Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Mary’

How Do We Get Distracted?

Luke 10:38-42

distract
What makes you feel distracted?
What distracts you from being your true self?

Facundo-Cabral
Facundo Cabral, Argentine singer, songwriter, and philosopher (1937-2011), once wrote about distraction and depression. Here is an excerpt:

You are not depressed; you are distracted. You believe that you have lost something, which is impossible, because everything that you have was given to you.  You did not make a single hair of your head so you can not own anything.  In addition, life does not subtract things, it liberates you from them. It makes you lighter so that you can fly higher and reach the fullness. From cradle to grave, it is a school, and that is why those predicaments that you call problems are lessons, indeed.

Liberate yourself from the tremendous burden of guilt, responsibility, and vanity, and be ready to live each moment deeply, as it should be.

Love till you become the beloved, and even more! Love till you become the love itself!

This NT Gospel story is about distraction and about choosing a better way.
Here’s how it
goes:

Martha extends cultural hospitality to Jesus.
Mary sits and listens to Jesus’ teachings.
Martha completes the obligatory tasks of hospitality.
Martha complains that Mary has neglected said tasks.
Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her.
Jesus responds that Mary has chosen the better activity.

This story follows the parable of the Samaritan. This is a parallel tale.
Samaritan story: a dying man on the side of the road, but the obligation to help is not there for priest & Levite. They walk on by. The Samaritan is not obligated either, but chooses to help out of compassion.
Mary/Martha story: Jesus comes to their home. Martha feels obligated, according to the customs of society, to offer food and drink to Jesus. She considers that to be the most important thing. Mary shows hospitality to Jesus also, but not out of obligation. She sits at his feet and listens. Martha’s anxiety over getting the hospitality thing out of the way leads her to possibly resent Mary’s sitting.

Don’t be fooled, though. This is not Martha vs. Mary. Jesus does not rebuke Martha, remember. He simply states that Mary has chosen the better thing, just as compassion is better than obligatory service in the Samaritan story. Mary chooses to love and to show hospitality, but in a way that society did not require. Martha’s hospitality was fine, but it didn’t go the extra step. This is why Martha felt anxiety and was distracted. Or maybe Martha was anxious because she couldn’t find Pokémon? 

pokemonGo
Also, compare Mary to the Samaritan—both heroes in these stories.

The Samaritan was obviously an unexpected hero who fulfilled the law by acting with compassion. Mary, a female, was an unexpected hero by not filling the typical role for a woman and instead acting out of genuine love and desire to learn; she became a student/disciple.

The thing is, Martha is fine, too, until she lets her anxiety get the best of her. When she calls out Mary, she has stopped being hospitable. Now it’s all about her.

Jesus visits her house, not to praise her for what she does or how well she does it, but instead, Jesus comes to tell Mary and Martha that they are both valued for who they are as children of God.

This is the better thing—to listen to that voice, to embrace your value as a person; to not measure your deeds or to compare yourself to others. When we do that, we get distracted.

My take: we can do a lot of things. We can fill schedules and calendars. We can appear busy. And yet, if life is just about completing those tasks, where will we find love, compassion, and peace? Will our actions just be another thing to check off of a list, will we start to resent others who don’t “work” as hard as we do? Will we ever stop to just sit and listen, which to me, is checking in with ourselves? This kind of life can be depressing and empty.

At the same time, though, it’s not just about sitting and listening. The listening helps us to hear a good word about who we are as human beings—that we are loved and our worth is not measured by what we do or don’t do. After listening, though, we find strength to live, to do good things in the world. Look, this planet we live on is wrought with heavy and sad things—plenty with which to distract us and make us feel more anxiety and worry. 

And yet, we can stop to sit and listen. We are capable of that. Sometimes stopping and listening means that you stop talking and actually listen to another person’s point of view or their story without planning how you will respond. Maybe you’ll just listen. Or you may sit for a moment, take a break from your schedule and live a few moments that are unplanned. Or perhaps you need to hear the kind and compassionate voice in the midst of all the heavy and hateful voices. The kind voice says that life matters most above all things, and so anyone’s life in danger is your life in danger. And that is motivation to show love to people at all times; that is motivation to show love to yourself.

So may you find moments to sit and listen in a world that doesn’t seem to encourage that better activity. May you listen to others. May you embrace your whole self, realizing that your value is not measurable by the number of things you complete in a day, a week, or a lifetime. May you not compare yourself to others. May you listen to and embrace compassion, and then may you show it to others.

 

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Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

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

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

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

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

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

This is about being honest and being connected.

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

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

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

So don’t do it.

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

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

This is a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

The women choose to remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

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

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

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

May every day be resurrection day.

