Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘myth’

Feeling a Little Dead?

Luke 7:11-17

Have you ever felt dead?

Do you think that people can be resurrected during this life on earth?

Resurrect
Do you think that people can live again after being dead? Like me, maybe you don’t. Maybe you reserve that type of event for shows like the Walking Dead or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Whatever the case, if you are at all interested in the Christian Bible, you at least have to address this question, because the Gospels tell various stories about Jesus healing people, and sometimes they were dead. And then they were alive. And, of course, three of the Gospels, in their original endings, have Jesus die and then rise to life.

So here we are in one of those Gospels, Luke.

This story follows the story about Jesus healing a Centurion’s servant and that should come as no surprise. Luke often pairs two healing stories together. Also, notice that Luke has a clear agenda to make Jesus a prophet. Check out 1 Kings 17 and the story of Elijah the prophet who also encounters a widow, at the gate of Zarephath. Elijah’s revives her once-dead son. Clear connection there, huh?

Jesus went to Nain, a town in Galilee. Jesus was followed by a large crowd, and as they entered, they encountered another large crowd of mourners, on their way to mourn the death of the widow’s only son. By being a widow and without a son, she would have been considered marginalized in their society—no money and no support. Well, Jesus “saw” her. Important, because would she be seen at all after this? After the professional mourners went away, she would be left alone. Who would see her? Then, Jesus was moved emotionally and had compassion for her. Finally, he talked to her: Don’t weep.

Then, the drama unfolds. Jesus went up to the bier, the portable frame on which a coffin was taken to the grave, and the people carrying it stopped in their tracks. Jesus touched it; now he was unclean. Jesus didn’t seem to care. He told the supposedly-dead son: Be raised! Those were resurrection words. The son stood up and he was “given” to his mother. The now-combined crowds were scared, excited, and all the rest. Luke’s author reminds us why: a great prophet has arisen among us! There’s that word again: arisen.

Okay, that’s a quick look at the story. Here’s my Twitter-sized take. I’m not one who believes in raising people from the dead. If that makes me a skeptic, so be it. I don’t think these stories are true or false either. I do believe in resurrection, but just not the kind that means zombies and stuff.

I believe that people can raise from the dead, even while their bodies are still alive.

Okay, what? Think about it. Have you ever felt dead, even though you’re technically alive? I know I have. You go through the motions—go to work, school, whatever. Wash, rinse, dry, repeat. But it’s all empty. You’re dead.

empty
And then, something happens. It’s different for everybody and it depends on where you are on your journey. For me, I have experienced resurrection at various times in my life. Once, it was because I realized that I didn’t have to please everyone all the time. That was killing me. I was dead. And then I was alive, because I was free to be myself and not worry so much about pleasing others. Another time, I was dead because I didn’t see any hopeful future ahead of me. I felt stuck. But then, I became alive again when someone entered my life and woke me up to the simple reality of appreciating the present moment and embracing each day. Before I knew it, I wasn’t thinking about a dead future; I was embracing now. I was truly resurrected.
Feeling-alive
So I think this Luke story [and all others of a similar nature] are about how Jesus helped people wake up to reality, to discover that they didn’t have to feel so empty and dead, that they had the ability to really be alive and renewed.

 

Every day we have a chance to redefine ourselves and start over. Man, THAT is life! What do you think?

Next week’s teaser: “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears,
it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling the secret of who you are, but more often than not of the mystery of where you have come from and are summoning you to where you should go next.”
Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Do you cry easily and often, or do you struggle to cry? What do your tears mean?

Living on the Dry Ground

EXODUS 14:15-16; 19-22  

I grew up in Indiana and Iowa. Tornadoes happen there.

tornadoI remember one day in the summer when I was a kid. I was walking home; this was in Indiana. The weather was so strange. Everything was eerily calm. It was like listening to music really, really loud and then someone pulls the plug and it all goes silent all of a sudden. It’s weird. No wind, no sound, nothing. Storm clouds did not appear on the horizon; it didn’t smell like rain. There was absolutely nothing that would serve as a warning sign for extreme weather. The sky was a beautiful orange color and then it almost looked purple? Did I mention how calm it was?

