to be cooperating.

But I do find something that speaks to me in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

I also find encouragement in what Nelson Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Peace as the presence of justice; peace as living in such a way that brings freedom to others. This stays right with the prophet Isaiah’s perspective. For Isaiah, the people of Israel had become a stump—dead, nonmoving, apathetic, unjust. So when Isaiah speaks of a plant growing out of this dead stump, it is a hope, a dream—that the people would wake up, be alive, and bring justice and peace to their lands, to their communities—to themselves. Isaiah’s belief about God was that the presence of God [called spirit] would be obvious in people because they would live differently. They would not be dead stumps but alive in this spirit. The spirit would awaken the people as an active agent of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and justice. This spirit, at work, would show itself as the poor would be uplifted [no more injustice for them]; people would be equal and not pushed down, the evil oppressors would hold no more sway.

And only then, with the dynamic action of the spirit in people to bring about justice—only then would there be true peace. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion–a little child leads all of them. These images of contrast, of yin and yang, of strength and weakness, hot and cold, opposite things living together in harmony—are the image of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which people recognize the tension of injustice and suffering and do something about it. A world where hurting and destroying is not the norm.

And now to the other questions I received this week about peace:

  1. Did Jesus have one main definition of peace or was he concerned with many different types of peace – inner peace, peace between people, peace between countries? What was most important to him when he spoke about peace?

What we know of Jesus is found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. Each time that Jesus used the word peace he usually meant shalom. This of course is the Hebrew word that expresses God’s desire for all of creation. Shalom means that people are in a good, healthy relationship with God; people are in healthy relationships with each other; they are in healthy relationships with their physical bodies and minds; and people are in healthy relationships with the whole earth [animals, trees, land, etc.]

So for Jesus, peace was about all of us living in balance—recognizing our deep connection to each other and to all living things. Jesus of Nazareth would have been well-versed in the Torah and in the writings of the prophets, like Isaiah. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he was echoing Isaiah’s call for the people to create a peace on earth. It was all about action. One clear example is in the Gospel of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39).

For Jesus, acting out shalom was the whole point. How do we treat others? This was the proof of true peace. Let’s add a cool twist to this. Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY, explores deeper.

When you slap someone on the right cheek, consider that it is a back-handed slap. Why? Because in the time of Jesus, the left hand was not used for greeting or for doing much at all in public. The left hand was used for what we now call toilet paper. Yes, that’s right. So keeping that in mind, the right hand slapping someone’s right cheek would be a back-handed slap. This demonstrates to the other person that you are above them; a back-handed slap is to push someone down or insult them as lower than you. Turning the other cheek then, is not really an act of being passive, but rather an act of showing another that he/she is your equal. It is not responding to violence with more violence. Jesus actually never taught passivity or getting walked over. Shalom/Peace for Jesus was about seeing others as equals. In the end, Jesus was concerned with a holistic peace that was demonstrated in peaceful living with others.

Question #2:

How can you create peace when the other party doesn’t want there to be peace?  Can peace be one-sided?

When we seek peace with another person and that person rejects it—this is a sign of deep hurt and a broken shalom in the other. We often forget that we cannot control the attitude or the behavior of others; we just cannot. Even if you are behaving in a most peaceful and compassionate way, this will not change the person. He/She will ultimately have to make peace with him/herself first before accepting your offering of peace. So in this case, yes—peace can be one-sided.

When we forgive or offer peace to someone, this action is healing for us. We must recognize this. Only then will we be able to see that any person who cannot accept peace or forgiveness is greatly suffering. Of course, this does not excuse bad behavior. But when we offer peace to someone, we do it because it brings peace to us and we hope that the other person will also experience such a peace. But we must accept that we cannot force a person to be at peace; this will enable us to have compassion and to be able to move on.

Good questions.

In conclusion, let’s hear these words from Nelson Mandela, reminding us that peace in ourselves, peace with each other, and peace in the world— this is not a reality for everyone. So we must join with others and be the buds that spring out of the stump—committing ourselves to peaceful, just living and recognizing that all people deserve love, acceptance, and wholeness.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

 May we keep walking as agents of peace. Amen.

HOPE: What is it?

Isaiah 2:1-5

 

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth  instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:8-12a

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

hg.catchingfireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, recently released, is the second movie in a series based on the three novels written by Suzanne Collins. The story of the hunger games focuses on selected people from various districts who are called tributes. They must fight to the death in order to provide food for the people of their particular district. For 75 years, the oppressive, wealthy Capital has staged the games. But in the previous games, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) won as a couple. Thus, they became victors—heroes for the oppressed people of the districts. But they are soon forced to obey the demands of the Capital’s leader, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) and compete to the death once again. Why? Because Katniss’ bravery and stubborn defiance have made her a symbol of hope for the people.

In one scene, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ sister says:

Primrose Everdeen: Since the last games, something is different. I can see it.

Katniss Everdeen: What can you see?

Primrose Everdeen: Hope.

