Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘light’

Interview with Lucas Mangum, Author

I recently had a conversation with my friend, Lucas Mangum, the author of FLESH AND FIRE, MANIA, ENGINES OF RUIN, GODS OF THE DARK WEB, and WE ARE THE ACCUSED. The collection, Engines of Ruin, was just released in paperback on January 5 (the Kindle edition has been out since December).

Lucas’ newest novel We Are the Accused was released on January 15th.

You can find the rest of his books on Amazon and you can also follow his blog Cranky but Cultured.

[Our conversation was transcribed and not edited so as to capture the true spirit of it]

JOSH:
Lucas, I’m curious to know if there is a book that you can remember—not necessarily the first one you read, but a book that definitely made you cry.

LUCAS:
I will mention two—I don’t remember if I actually cried but I do remember being deeply affected by first The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and also by another called Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. First, O’Dell’s book I think primarily affected me because of the violence and because it was my first exposure to real tragedy and stuff like that. Stepping on the Cracks was a book that really affected me because it was the first time I really experienced the magic of storytelling, the way she sets things up. There are these expectations early on this book and then she kind of turns them on their head, but it doesn’t happen in a way that makes it seem like it comes out of nowhere. She surprised me, but it makes sense.  

JOSH:
I’m wondering–I’m not a writer but I’m an actor and a performer and so, I know for me that when I’m doing stage work it definitely energizes me. So I’m wondering if for you the writing practice gives you energy or, when you’re finished writing, are you exhausted?

LUCAS:
You know, lately it’s been doing nothing but energizing me. It’s weird, but now I want to write more. I don’t know if it’s because I finally like got my voice or hit my stride or whatever you want to call it; it’s been like this for the last 6 months. I’ve been very, very productive always wanting to continue doing things. For example, I started doing this new thing just after I finished another piece. I’m ready to move on to another one and I’ve never done that before; I’m just compelled to do it.

JOSH:
So this is the first time that you have felt that type of energy when you finish a project, i.e. you are ready for another.

LUCAS:
Yeah, before I would get this temporary high, but I would definitely have crashes as well. But this doesn’t feel like that now, it’s different.

JOSH:
Your writing obviously crosses over some genres. How did you get to that point? When you started writing, were you attracted to horror typically or was it just kind of writing in general?

LUCAS:
I guess it was always writing in general, though I definitely was into the spookier things in life. I actually recently chronicled my long-standing relationship with horror in a poem called Halloween Poem and it was featured on the Heavy Feather Review last October. tI’ve definitely been expanding to other genres and I recently wrote a romance novel. I’ve been trying my hand with a few other genres like short story form as well, but horror is definitely something I come back to.

JOSH:
You get this question a lot but it’s worth mentioning: who are some strong influences for you?

LUCAS:
So I guess you know Stephen King would be the obvious one of course, but there’s this movie from the eighties called Killer Klowns from Outer Space and it made me incredibly happy. I actually just recently re-watched it and I still absolutely love it.

JOSH:
That reveals a lot about you, Lucas [laughter].

LUCAS:
There is a lot of stuff that I like that isn’t, you know, spooky. I also like stuff that has a sense of humor as well. I’ve only recently started to incorporate more of a sense of humor into my work. Indeed, a lot of my stuff tends more towards the bleak side of things but some of the last few pieces I’ve done have been–I don’t want to say lighter–but definitely there has been a bit more humor providing some comic relief.  

JOSH:
So all your different writings, are they pretty much stand-alone pieces or are there connections between the stuff you’ve written?

LUCAS:
You know I often toy with the idea of tying them all together but the idea of trying to compile an expansive work like the Labyrinth stories or JRR Tolkien’s work is really intimidating for me. But I kind of end up doing it on the subconscious level anyway you know, coming from my head of course these stories exist in some sort of connected way I would imagine.

JOSH:
So you don’t intentionally do that.

LUCAS:
No, not really, no.

JOSH:
Now that you’re older [you’re still young], but if you could think back as far as you can when you first started writing, what would you tell that younger Lucas about writing?

LUCAS:
I’m tempted to tell him to get a bit more serious about learning the craft a little earlier but at the same time I don’t think I really regret anything. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll leave time traveling to the guy from Quantum Leap then.

