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Posts tagged ‘muslim’

Losing and Finding Sheep: Empathy

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Being Bound, Being Free

Luke 8:26-39

freedomDoves

Okay, this might start off a little strange. We’re going to talk about a very important theme for all of us as individuals, and extremely important for the health of humanity. But to do so, we’ll look at an incredibly weird and confusing story. Are you ready? Let’s give it a go…

Demons. Really?

I’m no expert on demons, evil spirits, or whatever you wish to call them. I like Hellboy a lot, but he’s kind of an anti-demon + anti-hero, wouldn’t you say?

3013508-hellboy

In fact, I should probably go to my friend and amazing author, Lucas Mangum. Flesh and Fire just might help set some context as to how demons are presented in literature [both religious on secular].

fleshandfire
Maybe Lucas will even chime in! Lucas, are you down there in the comments?

Anyway, this Luke Gospel story is about a bunch of demons. Jesus steps onto gentile territory and he is met immediately by a demon-possessed man. He is called a man of the city, like the woman of the city with the alabaster jar whose tears washed Jesus’ feet in the previous Luke story.

He is an outcast.

He doesn’t have a home, he doesn’t even have clothes. The people of his community even tied him up in shackles. They bound him to try to control him. Jesus, however, approaches him and commands the oppressive spirits to leave the man. Jesus sees him as a human being. But the man is tensed up and yells at Jesus to leave him alone. When Jesus asks him his name, he is able to get out: Legion.

This name makes sense, because a legion of demons was oppressing him. Apparently, the demons are reasonably smart and have thought things through; they have considered their options. The abyss? Not such a great place for demons to have a summer home. The abyss, in ancient Judaism, was a place where evil spirits were tormented. So yeah…no. So the demons beg Jesus to let them escape into some nearby pigs that were minding their own business. Jesus agrees and the demons enter the pigs and the poor animals rush down the steep bank of the lake and drown.

I grew up in Iowa and while I did not live on a farm, the farms were all around me. And so were the pigs. So what’s up with that, Luke? Really? Poor pigs…

Obviously, this is not good news for the guys who work with the pigs. Can you imagine? They were eye witnesses. There they are, minding their own business, when their pigs start going crazy like lemmings and run down the lake’s bank to their death. I imagine that they were ticked off. Which is great for the story, because their anger moves them to run off and tell a bunch of people. Meanwhile, the once-bound and oppressed man is now sitting at the feet of Jesus [just like the lady with the alabaster jar], and now he has clothes on and his sane. But the people of the town don’t celebrate; instead, they are afraid and tell Jesus to get the Galilee out of town. The newly healed man, demon-free man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay in his town and tell everyone what happened.

I’ll get right to it. I’m not one who believes in demons or evil spirits—at least not the kind with horns and not the ones who make people’s heads turn in complete circles or spit out green fluid. I like reading about them in stories and comics, because I do think they point us to the real thing. That “real thing” is evil, or the personification of evil, and the way that evil can bind and oppress a person, a family, a community, etc. We have no clue as to what really afflicted this guy Gentile territory. Was it his past? Did he suffer abuse of some kind? Was it a chemical imbalance, addiction, what was it? I think Luke doesn’t say for a reason. The point is that he was afflicted by a myriad of things, so take your pick; put yourself in his shoes; put other people you know in his shoes. The first thing that stands out to me is that any kind of afflicted person is still a human being—even if people tie that person up, declare the person untouchable and even inhuman.

Still a human being.

The other thing that I notice is that not only was this man untouchable and marginalized, but the evil spirits themselves ended up in pigs, another untouchable, unclean living thing, at least for the Jews of that time. Remember, Jesus was in Gentile territory. Poor pigs.

And yet, in light of the recent horrific and tragic events in Orlando, Florida [and the sad, ignorant and hateful responses to it by politicians and others], I am going in this direction: you see, we seem to be able to talk about people who have drug or food or gambling addictions; it’s commonplace to talk about people who are bound by an abusive past. But how often do we admit to how many people are bound by prejudice? How many people have evil in their thoughts and worldviews, so much so, that they are willing to hurt others who are different than they are, using hateful words, bullying them, or even resorting to violence? It’s happening too often. And we rarely talk about it. Many of us have family members or friends who are clearly prejudiced against certain people. Gay? Lesbian? Transgender? Non-binary? Black, Asian, Latin American, African, Eastern European, Arab, Spanish-speaker, Atheist, Arabic speaker, Muslim?