But then, as I got about halfway home, the wind picked up. It wasn’t gradual either. From one moment of calm, things got crazy in a second. Leaves and branches and debris started blowing behind, in front—all around me. I shielded my face and covered my eyes…

And I started to run.

That’s what we did in the Midwest when the eerie calm turned into a malevolent, strong wind. You don’t look back; you don’t take your time; while the sirens blare, you just run to the nearest place. I made it home. The winds got worse and a funnel cloud formed a few miles away. It’s amazing to see such a thing if you are looking at it from a distance. It’s beautiful. It’s short-lived.

Tornadoes, for the most part, last less than 10 minutes. That’s it.

Some tornadoes only last for a few seconds and then they’re gone.

But in a short time, a lot can happen.

Consider my former front porch in Iowa. The entire thing was lifted off by a tornado. Ask the farmers who discover farm equipment miles away from where they left it.

Weather is really not something we can control, right? Sadly, though, some are trying to control it with chemicals and other things. Perhaps one of our most fatal human mistakes is when we try to control nature. It always ends badly, doesn’t it?

Just ask the great Pharaoh of Egypt–perhaps Ramses II [and thousands of ancient Egyptians]–the ones mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Insects, plagues, strong weather, and parting seas bombarded them. This is the Exodus story, a tale rich with natural images, but also a story that displays a two-sided, yin and yang theme. Nature can act beautifully and protectively. But on the other hand, that beauty can turn ugly and the protection can turn to destruction.

Moses and the Israelites, seeking to escape slavery and Egypt, cross the Red Sea because Moses lifts up his staff and the waters part for the Israelites. They cross unharmed, but the Egyptians, in hot pursuit, do not make it. The once-dry land spills over with raging waters and they all drown. The Israelites win and the Egyptians lose.

Even as the Israelites journey on to the Jordan River, they see the floating Egyptian corpses in the water.

There is a cloud by day and fire by night.

There is dry ground and there is flood.

There is a great escape from slavery, but then a famine.

There’s a heck of a lot more to this story than meets the eye, don’t you think?

For example, most Christians know that the New Testament contains Gospels [4 of them made it into what we call the canon]. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John passed the test and are printed in the various translations of the Bible. These Gospels tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but they do so in different ways. Each one adds and subtracts details and inserts different viewpoints about the same stories.

The same goes for the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Genesis, we get more than one perspective about how the earth, sky, waters, animals and plants were created. We also get different points of view about how man and woman came to be. And in Exodus, we have varied perspectives, too.

How, you ask?

Well, just like in the NT, the OT books were not all written by just one author. Books like Exodus are compilations of different writers with different perspectives. Oral traditions got handed down and were added into the mix.

This particular Moses and Pharaoh story is told in three different ways.

The first version, and most likely the earliest version, is often called the Song of Moses; it appears in Exodus 15. It is a retelling of the Red Sea event in the form of a poem.

The second version appears in selected verses of Exodus 14.
This is considered a non-priestly version. A nice summary of this second version is provided by my OT professor from Princeton, Dr. Dennis Olson:

1. The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites

 2. The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)

 3. Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned

 That version is dated much earlier than the third and final version, called a priestly version. This third version, also selected verses of chapter 14, could be summarized as such [again, thanks, Dr. Olson]:

1. The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD

 2. The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide

 3. A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides

 4. The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side

 5. After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians

 Okay, why does this matter?

Because there is always more than one perspective to the story.

There is always more than one way to look at life.

Sometimes we are walking on dry ground and we feel like we’re being overwhelmed with floods of water.
Other times we may be inundated with rain and feel that we’re in a desert.

Sometimes a cloud can be wonderful. It can bring rain that sustains crops and provides sustenance. It cleans. It refreshes.
But other times clouds hide things from our vision. Literally, they “cloud” our path. They can also signal an upcoming, destructive storm.

A victory for some people means a loss for others.
Life for some means death for others.

We’re meant to live in this tension of duality the yin and yang [light and dark].

Creation and new beginnings are like that.

Yahweh creates something new.
People are invited to start over again.

They are asked to let go and to walk forward.

But it is not easy to do.
There will painful changes that people must make.

Letting go is really, really hard.
Complaining is really, really easy.

