Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘peace’

How Do We Measure Success?

Luke 10:1-11

Speak Peace
This story, in my opinion, is about how one defines success.My initial thoughts on the background of this Luke story: it’s originally a Mark story, but instead of Jesus sending out 12 [as in Mark], Jesus sends 70, or is that 72? Some Bible translations go with 70, while others say 72. Why? I don’t have time to go into all that, but let’s just say it’s all about one little Greek word that appears in some of the copies of Gospel manuscripts and whether or not that particular manuscript copy changes the number, but it’s not really a huge deal. In my perspective, either 70 or 72 leads us right to the Old Testament, and more specifically, to Genesis 10. Often called the table of nations, Genesis 10 reveals all of Noah’s family and offspring. That family, of course, eventually led to the story of Moses, who in Numbers 11 appoints 70 elders and then two more. That’s 72. And these people were filled with “spirit.” Seems like a pretty strong connection to Luke’s Gospel story. The number 70/72 makes Jesus’ calling and sending of disciples a universal action and not some regional movement.

Those people are sent on the “way” to be with other people. They are sent to treat all people with equal respect, to heal social divisions, and to create and participate in open tables. They are “lambs in the midst of wolves,” which reminds them of their vulnerability. If they are to do this work, they will need to be vulnerable with the people they meet and accept their hospitality.

Without community, this work will not happen.

And so, away they go, in pairs. They are to speak peace to every house, which is shalom, the wholeness. If someone reciprocates that peace, peace will rest on that person. If not, the peace comes back to them. Finally, they are to heal the weak. We’re not talking about sick people as we often assume. Healing the weak entails addressing the unjust societal structures that separate people and oppress. Healing can be physical, mental, spiritual, or societal, or all of the above.

So in short, this mission, this living out the Reign of God looks like this: eating, drinking, healing, and fellowship. Oh, and also not dwelling on those who reject the peace and the healing. Shaking the dust off of one’s sandals, in my view, is about moving on and not resenting people, even if they reject you.

In Luke, this is Jesus’ version of success. How does it compare to what churches actually do and say? Hmm…..

I think it’s obvious that most churches today are more concerned than ever before about measuring success. How many people sit in the pews or attend worship? How much money are we taking in? How many new members did we receive last month? Do people remark about our beautiful building? Are we well-respected in the community? I could go on, but you get the idea. The institutional church bases most of its measurement of success on business models or societal structures. For generations, the U.S. Christian church was a standard, old reliable institution in each town, city, and suburb. Then post-modernism came and went. People in those towns, cities, and communities began to see the church institution as no different than any other. Where was the meaning? What made the church uniquely wonderful and different? In fact, most people saw or experienced awful and hurtful things in the church. No wonder they left. No wonder the institution started to decline and continues to decline.

But the institution is not the church, and thank god.

The church is community.

As Jesus sent out people to heal and reconcile, he sent them out in community to be community. Buildings didn’t matter. Strategic financial planning or marketing didn’t matter. What mattered was community, and what that community stood for: justice and peace.

As such, any faith community is our group of 72. We are not in this alone. Faith and spirituality are communal and we make a huge mistake when we try to make it isolated, like when people say: my Bible says, or my God does or says…In our church structures, we struggle the most when our leaders and volunteers are completely autonomous. We become fragmented, burned out, and disconnected. Why? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to work. We are supposed to be a community of staff, volunteers, leaders, etc. Males and females, non-binary zes, children, teenagers, young adults, older adults, people behind the scenes and people in front, creative and visionary minds and detail-oriented and task-oriented minds. We are supposed to be radically together in community. This means that every little and big thing we do in our faith communities is for the good of the whole, for something bigger than ourselves.

How do you measure success? It matters how you answer that. People struggle their whole lives trying to achieve goals they never reach and end up feeling tired, disappointed, and out of balance. But what if this story offers us some insight? What if success is not measured by numbers, money, degrees, and prestige?

What if success is measured by community, and how people treat each other within that community?

What if success is welcoming all to the table?

Consider this from St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.

Note: next week I’ll post something about Luke 10:25-37 and ask the question: Who Are Our Neighbors?
I’ll say right now, however, that #BlackLivesMatter!
BLM
And all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice, we won’t stand by and watch it happen; we won’t be silent. You should have the space to express your anger, frustration, and sadness. We love you. We will stand with you. Let’s put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism. And let’s stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.

Spirit-Connected Truth-Living

John 16:12-15   Inclusive Bible

I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. That is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.

connectTrying something new. Each week I would like for you to engage with me in what many refer to as conversational preaching or dialogical preaching. The general idea of such a practice is that the message comes from not just one person [i.e. me or any other preacher] but instead is a message formed in community. This will be a work in progress, but I am excited to see what will happen! There are a couple of people engaged in such work that I have gleaned wisdom from. First, Bruce Reyes-Chow, a minister in the PC USA and a consultant for the Center for Progressive Renewal, an author and speaker, or as he says: ⅕ Pastor and Chaplain, ⅕ Preacher and Speaker, ⅕ Consultant and Coach, ⅕ Blogger and Author, and ⅖ Stay at Home Dad.

Bruce recently gave a presentation for the Festival of Homiletics about conversational preaching. In his presentation, he affirms the possibilities of such a community-based sermon style, leading to such things as: healthy hospitality, creative space use, integrated worship. He states:

Conversational preaching pokes at our willingness and ability to graciously engage with others about issues of faith.