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

Extravagant, Scandalous Love

John 12:1-11

Throughout these 40 days of Lent, I’ve been asking this question:

What does it mean for me be truly myself?

And I encourage you to do the same.

While we ask that question of ourselves, we are journeying with the story in the Gospels, following Jesus’ own journey of self-discovery. Most of this Lent, we’ve been reading Luke’s story, but this time we are following the 4th Gospel’s story—John.

Let’s set the stage. Use your imagination. John’s Gospel writers certainly did.

It was six days before Passover. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead; some were people were amazed and some were mad. The religious leaders of the day were firmly in that mad group. So they were making their plans to kill Jesus as soon as they had the right moment. He was too popular now. Kind of a depressing start, but it gets better.

mummyJesus and company were in Bethany, just a small town outside of Jerusalem, but surely at its most crowded, because tons of people flocked to Jerusalem for Passover. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus make a cameo appearance. These three characters only appear in John’s Gospel, except for a short story about them in Luke’s Gospel. Who the heck were they, then? It’s a mystery. For real.

This story appears in all four Gospels, but each one has different characters. Mark has Jesus in Simon the leper’s house and he is anointed by an unnamed woman. Matthew’s version is pretty much a copy of Mark’s. Luke, on the other hand, changes it up. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus eats dinner at the home of a Pharisee called Simon, and an unnamed woman called a “sinner” cries at Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair before anointing his feet with ointment. It’s yet another example of how the four canonical Gospels can tell the same story in different ways. I think recognizing this is so very helpful for us the readers as we try to glean some meaning from ancient texts. The stories aren’t the same—even the characters change! So this means that we should be reading this as a metaphor for something, but also we should see the different perspectives of each author.

It’s always good to see another person’s perspective.

If we don’t do that, we can come up with some really insane beliefs. For example, there are still way to many people who believe that the woman in the story is in fact Mary Magdalene, and a prostitute. This idea started to gain traction in the 6th century. Popes and other religious leaders assumed that a woman called “sinner” must be a prostitute and that even though the other Gospels do not name the woman, it must be Mary Magdalene.

It’s unfortunate, I think. Female characters of the Bible have enough trouble getting respect as it is. But to assume that the hero character in this story, clearly the woman who anoints Jesus, was a prostitute just seems lazy and irresponsible to me. What if she really was a hero? What if she really was the Christ figure in the story?

So let’s look at what she did. She took a pound of ointment, called pure nard. Another name for it is spikenard.

Spikenard-Oil-5 It is oil derived from a flowering plant of the Valerian family and grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China. So not only is it good for anointing, but it might even help you sleep! The important point being that it’s imported oil, probably from India. It’s expensive. This type of oil was considered a healing and palliative ointment. And it smelled reeeeeeeel good. Which would have been important, considering that there is some previously-dead due named Lazarus in the room, reading something and not opening his mouth, apparently. Spooky, isn’t it? Just earlier in the story, Lazarus was completely stinking of death. Then he emerged from the tomb, alive. And now, Jesus is in Lazarus’ house and everything smells fantastic. Gotta love the details.

Anyway, lovely-smelling, expensive oil aside, Mary does something scandalous next. She uses her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the oil. Uh…..

 

Yeah, THAT wasn’t good. Consider this—women covered their heads in this time and culture. Jewish women wore [and some still wear] a tzniut that looks remarkably similar to the Muslim hijab. Hair was intimate. So if a woman like Mary uncovered her head and then touched a man’s feet [also intimate], well, you might as well make this an R-rated feature. Cue Judas Iscariot’s entrance.

We all know Judas, the oft-misunderstood, so-called “bad guy” of the Bible. Here he gets to be the Debbie Downer in the room. Everything smelled so nice, Lazarus wasn’t dead anymore, Martha was doing her OCD stuff around the house, and Mary was anointing Jesus’ feet with oil. What could be bad about that? Well, Judas found something.

Why didn’t Mary sell the oil for money and then give it to the poor? What wastefulness!

You wonder if Martha was in the background shaking her head yes in agreement. After all, Mary was a rambunctious character who tended to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen when there was work to be done.

But John’s authors tell us that Judas didn’t really care about the poor. He kept the bag which was actually a box which eventually was called a coffer or money box [Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary]. It seems to me that here John’s Gospel wants to make sure we don’t side with Judas. After all, he does seem to make a good point here. But the Gospel quickly tells us that Judas is still the bad guy. I can sort of understand, because Judas Iscariot was really close to Jesus. He was in the inner circle of disciples and was trusted with the money, too. Regardless, Jesus stands with Mary and not with Judas, telling Judas to release her, which in the original Greek really means let her go or forgive her. It’s the same thing that the gardener said to the landowner about the fruitless fig tree. Forgive it.