It is this hope that has been the spark for a rebellion by the people of the districts against the oppressive rule of the Capital and President Snow. Sensing this, Snow puts an awful plan in motion to destroy Katniss and Peeta and to crush the hopes of the 12 districts.

snowOf course, the Hunger Games draws out some very appropriate and timely themes for us today. For certain, we live in a world in which there are millions of people who suffer needlessly without enough to eat, in unsafe conditions, and forced to compete against each other.

The strongest theme in this particular movie for me happens to be the use of fear to control people and the ability of hope to change the game.

That is what we will explore.

Throughout this season of Advent, I will be asking questions and encouraging you to ask them, too. So what questions do we have about hope?

I received two questions this week that I would like to share with you:

 1. What did Jesus have to say about hope?

 2. How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?
How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

 3. And my question: what IS hope?

Since I am the one talking, I get to start with my question.

The English dictionary defines hope as:

 -a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

 -a feeling of trust.

 -[verb] to want something to happen or be the case.

But honestly, a dictionary definition is not really adequate, because hope as a concept has developed over thousands of years, throughout cultures around the world. Psychologists who study human emotion state that hope is an emotive response to circumstances that are pretty terrible. Hope can result when people are unsure about the future or are currently experiencing a tough time. Something happens in a person’s brain—he/she can open up to a new reality and remove the mask of fear and despair. This mental image of hope allows a person to see the big picture and helps creativity grow.

But hope, say psychologists, is actually quite different from positive thinking. Being positive is a therapeutic and systematic process used to reverse pessimism. But it can often lead to a “false hope” in a fantasy or an outcome that is highly unlikely. On the other hand, hope is cultivated when people have a goal in mind, determination that the goal can be reached, and a plan as to how to achieve the goal.[1]

In other words, hope is more than just a positive, mental image. Hope is thinking that turns into action.

Hope is imagining a better tomorrow when today is terrible.

Hope is taking the small steps necessary towards that tomorrow.

But what does the Bible say about hope?
A lot, actually, but we do not have the time to explore all of it.

So let’s start with Isaiah, from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Biblical literature, hope is about expecting or anticipating.

Isaiah is part of what we call prophetic literature. Everything you read in Isaiah is symbolic and not literal. In this second chapter of the prophet’s book, we are told that Isaiah saw the words. How does one see words? The Hebrew language helps us here. “See” means “envision.” Right away, the words on a scroll or on a page jump out at us. They are alive; they don’t stay on the paper. They are envisioned. Seen. Alive.

Isaiah challenges the people to walk in Yahweh’s light. They are to reject war and turn to ways of peace. This was shalom. Shalom is wholeness. Shalom is a vision of balance, justice, and unity. But this shalom is not realized yet.

This is important to understand because Isaiah was not a prophet who lived in some fantasy world. He saw the extreme poverty, oppression, and injustice in the world. That was reality. Suffering was reality. Isaiah was a realist. Hope was not false or merely a once-a-year, Christmasy kind of hope.

The world of Isaiah’s time and the world of our time was and indeed is screwed up—out of balance. So to have hope seems absurd.

At least, it seems absurd if it is just a good idea or a feeling.
Hope without action would have been absurd. But Isaiah’s hope is a calling out to the people for change, for them to help, to heal, to bring justice, to find balance in themselves and then to bring balance to others.

Prophetic books like Isaiah do not tell us about a current reality, but rather, challenge us to start building an unseen reality.

Build hope where there is despair.

When the night is long, scary, and full of despair, can you imagine the dawn?

I hear Katniss Everdeen: The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand.

sunpersists And so I return to one of the questions asked about hope.

How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?

How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

For each person, it will be different. The absence of hope, for many is fear; despair; hopelessness. So what is causing those feelings in your life? Identify the sources of fear and despair. And at the same time, identify a path that you may take to overcome fear and leave despair behind you. What steps can you take today? Tomorrow? Next week?
In short, we won’t hope without hopeful thinking turning into hopeful action. I can think positively and pray all I want, but if my prayers and thoughts don’t move me to positive action—I’m stuck in my fear and despair. This kind of progress in the midst of difficulty is not easy, for sure. But hope that is more than thinking is a spark that can set a fire.

And a very appropriate question during Advent: What did Jesus have to say about hope?

Actually, nothing. At least not specifically.

Jesus of Nazareth never mentioned the word or concept of hope. But he did talk a lot about fear. There are a myriad of Gospel passages attributed to Jesus that mention fear. And in each case, Jesus of Nazareth tells people: do not fear.

Why? Because when we fear, we have way too much trouble envisioning a new day.
When we are paralyzed by fear, we stop thinking wisely and certainly stop moving.
When fear dominates, we stop loving and accepting people as they are.

So it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ most famous words are echoed by Paul in the letter to Rome. And what else could be more appropriate for us to hear during Advent season [and every season of the year]?

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Awake from sleep.

In fact, wake up your neighbor from his/her sleep. Wake up the world.

For the dawn is near.

Hope is real—if we live it.

Do more than imagine hope. Forge a path for it in your life.

Amen.


[1] Snyder, Charles D. The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. New York: The Free Press, 1994, pg. 19

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