Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘life’

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

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Buried Treasure Inside You

Matthew 13:44-46
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in their joy they go and sell all that they have and buy that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, the merchant went and sold all and bought it.

treasureHave you ever searched for hidden treasure? What about buried treasure, pirate treasure? There are treasures around the world that are hidden and waiting to be found, like the treasure of Lima, Peru; the golden owl of France; Lake Guatavita “el Dorado” in Colombia, and many others…

Guatavita-lagoonWhen I was a kid I used to go out into the rural expanse of Iowa and look for treasure in fields and grasslands. Sometimes I found First Nations arrowheads, other times amazing creatures living underground like massive ant colonies, centipedes, chipmunks, and more. At times I found coins or pieces of what seemed like pots or something.

Either way, I always believed that there was more treasure out there, just waiting to be found…

In religious traditions of the ancient worlds the idea of buried treasure within the natural world and within human beings was a common thread. It came to be known as the Divine Spark. The idea of a divine spark is that every human being possesses either a connection with God or a “part” of God. The goal of life, then, is to allow the divine spark to influence us toward love, peace, and harmony. Upon death, the divine spark returns to God. There are current expressions of this in most Western Mystical Traditions such as Kabbalah and Sufism and many Eastern spiritual traditions teach it.

lightinyourheartI know it may seem that the major world religions that dominate the landscape these days [especially in the West] seem to teach or display something contrary–saying that the Divine [God] is far too big and powerful to be close or hidden within these lands, streams, trees, and in the people on the earth. It is true that Christianity as a religion moved away from what was called Gnosticism by some in the time of Jesus, the idea of mysticism and Divine-Human connection. As time passed and as people formulated more and more perspectives about Jesus of Nazareth, they moved towards a more distant God that they chose to express as Creator, Son Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Of course, for many Christians, this is a doctrine: the Trinity. But what if we were to embrace the truth that the Trinity and this idea of God being far away was not a 1st and 2nd century Jesus-taught idea? What if we were to hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, in the Jewish tradition, written so long before Jesus:

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (45:3).

And one of the many times that Jesus was believed to have said this in the Gospels, like this instance in Luke 17:21: The kingdom of God is within you.

The idea that each of us contains within ourselves a portion of God, a Divine Spark, is old but also new. It is the idea that each time we quiet ourselves and sit in the grass and look deeper into it, what will we see?

Hidden treasure.

Life we didn’t notice before. When we are patient and look out on the water and pay attention, we see it. The spark is there. When we look deeply within ourselves and realize that we are indeed connected to something more, something deeper, something that is love and compassion and wholeness. It is there. You may not see it today because it may be buried within you for lots of reasons. You may have been told a false story that your life is not life or that your existence is not important. You may have been lied to and told that you are dirty or sinful or unworthy. You may have been hurt, rejected, or isolated because of the way you look, who you love, or how you express yourself. But none of these change this fact—that you have within you a Divine Spark. God has not left you and never will. That treasure, within all of us, is worth looking for, worth focusing on, worth finding and embracing.

 

Hidden Histories: What’s Cookin’

Matthew 13:31-35
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with* three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:*
‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’*

A common remark I hear a lot these days goes something like this:

I can’t watch the news or stay informed with what’s going on the world, because it’s just so negative and divisive. I’m tired and I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling. How can I make a difference?  

I feel/have felt this too. Life in this world can wear us down and even seem to defeat us. Particularly those of us who are going through deep depression, anxiety, or who are consistently mistreated. This can lead to feeling that pretty much all things are out of our control and so what’s the point

I hope that in this message [and in two symbols] anyone feeling this way can find even a small bit of encouragement to keep living. I certainly don’t have all the answers and neither does any religious writing including the Bible, but in my experience [and in the experience of many others as well] there is a healthy balance of life we can live, even in a world so heavy and difficult.