Why forgive it? Because Mary did something not only scandalous, but extravagant. She could have anointed Jesus on his head like normal people did for kings and prophets. But no, she chose his feet and her hair. This was no king. This was no religious elite. Not according to Mary.

This was someone she truly loved.

Her act sets in motion something that will happen in the future. Eventually, when Jesus’ life is in real danger, and he’s in Jerusalem with his friends, they wash each other’s feet. So Mary, not considered by many to be a “disciple” of Jesus, not in the inner circle, preempts the foot washing before it was a command.

But the story isn’t over. Jesus ends it by saying: “You always have the poor with you.”
Uh……..

say-what

Jesus, was just happened?

Okay, before we jump to the conclusions of prosperity gospel people, Jesus was not giving people an excuse to ignore poor people. It’s quite the contrary. The so-called poor people who were often destitute beggars, were an assumed part of the Jesus community. They weren’t outsiders, they weren’t those poor people. They were part of Jesus’ circle. And I think that this wonderfully frames the message of Mary’s loving and extravagant act. Mary acted out of love and not charity. So should Jesus’ disciples act. They should care for all people [including those who were poor], but not out of charity—out love.

I wonder sometimes how much we do things to or for others, simply out of some obligation or perceived duty to be charitable.

And don’t just mean when you give a couple dollars to someone on the street or sponsor a child in Africa, though that happens, of course. I mean how often do we act out of love in our relationships, and not out of charity? Think about that for a moment.

How much of our relationships are built on obligation, duty, and charity?

And how much of our relationships are built on love?

It’s scandalous and extravagant to think about.

Because if we act out of love and not out of charity, we won’t be afraid to let our hair down, crack open the expensive jar of oil, and touch someone’ s bare feet. We won’t worry about what other people will think or how we’ll look or if we broke somebody’s rules. We will just act. Out of love.

Whenever I think back to those few moments in my life when someone truly acted out of love and showed me that love, I am overwhelmed with a peacefulness and gratitude. Those acts of love changed my life, healed me, and shaped me.

So what would it mean for you be a person who acts out of love?
What would that look like?

How would it change your relationships? Your workplace environment? Your school?

Water, Wine, Love

John 2:1-11

Have you ever wanted to tantalize an audience with an amazing magic trick?
How about showing off your miracle skills in front of a bunch of people?
Would you like to turn water into wine?

waterTowine

Yes, even you can be a miracle worker! Thanks, science!

catscientist

The Science of water into wine and wine into water:[1]
1. Place a small amount of sodium hydroxide in the first glass and a little phenolphthalein in the second. In the third, add a weak acid, such as vinegar. Using differently shaped glasses ensures that you will not get them confused.

2. Fill a jug with water when you are demonstrating this experiment to others. As this is plain water, you can let your audience taste it.

3. Pour water into the first glass and stir. This is now no longer pure water but a mildly alkaline solution.

4. Pour the contents of the first glass into the second and stir. Watch as the mixture changes color, because phenolphthalein is a pH indicator that turns red in alkaline solutions.

5. Pour the red liquid into the third glass and stir once more. The acid neutralizes the solution, which should now become clear again.

So wait…was Jesus a mad scientist or fake peddler of miracles?

Cartoon Sale man selling his wares outside his car

Probably neither.
I think we obsess [a lot] over Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel stories, and that leads us to obsessing over “miracle cures” that make it to our email inbox or redirect us to another link via Facebook or other social media. Personally, I don’t think that the Gospel stories intend for us to focus on miraculous things so as to prove Jesus was great.

I love the stories and try my best to respect them. And each Gospel IS a story; John is no different. So no, the whole “water to wine” thing was not all about Jesus being some sort of magician/mad scientist back in the day. It’s a story loaded with metaphors and symbols. So here is some background:

Cana is the setting–a village in Galilee, about 9 miles north of Nazareth. And it’s a wedding! Keep in mind that at the time of John’s Gospel stories about Jesus [i.e. the end of the 1st/beginning of 2nd Century], in Israel and Palestine, weddings were a big deal. They typically lasted a week.

So you can imagine just how much wine was needed. So it goes that the hosts of the wedding would serve the best wine at the beginning of the wedding celebration, when everyone could taste and enjoy. And then, after a few days of partying, the hosts would break out the cheaper stuff, because by that time, nobody noticed.

Morewine

That is the setting in this John story, and it’s quite the story. Apparently, the wedding hosts ran out of wine–at least Jesus’ mom thinks so. That’s right–an appearance from Jesus’ mom! Mary [Miriam] appears suddenly in Luke and Matthew’s birth story that we read at Christmastime, but after that, she pretty much disappears. In John’s Gospel, however, Miriam/Mary appears twice–here at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry [first miracle story], and then at his death. But in this case, at a wedding, we get an actual conversation between Mary and her son, Jesus. Mary notes that the wedding hosts have run out our wine. Jesus’ response is that they should have hired a better wedding planner. Mary then tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says.