They are afflicted, they are bound by their prejudice.

Some of it is a result of social conditioning. Maybe they were raised to hate a certain group of people. Perhaps they went along with their peers in school just to fit in. Or maybe at work it was just easier to put down the person who was different. Whatever the case, prejudice is evil. It is affliction. It binds people.

I, as many other people, I am tired of prayers for families of victims of hate crimes. I’m tired and angry. I’m not saying that prayers don’t matter. I AM saying that prayers are not enough and that sometimes we hide behind them. It’s easier to say we’re praying for the families and victims in Orlando; it’s a lot harder to actually do something about the prejudice and hatred in our own communities, families, schools, and churches. We live in a world in which is easy to spread hatred via social media with one click and a thousand shares. But it’s equally easy to do the opposite—to combat hatred and to cooperate, love, and embrace pluralism of all kinds. Churches pray, but what do churches do? I’m tired of all kinds of prejudice, including subtle prejudice and all the excuses that we continue to make as to why we won’t stand up and say enough is enough! Why we won’t be more courageous in our communities and risk upsetting relationships with friends, classmates, work colleagues, church friends, and even family. Our inaction binds us. Evil happens and we stand silent.

Jesus healed this seemingly untouchable, non-human. But then the newly-restored man was then told to tell the scared and prejudiced people of his town what God had done. What God had done. My take is that whether you believe in this god or not,there is a universal theme here. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human. People will make categories and draw border lines and spread hateful rhetoric to keep us separated. They do that because they gain something from it [usually money and power]. But we can’t make excuses anymore. It’s time to admit to the prejudice that binds us as individuals and communities. The moment is NOW to stand up against your family members, friends, or co-workers who spread hate to others. Unfold your hands, open your eyes, and actually do something. Spread humanity. Spread cooperation. Spread love and acceptance.

Teaser for next week: Luke 9:51-62: Is it difficult sometimes for you to move on from your past? How can we stop looking back so much and move forward?

 

Side note: to all my friends and family and colleagues who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, or Non-Binary—I love you and I’m angry, too. I pledge to do my best to stand up against hatred and prejudice. My prayers will be my actions. And the same goes for all my Muslim friends and colleagues. Love you, too. I stand with you.

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.[1]

Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone. Realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.[2]

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.[3]

You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.[4]

What does unity mean to you?

bettertogetherWISC
Say or think the first few things that come to mind. What is unity? According to a mash-up dictionary definition, unity is defined as:

Being together or at one with someone or something.
Unity is the opposite of being divided.

In the world, we certainly see divisions in many aspects of society—divisions in religions, politics, culture, nationality, race, gender, world view, and many more. Keep in mind that I am referring to divisions, and not difference. Having different religions, cultures, languages, and world views is what makes us human. Difference is good; difference is humanity.

Division is something else. Case in point: I have different political views from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. Some of us can actually talk about these differences without getting angry or defensive. But others who have different political views than I do cannot even engage in discourse with me. They see only their own point of view and also see my different view as a threat, or as flat out wrong. And that my friends, is division.
Last week, as many of you know, I participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk for Reconciliation in Philadelphia with hundreds of people from various religious and secular backgrounds.

peace-walk-gallery-header_0Now to some, this kind of walk is pointless, because in their view, the actual event accomplishes nothing.

So what? People go on a walk. But they are still divided! Muslim women in hijabs; Wiccan women with no head coverings; Sikh men with turbans; Jewish men with kippas; Catholic men and women with cross necklaces; Buddhists with mala beads; Hindu women with saris; hippie and hipster folk with peace signs and long hair.

From the outside, the walk doesn’t seem like anything unified at all if one thinks that differences only separate us. What they don’t know is that throughout the year, the real influence of the walk is evident. It is not about one day or one walk. It is about the relationships that are formed. People build bridges of understanding, trust, and friendship across lines of difference. A Christian woman now sees her Muslim friend not as a Muslim, but just a friend. Likewise, a Sikh college student sees a Buddhist classmate as a colleague and does not identify him by his religious tradition.