Before we look at two symbols that will lead us there, allow me to mention briefly a philosophy that you may have heard of. Stoicism was a prominent school of thought in the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century. Stoics looked first to the natural world and found that there was one overall force balancing it all. They called this many names, including the Divine, or logos. Now if that sounds familiar, it should, be throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters these concepts resurface. Christianity, many historians believe, was influenced by Stoicism. The main aspect I want to focus on is that the Stoics thought that for human beings, the path to happiness was in accepting that which they had already been given [i.e. the life-logos], and then not allowing themselves to be controlled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. This is an understanding that the overall logos balancing all the world is also in us and then compels us to work together with others and to treat them fairly and justly.

And now the two symbols: the mustard seed and yeast.

seeds.jpegNow the mustard seed is a tiny little thing. You may not notice it. It’s hidden. The mustard seed comes from the mustard greens plant. You can eat the greens and also, if you allow the plant to flower, you can harvest the seeds and use them as spices, in sauces and other delicious sides and condiments. So Jesus makes good use of hyperbole by mentioning the tiniest of seeds that will eventually grow like crazy and add spice to whatever it touches. Matthew’s author was clearly writing from a Jewish perspective and to a mostly-Jewish audience. So these references to trees and plants would have been familiar. And this naturalistic focus is akin to the Stoic view of nature-humanity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the prophetic books, seeds, plants, and trees play a prominent role. Listen to this section of the book of Daniel, chapter 4:
11The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.

About-The-Tree-of-LifeIn this case, the tree is God’s domain of provision, rest, and safety. So essentially, if you recognize that God is in a tree of life and in the tiniest of seemingly insignificant seeds, then you get it. God is big and balancing it all, but even the smallest of creatures participate in this.

We cannot control everything, but we can still be part of everything.

Any of us who have ever felt [or still feel] that our lives don’t matter or that we are so small, we are reminded that yes, we are small, but we are still important, still loved, still valued.

Then there’s the symbol of yeast.

parableoftheleavenjamesbjanknegt.jpegThis time, we find ourselves in a kitchen, and God is the chef, and God is a female. The divine baker is making bread and she uses a large amount of flour as if she is baking bread for hundreds of people. Then comes the yeast or leaven, which you may recognize as a common image in 1st Century Jewish life, but typically a negative symbol. Leaven was often a symbol of corruption. One rotten strawberry can spoil a whole basketful. But not this time. Now yeast is a positive force of growth and something that causes the hidden to be seen. The baker hides the yeast in the dough. After much kneading, she has made it so that the yeast is not visible or detectable. It’s now a part of the dough completely.

The yeast gives life to the dough. It’s creating something.

Left alone and covered, the dough starts to rise—it doubles in size. And then, in the heat of an oven, more rising, golden brown crust on the outside, and light and airy on the inside. You hungry yet?

So here’s my take. We are not meant to gloss over the heaviness of this life. We are meant to express what we feel as being part of our existence. And yet, if we can recognize the logos, the nature inside us, we can make progress towards love, towards wholeness, towards healing. A lot of us feel like mustard seeds. We may feel unnoticed, very small, and sometimes even without value. The heaviness and hatred in the world can make us feel that way. But mustard seeds can grow into something beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and spicy. They can bear flowers and eventually produce seeds. Even when you feel small and unnoticed, you are still capable of life. And your unique personality and gifts can add needed flavor to the community and to the world.

And yeast. It’s hidden growth and life. What and who you are on the inside is often not visible to others. You are made with the divine inside you. Life has already been breathed into you [like the CO2 air produced by yeast]. Sometimes you may not always notice that life, but it’s still there. Eventually, that life emerges from you and becomes visible on the outside. It grows and can even encourage others. Any small step when you embrace yourself, any small movement towards being more kind to yourself and to others, and the growth is accelerated. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

Sacred Connections

John 17:6-11 NRSV

Perhaps you’ve heard of a little movie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

IamOneForce
One particular character in the story is called Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen). Chirrut says a mantra throughout the film:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

He repeats this phrase over and over again, especially when he is in dire situations. Whether fighting hordes of storm troopers, imperial walkers, massive weapons of destruction or the stigma of his blindness—Chirrut remains calm and confident as he says:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

Check out this trailer with a clip of one of his scenes.

