Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘jewish’

Understanding Each Other’s Languages

John 7:37-39, Acts 2

multilingual-content-strategyImagine this scenario: You are stranded on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific [no, not Waikiki] and you encounter another person on the island. You are overjoyed that you are not alone, except that both of you speak completely different languages and cannot understand what the other is saying. You don’t have electronic translators or apps for your phone…all you have is each other, pen and paper, and the ability to make sounds. Would you both be able to communicate effectively and if so, how long would it take? What do you think?

Some of you know that I lived in Hawai’i for three years, on the island of Oahu. People there wouldn’t hesitate to answer this question. They would say: “Of course. Of course we would be able to communicate.” Why? Because the great people of Hawai’i know all about pidgin and creole.

Hawaiian-Pidgin-EnglishPidgin and creole are terms that linguists use to distinguish between 2 very different forms of speech. Pidgins are simplified languages that develop as means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. This has happened around the world. On the Hawaiian islands it happened on the plantations and on boats. Originally, pidgin was a combo of Hawaiian, Cantonese, English, Portuguese, and Japanese. Then, they added Filipino languages, Korean, and Puerto Rican Spanish. It is important to note that people who speak a pidgin language claim another language as their first language.

Creoles, on the other hand, are languages that the children of pidgin speakers develop. As the kids grow up, they expand the vocab, pronunciation, and the grammar so they can eventually use it as their main language. Isn’t that incredible? I experienced this in Hawai’i with teenagers who spoke a very complicated and diverse form of Hawaiian pidgin that technically should now be called a creole.

One more linguistic thing before we move on. There is such a thing called mutual intelligibility. This is when people who speak different languages can understand each other because the languages they speak have some sort of relationship with each other. An example: if you speak Spanish as your first language, technically you can communicate with Galician, Portuguese and Italian speakers. It gets even more fascinating when you consider the cultures of people who live on the borders of their countries and often interact with others/cross those borders. Their languages reflect that interaction and often, they develop a pidgin or even a creole language that is a combo of the languages of various countries.

All this talk of language and communication leads us to Pentecost, a Christian holiday that is always celebrated on the 50th [thus Pente] day after Easter. It is a festival that reminds Christians of the giving the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But, it really is Jewish. The Feast of Weeks was and is a Jewish festival celebrated on the 50th day after Passover. So, you see that followers of Jesus just continued on with Jewish tradition, but with a Jesus twist.

There’s another important festival/religious time to mention. Jesus, as a Jew, observed succot, or what is often called the Feast of Tabernacles.

sukkahA really cool looking sukkah, no?

That is what we see in John 7. The feast was seven days long, a major feast to remember the story of Moses out in the wilderness. Moses struck a rock and water came gushing out of it like a geyser. Typically, a Jewish priest would go into the center of Jerusalem and find a large spring [pool of Siloam anyone?] With the water bubbling up, the priest would dip a pitcher of water. For seven days the priest would do this: dip the pitcher in the spring and then carry the water to the temple and pour it out there.

All this is important to know, because with this info you can imagine Jesus watching the priest perform this ritual with the water when Jesus said this:

When the Spirit comes and lives in you, out of your heart shall flow rivers of living water.

This Spirit, which is interchangeable with living water, takes center stage in the story of Acts. It was the Feast of Pentecost of course, and a strong wind came and no one knew where it came from. The wind filled the place and then the Spirit filled the place, and the people. It was like fire. And the people gathered there started to speak different languages and understand each other.

he-qi-pentecost
He Qi, Pentecost

A lot to unpack here, but let’s keep it simple. This Spirit that is given to everyone takes shape as wind, fire, water. The Spirit fills people regardless of age, background, past, or identification. The Spirit gushes out as an overwhelming spring of water. The Spirit brings together people who on the surface would never be together, never speak to one another, certainly wouldn’t understand each other. And this is more than just linguistics. When I say understand each other’s languages I mean more than just verbal or nonverbal communication.

