Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Paul’

Love: the Wildcard

I Corinthians 13

Love is patient, love is kind…

Image result for same sex weddingYou’ve probably heard this text before. Weddings? Yeah.
Not gonna lie—it’s a bit overused. And misused. So let’s discuss, no?

I Corinthians is Paul of Tarsus’ first letter to a faith community in Corinth. Is it relevant? That depends on how deep you’re willing to go. Context is everything. The writer of this letter, Paul, wasn’t happy at all with this church in Corinth. People were too proud. They thought they had theology and God all figured out. They put down others who didn’t believe or think or act like them. They were full of themselves and therefore had no room left for love. Paul’s focus was indeed on community—not just in this letter, but throughout his life and writings. This is the same guy who described the faith community [or church] as being like the human body. Each part, big or small, was of equal importance. And each body part needed the other in order to function and thrive. Everyone in the community, taught Paul, was equal.[1]

But being “one” had nothing to do with sameness.

The people in the various house churches of the 1st and 2nd century Mediterranean world were incredibly diverse. They were Jews and non-Jews; Greeks and Romans and Israelites and Egyptians and Assyrians and Samaritans; they were people who believed in many gods and others who believed in one; they were women and men who ate different foods, wore different clothes, spoke different languages, said different prayers, and had different ideas. So being community for these people was not about being homogeneous or comfortable.

It was a radical community, like the one Jesus of Nazareth created and lifted up. Jesus met people face to face and accepted them for who they were. He then encouraged his disciples to do the same, to bring this message of God’s kin-dom community to their neighbors near and far. It became the recognizable mark of the Jesus Way. People noticed, because it was weird to accept people who were poor, widowed, childless, unclean, or of low status. It was odd to reach across boundaries of social level and religion. Such an idea and a community would upset the order and status that religious and political leaders wanted to protect.

Paul was into this new way in spite of the odds. He himself used to be one of those oppressors, remember. He was changed by a forgiveness he had never experienced before. Paul was convinced that such a community had the power to make a difference–not just in the lives of individuals–but in the world.

Therefore, this “wedding” text is not about romantic love at all, but a radical, communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference can co-exist.[2]

But is this still relevant?

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I think so. Because I sat through a long city council meeting in Hatboro, PA recently on a  Monday night, anticipating a vote on a Human Rights Ordinance that included protections for LGBTQIA people. I spoke, as well as many others, in favor of this ordinance—how it was a no-brainer, common sense, an illustration of what the U.S is supposed to be about. Friends, the only opposition, and I mean the ONLY ONES WHO OPENLY AND VEHEMENTLY OPPOSED THIS ORDINANCE were so-called Christians. They got up and quoted Bible passages without stopping. They went on and on about how their children will be afraid if this passes, how their rights will be infringed, how this was a step in a terrible direction for the town and for the country. They even had the gall to quote scripture passages that talk about loving God and neighbor. Then they turned, in the same breath, to face all of us allies and LGBTQIA folks to say that we were dead wrong, that this ordinance was dangerous, that my friends and colleagues who identify as LGBTQIA are contrary to God’s wishes and contrary to Jesus.

They were the only ones who openly opposed this ordinance. And they used God and Jesus and even Love to justify it.

It passed, by the way. Barely. READ HERE

So I’m gonna keep it simple. I don’t care if you’re religious or not, I really don’t. If you are on the side of love, of human rights, of human dignity, of helping the marginalized whoever they may be—I love you, I’m with you, and I’ll stand with you. Period.

If you’re not—if you choose to hate, regardless of what things you quote or how much you pray or say the name Jesus—you do not know God, you do not know love. Why?

Because love is the wildcard in this messed up world.

We as human beings hurt each other all the time and do so for asinine reasons and out of fear. But love is the wildcard. Love is the unshakable, rust-proof, honest, litmus test. Love unifies those who choose to love. That is relevant in any age or context.

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[1] He reiterated this in his letter to the Galatians, when he said: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Ass. Professor of Preaching, Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics, Luther Seminary.

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Love Builds Up

Mark 1:21-39

Let’s talk demons, afflictions, identity and love.

Cool with you?

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Okay, first, a story about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s making his way to Capernaum–perhaps the most important and well-connected community in the region of Galilee. There was a temple there, and Jesus was about to darken its door. Mark’s Gospel is the speed Gospel, going right to the point. Jesus has already been baptized by John, has experienced temptation in the wilderness, and then he formed new community by calling fishermen. Now, after all that in just a few verses, Jesus moves on to engage the religious authorities of the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. On the Sabbath, Jesus started to teach within the temple walls. The “they” in this case probably refers to the people in general—those who were present to receive a teaching. But they didn’t expect this action-oriented teaching they were about to get.