We all crave the “greener grass” on the other side of the fence, but when it comes time to do what is necessary to make a significant change in our lives, we lose our enthusiasm all of a sudden.

Walk on dry ground?

Maybe not…

But that’s just it.
We have to let go and walk forward if we are to create and refresh.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Egyptians in the story [or any oppressors for that matter] and try to keep the status quo going, refuse change—at any cost. We are capable of enslaving ourselves and enslaving others.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Israelites did, and complain that the grass is always greener and that our current situation is always worse than somebody else’s.

When we don’t let go to let newness come, we drown in our stubbornness.

So the story invites all of us.

Let go.
Walk forward.
Live on the dry ground.

Live in the tension.

We are invited to see each day of our lives as an opportunity to be refreshed, re-created, and propelled forward.

After all, we cannot control the weather of life. And remember, weather changes pretty quickly.

Will we embrace the dry ground?

 

When the Fire Burns, Remove Your Sandals!

Exodus 3:1-7; 11-15  

ganeshastatueFriday marked the beginning of the Ganesha Festival for Hindus around the world. Ganesh Chaturthi festival honors Lord Ganesh[a], the form or deity that represents intellect and wisdom.

The son of goddess Parvati, Ganesh is identified by his elephant head.

The festival is 10 days of music, drums, prayers, dancing, and food.

We are fortunate enough to live 5 minutes from Bharatiya Temple and Cultural Center in Chalfont, PA where one of the biggest Ganesha festivals in the U.S. takes place.

Here are some pictures:

ganesha1 ganeshaband ganeshabanners ganeshaThrone

We had a wonderful experience and felt very welcomed.

One of the dynamics of Hindu spiritual practice involves removing one’s shoes before entering a temple.

keep-calm-and-remove-your-shoesWhy remove your shoes? A few reasons.

One is sanitary: taking off one’s shoes helps to limit the amount of dust and dirt that accumulates in the carpet strands or on tiled floors. Important for people with dust allergies [like me], but also important for everybody; it keeps things cleaner. Second reason: there is a different “feel” when you take off your shoes upon entering someone’s home, temple, or any particular space. It is more comfortable; your feet are free to breathe and move about.

There is, at least for me, some sacredness that we claim when we remove our shoes. Whatever we accumulated on the outside, we are leaving it there; we are entering a new space, and it’s different. There just might be a chance for renewal; we just might find something we were looking for.

And, when everyone takes off their shoes, it’s a great equalizer.

Whatever cool or fancy shoes you were wearing are gone.
Showing feet is being vulnerable.

We are all the same.

Perhaps this resonates with you; perhaps it does not. There must be something to it, though, because countless cultures around the world remove their shoes. And as in Bharatiya Hindu temple, people all over the world remove their shoes before entering their sacred space of meditation, prayer, or worship. Some see this as a sign of respect or veneration for the spiritual act. Some see it as merely ritual. Many do it in their homes as well, because the go less to a temple and consider their home to be a place of prayer and worship. So the home is a temple. And they take their shoes off before entering it.

In Middle-Eastern culture, the removing of shoes was and is also important. People of the ancient world in Israel and Palestine would take it a step further and even wash their feet upon entering a home.

But what happens if you’re still outside and you need to remove your shoes?

That’s what happened to Moses.

He was doing the shepherd thing, minding his own business in the shadow of Mount Horeb, when…FLASH!

A flame of fire burst out of a nearby bush!

The fire blazed, but the bush didn’t burn up.

Now that’s weird…
Moses turned his head in fear, because, well, it was FREAKY.

And then the bush talks to him.
Moses! Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals. You are standing on holy ground.

Okay…

Most likely, Moses did as we was told and took off his sandals.
He stood on the ground. The earth. He felt the good soil between his toes and under his feet. He was grounded in nature. He was standing barefoot on the ground, watching the fireworks show happening in a random bush in the shadow of Mount Horeb.

What about the sheep? Did they freak out and baaaahhhh their way out of this situation? Seriously, what about the sheep?

ScaredSheepLessWe’re left in suspense about the poor sheep, but as for Moses, he’s invited to Yahweh’s house, and the shoes had to come off!

Moses was vulnerable. He could not cover up or hide. He was exposed.