Understanding each other’s languages means hearing each other’s authentic stories.

It means welcoming those stories, providing a safe space for them to be told, and then not judging those stories—just listening to them and accepting them. It is a powerful thing, don’t you think? If someone really hears your story without judgement? You walk away from that interaction feeling alive, connected, understood. This is the Spirit. This is what we need to do and be for each other.

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Wind, Water, and Life in Desolation

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

Building & Nurturing Reconciling Community

Matthew 5:21-24; 33-37 

So many labels.

labels
We are named this, that, the other thing.

We are told what we are capable of or not capable of. And we bring all of these experiences into our relationships. We bring all of this into community.

These labels, these stereotypes—they hinder us from fully expressing ourselves and sometimes they even keep us from connecting to others. I would argue that the divisiveness we experience in the world occurs because we too readily accept the labels given to us, and too readily apply labels to other people. The divisiveness begins in each one of us, as we seek to balance how we see ourselves with how others may see us. It is not easy, for sure, but essential work we all must do. Because if we don’t know, love, and accept ourselves as we are, and if we too often accept the labels given to us, we will find it difficult to have meaningful and positive relationships. It will be more difficult to be part of a community.

This individual work I will call self-reconciling—the work of getting to know yourself apart from societal, religious, and even family labels. Discovering how to love and accept yourself as you are, raw and unfiltered. That self-reconciling, in my experience, leads to reconciliation with others, in community.

Jesus of Nazareth spoke a lot about this type of reconciliation, within ourselves, and as part of a community. His quite famous “sermon on the mount” includes such identity metaphors as salt and light, and of course, the beatitudes–the affirmation of the marginalized as part of God’s reconciling work. We are looking at the latter part of this speech in Matthew’s Gospel, and this time Jesus shifts to a conversation about the Law.

What is the law? Plainly speaking, it was and is the Mosaic Law, the precepts and rules from the Torah; in other words, the first five books of the Old Testament. For Jewish folk in Jesus’ time, the Law was of utmost importance. It defined the behaviors of individuals, and also how people related to each other in community. Jesus, in the Gospels, interprets these Laws as Rabbis were prone to do. In his interpretation, however, was an underlying theme new to many:  laws were only good insofar as they valued and protected people.

In other words, it was not about who followed the laws more religiously. It was about how people’s lives were affirmed and embraced—that people had a right to be part of a safe community in which they could be themselves.

Please keep in mind that for Jesus, the Scriptures were not ending points that were God-words and therefore a done deal. Instead, the Scriptures were more like beginning points from which to re-form them. Jesus moved away from the authority of the written words in order to truly honor the spirit of the teachings themselves.

Each time he says “but I say to you” Jesus is placing a comma where others had placed a period.

The Scriptures were not dead and set in stone. God was still speaking through them—to people in the current age, and thus they should be interpreted in that age.

Thus, Jesus runs down a list of various laws and rules that his audience would have seen as hot button issues: marriage and divorce, murder, repayment of debts, adultery, and oaths [making vows/promises]. But in each case, Jesus focuses less on the letter of the law and more on what the spirit of the law was about—affirmation and reconciliation in community. A quick breakdown of the issues at hand:

Murder. It is not enough to just say that we shouldn’t kill each other. The point is in the valuing of another. People’s lives matter. Rather than prohibiting violence against another, this law is actually about wanting the best for others, actively seeking their well-being, affirming who they are, and even taking risks to do so. No one should go to a church or worship or do anything so-called religious before reconciling with others and loving them as they are. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually committed to this? Then it wouldn’t be about how many times you attend worship or educational classes or how many committees you serve on or any of that stuff. It would be about reconciliation with others and seeking the best for our neighbors.