For something strange then happened. Something out of the Exorcist maybe? A man, in the synagogue, cried out. He was unclean, with a spirit inside him. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

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For sure, the people had to be a little freaked out.

But oh, it wasn’t over. Be silent, and come out of him! Jesus spoke with authority. And then, the unclean spirit left the man after much convulsing and crying out. Okay, yes, Mark tells us, the people were freaked out and amazed by this. What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. People all of a sudden didn’t care that Jesus was from Nazareth or some so-called sh&thole country.

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Just then, the people didn’t care about Jesus’ place of origin. Go figure. They liked what they heard and saw. They saw him doing something good and forgot about their prejudice. Hmmm…..

Let’s get this out of the way. Demon possession? It’s something reserved for horror movies or superstition, right? It’s the scary story my conservative youth group leader use to tell us as teenagers about some kid she claimed was possessed by the devil and then cured by the prayers said by church leaders. Yes, that really happened. It was a religious anecdote meant to scare us into the fear of God and steer us away from the many, many things that tempt teenagers and well—everyone. Is that what we’re talking about here?

No, this is not a story about fear or scaring people into certain moral choices.

This is about healing.

Pure and simple. Healing. You see, in Jesus’ time and in ours, there were and are many people afflicted by disease, illness, mental anguish, depression, and loneliness. There are many suffering from addictions, OCD, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, chemical imbalance, genetic tendency, etc., etc. What Jesus healed [and the disciples, too] was affliction—and not something out of a Hollywood movie. People were possessed by unclean spirits that did not allow them to live their lives. Sometimes those unclean spirits were physical ailments; sometimes mental afflictions; sometimes, lifestyle habits; other times, vicious family cycles; sometimes injustice, oppression, or discrimination. But the demons were real. And today, they are still real.

Because people [and governments] still deny a person’s full humanity. They tell them that they are lesser, unworthy, or unnatural. There are lots of reasons why, they say—based on a person’s gender identity or expression; who they love; the color of their skin; what language they speak; what religion they practice; where they grew up or how much money they have. This denial of a person’s true self causes terrible anxiety and depression in people whose beauty deserves to be seen and recognized.

Those who demonize others don’t bless, they curse. They ban people from hospitality and refuge. They use religions and politics to hide behind their prejudice and hate. They tear down instead of building up. There are even those in today’s society who quote Bible passages and even mention Jesus in their hateful rhetoric against certain people and then are conveniently silent when people are unjustly treated.

But Jesus and those who followed him told a different story. Healing was accessible to all—even if they were poor, marginalized, unclean, or forgotten. Jesus recognized that poverty, sickness, injustice, and the denial of someone’s humanity were systemic problems. Even he could not solve this in a blink of an eye or a healing touch. But he could heal one person in her own context, listening to her story, and offering whatever kind of healing touch she needed. It’s like Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth, you can gain all the knowledge you want, and that’s great, but it is love that builds something. Love builds something.

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Why do we need to create accepting, affirming, raw-messy-beautiful communities? Because it’s needed. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. And sadly, far too many religions and governments deny some people’s full humanity. So community is needed—a community that loves and heals together. See, we can claim to know this or that about Jesus or God or whatever, but that knowledge takes us only so far. Eventually, we are tasked with acting out of love. Because there will always be people standing outside our gates, or entering in, who need healing of some kind. We can shower them with knowledge and prayers but that’s not enough and sometimes it’s not relevant. But love is always relevant. Love builds up. It is the one thing in this mess of a world that makes any sense.

Living in Trust, Living in Peace

Philippians 4:5-8

Emotional health is hard to come by in a world that seems to discourage trust in a healthy way, especially among many of in our communities who have a history of being marginalized. How can we seek a path out of the destructive patterns that recreate abusive relationships? How can we work towards a future that doesn’t recreate the past? What keeps us from this kind of healthy, holistic living: broken trust. When trust is broken we feel betrayed, alone, even worthless. We can enter into behavior patterns of mistrust, even when people have shown us that they are to be trusted. We can even perpetuate the same patterns in our relationships

Thus, it is essential that we seek restored trust. What are the elements of trust that we look for in a person, in life? What if we pursue and nurture these qualities in our relationships?