That’s what this walk is about: a commitment of individuals [and communities] to embrace difference as healthy and beautiful, and to not see difference as division.

The Christian Bible most certainly addresses the theme of division and unity in both the Old and New Testaments. I will say, however, that American Christians often understand unity to be something only within their own religious circles. So, if you happen to be Catholic, unity might mean that various Catholics should get together, be on the same page, and cooperate. Mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, do the same thing. They create regional and national events to try to make unified decisions and also to join for unified worship and prayer. And ecumenical groups have joint worship services to express unity across denominations.

By no means am I saying that such things are negative—they are not. But this is not the kind of unity that the Bible speaks of.
Remember that the various authors who wrote the Bible did so over the course of centuries. And none of them had any idea about the religion of Christianity. Zero. It did not exist. It is really important to keep that in mind when you read the Bible. Instead of Christians, there were all kinds of people who were considered to be of the Jewish tradition [and they were not all the same]. There were also Greeks, and Romans, and Samaritans, and Africans, and Arabs, and many, many more. Religiously and culturally, even in the small area around where Jesus and his followers lived, there was diversity and difference. Later on, when Paul and other followers of Jesus of Nazareth started to branch out farther into Europe and the Middle East, they encountered even more difference.

All that being said, John’s Gospel was written well after that—even after Paul’s letters. So look at this prayer that is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in John 14:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

We don’t have adequate time to dissect every part of this prayer so we will focus on unity as it is expressed here as being one. In order to do that, I’m going to borrow from Richard Rohr and his work, the Cosmic Christ. For those of you unfamiliar with Richard Rohr, he is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

In The Cosmic Christ, Rohr speaks about the Incarnation of God that we assume happened in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Rohr states that the incarnation actually happened 14.5 billion years ago with a moment that many scientists call “The Big Bang.” In other words, two thousand years ago, according to the New Testament of the Bible, the human incarnation of God in Jesus took place, but before that there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast” according to the story in Genesis of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 1:3-25).

This, Rohr says, was the “Cosmic Christ.” Christ is in fact not Jesus’ last name, but the title for his life’s purpose. Jesus is the very concrete truth revealing and standing in for the universal truth.[5]

This idea is nothing new. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that the world was created by one God and that this God manifested in a human or in humans. So do many, many other traditions like the Baha’i faith, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, etc. Some traditions call that divine manifestation light. This concept is often called non-duality.

Okay, stay with me here.

Nonduality or nondualism, means “not two” or “one undivided without a second.”

Across religious and philosophical traditions around the world, nondualism takes different shapes. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s take nondualism to mean that there is no absolute, transcendent reality beyond our everyday reality. The universe is one reality, and we are part of it. Explore more about this idea and you will find that there is so much harmony across religious and non-religious traditions when it comes to this perspective, i.e. that we are all part of the same universe and connected to it.

Westerners struggle with nondualism. Why? Lots of answers to that question. In my experience, it is often because people have been raised to think that there are black-and-white answers to cosmic and nuanced problems, and also that there are clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. This is what we can refer to as binary thinking. For example, consider when countries like the United States wage a “war” thinking that it is on the side of good. At the same time, those on the other side of this war also think that their cause is right. So who is right? It depends on where you live, how you were raised, and your worldview, of course. Most people from the Eastern part of the world would understand this and not be freaked out by it. It is not relativism. It is non-dualism. Both sides of a war are seeking the same thing.

Contrarily, the opposite of nonduality is duality. In the West, as individuals, we see duality expressed with this idea—that I am here and you are there. All of you and the rest of the world is outside me. In other words, we are not connected.

What happens outside of my family or social circle, or house, or church is not related to me.

 

This is, unfortunately, how many Christians know Jesus.  They say they believe in and follow Jesus Christ, but they really have no idea what that entails. What they have actually done is to make two acts of faith, one in Jesus of Nazareth [the person] and another in Christ [the cosmic]. Jesus of Nazareth was a man—a human being who taught certain things and lived in a certain way. Christ is the “anointed” one who was and is divine. This concept of Christ is much bigger and older than Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion. This idea that the material and the divine co-exist is ancient and spans nearly all religious and philosophical traditions.