And yet somehow that bush did not burn up completely. Maybe this fire would not lead to his demise after all? Maybe he should not be afraid of it?

And then the voice speaks again and says:
I AM.

Not just “I am a freaky, burning bush” but “I am the One you pray to, and are confused about, and are afraid to name…”

I AM.

Moses is more frightened by the voice than the fire. He turns away.

But the voice isn’t finished.
I have seen the misery of people. I have heard their cries. I know how they suffer…

The voice couldn’t be all that bad if it had so much empathy, right?
But then the voice asked Moses to do something.
And it was more than just removing his sandals.
He had to act in justice; he had to organize people to stand up against oppression; he had put his sandals back on and journey a long way…

How?
Who am I?

Notice the switching of words from I AM to AM I
Moses felt inadequate.

But the voice said:
I’ll be with you.

Not enough for Moses, apparently. He was worried about what people would think. They will have questions and doubts; they’ll want details. So what should I tell them? What’s your name, oh voice from the burning bush?

Duh, said the voice.
I already told you.
I AM is short for, well—I AM. It’s enough.

What a story, right friends?
It’s a metaphor. Understand that.

It’s the only way to learn something from it and be inspired by it.

The story is about vulnerability, a fire that should burn in all of us, and the leaving behind of the past in order to live in the present.

Moses’ symbolic action of removing his sandals signifies an end to one journey and the beginning of another. Moses has to let go of his attachments. He has to let go of fear, of misconceptions about God; he has to let go of the identity he gave himself [or others gave to him]. He stands on the solid, beautiful soil of earth and is grounded in his true humanity. He doesn’t need to put up a false front; there is no pretense or appearance here.

But the bush burns with fire. It is anger and sadness, an empathetic response to the awful things we do to each other and to creation. We harm, we compete, we steal land and food, we push down, destroy, and isolate. Injustice is everywhere. People suffer. This should burn in all of us.

If the fire doesn’t burn, we are ignoring it. We are suppressing the flames. We are turning away from the truth. Because like Moses, we are sometimes afraid to face injustice. We are sometimes unwilling to admit that things are out of balance; we are scared to confront the imbalance and injustice inside ourselves.

So you must remove your shoes.

You must be vulnerable.

You must look in the mirror and ask how you treat other people and the good earth.

We must ask. Are we destroyers? Are we oppressors? Are we harming and hurting? Are we ignoring?

And without our shoes, the sacred earth claims us.
We feel the soil beneath us and in between our toes.
We feel a foundation.

Friends, don’t ignore the fire burning in the world and all around you.
Don’t ignore the suffering; don’t hide from uncomfortable things.

Remove your shoes.
Be vulnerable.
Shed pretense.

Leave behind the heaviness of the past.
Get ready to walk forward.

The Great Life Adventure

Matthew 14:22-33

Hobbit_coverThe Hobbit, a book by JRR Tolkien, begins with this line: “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The author Tolkien lets us the reader know that this is not a nasty or unkempt hole, like the lair of a mouse, but rather a cozy place, filled with fine furniture, doilies, and a well-stocked kitchen. Bilbo Baggins is this particular hobbit, and it is from this comfortable space that he is called to a great adventure.

It is Gandalf, a wizard, who initially interrupts Bilbo’s comfortable life.

Let’s watch a scene from the movie version of the story: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

 

Obviously, Bilbo is not very enthusiastic about the idea.

And after meeting the large group of dwarves who will “contract” him for this adventure—Bilbo is even less enthusiastic. They are messy and rambunctious and not of his kind. Why would he choose to go on an adventure with them?

Of course.

Why leave a place of complete comfort and predictability to enter a life of challenge, risk, and uncertainty?

Why?

This is the theme presented to us in another story of adventure—the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. We are looking at Matthew’s version.

It’s easy to get distracted in these stories by the seemingly “miraculous” things that Jesus does. Case in point—walking on water as if it’s nobody’s bizness.

But we shouldn’t let ourselves get too distracted by the “miracles” that we so often associate Jesus with. The push of Matthew’s story is not to dazzle us with Jesus’ magic tricks. Matthew’s author wants the reader to recognize the calling of Jesus of Nazareth—to that group of friends he called disciples—but also a calling to the wider community. It is up to you how you want to interpret the so-called miracles stories of the Bible. My point of view is that miracles do not require Divine intervention to be a miracle. I think that unexpected, extraordinary things happen each day when we participate in the world and when we are fully human.