So the servants filled the water pots, six of them, with water, and then they brought the pots to the governor of the feast, the head planner of the event. Upon tasting the so-called water, the governor was shocked to taste good wine. Thus ends a fun and interesting story complete with a magic trick/miracle.

But….

There’s more to the story

As you can probably guess. John’s authors are not just telling us a nice fairy-tale to remember something magical Jesus did. So let’s look at just a few of the symbols in John’s wedding tale.

First, the story begins with this phrase: And on the third day…a marriage…

Marriages and banquets are eschatological images, or in other words, symbolic events referring to what will happen in the future. Often the Hebrew prophets and the NT Gospels [as well as the NT book of Revelation] use the image of a wedding feast to symbolize paradise, the afterlife, or in general, some good ending for humanity, and the world. And I’m guessing that “on the third day” triggers your Spidey senses. Indeed, three of the Gospels explicitly go out of their way to state that Jesus’ resurrection took place on the third day. So what we have here is a pleasant, joyful, symbol of grace, community and abundance, as well as the idea of new life, even after death.

Also, are you wondering about what Jesus said to his mom?
“What to me and you, woman? 

RavenOhSnap

Sounds a bit harsh in English, I’ll admit, and Raven thinks so, too.

Simply put, though, in Greek [and considering the culture and time], how Jesus addresses his mom is actually very, very respectful. He didn’t call her mother, but woman. This is expressing equality. Mary, in Jesus ‘eyes, is not just a mother, but a full human being with purpose that extends well beyond society’s conventions.

Also, notice these words of Jesus: My hour is not yet come.

Another reference to Jesus’ death, and because John’s author wrote this Gospel well after Jesus’ death, of course Jesus in the story can refer to something that has not yet happened. So John is reminding all of us that the wedding at Cana is the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and eventually, to the cross. John’s Gospel calls this the first of the signs–seven in total.

Some notable details
First, there were six stone water jars. Six being one less than seven [according to my mathematical genius], which you probably know is a good number, no wait–a VERY good number in Biblical literature. So seven means completeness or wholeness. Only having six water jars means that you’re so close, but so painfully far from wholeness!

Further, the jars were also set “according to the Judean cleansing” which is a reference to the Mosaic Law of the Jewish tradition. Even weddings were set up in such a way as to follow the Jewish rituals. But having six jars means that the rituals and laws weren’t enough to bring the people wholeness. So everyone was missing something.

Next, the governor of the feast is juxtaposed with the servants. The governor, when he is served the now wine-filled jars, is shocked at the good taste but also has no idea where the wine came from.

The story clearly tells us that the servants are not shocked and also know where the wine came from, because they were direct participants in its making. So once again, the powerful, the heads of society, the so-called elites, or celebrities don’t know what’s going on, and the so-called servants and lower-class people totally know what’s up, cuz they are making it happen!

And finally, the governor’s words of every person gives the good wine first, and when they were drunk, the lesser (wine). You have kept the good wine until now shows that Jesus and co. don’t care much for conventions or social rules. The good wine, the good life, should be available at any time, for anyone.

The details speak for themselves
Thus, you should be able to draw your own wonderful conclusions from this story. I hope you do.

My final thoughts:

Miracles, whatever that word means to you, don’t happen unless it’s a collective effort.

Miracles, to me, are surprising occurrences in everyday life. They could be explained by science, or maybe not. Either way, they are still miracles to me. But they happen in everyday life, and they happen because people make then happen, together.

Secondly, we should stop relying so much on social and religious customs and traditions. They just don’t cut it and leave us feeling a bit empty. Why should we only serve the best wine at a certain time? Who says so? Why do we have to have a certain number of jars, prepared in a certain way? Who says? Why should the rich and powerful always get to make decisions while others don’t? Why do we have to have all these social levels and categories of people? Who says so?

The good wine at the great feast is and should be accessible for everyone. And that good wine fills everyone’s cup to the brim, and the cup is full now.
[1] http://chemistry.about.com/od/chemistryhowtoguide/ht/waterwine.htm

Embracing Doubt and Breathing Life

John 20:19-31

philomena fieldThe movie Philomena is based on the 2009 investigative book by British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] correspondent Martin Sixsmith, entitled, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, is an older woman searching for her long-lost son. When Philomena was a young woman living in an Irish-Catholic community, she gave birth to the baby boy, only to have the child taken from her at an early age. The nuns sold the boy to a U.S. couple for adoption.