So…who was Paul of Tarsus? Good question. Like every author of Biblical literature, there is a lot of speculation and interpretation as to who Paul was. What we do know from other historical documents of the time and other Biblical books, is that Paul spent considerable time in prison. He was accused by the people of Philippi of disturbing their city and promoting customs that were not lawful for them or the Romans to observe. Leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin also sent Paul to trial because they considered him an agitator and a leader of a sect of the Nazarenes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s very possible that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison.

Before I go on, if any of you have any baggage about Paul, i.e. what’s been most likely pushed on you by others, let’s put that on the table first. Some [and maybe that’s you] consider Paul a misogynist, homophobe, and strict legalist. By no means am I claiming that Paul of Tarsus [or any other Biblical authors for that matter] were perfect or extra-inspired, super-holy people, and that’s why they are Biblical authors.

No way.

Paul, like anyone else was a flawed human being and he actually said as much in some of his writings. Now look, I cannot address the whole “against women and gay people” thing in a few sentences and you’ll need to do more thinking and study to come to wise conclusions. What I do know, however, is that women covered their heads in the 1st and 2nd century. It was cultural. This is not a teaching of Paul. Likewise, some of Paul’s closest associates on his missionary journeys and most trusted leaders were women. They were obviously teaching and leading. People who wish to propagate the idea that women cannot be leaders or ordained ministers use Paul as a way to justify their gender bias. And, Paul was not a homophobe. This word and also the word homosexuality did not exist until this century and neither did the concept of sexual orientation. It’s a fact. When Paul mentions in his letter to Rome, unnatural acts, he is speaking of a whole of behaviors [as defined by Greco-Roman culture and Jewish culture]. I point you to Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and others for a more in-depth look at NT sexuality.

I say all this only so our conversation is not derailed by our biases about Paul of Tarsus. Otherwise, all that follows will not have any relevance. You see, Paul was a Pharisee originally. He was raised with a rigid belief system and set of morals. Most everything was “right” or “wrong.” He was raised to trust in a religious system and eventually to trust a Roman Empire that occupied Israel and spread its cultural and societal norms. But like most people who go through some sort of psychological break, Paul had a life-changing moment. We don’t know if it was a day, a week, or a period of years. Whatever the case, he changed his world view. He no longer trusted being a Pharisee. He no longer trusted the Roman Empire. He found peace and contentment in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. But that was long after Jesus’ death; Paul never met Jesus. His journey to self-awareness and contentment was not as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this is why some people can resonate with at least part of Paul’s story. He came from oppressive power and great privilege. At some point he broke away from that and changed. As Jesus did, Paul spent the rest of his days with the marginalized. And in doing so, he found peace within himself. This leads us to a pretty well-known part of Paul’s letter to Philippi, chapter 4.

The phrase “Do not worry about anything” could certainly sound like wishful thinking at first glance. But, as it fits within the original meaning of the Greek language, consider placing it after the first part of this text. In other words:

Be gentle with others, because you really don’t know what they’re going through. In your day-to-day moments, meditate, pray, be grateful. Whatever is honest, just, joyful, beautiful, kind, life-giving—think about these things and pursue these things in your relationships. If you do, a divine, holistic peace that doesn’t fit into society’s or religion’s boxes will fill you and surround you. You will think differently about yourself and others. You won’t judge life and its situations so much because you’ll take them as they are. And anxiety will not control you anymore.

As such, this is not telling you to just push aside your problems and feelings, to ignore suffering, to be complacent and to “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, this is an invitation to trust those things and people that bring you joy and encouragement, fill you with acceptance and peace. To think about and meditate on such trusted things and people, because the trust is earned. I’m hearing this text giving us all permission to Live into trust and into peace. Life is about Moving forward.

It is about stopping the continual dysfunctional patterns within our lives and relationships.

handscirclepeaceSee, we can try to be healthier, more spiritual, whatever—but we won’t be unless we change. We won’t find peace and wholeness by tweaking this or that or by trying various religious practices or joining clubs or making small lifestyle changes or making New Year’s resolutions. We can continually rearrange things in our lives, but it will never end. Not until we realize who we are at our core.

Are you feeling stuck in a dysfunctional past? If so, why? What relationships and behaviors are keeping you there? How can you move forward?

What drives you in life? Think about these things.

Where have you been hurt? Recognize this.
What qualities in people inspire and encourage you? Meditate on those qualities.