Imagine how a non-dualistic understanding of Jesus’ prayer in John 14 could be liberating and unifying. Imagine how it could embrace difference and combat division.

Jesus understood that to be divine was to be human, and vice versa.

He was well aware of his connection to all of nature, the communities around him, and the universe. He taught that anyone who hurt others hurt themselves. Understanding the connection between himself and God, Jesus was fully able empathize with another person’s pain and even the very cries of creation. Imagine if some of these highly-contested social issues were thought of in a nondualist way. There wouldn’t be so much fear of what or who is different. Case in point: I think the hurtful controversy about bathrooms and gender identifications would be less about the religious agendas like it is today and more about people—taking into account that non-binary is not a bad thing at all. And we are connected to each other. So if certain people do not feel welcomed to use a bathroom, we also do not feel welcomed.

gender-inclusive-bathroomsNot sure what your take is on whether Jesus was divine or not. Explore that on your own. What matters most is that if we separate God from humanity and vice versa, we’ll deal in division, absolutes, and binary things. We won’t be able to see God in the face of an enemy or in the faces of people in faraway lands or even in the faces of people next door who are different than us.

If this prayer teaches me anything, it is that our divisions are made up.

We are not divided. We are all connected. And the Divine is everywhere, in all of us. We are not alone. There is light in all things and in all people.

So take that idea with you—hold it close and express it in everyday life. We should all be one—with all our differences and uniqueness. We should be unified—as humanity and the natural world. Remember that you are not separated from the people and living things all around you. Remember that you are not separated from the Divine and the Divine is not separated from you. This is love and light.

[1] Gwendolyn Brooks
[2] Rumi
[3] Askhari Johnson Hodari, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs
[4] Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations
[5] From Radical Grace, April-May-June, Volume 23, Number 2, 2010.

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.

Love at the Core of Being

Psalm 85:1-8; 10

I want to begin with a question.

How many of you feel that your definition of who God is comes mostly from:

What your parents or family raised you to believe?

Or:

From the Bible?

Or:

From a church?

Or:

From a spiritual or enlightening experience?

Or:

From personal life experience?

homerThinking

Perhaps some of you answered this question strongly with one of those options. Or, maybe there are a couple of those options that resonate with you.

Regardless, most likely you identified strongly with these options:

-Parents or family beliefs
-Church beliefs
-Personal life experience

Yes, it’s true. Most of us [and I mean almost ALL of us] do not define who G-d is based on the Bible or some spiritual experience of enlightenment.

say-whatIn my vocation I encounter a lot of people who want to talk about religion or spirituality or G-d, and many of these conversations start with assumptions about belief itself. For example, many assume that the Christian G-d is a certain way. If that person is not a Christian, he/she has learned something from the TV or other media or most likely, they’ve just heard it as second or third-hand information from family or friends or acquaintances. If he/she does not have much contact with people who identify as Christians, the assumptions begin to grow into perceptions and eventually, they get solidified. He/She ends up saying and thinking:

All Christians believe this or that. They all think G-d is like this or that…

Of course, today this is happening much more to Muslims than to Christians. Islamophobes really do exist. They group all Muslims together, as if every single Muslim in the world believes the same things and practices their faith in the same way. They assume that all Muslims say and think the same things about Allah and life in general, and so the beliefs and actions of so-called terrorists like ISIS are no different than say, the Muslim family down the street or the guy at work who pauses to pray from time to time, or the female doctor who wears a hijab. Even though terrorist groups are not considered Muslims by practicing Muslims, it doesn’t matter to Islamophobes. They’ve made up their minds already. This kind of thing also happens to Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, etc., but we know that in this country Islamophobia is most prevalent.

closing2So because I have Muslim friends and colleagues and work frequently with Muslim communities, people come to talk to me.

I do my best to fact-check their statements and to clarify that there is not just one way of looking at things and that every Muslim is unique just like every Christian is unique.

Then the conversation usually shifts to me.