Philomena was forced, according to church doctrine, to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into her son’s whereabouts. But Philomena never stopped thinking about her son, and so thus, when she meets Martin Sixsmith [played by Steve Coogan], and he wishes to publish and investigative report of her story, the two of them embark on a quest to find her son.

Here is a clip from the movie:

The film and story of Philomena includes a rigorous examination of faith and belief. Philomena and Martin were both raised Roman Catholic, but Martin is an atheist and Philomena holds on to her beliefs about the church and her faith in God. Martin is perplexed by this, considering all the great evils that were done to Philomena and countless others by the church, in the name of God. How could someone who knew of all the evils of the church continue to be so steadfast?

It is worth watching—at the very least, to stimulate thought and conversation about two words:

Faith and Belief

Most people often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is:

Why do people believe in God?

Most people assume that belief comes before action and therefore explains choices. So, in other words, you believe something first; that belief causes you to do something.

But in fact, most people, when thinking about belief, are off-base.

Let me explain.

Belief is a principle, a proposition, an idea that you accept as true. It could be an opinion, a religious doctrine—whatever.

Case in point: close your eyes, everyone.
Imagine the color green.

Now red.

Now yellow.

Now…magenta.

How about saffron?

I cannot get inside your head and actually see how you imagined those colors, but I can tell you this:

All of us imagined the colors a bit differently.

Your green may have been darker or light than mine. Your yellow may have been closer to red or orange. Your magenta and your saffron? It depends on whether or not you ever “saw” those colors in a book, in a painting, or used that particular crayon.

This is belief. You were taught and conditioned. This is what you believe.

Belief is what we think we know to be true.

Okay, now faith. This is trust or confidence in something or someone without necessarily having concrete evidence.

The Greek language of the New Testament of the Bible seems to use these words faith and belief interchangeably. But in this case, prepositions matter.

We can believe a million things about something or someone.

But how much do we have faith in something? How much do we trust?

That is why I argue that we have to be very careful about belief, because people can believe anything! And sometimes, like in the case of Philomena, extreme, stubborn belief in something can lead to awful behavior.

But faith, on the other hand, isn’t about being stubborn.
Why? Because faith is mixed with doubt.

Let me say that again.

Faith is mixed with doubt.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once said:

Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.[1]

I love that! Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.

So with ants in our pants, let’s explore Thomas’ story.

doubting-thomas-cartoon

Jesus died recently. The disciples are locked up behind closed doors, hiding from the authorities. But keep in mind that the male disciples were more scared than the female disciples who were brave enough to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who were they scared of? Well, the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy, and perhaps the Romans, too. They were so scared, in fact, that they did not believe Mary Magdalene’s story about meeting the Jesus with a green thumb [i.e. a gardener].

Lucky for them, Jesus appears. Jesus greets them with Peace be with you, which as I’ve mentioned before, really means shalom, which means wholeness as a gift of God. Then Jesus shows his hands and side. They rejoice because they see him. Then he breathes on them. After the breath that resembles the Creator breathing life into humanity, Jesus talks about forgiveness.

I like this translation of verse 23 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good.

If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

Seems to be Jesus telling the disciples to stop being afraid. Seems like faith, in this sense, is about unlocking the doors and going outside.

But then again, John’s Gospel story is yet to introduce Thomas.

Yes, Thomas, was outside the locked doors, like the women were, and so he did not see this Jesus appearance. And Thomas was not one to believe something just because everyone else did. He was a skeptic. He knew that Jesus died. Why would he believe something that these scared guys told him? They were most likely delusional.

Then John’s story skips ahead; it’s a week later.

Jesus magically walks through a wall again and repeats the wholeness blessing. But then Jesus talks to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side. But he doesn’t’ do it. Instead, the skeptic Thomas says: My Lord and my God!

Jesus closes with:

Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

And don’t miss the last part of John’s story, reminding us to whom this Gospel is addressing.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

a: or continue to believe

e: or Christ

The story is for all the skeptics—the ones who don’t see and don’t believe.

This is a story of faith, because after the resurrection appearances, these women and men were supposed to live resurrected lives themselves. They had faith in the presence of G-d, faith in the power of love to conquer even hate and death.

And even so, these people were so full of doubt.

I really, really like the Thomas story.

But I really, really dislike how many people misquote it and push belief on other people—telling them that this bad thing happens or this will happen to them if they don’t believe a certain thing.

Or, you know, if you are struggling or suffering….

Just have more faith!

But Faith isn’t something to possess.

Belief—sure, you can possess that. It’s what your mind has been conditioned and taught, so yes—your beliefs are in your head and are yours.

But faith is spiritual—beyond doctrines, words on a page, well outside the locked, closed doors of the church!

Faith is trust in and feeling of and action performed.