Still Seeking and Searching, Still Breathing

Acts 17:22-28

unknownGodBefore we start, a few things to keep in mind: the writer of Acts was the writer of Luke’s Gospel. Simply put, there are many purposes that the author of Luke and Acts could have had while writing. First, it was the 2nd century. Jesus was dead. The Roman Empire saw the followers of Jesus as a threat. Also, it was confusing. How was it that a Jewish Rabbi had attracted so many Gentile followers? Many see both Luke and Act as an apologetic writing—one that tries to make the case that Jesus’ message was for the Jews but was also accepted by the Gentiles. And there are even some who argue that these two NT books were trying to convince Roman authorities that followers of Jesus would not be a threat to their empire.

Wrap your mind around that.

Regardless, what we are looking at is a scene with the apostle Paul, one of the new followers of Jesus of Nazareth, addressing a crowd of people in Greece. Things to note about the people in Greece: apparently, they were “religious,” so says Paul. What does that mean to you? Also, they had objects of worship, altars, with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

The author of Luke [via Paul’s words] then challenged those who listened. The challenge was to shift the Greek’s thinking that God was distant and lived in religious temples to a mindset that God was present and gave life to everything and everyone. The point of this speech, in this context, was to encourage the listeners to become seekers of God, expecting to find God near to them, realizing that God was not far away. And then the author of Luke throws in, for good measure, a quote from a Cretan philosopher called Epimenides: For in God we live and move and have our being. And a quote from Cilician Stoic Aratus: We are God’s children. It’s almost as if Luke and Act’s author is pulling out all the stops.

Rightly so. Fast forward from the 2nd century to this century and what has changed in terms of our view of the divine? The status-quo mindset of religious institutions and people still is that “God is so big, far away, so powerful, that God has no business being present in our day to day lives.” Why would God care about our problems, our suffering, our joys, our challenges? And God is stuck in history. This, in my opinion, is why people are still prejudice against LGBT people, those of other nationalities, cultures, and religions, because God is stuck in the past.

And while I appreciate amazing architecture [including religious structures], and also embrace the mysticism of religions that view God with awe, I argue that many times we project God onto those massive religious structures constructed with gold and other precious elements [often built by slaves]; and, many people who view God with awe as some distant force have a lot of trouble dealing with hardship and setbacks in their own lives, as they continually wait for the distant God to act or as they think that they have committed some sin and therefore are being punished.

So I wonder in this moment, if it is possible for you, can we put aside the grand structures of religion, the awe-inspiring histories, the belief systems that have lasted for centuries, and the idea that the divine is so far away and unknown?

Is it possible for you today, whatever your background, to refer to the divine not as lord but as friend?

What would it mean for you to look at God not as a Lord [with you as subject] but instead the divine friend, who relates to you out of love?

friendhandsAllow me to share the thoughts of Abu’l-Hasan Kharaqani, a Muslim mystic, a person one could call a mentor to the famous poet Rumi. Kharaqani was a Persian Muslim who experienced much hardship in his life before passing away in 1033. But for him, a relationship with God was a mutual seeking of friendship. In other words, God is seeking us just as we are seeking God.

Kharaqani wrote:

One night I saw God Almighty in a dream. I said to God: “It’s been sixty years that I have spent in the hope of being your friend, of desiring you.”

God Almighty answered me: “You’ve been seeking me for sixty years?
I’ve spent an eternity to eternity befriending you.”  

Also, for Kharaqani, being a friend of God meant being a friend to humanity, regardless of race, creed, background, etc.

See, this is where I’m at today. I have no interest in maintaining a religious institution [called church] that proclaims a big, powerful, distant God, and then uses that to control people and harbor material wealth and ignore the marginalized. What rings true for me is the idea that the Divine is seeking us, and we are seeking the Divine. When we search and seek, we find. We find and discover that we are still breathing—even when the world knocks us down and threatens to take our breath away. It is encouraging to me, and I hope to you, that the One who created and keeps creating doesn’t have to be Lord, doesn’t have to be distant, doesn’t have to live in a religious temple, doesn’t even have to live in a religion! Whoever seeks and searches for the divine, whoever loves the stranger and feeds them in whatever context—will find joy in being a friend of God, and wholeness in being a friend to anyone they encounter. May it be so.

 

Thrice Love

Matthew 28:16-20  NRSV
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Creator and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[a]

[based on I Corinthians 13]
Finally, my friends, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with sacred embraces. Jesus is grace for you; God is love for you; and the Spirit is community for you.

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Let’s start with three questions we all ask:

  1. Am I loved?

  2. Do I have a purpose in this world?

  3. How am I connected to others?

And now imagine your are on a mountain, but not really. A “mountain” experience is a spiritual one. It doesn’t have to be a literal mountain; it is a spiritual space where you learn something important.