Marriage and divorce. So easy to get caught up in morals here, but that’s not Jesus’ take. Instead, this law is about certain individuals being mistreated, in this case, women. Females were considered property in Jesus’ time. The rules for marriage and divorce were completely one-sided in favor of males. But the spirit of the law is about the valuing of persons and thus prohibits us from objectifying them or treating them as lesser. In blessed community, we value each other fully and consider ourselves to be of equal value and therefore deserving of protection and affirmation. In 2017 the spirit of this law is absolutely relevant. Still there are far too many people [who say they are Christians] who are fighting against and in some cases blocking the affirmation of two men or two women who wish to marry; and others who refuse to recognize the beauty and full humanity of transgender people. And females still experience objectification and are considered property. This is not what beloved community stands for.

Part of the reason why “religious” folk keep hanging onto laws that denigrate and divide people, says Jesus, is due to our spending way too much time arguing about oaths.

The formal swearing of oaths in court is something familiar to all of us. But have you ever thought about how much people swear oaths in churches? You want to join a particular faith community [or even attend a Christian school] and you must swear an oath. You must swear that you believe a particular list of things, a doctrinal statement, etc. For Jesus, oath-swearing was for people who didn’t trust each other. You say pious and hollow words. It has nothing to do with how you treat people.

And yet, in beloved community, oaths are unnecessary, because people speak the truth to each other, trust each other, and love each other honestly. I encourage you [and myself] to focus less on the labels we are given and the labels we give; I challenge you to focus less on rules and more on community.

How will we as a community value and affirm others?
How will we tackle the culture in our communities that devalues some because of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social status?

How will we continue to build beloved community?

 

Pentecost Inside, Spirit Outside

John 14:8-17; 24-27

 

What is on the inside eventually shows itself on the outside.

emotionsHave you seen the Pixar movie Inside Out? Many have, but just in case you missed it, Inside Out’s story revolves around a young girl named Riley, who is uprooted from her comfortable Minnesota home when she moves to the busy and chaotic San Francisco.

rileyHer emotions—Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Joy—disagree on how to handle this dramatic change.  Their disagreements start to stir up trouble in Headquarters, the central living and working place for the five emotions, and the audience is invited to watch as Riley and her emotions navigate and interact with the world around them. Inside Out illustrates how our minds react in social situations and create, process, and alter memories.

 

In essence, the movie confirms a universal truth of humanity:

For every feeling we have there is a thought, for every thought we have there is an action, and for every action there is a social reaction.
Take a look at the many emotions of Riley.

Inside Out is indeed about our emotions, and additionally, I also think it leads us to think about our spirituality, which is in fact related to our emotions. If you’re wondering what I mean by spirituality, for the sake of this conversation, take it mean: a sense of connection to something bigger, A universal human experience—something that touches us all.

We all feel emotions. We all try to navigate those emotions. We think about our emotions. We all act on those thoughts. And our actions affect those around us.

Are you with me so far? I hope so. Now, stay with me, if you will, as I relate this to this thing called “Pentecost” in the Christian tradition.

 

Pente is a Greek prefix for the number 5 or the number 50—depending on the context, and would have been said by Greek-speaking Jews centuries ago. Later on, in Eastern Christianity, Pentecost was designated as a festival celebrated 50 days after the day when people commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

But Pentecost as a festival did not originate in Christianity; it comes from the Jews.

It was called the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot in Hebrew. This festival will begin Saturday, June 11th and end on Monday, June 13th. People will read the Torah, fast, eat special foods [specifically dairy products], and pray.

Shavuot is a celebration of the gift of the covenant—in other words, the giving of the Law [Torah] to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews celebrate Shavuot 50 days after the first Seder meal [linked to Passover] to remember the Torah and God’s promises.

Honestly, Pentecost [for most Western Christians] is not much of a consideration. Christmas [although less a spiritual tradition] and Easter are more known and widely observed. Pentecost is less-known, perhaps because it is about something called the spirit, and that in and of itself might seem elusive. Biblically, the tradition of Pentecost is based on the story in the book of Acts in the NT where the Spirit descended on those who were followers of Jesus Christ. Pentecost was historically known as the “birthday” of the Christian church, at least symbolically.