And there’s another twist to this story, of course—one that I invite you to think about. Consider this scene of the disciples on a boat without Jesus. When they “see” him, they see a ghost. They hear familiar words [take heart, do not be afraid] and then Peter makes his attempt to scurry across the lake like one of those cool, green lizards in the rain forest. To me, this story looks just like the other resurrection appearance/vision stories after Jesus’ death. The disciples were alone, Jesus appears; they see a ghost or something else, Jesus assures them with peace and do not be afraid; then, someone in the disciples group says or does something that makes it a teaching moment. Then, the group as a whole finds renewed strength to continue their journey.

As I always say, it’s up to you. I choose to see this story in that way [and not literally at all], but you need to develop your own perspective.

Regardless, one of the clear themes of the story is getting rid of fear and then journeying out to the unknown. It’s about a great adventure that involves taking risks and facing doubts and fears.

I think Bilbo’s story is quite similar in the Hobbit.

Let’s watch another clip of The Hobbit, in which Bilbo’s cozy house is back to normal. The dwarves and Gandalf the Wizard have gone. His dishes, bowls, and plates are all in order. It seems like nothing ever happened. Perhaps Bilbo was able to rid himself of that adventure idea that he was so set against.

What made Bilbo decide to leave his cozy house and comfortable existence?

Why did he choose the adventure?

After all, the adventure would be scary at times. Hungry trolls who rather enjoy the taste of hobbits; nasty orcs; giant spiders; a fire-breathing dragon.

But Bilbo chose to go on this adventure anyway.

He chose to leave behind the comforts of his material things.
He chose to befriend and share life with creatures of different kinds and cultures.
He chose to journey into the unknown.
He chose to face the evils in the world—the scary things.

Bilbo faced his doubts, his fears, his complacency, and his attachments.

And on the adventure, Bilbo learned about gifts and talents he never knew he had; he learned how to love; how to give; how to be an adventurous hobbit.

And so it is, friends.

The world is indeed a scary place sometimes
There are winds that blow and we feel unstable.
There are times when we feel alone and useless.
Sometimes you may feel that you don’t have a purpose at all.

But the great adventure of life itself is a gift worth embracing.

Jesus of Nazareth called his friends and companions to greater things. They were asked to take risks and to leave their places of comfort.

Why?
Because on the journey of their adventure, they discovered, learned, grew, and transformed.

Will you consider the adventure of life over the routine of comfort?

You have undiscovered gifts and talents to explore and try out.
You can discover how to love people in honest ways.
You can learn how to give freely without expecting something.
You can learn how to empty yourself of all the fears and anxieties that keep you locked behind closed doors.

On the adventure, you can learn to be free of attachments.

No matter what stage of life you are in, the adventure can begin again.

Today.

You are staring at the door; will you venture out into the open?

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)

Trans-Figuring…and We Go Beyond

Matthew 17:1-9

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a large crowd inside a church in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke about the history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States and the difficult days ahead. Towards the end of his sermon, King raised his voice as he was known to do, and said: “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” People applauded and cheered. The crowd knew that King was mentioning Moses, that Biblical character from the Jewish Torah. The people had heard the story of Moses and the Israelites and their ancient story of liberation. Of course, they knew about their own situation—injustice was their day to day reality and inequality was all around them. The mountaintop meant something to them.

Still today there are many who hear the story about Moses and the mountaintop and it resonates with them. People who have experienced racism or discrimination; people who have been pushed to the margins; people who are called lesser; people who suffer at the hands of evil oppressors.

mountain.jpeg

The summit of Volcán Popocatépetl
Puebla, Mexico State, and Morelos, México

Now of course not everybody can claim this story in the same way as African-Americans or others who have experienced slavery and brutal racism can. And not everyone experiences what immigrants to this country go through—the hate and mistrust and abuse. Nor has everyone felt the heavy stare of someone just because of skin color or cultural background. And how many of you can claim that your family and tribe had their land and way of life stolen from them—only to be misplaced in reservations, forgotten, and abused? And there are too many women—qualified and more than capable—who do not get jobs or are verbally abused simply because they are female. And then there are others who have been told, just because of their sexual orientation, that they do not deserve certain rights and that they cannot commit to a love partnership with someone.