For Jesus’ followers, their mountain experience included being told to “go” and make disciples. What does that mean? To baptize in a threefold concept of Creator, Son, and Spirit? And then, they were to obey the command. Which command? The greatest command–love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Then, a letter from Paul of Tarsus, to the people of Corinth, echoing this same idea. We are to go and strive for restoration in our relationships with each other, in our communities. We are to be better together, to live in peace. And then, we will experience peace. We are to greet one another with sacred embraces.

This whole “discipling” and “Trinity” thing. It’s not just a Christian idea. Many, many traditions hold to it, teach it, seek to live it out. It is a threefold mantra of God/the Divine Light living in us and calling us to live out this identity.

Keeping in mind the wisdom of many, many years and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh:

First, God says:

I am here for you.

You are not alone. Love as availability, accessibility. A great gift we can give to each other is our true presence. I am here for you. I am present with you, in this moment.

Second, God says:

I know you are here, and I am very happy.

Our lives matter. What a gift we can give to each other if we acknowledge their existence, that their lives matter to us. That we’re glad they are alive.

Third, God says, through Jesus,

I know and acknowledge that you suffer.

The most difficult thing for us to do, I think, to admit that people suffer, to accept it, and to not try to fix it, but to acknowledge that it is true. Many of us want to move quickly past the suffering, because it hurts to hear. But what if we acknowledge the suffering of another? Sit with that person? Stand with them?

The identity piece in all this, friends, is that the Trinity is not about a doctrine or a religious belief system. It is about living. God is here for us, loves us, as we are. God is happy that we are here, alive, as we are. Jesus knows and acknowledges suffering. This is the threefold love we are called to be for each other, and it is important, and purposeful, and powerful.

Make this a part of your everyday life.

  1. Be present with others.
  2. Be glad that others are alive.
  3. Acknowledge when people suffer.

Go and do likewise.

 

Contentment

Philippians 4

All life is suffering.

This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.

And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.

Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.

Suffering.

So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?

He wrote:
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.

Really, Paul?

What would you know about suffering anyway?

Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.

Okay, maybe I’m listening…..

Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.

It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.

First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.

Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.

Allow me to explain.

All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”

Or:
“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”

It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.

It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.

Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.

Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.

We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.

Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.

Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.

And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.

I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.

white_lotus_flowerThe lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.

Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.

The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.

They are always expecting to eventually bloom.

I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.

That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.

If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.

Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.

It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.

Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.

Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.

And that’s okay.

Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?

Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?

No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.

But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.

Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.

May you find contentment.

Rekindling Love

2 Timothy 1:6-9; 13, 14 [NRSV]

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.
Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Today’s scripture reading in 2 Timothy is a letter most likely written long after the apostle Paul had passed on. We can figure that out by looking at the literary character of 2 Timothy, the theology, and also the mention of historical things that occurred after Paul’s death. So most likely we are looking at a letter written by someone else, in Paul’s name [a ghost writer]. This isn’t trickery or meant to confuse us. This is simply a tradition of letter writing that honored a person and passed on his/her legacy. It is often referred to as a testament, the famous “last words” or legacy of a famous person. You can find this type of testament writing in the Hebrew Scriptures [Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.] and in the New Testament [Jesus].

The point of this testament letter is encouragement. At that time, probably the first part of the 2nd century, followers of Jesus of Nazareth were suffering persecution. False teachers were everywhere, promoting a false, agenda-based gospel, imperial cultures were spreading across the land, and people were scared and discouraged. So this letter encourages Timothy by reminding him of his roots. His mother, a devout Jew, and his grandmother, a follower of the Jesus way, were the ones who mentored him in faith. What was most important? Trusting God, finding grace in following this Jesus way, and embracing strength of the Spirit.

layingOnThe laying on of hands is of course a tangible symbol that we still use in the modern faith community. It is a physical touch that reminds a person of his/her connection to a wider community. It is a support  network. Typically, the modern church does the laying on of hands for ordination of clergy. But it really could be done at any time and in any place, and for anyone. Having experienced it myself on various occasions, I will say that it can be a powerful reminder that we are not alone.

Our practice of faith is not real unless it is lived out with other people, in the world.

The touch reminds us.

See, oftentimes the word faith remains just a word. This is a mistake.

Anyone can believe in something if he/she decides to believe it. We can believe some incredibly absurd things sometimes. If you watch a lot of television, you know where this can go. Some of us can believe someone or something without even checking the facts or even pausing for a moment to think about it!