JOSH:
So you’re probably more of a process-oriented person. And having no regrets is also a good thing.

LUCAS:
I don’t recommend some of the choices I made but I don’t regret them either.

JOSH:
After your first work was published, did that change things for you in terms of the way that you carried out your process?

LUCAS:
You know, after my first publication, Flesh and Fire–

After that I started second-guessing myself a little bit more. I thought it was a pretty good novel but I sort of built it up in my mind so much that I started thinking that I’d never be able to repeat that success.

JOSH:
What is one of the novels that people should know about?

LUCAS:
That’s easy. Come Closer by Sara Gran is absolutely frightening. It’s about a woman who may be possessed, and it’s all told in first-person from her point of view. You kind of get the impression that there’s a chance she might not be possessed and that she is just kind of losing her mind. I don’t know the author managed to capture that in such a visceral way but it had an impact on me.

JOSH:
How do you balance asking the reader to do something and also caring for the reader? How does that factor into your process?

LUCAS:
I mean it definitely used to. I guess when you’re a new writer you really do get concerned about  the notes you have to hit in this particular genre. I don’t know, now I kind of feel like if I’m having fun running with a piece, regardless of what I do with the genre’s tropes, I think that will show through and hopefully the reader will have fun in turn.

JOSH:
Now that you are a published author, obviously you are hitting a different stride. How do you define success? I mean, success is such a weird word, because there is such a thing as commercial success or monetary success. But as a writer in general, how do you view success? Is it about your own personal satisfaction?

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean I certainly would like to make a lot more money. I figure people in every profession kind of feel that way. But really, if I take a step back, I have to appreciate the fact that I’ve done a lot. Come Tuesday my 5th book will be published. I’ve done lots of public readings and I’ve done two panels at Austin Comic-Con. I don’t know, I mean kind of just have to appreciate each degree of success, I think

JOSH:
When you write, do you do research at all, and if you do, how much time would you say you spend on that?

LUCAS:
Yeah, I mean I guess it really depends on the project. If I’m writing an intense, personal piece then all the research I need is already there in my life experiences. But if I’m doing something in another time period or something that involves, I don’t know, police work or something, I’ll have to do some actual research. I guess the short answer is it really depends on the project.

JOSH:
Has most of your work been more personal and so it doesn’t require as much research?

LUCAS:
For someone my age I think I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of things. I’ve got this well that I can draw from without doing a tremendous amount of research.

JOSH:
Now, you mentioned that you do have this really strong energy to write. On average, how many hours a day are you writing?

LUCAS:
You know, I don’t usually count in hours. I shoot for a minimum of 800 words a day but usually I end up doing anywhere from 1500 to 2500 words a day.

JOSH:
Looking over the synopsis of some of your short stories and other stuff you done, I’m intrigued by whether you tend to focus on different periods in life, like childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.  

LUCAS:
A lot of times I do end up focusing on the present, though I’ve definitely written all over the place; I have kind of been all over the map as far as stages of life go. I haven’t done much about the elderly, so maybe that’s my next novel.

JOSH:
Those of us with interesting vocations like writing or acting or religious work tend to be less commercially successful in many ways, though we put a lot of work, energy, and passion and love into it. Do you think that writing for you is a spiritual practice? And I give you full freedom to define spiritual however you wish.

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean, at the risk of sounding corny or something like that, I really don’t think ideas come out of thin air. I think all artists are definitely channeling something. I don’t know if that’s humanity’s collective unconscious or chaos or something else. I don’t really think that is for me to say. But I think you would imagine a story is coming from somewhere and life experiences are only a piece of the puzzle. You’re in a type of zone when you write and you almost kind of have to hypnotize yourself into getting into that place because otherwise you know you’re worried about making a mistake or doing the dishes or paying your rent or whatever. And if you’re focused on something like that then you’re not going to be able to bring it and put it on the page.

JOSH:
Certain elements of isolation can be good if we were able to break free from some of those day-to-day routines and get into that creative space, one many people have compared to meditation in other spiritual practices.