Because this movie [and the Star Wars story in general] is pretty well-know, I thought I’d ask some of the members of our faith community what they think this phrase means to them. Here is what they said:

The force links us all…it flows through all living things.

I am one with everything and everything is within me.

I can change the world by changing minds.

The force is everywhere and it gives me strength.

We channel the energy of the universe so much that we embody that energy.

When I am connected spiritually, I become an active part of God. Like a cell in a body.

I’m in a state of strength of mind and body that keeps me focused.

The force, in Star Wars lore, is an energy field that connects all living things in the galaxy. The power of the Force can be used by individuals who are sensitive to it. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi who uses the force, states:

ObiWanHS-SWE

“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

So when Chirrut says I am one with the force and the force is with me he is affirming the ancient teaching that all living beings are connected and can access a strength, a power, within themselves if they are sensitive to it. Chirrut himself is not a Jedi who would then use the force in obvious ways. And yet, Chirrut, as a blind person, is often able to see better than those around him who are not blind. He can read people’s feelings. He can sense movement. He is convinced that the force lives within him and therefore connects him to the greater, which is the force itself—the dynamic, connecting energy of all life.

Take a glance at Social Media and you’ll notice that people are really connecting to this Chirrut’s catchphrase—and not just because it’s related to Star Wars. I think we all have a deep sense within us of wanting to be connected to something greater, and being able to access that connection within ourselves. We are all seeking meaning in this life, this world, our everyday existence. Yes, it’s that age-old question: why am I here? But it’s universal, this question. Why do we do the things we do, get out of bed in the morning, go to work, to school, eat, interact, etc? Why are we alive? What am I connected to that has purpose? Don’t all religious traditions ask these questions?

Now look, I wish I could say right now that this idea that we are all one and part of a whole, that Jesus also taught and lived, I wish I could say that all the religions practice it. Most of them teach it, for sure. But sadly, because religions are made up by people with agendas and sometimes greed, we drift from this core ideal of sacred connection to God and each other. But I am choosing to focus on the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and not the many, many mistakes that the religion of Western Christianity has made.

In John’s Gospel, I might add, the most eclectic Gospel—Jesus prays an incredibly long prayer in this chapter 17 and it is called, by many scholars, the most universal and cosmic prayer of the Gospels and probably of the whole New Testament. It is likely that this prayer was not something said by Jesus in one setting, rather that it is a mashup of various prayers/teachings of Jesus while with friends and disciples. Such is oral tradition. People pass things on that they experienced.

The general idea of the prayer is belonging and connection. We belong to God, to Jesus, and to each other. Reciprocity:  all that has been given to Jesus has been given to us. End result: we are one. So, you may ask, what happened? How did Christianity become exclusivist and even militaristic? Not because of Jesus. Not because of the Bible either. Historically, each religion develops over time. Well, Western Christianity, after experiencing a mystical period in which people like Origen of Alexandria, Egypt and Gregory of Nyssa saw Jesus as the union of the human and the Divine in one person and thus the possibility for the Divine and the human to co-exist in all living beings, later councils and church leaders moved towards dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the Divine and the human are two separate entities. Over time, Jesus went from cosmic and connected to individualistic and separate. The Divine and the human in Christianity parted ways.

It’s a shame, but it does explain why we see many so-called Christians deal with absolutes and clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. Binary thinking. And it speaks to the fact that in the U.S. we are often “here and there” people. You are Muslim? You are there. I am Christian and so I am here. You are gay and I’m straight? You there, me here. You are trans? You are over there and I’ll stay here. You are Black, Brown, or Asian and I’m White Anglo? Let’s stay in our lanes.

But that’s not a narrative I’m buying into.