Martin Luther King’s speech about the mountaintop, Moses’ story on Mt. Sinai, Jesus’ mountain tale–are about all those in the world who have indeed been pushed down and oppressed and those around the world who are still in captivity.

There are people who deserve to be free in every way and yet, they are not free because someone else doesn’t want them to be free.

In Latin America, this led to what is called liberation theology, basically the idea that the teachings of Jesus are meant to free people from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. Some call it “an interpretation of Christian faith through the suffering, struggle and hope of the marginalized; a critique of society, the church, and religion itself through the eyes of the oppressed.[1] Liberation theology spread from Brazil and Argentina to Nicaragua, Africa, and eventually the United States. It continues as a response to the Moses story, believing that all human beings have the responsibility to bring justice to those who are oppressed and to loosen any chains or bonds that are placed on people.

I say this because Biblical stories only matter when they are contextualized. But we all have different contexts. Moses’ story in Exodus 24 and Jesus’ story in Matthew have always been and will always be interpreted differently by different people in different eras and places. This should be obvious to us by now. Read these stories as a Black kid growing up in Mississippi or Alabama in the 50s and 60s; read them as a Sandinista in Nicaragua in the 1980s; or a Black South African in the 90s…well, you get the idea.

Context matters.

And these stories matter if they bring about change in you. After all, that’s what the story of Moses and the story of Jesus are all about: change.

The Exodus story of Moses and the Matthew story of Jesus go together. If we don’t get that, it won’t make sense. Jesus and three disciples go up on the mountaintop. Matthew mentions 6 days. What do you know—Moses just happened to be on Mt. Sinai for 6 days! We are transported back to the Torah story. Remember what the 7th day is all about in Judaism—Sabbath and rest. God the Creator rested on the 7th day because creation was finished and fulfilled. In these 2 parallel stories, both Moses and Jesus do the “work” of creation for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. On top of that mountain, Jesus is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face. But in Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

But the three guys have trouble listening and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid” Jesus gets them to look up. And they notice that there is no Moses or Elijah, no crazy, talking cloud—just Jesus and just them. And then they come down from the mountain.

Some call this the transfiguration but that’s not really what it is. The word transfiguration wasn’t even used until the 14th Century. The real word and concept here is metamorphosis—caterpillar into butterfly stuff. In fact, if none of this story makes sense to you still, you’re better off reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

caterpillar

Because this is not just some spiritual or religious vision that is disconnected from real life. It is a journey to a mountaintop metaphorically. It is a connection with something greater than yourself, greater than your fears, greater than your traditions, greater than your religion—it is experiencing a light that wakes you up, and shocks your system. It’s a change that inspires you to go beyond what you thought were the limits of your humanity and living. The world doesn’t look the same anymore after the change.

For some [and this may be you], who have been oppressed, the mountaintop encourages and inspires. There is healing and strength. They wake up to know that the evil oppressors out there in the world are people doing evil things. Their evil choices and actions are not God’s desire and are unacceptable. In this case, the mountaintop can inspire those who have been pushed down to stand up to claim the justice and freedom that have been taken from them.

For me, going up to the mountaintop is about enlightenment, too. But I need to wake up and become more aware of what is happening in me and in the world. I need to stop ignoring the sounds of oppressed or the sounds of nature crying out. Yes I need to change spiritually and mentally, but then that change has to lead me to do just and compassionate things.

Metamorphosis on the mountaintop should change us in such a way that I become more compassionate, more in tune with injustice, more committed to peacemaking, more eager to love. If I pray or meditate or commune with this God, I better go into it expecting to change.

It has to make me a better person and a better global citizen of this planet.

Friends, you don’t have to literally climb a mountain. But you have to journey on the path to the mountaintop, whatever that means for you, so your metamorphosis is real. Faith practice does not exist just because. It’s supposed to change you for the better. When you practice prayer or when you meditate or worship or read scripture or serve in the community—all of this should change you. If not, rethink it all. Because listen–the world is full of injustice and oppression. There are real people of all ages who experience this every day. And so any one of us who chooses to go up to the mountain must do so expecting to change—accepting the light and accepting the challenge; internalizing it and then externalizing it by compassionately moving our hands and feet to love and serve others.