LUCAS:
Definitely. I usually spend a tremendous amount of time meditating on what I want my first line to be because for some reason that first line is like a doorway. Once I get that first line down I can pretty much just go. It is interesting, but that’s how I used to write song lyrics back in my early twenties and then I kind of got away from that practice when I started writing prose. But then about 6 months ago I started reincorporating that practice into my prose and it’s actually worked out really well. I did something like a hundred and fifty thousand words during last year.

JOSH:
Let’s talk about Engines of Ruin, the collection of stories.

They all look really interesting. Were there particular stories in that group that really just came easy for you?

LUCAS:
Yeah, Occupy Babylon was probably the easiest one. And, in the case of Ghost Music, I got the idea, I had a title in my head for a while, I didn’t really have a story. Once I got a story idea I was actually writing it on my phone. At the time I was walking to class and I just basically wrote the whole thing on the phone, during these trips to class. So there there was an immediacy to it—to get the idea to the page quickly instead of filing it away in my brain, which you know can be hazardous because if you file it away like that by the time you sit down and write it you may not see it as that exciting to you anymore. I’ve got to get it on the page, even if it’s just a few sentences or just a general outline of the idea. This seems to further my enthusiasm for the project, so I can maintain it over the course of writing.

JOSH:
Were there other stories in this collection that were actually more of a slow burn, you know, in terms of getting them done?

LUCAS:
Video Inferno, I guess. I wrote the first draft in about a week and then it took me four years of really poking at it to get it into the form that it is now. I went through so many revisions. It’s a very surreal story, so when you’re playing with the surrealism, on the surface what you know is happening might not make sense. That requires a little bit more calculation and attention to detail.

JOSH:
What were some of your favorite characters in these stories?

LUCAS:
Definitely the rock star. I mean, I’ve entertained becoming a rock star at least once in my life. Also, the bartending preacher. Actually, this came out of a conversation I had with somebody. She was somebody I used to work with at a previous job. She was like a fundamentalist or whatever and she said it would be a total fall from grace if a preacher were you know, to quit his job and start bartending. I actually disagreed with her because I thought, you know, being a bartender is almost like being a preacher.

JOSH:
You mention that The Last Easy Rider is more of a manifesto than a story?

LUCAS:
That goes back to the spiritual question you asked earlier. Basically, the main character is a version of me who is driving in this beat up camper van, you know, across the American highways, and encountering ghosts and demons and other shady characters. I thought it was essentially an interesting metaphor for me navigating my subconscious, even down to the van.

JOSH:
Let’s shift to your new book, We Are the Accused.

Image result for we are the accused lucas mangum

I was reading through the synopsis and wow–there’s some interesting stuff there. I also wonder what didn’t make the final manuscript. Were there certain things you had to edit out?

LUCAS:
Yeah, it just had a lot of characters and a subplot to glue together in the initial draft. Then I got further along and I didn’t think that they fit together as much as I would have liked them to. So I ended up deleting 20,000 words, more or less, in the original work.

JOSH:
How do you feel when you delete that much?

LUCAS:
It was difficult. I mean, there’s definitely a sense of loss or a grieving process involved. But I should say that I deleted it from the manuscript but I still have the text available; I didn’t destroy them forever.

JOSH:
How do you select names for characters?

LUCAS:
Usually friends. Specifically for this one I just went through my Facebook friends and picked out names I thought were interesting. I would take some person’s first name and another person’s last name and combine them for one character.

JOSH:
Any significance to the setting, Blue Brook, Pennsylvania?

LUCAS:
Yes, it’s basically Bristol Township and Bensalem with a little bit of Levittown, but all is one town. I think even Doylestown gets a mention in this book.

JOSH:
Do you have any hidden secrets that only a few people will catch?

LUCAS:
Of course, yeah, definitely. I’ll put stuff in there that will be there for people to catch. There’s this character in Gods of the Dark Web, and one of my friends called me immediately after reading it as and was just like: “Oh, thanks for turning me into a [devious character] in the book.” Sorry.

JOSH:
I’m sure that was a great phone call.
So how long did it take you to write this novel?

LUCAS:
The first half of the novel took me a ridiculously long time, like I’m talking a year-and-a-half just writing the first half. It was because I was going back and rewriting and fixing things as I went along. And because I was able to write the first half in this way, the second half was quick and pretty much set up for me; I didn’t really need to second-guess myself at all.  