I’m hearing the Jesus of John tell us another story, that we are all connected by something greater. Hear the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action of Contemplation, from his writing the Cosmic Christ:

We eventually know that Someone Else is working through us, in us, for us, and in spite of us. After enlightenment, our life is not our own. Now we draw from the One Big Life, the Christ mystery, the Christ nature, the Christ source. We stop fretting about our smallness. The individual will never be fully worthy or correct, but that same individual can still remain utterly connected if it stops over-defending itself. Our yes deeply matters. The word for that yes and that connection is, quite simply, love.

In Christ, we become Love.

That’s what is in us; that is what surrounds us.

You know why this is important, right? Because life is scary sometimes; because there are bullies out there who will try to steal your joy and weigh you down; because sometimes we can feel so lonely and empty that we ache with sadness. So we must return to that sacred place, that place of connection that Jesus spoke of. God is in you, in me, in everyone, in all living beings. Love is in you, in me, in all living things. We are connected by this. It gives us energy, strength, and even the ability to do things we thought were impossible.

So embrace that you are part of the whole.
Embrace all living creatures as they are and with compassion.

You are one with this Sacred Love; and the Sacred Love is with you.

 

Community within, Community Expressed

Sense8 is an original TV series streaming on Netflix, created by the Wachowskis, the two people behind the Matrix trilogy. Sense8, a play on the sensate, tells the story of eight strangers: Capheus, Sun, Nomi, Kala, Riley, Wolfgang, Lito and Will, each from a different culture and part of the world. As the story develops, all eight characters have visions and find strange connections to the others even though they are all worlds apart. They realize that they are all sensates, humans like anyone else except for the fact that they are linked with a mental and emotional connection, allowing them to sense and communicate with each other, as well as share their knowledge, language and skills. The eight sensates try to live their lives and figure out how and why this connection has happened and what it means.

Here are the eight sensate characters in the story:

sense8
Capheus,
a matatu driver in Nairobi, a passionate fan of movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a son who is trying to earn money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother.

Sun Bak
, daughter of a powerful Seoul, Korea businessman and a star in the underground kickboxing world.

Nomi Marks,
a trans woman hacktivist and blogger living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita. She was born Michael but changed her name to Nomi, which stands for “Know Me”.

Kala Dandekar
, a university-educated pharmacist and devout Hindu living in Mumbai, India. She is  engaged to marry a man she does not love.

Riley Blue,
an Icelandic DJ living in London.

Wolfgang Bogdanow,
a Berlin, Germany locksmith and safe-cracker who has unresolved issues with his late father and participates in organized crime.

Lito Rodriguez,
a gay, closeted actor from Bilbao, Spain living in Mexico City with his boyfriend Hernando.

And Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer haunted by an unsolved murder from his childhood.

In the story, the sensates represent the next step in human evolution. Their brains have subtly but powerfully changed so that they are able to connect with each other across long distances without being detected or listened to. They can have conversations in two places simultaneously, flipping back and forth between a rainy café in Germany and a sunny temple in India, while a character in Korea vapes with a character in Iceland. They seem to be physically in the same place as the others, having a face to face conversation. A common phrase for the sensates becomes:

“I am also a we.”

I wish to explore this idea of deep connection—how it is on the inside and then how it can be expressed on the outside. Have you ever felt a deep connection with someone you just recently met? How did it feel? What did that connection lead to? And, do you ever have the experience of feeling disconnected, even from people you have known nearly your whole life? See, connection is not about longevity; it’s not even about having things in common, looking the same, or sharing all the same perspectives. Connection, I argue, is an energy. It is an energy between people, between us, when we feel that we have been seen, heard, and valued as we are. Connection is that energy that fills us when we are not judged, when we are truly seen and valued.

I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it’s worth saying again. In this life, it is really important to pursue and nurture relationships/connections with people who value you, who see and hear you and accept you, as you are. That most likely means that you will have these types of strong connections with only a handful of other humans and that’s fine. Hey, the characters in Sense8 are only deeply connected to seven others. The energy of connection in our relationships is vital to our health.