But aren’t you a Christian? So don’t you then believe that there is only one G-d, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Aren’t you supposed to believe that?

My response reiterates:

Just like Muslims, not all Christians believe the same things or practice their faith in the same way.

But then they scratch their heads and act confused. And for some, that’s the end of the conversation. For some, I cease to be a Christian in their minds.

What we’re talking about here is theology, or simply how we think about G-d.

I asked you the question at the very beginning about how you think you come to beliefs about G-d. I’ll tell you why this matters.

Religious prejudice and discrimination, Islamophobia, harmful rhetoric, propaganda, fanaticism, and even violence occur because of theology.

For example, if you think that G-d does not exist or if you think that there’s no way to be sure that there is a god, then that affects the way you look at the world. You’ll most likely be skeptical about all religions. You’ll certainly balk at any religious folk who try to convert others. But you may also be very accepting of all religious and non-religious people, because again—you are not sure that there is a god in the first place. And finally, you won’t feel the urge to attend a church, temple, mosque or whatever, because prayer and worship don’t make sense if there is no object for prayer and worship.

Likewise, let’s say you aren’t atheist or agnostic, or a secular humanist. Say you do believe in G-d, and that’s been part of your perspective since you can remember. That clearly affects the way you see the world and other people. Perhaps you see G-d as a creator of all living things. Maybe G-d is a cosmic judge, too. And if you believe in this kind of G-d, most likely you spend a reasonable amount of time in worship services, prayer, or Bible reading. You do that, because you believe G-d is watching, and also because G-d deserves your time and attention.

Take it a step further.

Say you do believe in G-d, but you were abused in the past—either physically, verbally, or religiously. Or a combination of all three. You see G-d much differently. You may see G-d as a divine rewarder and punisher. You may see G-d as completely distant and unfeeling, because how could G-d allow the abuse to happen? Or, if people used religion to control and manipulate you, perhaps you see G-d as someone or something that as power over you; and you are afraid of this G-d.

I’m sad to say that I know too many people who think in this way because of abuse.

Back to the original question. Almost all of us are conditioned to believe something about G-d by other people. And then some of us, via personal experience, come up with our own conclusions.

But very, very few people actually believe something about G-d based on Scripture itself or some spiritual enlightenment.

Someone can read the Bible many, many times and then say that he/she believes in the G-d of the Bible. But which parts of the Bible do you mean?
The Bible is chock full of theologies that don’t agree with each other at all.

The majority of what we call the Bible is Jewish, to be sure, but also many, many other Semitic theologies and ancient Hebrew thoughts—including Egyptian.

The smaller part of the Bible, the New Testament, is Jewish and Roman and Greek and Aramaic and African Sub-Saharan and more, in its perspective.

Yes, it’s true that one theology does not fit all—even in the Bible.

What anyone believes or doesn’t believe about G-d is a result of a series of influences, experiences, texts, words, songs, and feelings. No one person can claim that he/she “knows” who G-d is or isn’t. Theology has always been relative to the culture and time period in which it was created. This is why the theology of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine looks so much different than the theology of 2015 in Philadelphia. It’s just normal for this to happen.

The Psalms of the OT are a great example. They are completely human expressions of what people feel and think about G-d.

Consider Psalm 85, for example. It’s nationalistic. It’s about Israel. It’s written by someone who is in the midst of troubling times. There’s war. Notice that the writer expresses perspectives about G-d formed because of personal experiences. For this writer, G-d is a celestial being who protects a certain nation. This G-d gives fortune to certain families. This G-d forgives them when they make mistakes. This G-d is also capable of getting mad. Eventually, the tone of the Psalm shifts to a challenge.

Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

This person believes that G-d is angry with him and his nation. And yet, the writer coerces G-d as well. It’s as if the psalmist is subtly reminding G-d how G-d should act. Aren’t you loving, G-d? Don’t you care about us? You did before, so….

And then the writer even goes a step further, saying what G-d will actually do and say:

God will speak peace to the people, to the faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.

And, a desired result for himself and his nation:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

There’s a reason, in my opinion, why certain Psalms are not appropriate for us to read in worship services. They reflect a certain worldview and time period and sometimes they are looking for revenge, or war, or punishment.