JOSH:
What do you hope the readers will experience when they read this and what type of journey do you hope they go on?

LUCAS:
I hope they have fun, first and foremost. I hope that some readers will maybe, you know, look a little deeper into it and hopefully notice the spiritual questions raised in the book and the social ones as well. I think if you know what you’re looking for you’ll find it and I would hope that people would kind of read beyond the surface.

JOSH:
In your work you often include a sense that each individual has a darkness inside, for lack of a better term, and that this darkness manifests itself outside. It’s a universal idea, right? We have the sort of Yin and Yang thing inside of us: light and dark. Do your characters tend to constantly live in that struggle or is there any sort of resolution, or better said, a realization of that struggle?

LUCAS:
I mean, my work does sometimes end on a hopeful note, though the more recent book might be considered a tragedy, but there are certainly moments of revelation.

JOSH:
Thanks, Lucas, this had been great. Anything else to add about We Are the Accused?

LUCAS:
It’s out on January 15th and on Kindle as well. I believe the paperback will be along shortly after that.

Interested in checking out Lucas’ new novel? Click HERE.

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Progress and Purpose

Mark 1:14-20

Free-yourselfSometimes we see ourselves as only what others tell us, or what the world tells us. Are we just our jobs? Are we just defined by appearance? Are we meant to fit into other people’s boxes?

Or, are we invited to be ourselves in a free-flowing, surprising way? Are we invited to follow the movement of a freeing, creative Spirit that moves us to love and to be loved?

At times, we can feel like we are stumbling around in the dark, and discovering ourselves is difficult. We can feel like Jean Valjean in the story of Les Miserables, asking Who am I and starting out by defining self as the numbers [24601] that society gives us, or the names we are called.

Image result for who am i jean valjean
And so, life can seem monotonous and also heavy, particularly if we feel bombarded/overwhelmed by society’s expectations for us. I think most of us want to believe that we are on a journey, but it can be hard sometimes to sense progress or even know where that journey starts. As kids, adults often tell us to “chase our dreams” and “use our imaginations” but that quickly changes in adolescence and in adulthood, sadly we are told to “stop dreaming” and to “be realistic” or to “settle down.” Fantine, another character in Les Mis, expresses this in the song “I Dreamed a Dream.”

So the idea of waking up to a new reality and way of being, at any age or season of life—can often be looked upon as silly or impossible.

But I don’t think we’re wired that way—to stay the same or to fit into categories.

I think we’re made to be in a state of constant change or evolution or transformation or whatever word you wish to use. Yes, we are made to keep changing, discovering ourselves, and even changing paths, just as the characters in Les Miserables change perspective about their identities, because eventually, Jean Valjean leaves the prisoner number behind and embraces his new identity, and in doing so, discovers light and realizes that to love another person is in fact to see the face of God.

It is this pursuit of identity and light within that identity that dominates the Gospels. In the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth calling people to follow him, it isn’t as we often paint it in Western culture. It’s not like Jesus was going around converting people to a new religion or recruiting people for some type of church. Instead, Jesus was calling people to be alive, and that meant something different for each person. For those fishing in lakes and rivers and oceans for a living, controlled by a Roman tax system and seeing no other options, Jesus offered them a new perspective about life. Perhaps fishing was not all they were capable of doing. Perhaps there was more to their personal narrative and if they were willing to try a new path, rediscover themselves, well, that new existence could be filled with adventure, gratitude, and love.

See, Jesus said that the time was now, that God’s presence was near, and so people could turn their lives around, and experience good news. So what IS good news?

It’s the news that you’re not done.

Image result for im a work in progress
It’s the news that your life is a creative, changing, beautiful chaos of connections, mistakes, joys, sorrows, friendships, epiphanies, and wonder. Many, many people keep looking for their purpose in life. They look in their careers or in their families or in a religion or in other places. None of those pursuits are good or bad as long as “purpose” isn’t limited to those things. The journey and the seasons of life are meant to be fluid, creative, and unpredictable. I know some of us need some control and get anxious when things are not set. But I invite you to be open to the possibility of your life not being set in stone, that your identity can change and so can your perspectives.