The language and concept of connection is obvious in the Jesus of John’s Gospel. Jesus is portrayed in various I AM statements, and all of those identity statements lead us right back to the idea of connection. Jesus said I AM the vine and you are the branches. Straight up connection talk there. And now here in John 14 we find Jesus talking about dwelling places, though not your typical house or apartment. Jesus speaks here of a realm of dwelling beyond the brick and mortar. Dwelling in Abba God’s house is not heaven—it is the presence of God, and it goes both ways like a swinging door of connection. If God dwells in you, then you also dwell in God’s house. And vice versa. The place, the connection for all of us has already been prepared; it is simply up to us to embrace it.

And then the Jesus of John takes it one step further, or maybe in this case, Jesus humanizes it even more, because our good friend Thomas is still asking great questions. Thomas asks the how question and Jesus responds with love and care. How will you know the way to this connection? Well, I AM way, I AM truth, I AM life. No one comes to the light, to the connected Divine, to God, except through path, truth, and life. If you know your path, and truth, and life, then you will know the Divine. And from now on you do know, and you have seen.

Wonderful and beautiful language, but of course I have to mention [albeit briefly] that this beautiful part of John’s Gospel can also be negative trigger for some. Why? Because sadly some make it a habit of taking words from the Gospels attributed to Jesus and turning them into clobber texts, exclusive religious dogma, or even opportunities to say to some people they don’t like that they are doomed and that God doesn’t love them. Rather than spend more time on those who use this as a clobber text, I prefer to focus on what the text actually says within its context, also considering the audience it was written to. Keep in mind that John’s Gospel is the most inclusive Gospel writing, apart from the Gospel of Timothy, probably. John is a text written for a mixed group of people. It’s meant to open up the message of Jesus to a wider audience. It verges on universality sometimes. It’s often ambiguously symbolic and even combines different religious traditions. But John’s Gospel is not exclusive. Jesus’ I AM statements, each one of them, are meant to invite and include more human beings. Many rooms in Abba’s house, remember?

So this oft-quoted phrase about way, truth, and life is not a claim that Christianity [which didn’t exist at the time, by the way] is the one true faith and that Jesus is the only way to God. It doesn’t say that. The word only just isn’t there. What IS there is a kind and loving invitation to be connected in a deep and powerful way. Be connected to Jesus/God/the Divine/the Light, however you wish to call it, but be connected to this way, truth, and life, which is the power greater than all of us that connects us across genders, orientations, cultures, languages religions, countries, and differences. This connection is love and compassion—practicing that in our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing people as they are. Accepting them. Seeking and nurturing this connective energy gives us purpose and meaning in life. What do you think?

 

What Gives You Life?

John 10:1-10

Open-Gate
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of religion and politics. Now before you run away after hearing this, please hear me out. I know some of us prefer to avoid that conversation, but I think it’s really important to address it. Religion and politics have been intertwined ever since human beings started saying and defining those two words. Though people who live in countries like the U.S. that claim to be democracies often think that religion and politics are separate, it’s time for some honesty. Religions have always influenced political policies; political movements and policies have influenced religions. Currently, many in the U.S. are perhaps recognizing this for the first time, even though it is nothing new. When things like health care are discussed, or marriage rights, or abortion, climate change, capital punishment, gender equality, trans rights, etc., it quickly becomes clear that a person’s religious tradition [or lack thereof] informs how they view these issues. If you haven’t noticed, since the new administration took office, many religious groups across the spectrum have been more vocal about government policies that are inhumane, harmful, and even evil.