I myself find great inspiration in the 5th Gospel, ironically called The Gospel of Thomas. It was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The author and exact date of the Gospel of Thomas is still being researched, but it most certainly is an early Christian writing. It contains only sayings of Jesus. Let me close with two of them, related to faith and belief.

His disciples said, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.”

Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in this one house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move Away,’ and it will move away.”[2]

Friends, don’t get caught up in belief.

Embrace the doubts you have. Embrace the living that is breathed into all.

May your faith and spiritual practice move you to peaceful, loving, and compassionate action in the world.

 

[1] Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking

[2] Gospel of Thomas, Sayings 37 and 48.

Seeing Butterflies

John 20:1-18

 

The monarch butterfly is an amazing creature.

lone_Monarch.jpegEvery year hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies go on a great journey of up to 3000 miles in their annual migration from Canada and the United States to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

monarchswarm Once they arrive in Mexico, the monarchs congregate in the oyamel fir trees in the Mexican states of Michoacán and Mexico.

Monarch butterfly wintering colony 30MONARCH

 Along their journey, the monarchs travel at an average speed of 12 mph (but sometimes get up to 30 mph); they travel 80 miles a day. They fly at heights of up to 2 miles. How does this once-hungry-caterpillar-turned-monarch know how to find its way to its wintering grounds? Scientists still don’t know exactly how they do it.

It’s a mystery.

It is a resurrection story.

And that’s why more people go to a Christian church of some sort on Easter Sunday–for a resurrection story?
If you did do that, turns out you’re not alone.

According to the Pew Foundation and Google Trends data, more United Statesians search for the word “church” around Easter than at any other time.

While the highest share of searches for “church” are on the week of Easter Sunday, the lowest share of searches occur on the week of Thanksgiving each November. The second lowest search for “church” occurs in the summer months.

So if you went to an “Easter” service, did you hear a resurrection story?

Let’s revisit one—from John’s Gospel.

And who will be the main character?

Jesus?

It’s Mary Magdalene.

I guess this is reason # 12,124 why the church’s historical [and present] holding back of women is inexplicable and inexcusable. It’s clear in this resurrection story that Mary’s gender doesn’t hold her back. She is the first to go to the tomb, to see that Jesus’ body was not there, and she is the one who shares the important information with the other disciples.

Mary Magdalene is worried, though. After seeing the stone rolled away and the body gone—she worries if the body had been stolen and what would be the impact of such a thing?

Grave desecration; awful.

You see, Jesus’ followers had planned to make that Jesus of Nazareth tomb into a shrine. People would visit it from near and far and pay homage to him and pray, and remember his teachings. But now…?

So Mary goes and tells the others and then they go to the tomb and say that they believe; but what do they really believe? They don’t believe all that Mary said. They only believe that the body is gone and that this is a problem because then how will they make this place a religious shrine and now…great! What are they going to do about it? They don’t believe in resurrection. They are depressed.

So the story keeps following Mary. She’s outside the tomb, still crying, and two angels appear to her. None of the disciples with her have a clue that this is happening. Mary herself doesn’t recognize them as angels. And even after the angels tell her that Jesus’ body was not stolen but that he is actually alive, she doesn’t buy it. She cries and cries some more and still wonders who stole the body.

Then John’s Gospel gives us a literary treat. Jesus himself appears to Mary as a gardener; she still does not recognize him. Why? She is not looking for him. There is no way that Jesus her teacher could be alive, so why would she look for him? She’s looking for a missing dead body, remember?

Jesus calls her by name, [in the original language of the NT], calling her Mary, not merely woman. Hearing her own name, Mary realizes what’s up. She then calls Jesus teacher, a title of great respect. Mary is awake now. She is no longer thinking about a missing dead body but instead sees her teacher Jesus in a new way.

Do not hold on to me, says her teacher.

Go to my brothers, says her teacher.

And Mary goes and tells the others.

And the resurrection story ends—that is, if you only read it/hear it on Easter Sunday.

But I’m not convinced at all that story ever ended.
Consider: why do you think the risen Jesus says: Don’t hold on to me, Mary?
Was she clinging tightly to his feet, impressed and overwhelmed by the moment?
Or was she clinging to the Jesus of Nazareth she knew before—present in a body, limited to a time and place?

It was time for Mary to let go of the Jesus she knew.

He was indeed alive, but not the same.
And this was important and challenging news for Mary to take in.
It was important, challenging, and also good news for her to share.

It remains important, challenging, and good news for us to live.

The importance is there in the story of the caterpillar—this slow creature that travels only a few feet at a time, and then gets its cocoon on and becomes a butterfly. As a monarch, this new creature can fly thousands of miles. What a change.

A few feet to thousands of miles.

Crawling and inching on the ground and on leaves to…flying in the air.

This is change.
This is metamorphosis.
This is resurrection.