You are not just what you do in a job or career. You are not just a mom or dad or a student or a grandparent or a single person. Neither are you limited to just one gender expression or identification, or type of love. You are not boxed in by religion or a church or what some weird pastor says. You’re not the mistakes you’ve made, nor any of the things that caused you pain; not the pieces of the dream left behind; you are light. You are not the color of your eyes nor your skin on the outside, not your age or your bank account. Inside you are all light.

Image result for you are light india arie

You are purposefully on a journey of self-discovery. And along the way you will be invited to turn around and experience new perspectives and new people. This is the breath of the Great Spirit, in each and every one of us, moving us and calling us to keep on beginning and failing, to keep on just doing you, going with the flow, gravitating towards love wherever we encounter it. Whatever season of life you are experiencing now, whatever people or society have told you, You are inherently gifted with uniqueness and ability to change, to evolve, to grow. It will look different for each and every one of us. Embrace that. Embrace that change in others.

Aha!

Isaiah 60:1-3; 5-6   Matthew 2:1,2   

Image result for epiphanyHave you ever had a moment when things seemed to click for you, when a seemingly unsolvable problem or issue became solvable? Did the hair stand up on your arm? Did you jump up and shout Eureka! or did an imaginary light bulb suddenly appear over your head?

Yes, I’m referring to what are often called Aha Moments. Scientifically, they are known as the eureka effect, “the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.”[1] Some researchers also describe this effect as an insight or an epiphany. In 2012, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added “aha moment” to their dictionary, based on Oprah Winfrey’s definition—a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension. Oprah, in her magazine and television show, hosted various guests who shared their aha moments. She said:

Image result for oprah aha moment
“I always love those moments when I sit down to talk to somebody and they say something that makes me look at life or a situation in a completely different way. And I say, ‘Aha! I get it!’ Light bulb . . . and the little hairs on your arm stand up. That is an aha moment.”

Oprah isn’t the only one to note that aha moments come in all shapes and sizes. Throughout history, there have been many. And they are all unique:

Bill Gates, found of Microsoft, realized that he would never be able to make the computer operating system he wanted unless he sold it first. No one was doing this at the time. So basically, he sold and idea. Aha!

Brian Chesky, Air BnB founder, rented out his air mattress and make money. Aha!

Jan Koum, founder of Whatsapp, could not afford to call his father in the Ukraine. Aha!

Melitta Bentz, in Germany, was tired of bitter, bad-tasting coffee that was brewed in a bag. Coffee filtration was born. Aha!

Caresse Crosby, In NYC, was tired of corsets. So she designed a bra. Aha!

And Doc Brown, the somewhat-mad scientist of the Back to the Future movies, had his aha moment in the bathroom.

Image result for doc brownHe slipped while hanging a clock and hit his head on the sink. This accident led to his idea for the flux capacitor, the thing that would eventually power the DeLorean time machine that would lead Marty McFly to many adventures.

Image result for flux capacitor

Can you think of any aha moments in history, or even your own? Where did they happen? What were you doing? What did it lead you to?

January 6th, for Christians around the world, marks the beginning of the Epiphany season—a season that is supposed to stretch all the way until Lent. It is an Aha season for sure, as the word Epiphany, from Greek, means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance.’ For Christians, the obvious connection is to Jesus of Nazareth being a manifestation of God. In the Gospel story of Matthew, magi/astrologers from the East seek out Jesus as a small child and bring him gifts. They follow a star to discover Jesus. They consider the light of the star and the light of Jesus to be divine appearances, aha moments. That story of the magi is based on the prophet Isaiah’s writings so long ago—a prophecy about light coming into the world, and of “woke” people honoring that light and bringing gifts.

So in this season of epiphany, how can you and I be more open to aha moments?

There is science behind it. For example, most people would say that they make their best decisions when they are not actively trying to make a choice or solve a problem, right? Usually, it happens when they are taking a shower, driving in a car or riding a train, working out, walking. Aha moments tend to come when we quiet our minds and our consciousness gets a break. Complex problems that are way too big are often only solved by aha moments within a quieted mind and experience. Many, many religious traditions agree with science on this one. Meditation, prayer, fasting, service to others—these are all behavioral practices that can quiet the mind and perhaps lead to aha moments.