We need to leave space for these conversations to happen and people of all religious traditions and secular traditions should not ever be afraid to stand up against any policy or political movement that threatens people’s humanity or rights. It is our responsibility to do so, even if said policies do not affect us personally, because they affect our neighbors. Of course, this is what Jesus taught and did—even though it was not popular. In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as the presence of the Divine as hoped for in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah—bringing justice, healing, and reconciliation to an unjust, wounded, and divided world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often expressed identity with I AM statements, in Greek the ego eimi. In fact, John’s Jesus uses this phrase seven times. I AM…the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. And in John 10 Jesus also expressed what Jesus is not. Jesus is not a thief or destroyer of life, but instead a giver of life, a full life. John’s metaphor involved sheep, a shepherd, and a gate. Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd, one who will lay down one’s own life for the sheep, stand with them when they are in trouble. In fact, this image of Jesus as good shepherd is a more ancient symbol for Jesus than the cross. Before Roman Christianity developed its own symbols, followers of Jesus resonated with the simple image of a shepherd who cares for sheep and knows them by name.

good-shepherd

Sadly, as mentioned previously, religions are created by humans and thus end up serving the desires of humans. That means that religions easily lose their way when they stray from the core elements of message and practice. Jesus, in no Gospel account, was violent, uncaring, exclusive, or judgmental.

Jesus didn’t try to steal people’s identities.

Jesus didn’t destroy people’s lives. Jesus was a giver of life to all. And yet, particular brands of Christianity [including American Christianity] have skewed Jesus’ message and even the image of the good shepherd to be about exclusion, judgement, and even violence. It is so sad to know that there are people who claim to be a follower of this Jesus and consistently mistreat people because of their cultural or linguistic heritage; their gender expression or identification; who they love; how much money they have; the color of their skin. This is why, as I mentioned, it is essential for us to not be silent while this is going on. We cannot hide from the wolves and thieves who seek to destroy. We must confront them, for the sake of our friends and neighbors who are being bullied, and excluded, and told that their lives do not have value.

And we need to tell the blessed story that gives life. Everyone deserves this type of love and care that the good shepherd offers to all. Everyone. And all of us should be loving and caring in this way, in the world. For if we choose to identify with this good shepherd, if we choose to believe that God offers us a full life and acceptance as we are, then doesn’t it follow that we should wish for others to experience the same thing?

You see, I think what gives us life as individuals is a good place to start. So ask yourself: what gives me life? Who are the people who give me life? Go to that place. Then, think about all those around you—regardless of their religious traditions or lack thereof; no matter what gender they express or identify with; no matter who they love or what they look like or how much they make or what language they speak. Think about those around you. Don’t you want them to feel alive, cared for, loved? My answer is yes. And all of us who do answer yes to that question, let’s do something about it. Be life-givers in your conversations, your interactions, your decisions, your tweets, and your connections. And if you feel bullied or destroyed or hurt or not invited—I am sorry that this has happened to you. It’s not something you deserve. What you do deserve is love and kindness and community. Let’s work on that together.

 

Who Do You Meet on the Road?

Luke 24  

 path

Not that long ago if we needed to walk, drive, or take public transportation to a place we asked other people how to get there. Then, we used paper maps. After that, we typed the address into a computer and printed out Mapquest directions. Remember that?

mapquest

Then the GPS with the somewhat unreliable suction. And now, of course, when we want to go somewhere we simply tell our phone where want to go, the mode of transportation, and we not only get directions to that place, but how long it will take us, alternative routes due to traffic, construction, or a Godzilla attack, and also we get to see our progress on the screen, right before our eyes.

The roads we travel have seemingly become more accessible with this kind of technology. It is true—we are traveling more now as a human species than ever before. We honestly don’t have the same excuses for not going places and the whole “I got lost” argument usually falls pretty flat these days. All that aside, traveling the road to a destination is an important metaphor in life. I invite you to think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on—and all the different kinds of places those roads led you to.

When I was younger and living in rural Iowa, country roads [and even gravel roads] were part of life. I spent a lot of my time walking down these roads, as public transportation was scarce and I didn’t have a car. Where we lived in Central Iowa, the roads rolled over hills [yes, Iowa has hills!] and at the top of certain hills you could see for miles. Before you got to the top of the hill, though, you couldn’t see anything. Gravel roads are interesting, mainly because anything or anyone that has traveled ahead of you kicks up dust. The general rule when you are walking on a gravel road is to wear sunglasses or to walk backwards. Otherwise, you’ll be begging for eye drops in a hot second. The other type of road in Iowa I remember distinctly is highway 65/69. That thing went on forever, and when we had to go to faraway places, at times I felt that it would never end. The speed limit is 75 and you still feel like you’re crawling along. Maybe it’s the eternal stretch of cornfields on your way through Nebraska? Think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on.