Those who journey up to the mountaintop must be inspired to come down.


[1]Berryman, Phillip, Liberation Theology: essential facts about the revolutionary movement in Latin America and beyond(1987)

Life As Vocation

Matthew 4:12-23

womenFishing

Women fishing in Bangladesh

Here’s how this story goes: Jesus just got tested in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee after his cousin John is arrested for eating too many locusts; or something like that. Then Jesus finds two willing fishermen and begins an adventurous journey with them.

This story originates in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew mostly copies Mark, but also adds the Isaiah reference and changes what Jesus is quoted as saying, eliminating The time is fulfilled and changing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of heaven. Also, Matthew leaves out the bit about Simon [Peter] and Andrew leaving their hired hands behind along with their dad in the fishing boat.

The story takes place in Capernaum–a major port city. It was a great trading and meeting center. It would have been a great locale in which to spread news or to communicate with a wide variety of people. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee [actually a lake, as you can see].

capernaum1

But the story also references Naphtali and Zebulon. This is less geographical and more cultural. Naphtali and Zebulon were the names of two tribes of people who lived in the northern region of Israel [also west of the lake of Galilee].

naphtali So consider that while Matthew includes the reference from the prophet Isaiah, it is not about predicting that Jesus would walk from Nazareth to Capernaum. If this were an actual literal prophetic prediction, Matthew would actually look stupid. Why? Because Naphtali and Zebulun were two separate regions. Capernaum was only in Naphtali and not Zebulun. You can see this on this map. Also, look at the actual Isaiah text from which Matthew borrows:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.[1]

Isaiah says by way of the sea [meaning the Mediterranean Sea there on the left] while Jesus in Matthew’s story traveled by the Sea [or Lake] of Galilee. Keep in mind that while some love to jump to prophetic conclusions and put two and two together by using OT passages to predict NT Jesus events—this alters the spirit and meaning of the story. Matthew uses the Isaiah reference [and geography and culture] to show that Jesus didn’t just care about the Jewish people, but also about those who were called Gentiles. We are supposed to notice the Zebulun and Naphtali reference and also the phrase repent for the kingdom of heaven is near because John said that earlier in the story in the wilderness of Judah [Jewish land] and now Jesus was saying the same thing in the Northern territories where there were more Gentiles. You see the movement of the story? I hope this helps.

Let’s continue on the journey. Nazareth to Capernaum was about 26 miles, depending on the route one decided to take.

Put it in context. If you traveled from the address of the United Church of Christ in Warminster, PA to where the University of Pennsylvania is in University City, you have just gone from Nazareth to Capernaum. Yes, keep in mind that most of the stories about Jesus take place in a very small geographical area.

So we have journeyed to Capernaum and we’re on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, there is fresh water and lots of fish. The lake is controlled by the wealthy Greeks and Romans and Jewish folk who were in with King Herod. Fishermen worked for them. Yes, that’s right—local fishermen had to buy fishing licenses just so they could fish. It was all regulated and of course, everything, including the fish, was taxed. Much like today, those who worked tirelessly raising crops on land or those who fished the sea–sadly they saw most of their food exported to other lands and they gained very little for their own families. It is to this group of people that Jesus appeals. Keep in mind that in Matthew’s Gospel and the other three, the issue of debt and money comes up a lot. We need to notice this in the story.

But most of the time we’re obsessed with the “fishers of people” idea and kind of end up thinking like Peter in this cartoon:

peter.stupid.fishIt’s true. Recently, a smart little girl inquisitively asked:

Why would they fish for people? And why did the other people go in the water in the first place?

Uh, yeah. This is a weird thing to say: go fish for people.

That’s why I really believe that details in a story are important. You see, we often see this Biblical story of calling disciples as some up-in-the-clouds, impossible tale. And so we are disconnected from it. But like most of the stories about Jesus, this one is quite ordinary and human, and therefore it is a story with which we can identify.

I still have a question, though: why did Peter and Andrew listen to this Jesus of Nazareth, leave behind their fishing equipment, and then follow him on a crazy adventure? Why?