And now, I will say something that for some might be going too far, and that’s okay.

Sermons are Wizard of Oz speeches, because always when you listen or read them, you should use your brains, your hearts, and your courage.

wizard-of-ozFriends, we create theology. There is no “right” or “true” or “orthodox” theology.
We create for ourselves what we would like G-d to be or how G-d should act.

We ourselves connect experiences in life to things we read in the Bible and other sacred books; we listen to what people teach us and say about G-d and we make choices about what we actually think.

I am fortunate. My parents did not force a certain theology on me. G-d was never a punisher or a cosmic judge. I was conditioned to see G-d as love. I saw that love in my parents. But many people I know were not so lucky. They were raised to fear G-d. Some were taught that G-d rewarded certain moral behaviors and punished others. Others were raised in a church that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender folk; or people of other cultural backgrounds; or people who didn’t believe in things like the trinity. And as I mentioned before, some were abused.

What I hope you take from this is some encouragement. For those of you who have been raised in an abusive environment, know that what you were conditioned to believe is not true and certainly not based on any Scripture or enlightened spirituality. It’s fear-based theology created to push you down or keep you down. Over time, you can be free of it.

If you were raised to think that G-d is jealous and craves human devotion, rewarding it with heaven, then your life may be focused on what you have to do or believe in order to go somewhere nice when you die. But that limiting theology can keep you from discovering that your day to day life on this earth is the most important and treasured thing. G-d isn’t dividing people between some place called and heaven and some place we call hell. Courageously use your heart and mind to consider that G-d is concerned with your personal well-being and also present when you’re hurting or suffering.

And if you were raised to think that Jesus was and is THE ONLY savior of humankind, and your ticket to heaven, then probably it’s hard for you to interact with others who are not Christians and most likely you struggle with accepting those who follow another spiritual or religious path, or none at all. But what if Jesus is bigger than that perspective?

Courageously using your brains and your hearts, consider that Jesus of Nazareth existed and taught and lived because of love. Consider the possibility that G-d didn’t send one person to be a martyr, to die on a cross for people’s sins like a sacrificial lamb. Consider that Jesus came, as he was known to say, to seek out the lost and marginalized. Consider that Jesus challenged religion itself, and the status quo, and instigated a new type of community that considered everyone to be neighbor and family.

For those of you like me who were fortunate enough to be raised in an environment of questioning and openness, we have a responsibility. We cannot promote one view over another or lord over anyone with our theology. And we must reach out to those who have been abused, and help them to heal, and to move with them from fear into love.

For indeed, what is at the core of G-d’s being and our being. Are we not essentially love?

Regardless of what you believe [or don’t believe], may your perspectives and beliefs be rooted in the honesty that they are part conditioning and part experience. And may you always fact-check your beliefs by returning to love. Does what you think and believe come out of a place of love?

Interfaith Encounters Day 7

masjidullahOur last day began and ended at Masjidullah in Northwest Philly.

This Muslim community recently moved to this new space in January. Previously, the building was a Jewish synagogue and then a Christian church.

MasjidOutside

First, we were greeted by Adilah, one of the leaders of their community. She had set up some refreshments for us and helped us feel very welcomed in the space.

MasjidFood

We sat together in a meeting room where resident Imam Mikal Shabazz told us about this particular Muslim community and answered some questions. Other leaders joined us periodically and shared with us. The amount of stories within this community is overwhelming.

MasjidIMAM

MasjidConversation (2)

Then, we all walked together to the prayer space for Jumu’ah [Friday prayer].

MasjidEntrance (2)

First, a senior student from LaSalle University shared a message. He spoke about the violence occurring in Philadelphia and the need for the Muslim community [and others] to stand up against such injustice and violence. He reminded everyone that any injustice happening to another does indeed affect us all and is an injustice we must stand up against.

Then, the prayers began with the melodic words of the Qur’an in Arabic. If you have never experienced this type of prayer, it certainly can be powerful. Standing side by side with others, feet together in a unified configuration–the power of human touch and community is evident. We were all welcomed and encouraged to participate as much or as little as we wished.

After the prayers, there was much conversation and new friendships were formed.