The reason that the road is a an oft-used metaphor for life isn’t hard to understand, is it? Because all of us use all kinds of roads to get from one place to another. The roads wind and turn and go up and down and stretch for miles. They are made of dirt, cobblestone, gravel, asphalt, grass, and rock.

Sometimes we can see what’s ahead on the road; sometimes we can’t see anything at all.

The other part of the road is life metaphor is who you meet on that road. Believe it or not, even on lonely, country roads in rural Iowa I met people, or sometimes other living beings. As you can imagine, along a country road in Iowa, there were animals. Cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, and all sorts of creatures. Just when I thought I was completely alone on the road, they greeted me with a sound or a smell or a movement. And from time to time I encountered a farmer, or a person walking their dog, or someone on a tractor. Kids would appear on bikes or motorcycles. Cars whizzed past. It honestly makes me think a lot about life. There have been many times when I have felt like I was walking down a lonely stretch of rural Iowa roads—not sure if I would encounter anyone, not convinced that the road would ever come to an end. And then, I was surprised. I was surprised by life I didn’t expect to see—connections with people that recharged my batteries and picked me up off the mat.

Those connections with people on the road of life, whether short or long ones, helped me get to know myself better and reminded me that I was not alone.

Of course, part of the road has also included recognizing that unfortunately, some people I meet on the road are not kind and not healthy for me to be around. Those encounters [and the consequent walking on/moving on from those relationships] taught me a lot about the kinds of people who really do care and truly accept me.

The story in the Gospel of Luke 24 is often called “The Road to Emmaus.” It involves two people, former followers of Jesus of Nazareth, walking on a road after Jesus’ death. Emmaus, according to historians and scholars, probably was not a real place at all. Further, the two people on the road are not identifiable. So this is the storyteller saying to us: You are Cleopas. You are walking on that road with someone. You don’t know where that road will take you—Emmaus? Timbuktu? A hole in the space-time continuum? We are walking down that road. And we don’t know where it leads. But where we are going/where the two disciples are going, isn’t the point.

The point is who they meet on the road.

A stranger. Any random person you may encounter while at the grocery store, a park, on a street corner. A stranger. You have no expectations for this encounter. But the stranger seems to care about what you’re going though. You’re sad, lost, distracted. The stranger listens. This stranger then seems to share some of your sacred stories and important feelings. The stranger accepts you as you are, where you are on that road to seemingly nowhere. Eventually, the two travelers in the story recognize the stranger. It was Jesus—their teacher, their friend. They felt connected again, but only after they ate together. Must have reminded them of their favorite moments on the road. In fact, their eyes were open and they even saw themselves as newly alive.

Now I know that for many of you, maybe Jesus won’t be the stranger you meet on the road. Maybe that religious narrative isn’t where you are right now. We get caught up with the name and concept of Jesus too much, if you ask me. So just consider—if you were to meet a stranger on the road who listened to you, accepted you, and inspired you to open your eyes—who would that person be?

And, are you open enough to affirm that this person could actually be anyone? The person next to you pumping gas? The child laughing at the playground? A teacher? An acquaintance at church, or school, or work?

See, I think that Jesus never meant for us to be so reliant on some religious idea of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. I think that Jesus meant for his followers and friends to find resurrection in themselves, along the journey, on the road, and to have their eyes opened by the encounters with people on that road. Because when we share with each other, we feel less alone and more connected. When we open ourselves to random encounters and distance ourselves from the unhealthy encounters—the ones that try to change our story and don’t accept us as we are. When we do that, I think we can be surprised. We can meet each other on the road and find encouragement and connection. Because this road is not a straight line. And sometimes you will feel alone and disconnected. But keep walking your unique road. Encounter people who will truly listen to you and accept you. May our eyes be opened.

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