That is important, but it’s also challenging.
Because we often think that we cannot change even a little, much less a lot.
Perhaps its stubbornness or habits built up over time or just being jaded and conditioned by life experience.
Whatever the case, we’re not sure that we can undergo a metamorphosis.

We’re just not convinced that we can experience resurrection.

Maybe it is because, if you’re like me, someone rising from the dead in body and mind, is stuff for movies and science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.

But not real life.

So the good news…

I don’t think you have to fully believe that a dead Jesus of Nazareth emerged from a tomb in bodily form and was alive again.

People keep arguing about what is doctrinally true about these resurrection stories, but no one gets it right.

In the end, friends, we should not push our brains to the side every time we read the Bible just so we can accept a religious belief.

Why?

Because resurrection won’t happen in your life because you buy into a doctrinal statement.

There is plenty of room for skeptics here.

We’ll have to see butterflies, though.

We’ll have to believe in resurrection here on the ground, on this earth, though.

We’ll have to see change in ourselves and in the lives of others. We’ll need to pay attention to the resurrection and new life in nature.

So pay attention to the important, challenging, and good news.

Do you think that you can go from squirming around slowly to spreading your wings?

Do you think that it is possible to break your routine, recharge in a cocoon, and emerge fully alive?

Each of us are caterpillars at some point, and then we’re butterflies. And then we die and then we live again. And then we’re caterpillars again. And then butterflies.

Each and every day that life cycle begins and ends.

So will you see butterflies all around you?

Will you embrace new life in the natural world and in the people you meet?

Jesus said: don’t hold on to me.

So don’t hold back.

Change, resurrect, live.

Unbinding to Be Alive

John 11:1-45

cutezombieNow look, I don’t know if you watch The Walking Dead on television or if you’re into zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, REC, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, or 28 Days Later. I am not sure if the idea of a once-dead human being rising from death to be “alive” again intrigues you or if it just plain freaks you out.

Regardless, it’s appropriate to talk about zombies, because the story of Lazarus is a zombie story.

I like the Brick Testament’s Lego version of Jesus and Lazarus…

lazaruscomeout

lazarus

So it is only a few weeks away from when we talk about the death and resurrection story of Jesus, which also is a zombie story. That’s why most people think of the Lazarus story as just a prequel to Jesus’ resurrection story. I’ve said before, however, that when anyone projects things and ideas onto the scripture stories, one can go to crazy extremes. So how about we just read the Lazarus zombie story as it is and then go from there? I think we’ll find more meaning and hopefully more inspiration to live as more loving and compassionate human beings…who are alive.

 It is also my hope that we’ll be creative people who use our brains; after all, so far no one is actually eating anyone’s brains.

 So who was Lazarus?

He was from Bethany, and his name means a Galilean. Why should you care? Well, Jesus was a Galilean and the Galilean Jews represented a particular ideology and world view. The short version is that the Galileans weren’t in love with the Roman Empire or the religious temple system. You see, when we talk about “the Jews” in a NT context, we don’t just mean the people who lived in “the Holy Land-Jerusalem” and that they all believed the same things. “The Jews” were [and are] a diverse group of people—geographically, culturally, and religiously. Galilee was a northern province. Judea was a southern province [where Jerusalem was]. Galilee, the north, was more diverse ethnically and culturally due to the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century B.C.E. The influence of other religions and cultures [Hellenistic] was widespread.

Galilee was separated from Judea by…Samaria.

Politically, Galilee was set apart from the rest of Judea, resisting Roman rule. Galilee was also a major place for resources—good fishing and agriculture. Galileans also spoke a unique form of the Aramaic language. Imagine Jesus with a thick accent in which he drops consonants from the end of words. And religiously, Galileans were not thought of highly by their Judean neighbors to the south. They were far from the religious epicenter of Jerusalem, they did not maintain as strict or strong Jewish traditions, and they were definitely influenced by the Greeks.[1]

This is all very, very important in the story.

Jesus, from the north, was not considered by many Judeans to be as religious or culturally relevant. He was not accepted overall in the south as a great prophet or teacher.

It is in this context that we meet Lazarus, who happens to be sick.

Actually, the word in Greek for sick is better rendered as lethargic or weak.

Lazarus was pretty much like a zombie.

Then John’s Gospel reminds us that those of us reading this in 2014 in the United States have some work to do. Verse 2 of this story mentions Mary, the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Turns out the zombie Lazarus is her brother.

Oh, right, except there’s just one problem:
The story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume hasn’t happened yet.

How come John’s authors assume we already know that story before it’s told?

Friends, this is yet another example as to why I argue that we need to read Bible stories as they are in their literary, social, and historical context. John’s Gospel isn’t for you and me. It was written for a specific group of people who already knew the stories and were now getting a different interpretation of them. So as we read this, let’s walk in their shoes and enjoy it even more.

