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Posts tagged ‘Paul’

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.

The Connecting-Disrupting Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

NICA1One of the countries I visited in January with my life partner Maria is an often misunderstood place. Nicaragua is the largest Central American country on the isthmus. It sits right above Costa Rica and below Honduras. Nicaragua is beautiful–full of volcanoes, unique architecture, incredible beaches, and an eye-opening diversity of wildlife and plants. NICA2

It is also home to two incredible bodies of water: Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua—both of which are important landmarks and natural wonders.

Lake Nicaragua is the 9th largest lake in the Americas and is home to unexpected creatures, like bull sharks.
NICA3

Apparently, these humongous sharks swam and jumped their way over the rapids of the San Juan River that connects to the Caribbean Sea and found Lake Nicaragua’s fresh water very inviting. I was pleased to hear our guide tell us, as we sat in our tiny little boat, that the bull sharks were towards the other side of the lake.

NICA4What’s really interesting about the other famous lake—Managua—is that mysterious human footprints were discovered there in 1874. They are called the ancient footprints of Acahualinca. Fifteen people made these prints, and they are over 2100 years old.

It is true that Nicaragua’s history, like most places, is complicated. The indigenous dwellers of that land, descendants of the Mayans, were overwhelmed by the diseases and weapons that the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese, French, and English brought during the conquests. Known for being farmers, the Nicaraguan’s way of life was completely disrupted by industrialization and over-development and the snatching up of their once-fertile farmland by foreign investors. Currently, Nicaragua is the poorest Central American country and 2nd only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere. There are many reasons for this—one being the conquest I just mentioned; another one being a terrible earthquake that wiped out more than 90% of Managua, the capital city, in the 1970’s; and another reason being that the United States has invaded Nicaragua on various occasions and even instituted a trade embargo against Nicaragua during the tenure of President Ronald Reagan. Some of you may remember the Iran-Contra affair and perhaps you watched the famous Ollie North trial on TV; or some of you who are younger read about these events. Unfortunately, for Nicaragua, because of periodic foreign invasions and then subsequent revolutions and political turmoil—it seems that Nicaraguans [or Nicas] just cannot catch a break.

But as we walked the city streets of Granada and Leon;
LeonNICA

Gazed at the architecture;
GranadaChurchNICA5

Ate the amazing food, like this Nicatamal;

NicaTamal

Spotted fisher men and women catching their food for the day as they have done for centuries;
NicaFisherPeopleSomething happened. Nicaragua was no longer just a place, or a news story, or a chapter in a history book, or a media clip. The people of Nicaragua are beautiful. They tell stories about their culture, land, and traditions with pride a nd joy. In spite of the many challenges they face, Nicas are overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. Countless people helped us out along our way—when we were lost they put us on the right path or even made sure we got there; if we didn’t know how a certain bus route worked, they would explain and sit with us and even ensure that we didn’t pay too much money; they told us where to eat and what to eat; they told us about their families and the towns and cities where they grew up in; they liked to laugh, and sing old-school Country Western songs; they are a community. And we were invited to be part of that community.

Of course, none of that would have happened if we wouldn’t have gotten to know people face to face. If we wouldn’t have eaten the local food, wandered through towns and cities on foot, asked questions and expressed curiosity—we wouldn’t really have felt part of their community.

That’s the thing about being part of something—it takes vulnerability, commitment, and time. But I would argue that it’s worth it, for if you are a part of an authentic community that cares, people have a sense of mutual responsibility. What I do affects you and vice versa. People who embrace and live in authentic community understand that there is something more than just our individual wants and needs–something greater. In my life, I know when I have felt most alive. It was when I was part of a real, caring community. It was transformative and powerful.   

Paul, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, understood this. Paul is the one who wrote this letter to the church in Corinth [Greece]. In spite of how it is often interpreted, this poetic portion of I Corinthians 13 is not about love. At least not the way we think. We often read this “love” passage at weddings; I Corinthians is associated with romance, affection, or even with the marriage act itself.

But this letter has nothing to do with romance.

You see, Paul actually 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. 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.[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 homogenous. Hmmmm….