I think most people assume that these two guys just picked up and left their previous lives to make some sort of incredible religious commitment. Many look at any story and assume that anyone who follows Jesus has to drop everything and make an overwhelming pledge to change their lives completely. Perhaps that’s why there are so many people who relate Christianity to fanaticism.

And they would be right, in many cases.

But I’m certainly not criticizing people who really do need to drop everything because they may live destructively and need this type of major change. Certainly, I have known people for whom practicing the Christian faith helped them to overcome addictions or destructive behaviors that kept them from living full lives. I don’t underestimate the joy and healing they discovered. But I think everyone’s experience is different. And I also think that religion itself is so very limited and also created by us, so being “called” or “following” Jesus will look different for every person.

That’s the point.

Your life is a calling.

You don’t have to be a fisherperson, a pastor, overtly religious, or someone who experiences an enlightening moment or a conversion. Your life, from its very beginning, has been and is a calling.

But yes—we are called to live with more imagination. And with more love. And with less hate. And we are called to live with more mercy, forgiveness, and more honesty. And we are called out of comfort and into conflict, recognizing that the conflict leads us to meet new and amazing people who will journey with us. Along the way, we start to realize that comfort is overrated. We can even find strength to leave it behind, as well as all the attachments to material things and prejudices that limit us so much and keep us from living a full life. And yes–we’re called out of fear to love—a very difficult calling, for sure, because we are called to face our fears and to stop ignoring them or  running away from them. And all of this looks so different for each and every person, doesn’t it?

Recently, the Lilly Foundation, an endowment organization that funds religious research, interviewed pastors, seminarians, church and ministry leaders, etc. about their careers. The study found that most of these people felt called to their vocation. Okay, but the problem is that most people don’t feel the same way. They don’t feel called like most pastors do. They hear sermons and read religious stuff but often they don’t think that what they do outside of the church has much to do with some calling worthy of God’s attention. Most people see Peter and Andrew or any of the other 1st or 2nd century disciples as super Jesus followers and faith heroes who they could never measure up to and with whom they cannot identify.

Well, that’s a big problem.

We are missing the whole point, then. I mean, it’s all well and good to interview pastors and seminarians and other professionals, but being a pastor myself, I see great limitations here. Look, personally I do find joy and fulfillment in my work as an ordained minister—both with UCCW and also with the Interfaith Center. But my “calling” [vocation] is not any higher or more worthy of God’s attention than anyone else’s. I don’t think of what I do as more Christian or more faithful to following Jesus.

And no, I did not put down my nets and follow Jesus like Andrew and Peter. I just didn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried my best to be myself and to treat people well, and to love fearlessly and to speak and act creatively and compassionately. But that has zero to do with me being a pastor. That’s just my life. And for me, following Jesus’ life and teachings has helped to make me a better person. It has helped me forgive and help and empathize and heal.

Your life and calling is just as special as mine. Look, this Lily Foundation study discovered something much more important than what religious professionals think. They found that all these people had the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose—not because of their religious jobs–but because of their relationships.

Relationships. With people.

In Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t call the two fishermen [or any others for that matter] to change jobs. Jesus instead calls them into relationship. They are to be fishers of people. And while this sounds weird to most of us because we are not casting nets, you get the idea. We are called into relationships and we always have been.

And this is creative and not limited. Just like fishing. Check out the creativity of these guys:

creativefishingYour relationship with God, with this, Jesus—should be a good thing. It should add joy, healing, wisdom, wholeness. It should not limit you or take away your playful imagination or your creativity or make you think that you need to change who you are. No way. Likewise with your relationships in this life here on this planet. You should be challenged, uplifted, inspired, strengthened, and fulfilled by your relationships with people. Others should feel the same when they are in relationship with you. And no, you don’t have to have some really religious conversion story or some so-called “higher” calling to do that.

No way. Just be you.

And so, ask yourself:

How will I step out of my comfort zone and be in relationship with others?
How will I be a compassionate friend?
How will I be a loving partner?
How will I be creative, free, and joyful at work and at school and with others?
How will my relationship with God inspire and heal me?
How will this relationship with God move me to healthy relationships with others?

Live the story.


[1] Isaiah 9:1-2, NRSV.

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