But here are some practical ways you can create environments for your own epiphanies and aha moments and manifestations, as per Harvard Business Review:[2]

  1. Quiet yourself [see above]. Step away, find a space, unplug.
  2. Focus on inner thoughts. What are you thinking right now? What’s going on inside you?
  3. Positively approach the problem [mood]. If you feel stuck, do something fun. Laugh. Revisit.
  4. Use less effort/path of least resistance. Animals are great at this.

And now, one fun example, which I’m sure many of you have seen. The problem of nine dots. I’ll use ladybugs, courtesy of the good people at Archimedes-lab.org because ladybugs are more fun.

Your challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the ladybugs without taking your writing utensil or finger off the screen/paper. Go!

ladybug1How’s it going? Right. It’s hard. So now, try this. Don’t draw straight lines; use curvy lines. Now can you do it?

ladybug2Now, applying that same idea, try to think outside the box. For real. Outside the box. There is no box here. Your lines aren’t limited to a box. Does that help? Did you arrive at this solution?

ladybug3

You see, sometimes we do get stuck in patterns or reoccurring themes that keep us in a box. We feel limited; we can’t find clarity. Obstacles appear all around. Oftentimes we need an epiphany to wake us up to new opportunities and possibilities.

So friends, may it be so. Find quiet within. Take a step back. Be open to epiphanies.

Who knows what you might discover!

 

 

[1] Auble, P.; Franks, J.; Soraci, S. (1979). “Effort toward comprehension: Elaboration or aha!?”. Memory & Cognition. 7: 426–434.

[2] 4 Steps to Having More “Aha” Moments, David Rock, Josh Davis, Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016.

Following Light

John 8:12 [NRSV]
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

I John 1:5-7a
This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Matthew 5:14-16a
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.

diwaliheld This time of year, in the fall, there are a variety of traditions that celebrate the symbolism and presence of light. One such holiday is a big one: Diwali. Also called Dipawali, Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday in India. The festival gets its name from the row of clay lamps that people light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. To put it in context, Diwali is just as important to people from India as Christmas is to American Christians. And it is not just Hindus who celebrate Diwali. So do Jains, Buddhist, Sikhs, and many others.

And do did I. On Thursday night, I went to a friend’s place in Philly to celebrate Diwali with a group of people from various parts of India and the U.S. We ate great food [including particular sweets that are famous during Diwali] and wonderful curry with rice. After the meal, we ventured out into Center City to find an appropriate place to light up the world—with fireworks, of course. This is a common occurrence during the days of Diwali. Now because in Pennsylvania “real” fireworks are not legal, one of my friends purchased the PA-sanctioned sparklers, spinning flowers, and grand finale sparking thingys. We found a parking lot. We fired up the sparklers. We were having a great time. And then…

FireworksDiwali

A random person walking by started yelling something at us.

At first, we couldn’t make out what she was saying. She was incensed. Soon enough, we figured out that she was yelling:

“No! You can’t do that. Not here. No! This is wrong! Stop! You must stop!”

Apparently, not everyone embraces the light? So one of the people in our group approached her and explained that we were not harming anyone or anything and that it was Diwali and that these fireworks were legal and that we would clean it all up. But the lady didn’t care. She kept on ranting and threatened to call 911. Well, we didn’t stop. We kept on going. She eventually took her dog and left.

Then, on Friday, I was eating a samosa at a place near where I live, talking to the manager of the café, and she told me: “Yeah, my cousin was shooting off fireworks on his own lawn on Thursday and one of his neighbors called the cops on him.”

I couldn’t believe it. On his own lawn? Thankfully, the cops who showed up told the neighbor that everything was okay. After all, they were using PA-sanctioned fireworks on their own property, no? Makes we wonder if the 4th of July would elicit the same response. I’m guessing not.

So what does this lead me to think? Well, first of all, it makes me sad for those who cannot even for one moment embrace a holiday [even if it’s new to them] that celebrates light. But it also reminds me that not everyone is open and understanding. Not everyone wishes light for everyone, or light for the world. It’s sad but true.

Also, though, celebrating Diwali [and encountering the opposition] reminds me that if we are open to it, we realize that we are all connected. I mean, it doesn’t matter which religion you hold to or don’t. Light is a universal idea. The thought that someone could be in a really difficult time in their life and somehow light breaks through—we call can resonate with that. And I think we all want to think that light lives in each one of us, that light is in the world.

Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth thought this. Jesus taught others that light lived in them and that this light was God and that this light made them a community. Jesus also taught that each person should not keep their light to themselves. They should let their light shine. It’s the idea of God-essence being within you and me.

And while this is a beautiful idea [and one I try to embrace], we cannot ignore the other side of it. The Diwali story and the Christian story don’t just include light, but also darkness. And if you wish to locate the source of the light and the darkness, look no further than yourself. You see, the point of all this is to affirm that we should not judge others.

We are capable of light but we are just as capable of doing harmful and hurtful things.

If ever we think we have “arrived” as a kind and accepting person, we are in danger. We must always remember continually seek light, pursue it, surround ourselves with people who emit light, and in some cases, we must light it up even when others are telling us not to.

So what will that look like for you? How will you recognize the inner light you have? How will you emit light so others can see and connect with you?

 

 

Finding Rest Rhythms

Matthew 11:25-30
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Abba, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Abba, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by God; and no one knows the Son except God, and no one knows God except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses both the crowds who oppose him and those who follow him. Once again we find Jesus breaking away from the norm, asserting that the ways of God are known to those on the margins and not known to the authorities, the rich, the powerful, etc. Those who know God are the ones who know Jesus and the way of love. Everyone who knows and follows this way is connected—both to God and to each other.

The last part of this Matthew story is only found in Matthew’s Gospel and in the Gospel of Timothy, verse 90. What does this oft-quoted Jesus saying mean to you? For the most part, I have heard people interpret this as something spiritual, i.e. come to Jesus those of you who are heavy and tired because of life, and Jesus will ease your suffering and give you peace. Similar to how some interpret prayer as something that can ease someone’s suffering or bring a sense of calmness. But what if we don’t over-spiritualize this? What if this is simply about rest, even physical, mental rest? Consider that Jesus was talking to people who actually were over-worked, tired, carrying actual heavy loads on their backs. 1st century Israel and Palestine was full of so-called poor people who carried these burdens, the burdens of oppression.

yokeThen we get the word “yoke” as Jesus encouraged those listening to take up his yoke. In Jewish tradition, yoke was an image for the Torah, the Law of Moses. Jesus was encouraging those with heavy burdens to take up his yoke and to learn from him. Taking on this yoke and learning goes back to following the way of love. It was a way that stood in contrast to the ways of powerful political and religious elites. This way of Jesus brings rest to people’s lives. In the Greek, the words for “rest” and “soul” are much more nuanced than our English language interpretations. Rest for the soul is not some sort of religious certainty or promise of heaven. It is a rest, a wholeness for the entirety of life, one’s whole being. It is a rest that can set you on the right path to move towards healing and recovery. And the yoke is more than light and easy. It’s not eggs. The yoke is loving, kind, refreshing.

Friends, it is an invitation [and a call] to live “lighter, less heavy” lives, to stop judging others, to be free ourselves and to let others be free. It is a restful state of being active in our pursuit of justice and dignity for all people. It is a way that leads us to stand with the marginalized, love them, call them family. And this is not a burden; it is the way to refreshment, healing, and wholeness.

Valued

Matthew 10:27-31

mylifematters1Our stories are valuable—absolutely valuable. Our stories most often define us. So when we share our authentic stories with each other, I think that we participate in a divine act.

I also think that Jesus of Nazareth understood this. Jesus was careful to take time to hear people’s stories—even the stories of people who had been pushed to the margins of society, told they were worthless, untouchable, or unclean. And in doing so, those stories became life—for those who heard them and for those who shared them.

In many ways, the community of people in the Gospel of Matthew were people whose stories were not being heard. Remember that Matthew was written well after Jesus’ death. The temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As Matthew was written mostly for Jewish people, this was a devastating time. They had little hope of their community and way of life being restored. They were persecuted. They were afraid. This is why Jesus tells them to not be afraid three times in only three verses of scripture. It’s urgent. They are hanging by a thread. The message that Jesus and the followers were speaking and living was dangerous, because they were trying to promote the idea that all people had access to God and were valued by God, even those whom the religious authorities and the Roman empire deemed worthless.