Why is that? I think it’s because when we are desperate, we are willing to buy into anything that may relieve our suffering—even if it is completely hollow, empty, and even untrue. Suffering can cause that sort of desperation.

But this is not faith. This is just empty belief. I have plenty of experiences to back this up. Many people have come to me at various times in my life looking for concrete and quick answers to their suffering.

Give me the answer, Josh!

Make me feel better…and now!

What can I believe to make my suffering go away?!

Of course, they were always disappointed [and some got angry], because I did not tell them what they wanted to hear. There is no quick fix. Believing in some dogma or doctrine doesn’t heal your wounds, get you a good job, or fix your family’s issues. Neither does believing every word your religious leader says.

So here is why I find hope in 2 Timothy and what I hear it saying to us:

Faith is a muscle and must be developed and worked out over time.

Fear and suffering do not overpower grace and love.

Faith is a muscle. That’s right—it’s something we have to work on and develop. We can claim to believe in something or someone, but it doesn’t become real until that belief is tested in real-time, in the world. You say you love Jesus and believe in his teachings? Okay, that’s great. But it doesn’t become real until you are faced with applying that in your life. I have known plenty of people who said they loved Jesus but when it came to loving a person who identified as gay or lesbian, or someone they called immigrant; or someone of a different social level; or someone of another religious tradition; all of a sudden, that person’s love ran quickly out the door. I’ve also known too many people who claimed to be followers of Christ, but when they lost a job or got sick or suffered the loss of a loved one, they followed only a path of hate, depression, and apathy and sadly spread it around to others.

Faith is a muscle. If you don’t keep your muscles active, they develop atrophy. Faith can get flabby. It has to be tested by life. And it’s not easy. Throughout my life, my faith has changed drastically. Experiences have forced me to into a corner sometimes and I have had to adjust. Relationships with people have changed my way of thinking and living. Along this journey, I am so grateful for these slaps in the face, radical changes, and opportunities for growth. But it never ends.

pathNeither does suffering. And 2 Timothy does not ignore suffering. Fear is a real thing.
So the message is: don’t push your suffering and fear to the side.
Recognize them, and then embrace the grace and love you already have in you.

Rekindle it.

rekindleLight the match and illuminate the candles within yourselves.

Do not be ashamed is saying do no let fear rule your life.

Grace and love are fear-conquerors. In Timothy’s story, he did not come to faith because of fear.
He came to faith because people loved him and showed him grace. And he discovered God that way.

So do not be ashamed.

Love and grace are part of your story.

We need to hear this, you and I.

We too get discouraged with what is happening in our world. For sure.
It’s insane sometimes, isn’t it? How many wars need to rage on? How many people must suffer or die?
Why do some never get the food and water they need to live?
Why do others hoard money and resources all for themselves?
Why is there prejudice and racism in our communities?
Why do people seem to prefer violence over conversation?
Why do I suffer from physical pain?
Why are my memories of a horrific past still haunting me?
When will this suffering end?

These questions are unanswerable.
There are no cookie cutter solutions to make us feel better.

But, in honesty and in community, I think we discover that grace and love are more powerful than fear.

Yes, I know. Consider this planet–we are all very, very different and unique. We speak different languages, wear different clothes; we pray differently; we have different ideas; we often don’t agree. But we do share this: we all suffer and deal with the day to day struggles of life. We all do. In the midst of that suffering we search for meaning and peace. We all do. No matter where we live, there are times when we just don’t know if we’ll make it and there are moments when fear surrounds us. All of us around the world want children to be safe, loved, mentored, and fed. Everyone wants access to healthcare, and clean water, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and education, and a job that makes them feel useful to the world.
world.communeAn honest faith admits that this is not reality for everyone. Suffering is real. But an honest, developing faith doesn’t wait for things to get better, or for death, or for the second coming.

Instead, love and grace must be rekindled.

Today we should light that fire again, because this flame can consume fear.

That is our encouragement.
This fire–this light–exists in everyone.

And sometimes we will especially need others to lay hands on us and give us encouragement and a simple human touch. Other times we will need to re-light the fire in someone else who is depressed or without hope. And other times, as a community, we will need to join our flames together with others who also seek grace and love.

Friends, rekindle the flame of love and grace in yourself.

Look out into the world and see that we are not limited by these walls, nor permanently paralyzed by fear. We are indeed global citizens, light-bearers of a world in need of compassion and love.

So build that muscle.
Amen.

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