MasjidPrayerSpace MasjidWomenconversation MasjidGreetings

Some of us were able to check out the dining hall space and to read a little bit more about this community which has an incredibly rich history worth learning about. As always, I encourage you to learn more about Islam and the diversity of practice within that particular faith tradition by visiting a mosque or Islamic school. This is the best way to learn!

MasjidLearning

Finally, we headed back to Masjidullah Inc.’s Administration offices for some closing Q & A with the LaSalle student who spoke, Imam Mikal, and others.

MasjidSpeaker

As we said our goodbyes to our gracious hosts, we also prepared to say our own goodbyes. This was our last encounter of the week. 7 different faith communities. 5 different service-learning partners. And a van.

ClosingGoodbyeVanWhat did this week mean to us?

I asked the students to keep thinking about that. My guess is that ALL of us will be finding more and more meaning as we have some time to reflect on all that we have experienced.

From my perspective, I learned a lot from the students. Their questions while with people of different faith traditions, were respectful, curious, and important. They had a true sense of excitement each time they entered a new environment. They thoroughly enjoyed meeting people, hearing their stories–sharing their own stories.

It is a lot to take in. Tonight–tired and full of thoughts–I am grateful for this opportunity. The journey of this week has challenged and enlightened me in many ways.

Most of all, this week [for me] was about embracing my full humanity and the full humanity of others.

How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together? How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence? What do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?

After all, the encounters were human encounters. We met people and shared stories; and food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. We sat together; stood together; bowed together; we lived together.

And for that I am grateful and hopeful.

MasjidGROUP

Yes, No, and…Whoa! Bizarro Jesus

Matthew 5:21-26; 33-37  

We-must-learn-to-live-together-as-brothers-or-we-will-perish-together-as-fools-Martin-Luther-King-leadership-picture-quote1

-Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at St. Louis, 1964

quote-patience-is-bitter-but-its-fruit-is-sweet-jean-jacques-rousseau

Money is the root of all evils: poverty is the fruit of all goodness.

 quote-to-err-is-human-to-forgive-divine-alexander-pope

  There-is-a-voice-that    Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic

Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.

I am showering you with antitheses.
But if you think my antithesis examples are not great…

Let’s agree to disagree.

Yet another antithesis.
Maybe you can come up with some of your own?

We are talking about antithesis for a reason. It literally means opposite, though antithesis is a bit more nuanced than that. It is a literary device in which two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to create a contrasting effect. In other words, an antithesis emphasizes a point you want to make by telling you what something is not.

It is very effective and Matthew’s Gospel uses it.
In fact, Matthew is the only Gospel to use antithesis.
Jesus of Nazareth, in the famous “sermon on the plain/mount” uses six concepts from Moses’ Law [Torah] and starts each six sentences with:

You have heard it said…

And then contrasted with:

But I tell you…

Remember something—Matthew’s audience is mainly Jewish. So it makes sense that Jesus’ speech assumes that people know something about the Law of Moses. So keep that in mind when you think about this passage. We are not living in the 1st or 2nd Century, neither are we in Israel or Palestine, and we drive cars and use cell phones.

A little perspective is needed here.

But these Jesus antithesis quotes can have meaning for us if we allow them to apply to our contexts.

Consider that Jesus is not introducing a new set of rules, but rather the intention or spirit of Mosaic Law. Jesus of Nazareth is actually asking his followers to do more than just follow the rules.
So forget about trying to say that Jesus tells us how we should marry or divorce or how women should dress or which governments are the best.

This is not about rules or cultural norms.

This is about going beyond such things and living a question:
What does an authentic, loving, and just community look like?

The antithesis statements are meant to encourage us to live honestly and to not rely on religiosity or status to prove that we are living well.
We are challenged to stop swearing religious oaths in order to prove our integrity.
The antithesis statements ask:

What if we were just plain honest?
What if people saw what we did and how we treated people, and we didn’t hide behind religious phrases, creeds, or traditions when we behaved badly?

In short, living according to the Law as Jesus sees it and teaches it, is not following rules just because they are rules or because society or peer groups or religions tell you to follow them.
I could say the same thing about Christmas and Easter traditions as well. Are we participating in those traditions simply because someone told us to, or do those traditions actually inspire us to be better people, inside and out?