 Radical community was what Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived in his time on earth. This 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 kingdom community to their neighbors near and far. It became the recognizable mark of the Jesus Way. And society noticed, because this kind of accepting community was not the norm. Befriend people who are poor, widowed, childless, unclean, or of low status? Honor and respect all people, including those whom society kicks around? Reach across boundaries of social level and religion? This kind of new community broke all the rules and angered religious leaders of the temple and the military and political leaders of the Roman Empire. Such a community would upset the order and status they wanted to protect.

But Paul was transformed by this idea, for he himself used to be one of those oppressors, remember. He was changed by a forgiveness he had never experienced before. And the followers of Jesus welcomed him into their community, in spite of all the evil he had done. So Paul was convinced of the power of such a community to make a difference–not just in the lives of individuals–but in the world. I Corinthians is not about romantic love, but about a radical, communal love that enables individuals to imagine life in a community where unity and difference can co-exist.[2] Paul wasn’t naïve. This wasn’t flowery poetry without reality. Love wasn’t and isn’t abstract in this case. For Paul, love was the binding factor in a diverse world. If love was at the center of their life and identity, then they actually had a chance to be an authentic community in spite of their differences.

I wonder. What if churches and other religious institutions today based their existence, not on what they believed [dogma, doctrine] or what traditions they upheld, or their sameness [ethnicity, culture, or language], but instead on these principles of community? Imagine, that in order to be a church:

We cannot make sounds [talk or yell or blog or shout] unless we do it in love;

We cannot claim to know the future;

We cannot be faithful and loyal and then go home;

We cannot rest on our intelligence;

We cannot just be charitable and give a lot of money.

We have to be patient;

We cannot envy other people;

We have to be thankful for who we are;

We cannot puff out our chest and say, “Look at me! I’m awesome!”

We cannot look down on others, thinking that our country, culture, language, or religion are better than others;

We cannot insist that we are right and should get our way;

We cannot resent people and hold grudges;

We never celebrate when someone gets hurt—even an enemy;

We don’t push away the truth, even when it ruins our reputation;

We do more than tolerate, but embrace everyone’s differences;

We believe in love and grace when no one else does;

We hope for justice and good when the world is hopeless and bad;

We love consistently through problems, pains, and bad luck;

We daily decide to love with our actions, even if we’re having a bad day;

To be an authentic community, we recognize that at the end of the day, we are left only with our humanity [our true selves]; and somehow, faith, hope, and love are still around, too.

But faith is elusive and so full of baggage that we’re not sure what we really believe. Everybody seems to have a different “absolute” truth, so what’s the deal? Is there really a “right” belief or a “stronger” faith? Faith is elusive.

Hope is, too, because we have often hoped for things and then been slapped in the face; we have hoped for something good and gotten something bad; we’ve even had false hope in something that wasn’t worth it and we got burned and embarrassed; and we have also seen that hope isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you’re oppressed, without food or shelter, marginalized, or forgotten. Hope doesn’t save anyone from those things.

So we are left only with love. But love—is greater than romance and emotion. Love is an excellent WAY. It’s a style of life; it’s a choice to exist to love; love is walking, working, studying, relating, moving, sharing the planet. Love is. Love is a WAY.

 But you can’t love people if you’re afraid of them—if you don’t interact with them face to face. Remember, it is written that there is no fear in love, because love drives out fear…

So the “other,” the stranger, is someone we must know and love. Only then will people who are different than us stop seeming like a threat . For in authentic community, we embrace fully all people of all colors of skin; people who speak any language; people with different cultural heritage; all children, youth, and men and women of all sexual orientations; people without money and people left out. In community we choose to love instead of fear, because we know that fearing people leads to hating them and that leads to a broken community.

Friends, we have the choice in life to choose another way.

The community of faith or what we call the church–is supposed to be on the cutting edge of love.

There is a reason for that. God knows us intimately. God knows us face to face. God loves us for who we are. We have communion [relationship] with God. And so, if we are known by God—then we are made to know each other. If we are loved by God as we are—then we are made to love others as they are.

So I encourage you to know other people—really know them face to face. Love them as they are and embrace their differences.

And then be known yourself.

And find love.

And be loved.

And then find community. Amen.


[1] Galatians 3:28, NRSV

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

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