We are looking at John’s Gospel, however, and not Acts. John does not refer to any such event but instead tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his understanding of the Spirit.

And I will argue that this Jesus teaching in John is an “inside-out” teaching.

You see, Jesus’ followers, before and after his death, were not sure that they had what they needed to navigate life. It’s the universal idea of scarcity, that our ability to wake up, breathe, and to be alive is not enough. There is something missing.

We can most certainly empathize with the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. No question about it. They wanted concrete answers about the meaning of life. They wanted assurance that they wouldn’t be all alone. They were human.

And Jesus’ message to them reflects that. It is a message of help, comfort, and truth. Jesus promises that the spirit will be with them—no matter what. No wait—the spirit is also IN them. The word for spirit is Paraclete and originates from ancient Latin and ancient Greek. It means mediator or advocate. But if we really want to dig into its original meaning, a Paraclete is a person—someone who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and one who literally stands with someone and intercedes on her behalf. This is the Spirit of truth, not like the world promises, not like preachers, churches, religions, or companies try to sell you, but the spirit who lives in you, and she will always be in you.

Jesus wasn’t done. The spirit also leads to peace. Peace is eirene in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew shalom. Shalom is more than absence of conflict.  It includes maximal well-being for people and for society. Shalom is characterized by wholeness, healing, abundance, concord, reconciliation, social harmony, and spiritual and physical health.

We must notice here, however, that all this happens within the context of great sadness.

In the story, there is no repression of sadness here. Those who loved Jesus knew he was dead. But the message of John is honest. Sadness is recognized as something vital to our well-being, something to mindfully embrace—rather than to suppress. And the presence of the spirit speaks to this. The spirit is ever-present, even in our sad times. The difficult emotions that we often try to push down are recognized. The disciples felt sadness on the inside and expressed it on the outside. The spirit of wholeness, forgiveness, peace, and balance was also on the inside. How would they express that on the outside?

It is a legitimate question, and one that both Inside Out and John’s Gospel challenge us to ask ourselves. We feel all sorts of emotions inside.

How often do we suppress those feelings?
Are we honestly thinking about our emotions and where they come from?
Are we aware that our thoughts about our emotions lead to actions?
And, are we aware that our actions affect those around us?

Friends, maybe the religious significance of Pentecost isn’t widely known or observed, and perhaps that is okay. The idea, though, that a spirit lives in each one of us and accepts us as we are, and actually encourages us to be honest about what we feel, moving us to honest and compassionate action with others, is a beautiful and transformative thing. Keep in mind that this spirit of love, wholeness, and peace is poured out on all people; that should be emphasized. This spirit is freedom to be yourself; you don’t have to suppress who you are. This spirit makes all things new—meaning that each day of your life is a new beginning. No matter what happened yesterday, it’s over! This spirit brings life and makes you come alive, realizing that you have all that you need. Scarcity is not the problem; believing that you are not enough is the problem.

The spirit reminds you that if you love yourself as you are and you love others as they are, you keep the commandments that really matter.

Who you are on the inside shows itself on the outside.

So embrace, on the inside, a peace that lives in you—not the false peace that leads to more suffering, but the peace that is wholeness of heart, mind, and body. The peace that says to you: there’s no need to be afraid. Be bold, be strong–be you! This spirit moves you to be your higher self but also moves you to accept when you fail, when you are sad, angry, happy, or joyful. The spirit accepts all your emotions.

This spirit lives in you; now allow it to be evident on the outside in how you live and treat others.

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.

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.

Giving to Receive

Malachi 3:1-3; 10   The Message [MSG]

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

But who will be able to stand up to that coming? Who can survive his appearance? He’ll be like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes.