But they still were a community that whispered to each other in the dark because they were afraid. The threat of violence was real. The threat of their stories being trampled on was real. But Jesus told them that their stories needed to be told in the light, in the public square. Jesus told them not to fear the bullies but to fear instead the Evil One. Keep in mind that the “American” understanding of the “devil” is much different than what was uttered in Matthew’s Gospel. For the Jesus of Matthew, this devil had power to destroy both body and soul. This was far worse than any threats of the Romans or Sanhedrin/Religious authorities. This is not Jesus separating the real world from the spiritual—this is a connection. The very real Romans and religious authorities were oppressing people, and this was the work of the evil one.

Then Jesus closes with a more positive spin. Birds. Sparrows, to be more precise.

Sparrows were cheap and edible in the 1st and 2nd century. You could buy two sparrows for 1/16 of a denarius. Real cheap. But not even one of these cheap sparrows will fall to the ground apart from God. This means that the Divine cares for all the creation, including those whose stories had been trampled on, who had been pushed to the margins.

For all of you who still whisper in the dark because you are scared to be yourselves, have courage.

You are not alone.

You have value.

Your stories deserve to be told in the light.

For those of you who consistently live with fear and anxiety because of what people will do or say to you, find courage. You are loved. You are not alone. You have value. Your stories deserve to be told in the light.

Saltiness Leads to Light

Matthew 5:13-16curry.jpg

I’m not a big fan of bland food. If you are, no problem—no judgements. Everyone has different tastes and certainly, what you grew up eating affects your taste buds. But for me, I like strong flavors in food. I gravitate towards spicy and tangy curries and sauces, a wide variety of chili peppers, and accent flavors in herbs like cilantro.

And I cannot imagine what certain bland foods would be like without…salt.

dead-sea-salt-crystals-12Dead Sea Salt Crystal Formations

Everybody uses salt to some extent in their food. Of course, salt isn’t just to add flavor, because it also can be a preservative. Ancient cultures around the world used salt for a variety of reasons—even religious ceremonies and currency. For the sake of our conversation, though, we are not talking about your everyday table salt. We are talking about sea salt.

Sea salt comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. There are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, as the story in Matthew’s Gospel assumes, salt can lose its flavor. Salt from places like the Dead Sea or any other body of water obviously can mix with sand and other things, thus making it not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mix loses its saltiness. In Jesus’ day, merchants in the region of Galilee would deal with this on a regular basis, as they would encounter salt mixtures that were not usable because they were flavorless. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt.

That’s the context for the humans being as salt metaphor.

Being salty is about having flavor, but also about being useful. What comes to my mind in this moment is that saltiness involves diversity. As a human race, we are full of flavors, full of beautiful colors, cultures, and ideas. What makes us salty isn’t that we are all the same or homogeneous. Our diversity makes us salty; our diversity makes us useful as well, because the more we encounter and cooperate with others who are different, we gain new perspectives about the world [and ourselves], we break down barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, and we better our world. Like I said, I’m all about the flavor, baby.

And then there’s light.

lightpersion
Pretty common religious reference across the board, right? But in this case, the light reference needs some explanation. Think 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine, as we know this area today. People of that time typically had just one room in their houses. When someone entered a home, they would immediately notice an oil lamp on top of a stand. When it was time to put the lamp out, the residents of the home would place a bushel basket over the lamp. Practically, that would keep the smoke and fumes in the basket and not blowing in your face. This context is important if we are to gain insight into this Jesus saying.

an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1

You see, Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew’s author, says that we should be like the lamp on that stand, except for one caveat—we shouldn’t put the basket on top of our light to snuff it out.

Jesus raises the stakes and says that humans should not just be a lamp, but a city, and not just on a stand, but on a hill.

We are supposed to be even brighter lights that illuminate the darkness, up on a hill where others can see.

I don’t know about you, but I want to SEE that. Who is tired of all the hateful speech, manipulation, fear tactics, and hypocrisy? I honestly do not care if you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Atheist, Wiccan, Republican, Democrat, Independent, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, bland food or spicy food lover.

Why not accept our saltiness? We are all unique, and this is SO GOOD.

Why not be light? Why not be light in this world, because the world needs us to be light, yes?

I’ll do my best. Won’t you shine your light and add yours to mine?

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