Lazarus was as sick as a zombie.

But even when Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus secretly that he should do a pastoral visit, Jesus didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He stayed two more days in the place where he is. No urgency. Finally, he eventually said to his friends: “Let’s go to Judea.”

Uh…Judea? The south? They just escaped from there and barely! Are you crazy?

But Lazarus was Jesus’ dear friend, and according to him, there was still the light of day with which to walk. So why not?

Lazarus was just asleep, so why not wake him? The disciples understood…or did they?

They assumed Jesus would just say to Lazarus: Wakey, wakey, Lazzie…

But Jesus was referring to death and then the life that would come after.

It seemed like the only disciple who got it was Thomas, who assumed that if they did go to Judea, things would not end well.

Sure, Jesus, let’s all go to see Lazarus, so we will all die.

Man, that’s a bit depressing.

But the story throws us for another loop, because apparently, Thomas and the others didn’t go. Jesus alone eventually makes it to Bethany to see Lazarus.

Maybe he followed the smell.

You see, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. The professional Judean mourners were already there. Mary stayed with them and Martha went to meet Jesus. An interesting dialogue occurred.

Martha was convinced that if Jesus would have come earlier [i.e. NOT hanging out and partying for two days with the disciples in Galilee-Vegas], for sure Lazarus would not have died.

Then, she affirms her generic religious response: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

But that’s not what Jesus was saying at all.

He was saying: Your brother Lazarus will rise…TODAY.

Martha’s religious dogma and doctrine was set. Resurrection in the last day? Check. Messiah, Son of God, coming? Check. But it was all in the future and tied to tradition.

So let’s find Mary, shall we? Martha whispered to her [pssst..the teacher is here] because the Judean mourners were still there [remember what I said about the Judeans and Galileans not getting along?]

So Mary went to see Jesus and repeated [like a zombie] just what Martha said:
If you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.

Uh-oh. Mary wasn’t sneaky enough, though. The Judeans followed her to where Jesus was.
Would there be a fight?

No, actually. Jesus saw everyone’s great sadness. He empathized. He cried, too. But he was more than just sad. He was angry, too. The suffering was real. Jesus did not ignore it.
But, in spite of Jesus’ empathy and compassion, some still wondered why he didn’t come earlier.

Time to go find Lazarus.

The tomb was a cave and a stone lay against it. Caves were metaphors for transformation or metamorphosis—kind of like the caterpillar’s cocoon.

Take away the stone, says Jesus.

Martha is hesitant to do this now, because, um, it smelled bad and apparently they ran out of incense.
But Jesus didn’t care. As the people moved the stone, Jesus prayed.

Then he shouted: Lazarus, come out!

At this point in the story, Lazarus is actually no longer a zombie [tired and weak], but more like a mummy.

mummyHe was still wrapped in burial cloth, after all.

And that’s fitting, because Jesus’ one-liner, climatic line is:

 Unbind him; let him go.

Indeed. Unbind him; let him go.

Throughout the whole story, Martha, Mary, the disciples, and the Judeans were limited by their understanding of life and death; they were limited by their religious views and socio-political conditioning.

In short, if someone was dead, he/she was dead. End of story.
If someone was poor, it must be meant to be.
If someone was limited by gender, language, culture, or geography—so be it.
Everyone thought that Lazarus was a zombie, but they were the zombies.

They were conditioned [even brainwashed at times] by their experiences to think that their own humanity fit into someone’s category and that G-d’s great mercy and love were meant for only a select few.

But Lazarus emerged from his cave-cocoon with life.
What they thought smelled awfully like death would now smell like sweet perfume.

But Jesus’ last words in this story stick in my head:
Unbind him; let him go.

It was up to the people in the story to unbind Lazarus. They had to let him be free.

Man, do we need to hear this.

How many people do we bind in this world—limiting them? How many people do we write off as dead and useless?
Unbind them. Free them.
Or help them unbind and free themselves.

And how much do we notice our own zombie tendencies in day to day life?
Are we just asleep?
Are we fatigued, weak, lethargic?
Or are we dead?

We can say the same thing to G-d:
If only you had been there…maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Where are you, G-d?

Or we can try to comfort people who suffer by saying:
Pray about it.
Just hang in there.

But their suffering [and ours] is real.
Living as fully human, we can stay in that moment of suffering and get angry, sad, and upset.
Ignoring the our own suffering and the suffering of others will fool us into thinking that we’re all meant to be zombies.

Well, we’re not.

We’re meant to live as resurrected people…and now.

So how will you unbind yourself and let go this week?
Who will you help to unbind and be alive?

 

[1] R. T. France, Commentary on The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007)

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