Bring your full tithe to the Temple treasury so there will be ample provisions in my Temple. Test me in this and see if I don’t open up heaven itself to you and pour out blessings beyond your wildest dreams. 

giveselfDuring Advent and the Christmas season, it is important for us to be mindful of our Western biases when it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus and also the characters in the drama we think we know so well. Specifically, it is a must for us to accept the fact that the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi were not talking about Jesus of Nazareth, nor were they writing to a Christian audience. Those writings are much more ancient than the NT Gospels, and Jesus of Nazareth was not on anyone’s radar screen, of course. But in all fairness to the casual Bible reader, those who put the Bible together didn’t do us any favors. The order of OT books is set in such a way as to point the Christian reader to “aha” and foreshadowing moments that seem to draw connections for us between OT prophets [and other books] and the NT stories of Jesus.

Malachi is one such example. In the Christian Bible Malachi is the last OT prophet. This is not all the case in the Jewish canon. Obviously, the Christians who put together the order of their Bibles wanted Malachi last so as to draw connections between the OT prophecy and the birth of Jesus.

But I think it’s our responsibility to read the OT [as much as possible] through a Jewish lens, being careful not to jump to Jesus conclusions so easily. Why? First, because it’s honest and truer to the text. Secondly, because by doing so we can glean even more meaning from the text and not settle for cookie-cutter, Christmasy conclusions that limit our understanding of an ancient culture and religion. Okay, I’m off my soapbox.

What’s Malachi, and what’s it all about if it’s not about Jesus?

Malachi, not a name, but the actual Hebrew words “my messenger” is a book about the corruption of religion and the need for change. The priests in the Israelite temple of Jerusalem [the rebuilt one] are apathetic; there is corruption in the temple. Many scholars think that Malachi was written somewhere around 450 B.C.E.

Malachi’s audience, if that date is correct, is pre-Babylonian exile, and post-second-building of the Jerusalem temple. So basically, the people had ample time to get apathetic and lax in their treatment of people and their worship of Adonai. Yes, they had the big temple and their religious rituals, but as people they weren’t all that impressive.

So Adonai [the Lord of Hosts] is coming, and who can stand when Adonai appears? Adonai will be like a refiner’s fire, and a harsh soap [reminds me a bit of Ralphie in A Christmas Story].

Ralphie-SoapAdonai will help the people be the best people they can be, on the inside, and in their worship.

But that is not enough.

The refining and the harsh soap serve to remind people of what is important. Are they talking smack behind people’s backs? Are they ignoring the oppressed workers? Are they looking away from the widows, the orphans, and the refugees? For Malachi, it’s not enough for the priests and the people to be good, religious people, doing the right kinds of rituals in the right way.

Worship of Adonai must be paired with good behavior in the world.

How the Israelites treat people is more important. Otherwise, their worship is false.

Malachi is, as Professor John Holbert states, more than a mere warm-up act for the main stage appearance of Jesus.[1] He is a truth-teller rather than a predictor. And all of us would benefit from hearing this message. What would it be like if instead of focusing on the birth of a little baby boy, we actually focused on how we treat people in our community? What if instead we focused on the refugees, the lonely, the forgotten, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What if our worship was about being kind and compassionate to others?

You see, Adonai, the one who comes as a refining fire and cleansing soap–comes into our lives to help us realize our full potential. We are not limited to rituals or even religious practice itself, thinking that such things please God. Instead, we are refined in order to understand that we are so very capable of healing, caring, empathizing, and giving. The tithe acceptable to God [borrowing from Isaiah], is the giving of ourselves in the world. It’s not just money.

The tithe is our humanity, who we are.

Sometimes we forget that our humanity is such a gift to others if we share it with them.

When we give someone our time without distractions.
When we perform an act of kindness without expecting anything in return.
When share an honest, but difficult feeling we have with someone because we trust him/her.
When we listen intently and compassionately to someone going through hell.

Consider this:

What if God only cared about how much we truly gave of ourselves?
What if we focused more on that and less on everything else?
How would that change things for us as people?

[1] The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4, John C. Holbert, December 02, 2012.

 

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