Yes, I know. This antithesis thing is bizarre.
Well, the Jesus of the Bible is really Bizarro Jesus.

BizarroIf you’re not familiar with the term bizarro, we’re talking comic books. Most of you have heard of Superman, I’m sure. Well, Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor came up with a sinister idea to create his own Superman clone. Luthor got a Doctor to do it, but Luthor forgot that Superman was an alien and not a human being, so the cloning process didn’t quite work. Instead of a Superman clone, Luthor created a monstrous creature. Later on, another villain called the Joker created a Superman [Bizarro] clone. This version was clearly the opposite of Superman, having cold vision instead of heat vision, and getting stronger when close to Kryptonite.

I think the typical Jesus we learn about in Sunday School or hear about in the media is nowhere near authentic. This is why I think that when we actually explore what this Jesus said or did—he starts looking like Bizarro Jesus.

For example, in spite of what many Hallmark cards say, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel isn’t exactly selling you roses for Valentine’s Day or fitting into cultural stereotypes.
jesus.ValentineI mean, imagine—a Jesus who says that following the rules is not so important—unless the rules improve your relationships with others!

Bizarro Jesus says you shouldn’t murder or engage in such violence against another person, but neither should you stay ticked off at someone for years and hold a grudge. Either way, the resentment you hold inside will consume you and keep you from having good relationships with people. No religious offering or time spent in a church or prayers said or scriptures read will make up for the hate in the heart or the grudge set in stone. That’s the point. So what if you follow the rule of not killing someone. But what about all that resentment you hold? You have to deal with that.

Does someone have something against you? You know that they do if you are thinking about it. So rather than go through the motions and put on a good face, what if you actually confront that person? What if you try to figure out why she/he has something against you? What if you seek some sort of reconciliation with that person, if possible?

Bizarro Jesus says you shouldn’t venerate the institution of marriage and therefore abhor divorce just because it’s a cultural norm. You should think about people. If someone gets divorced, who is left out or left behind? Who is cared for and who is not? Likewise, society’s marriage laws do not coincide with God’s laws. Many religious people are so quick to reject same-sex marriage claiming that the Bible told me so. But Bizarro Jesus says it’s not about the actual rule, but about the actual relationships.

Chances are if we focus on relationship more and less on religious traditions or rules—chances are we will accomplish a lot more good in the world.

And let’s finish this out with some swearing.

*&$!@#!

You see, saying swears or curse words in the modern sense is not what is prohibited here. In fact, I would argue that Bizarro Jesus might even encourage us to swear a bit more.

Why?

Because it’s honest.

Now I’m not saying you should swear AT someone, because that goes back to destructive relationships thing and so contradicts all that Jesus taught anyway.

And of course, I’m not encouraging people young and old to try to offend people with swear words.

Instead, I’m talking about removing the filter and saying what you feel and what you think. Some cultures and societies do this better than others. I don’t know what you’re used to, but I’d venture a guess that at some point in your life, you have struggled to remove this filter of vulnerability. You bite your tongue or hold your thought for later. You stay silent. Or maybe you say something you don’t mean; or believe; or think at all. You say something just to appease or to avoid conflict. Your yes isn’t a yes and your no isn’t a no.

It’s probably more like a….maybe?    

Jesus was not saying that the whole world is linear and black-and-white with no grey areas. Not at all. But a yes is yes and a no is no, meaning that we’re not playing games here on this planet.

Not as far as relationships go. It’s unhealthy to do that. We hurt each other more when we play those passive-aggressive games. Being honest makes such a huge difference in relationships. It truly does.

So friends, I challenge you to think about what the antithesis will inspire you to do. What has been said to you in the past that you now need to let go of and so heal from? What rules do you hold on to that keep you from healthy relationships with others? How can you take small steps today so that your living is more authentic and compassionate?

You have heard it said that unless you are amazingly religious or unless you fit into someone else’s category, you are not capable of doing good.

But I say to you: your life is your offering so go and offer it to the world, walking toward reconciliation and making peace with others. Let love bend your rules.

Amen.

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