In this type of sermon, we can model disagreement, engage in faith re/formation, and expand our ecclesiology, i.e. our connection to the wider church and beyond. The dialogical sermon also helps individuals in the community of faith increase knowledge about the Bible and theology, develop broader perspectives, and to embody emotional and spiritual intelligence. Conversational preaching allows the community to approach and embrace common truths and bounds and promotes the health of community.

Doug Pagitt is the founder of Solomon’s Porch, a holistic missional Christian community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is also one of the founders of Emergent Village, a social network of Christians around the world. Pagitt is an author, professional speaker, and consultant for churches, denominations, and businesses on issues of postmodern culture, social systems, and Christianity. He recently was interviewed by the United Church of Christ and you can find that article here.

Pagitt actively engages in dialogical preaching and Solomon’s Porch is a faith community that knows nothing else. They work together to craft the message each week. In essence, here is how it works:

The speaker says something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of a second person’s statement. In turn the speaker thinks something he/she wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So now everyone ends up in a place they couldn’t have come to without the input they received from each other. In a real way the conversation has progressed.[1]

Sermons belong to the people—not the preacher.

So that is what we will do. Here is the format we will start with. As I said before, it will be a work in progress, and I hope that via your feedback and participation, we can agree upon a way to do this that works well. On this blog, you can comment, of course. I also encourage you to email me if you wish to engage in further dialogue.

Here are the steps I will start out with:

  1. Induction : considering the context of the story/scripture passage and the community and those present in that community
  2. Discussion: there will always be Q & A with those present [in this case, online]
  3. Interviews and Sharing: at various points, invite people to share a story that relates to the topic. [guest writers and bloggers]
  4. Collaboration: At the end of each message, I’ll give the teaser for next week and invite you to make comments during the week via email, social media, etc.
  5. Note-taking/Research: at certain points we will encourage people to research certain things or to take notes.
  6. Evaluation: we will briefly sum up and evaluate the message.

So let’s get started. Today’s topic, like last week, is indeed the Spirit. We are looking at John’s Gospel and what is often called Jesus of Nazareth’s “farewell discourse” because he is about to leave his friends, the disciples. The context is of course that the disciples are scared, doubtful, and a bit confused. Jesus responds by speaking comfort to them, promising that even when he is gone that they will not be alone. The Spirit is the word parakletos in Greek, now called the Spirit of Truth. This Spirit will lead the disciples. The parakletos is an extension of Jesus Christ. As the disciples had been encouraged to follow Jesus on “the way” now they will be led on “the way” by the Spirit. Of course, Jesus is referred to as “way” and “truth” and “life.”

In other words, the disciples will not be abandoned, even though they think they will be. They are left in good hands. The Spirit will hear and then speak to them. This Spirit will point to a way forward, something beyond the limited and often imbalanced existence. This Spirit is present in all times and places.

Considering that background, my first thought is about the current state of the faith community I serve called the UCC in Warminster. In various conversations I’ve had with many people, I know that some are fearful of being abandoned, i.e. because we are still in the transition of looking for a new space and because we are in the process of re-organization, and because of money. Some are fearful that the congregation won’t make it and that they will be left without a faith community. They care about UCCW and want it to thrive and grow. So they are fearful and anxious. It isn’t change that they are worried about, it is loss. They don’t want to lose this congregation.

I hear this loud and clear, and often I share many of these feelings and thoughts. Of course, I admit to being in a different position than they are, because as pastor of the congregation, this is not only my faith community but also my job—my livelihood. So the anxiety or fear, quite frankly, is both about the congregation [not wanting to lose the community], but also the anxiety of losing a job and the uncertainty of that financial situation.

And yet, for some reason, the fear and anxiety I feel, though very real, does not take over my excitement and enjoyment as part of this community. If you were to ask me why I keep doing this, in spite of the challenges, I would say it’s because I am still having fun doing it, that I find joy in the little things and that I am still very hopeful about today and tomorrow. For me, this is the spirit at work in me. I can be honest about my feelings of anxiousness and even fear, and that leads me to balance and wholeness. The spirit comforts me with honest feelings and for me that is truth.

So let me ask you. What questions do you have? What does this spark? Question time.

Okay, now here is the teaser for next week:
What is faith to you? Can faith lead to healing? If so, how?

So what did we learn? How did it go? How can we improve?
Thanks for participating!

[1] Pagitt, Doug.  Preaching Re-imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Pentecost Inside, Spirit Outside

John 14:8-17; 24-27

 

What is on the inside eventually shows itself on the outside.

emotionsHave you seen the Pixar movie Inside Out? Many have, but just in case you missed it, Inside Out’s story revolves around a young girl named Riley, who is uprooted from her comfortable Minnesota home when she moves to the busy and chaotic San Francisco.

rileyHer emotions—Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Joy—disagree on how to handle this dramatic change.  Their disagreements start to stir up trouble in Headquarters, the central living and working place for the five emotions, and the audience is invited to watch as Riley and her emotions navigate and interact with the world around them. Inside Out illustrates how our minds react in social situations and create, process, and alter memories.

 

In essence, the movie confirms a universal truth of humanity:

For every feeling we have there is a thought, for every thought we have there is an action, and for every action there is a social reaction.
Take a look at the many emotions of Riley.

Inside Out is indeed about our emotions, and additionally, I also think it leads us to think about our spirituality, which is in fact related to our emotions. If you’re wondering what I mean by spirituality, for the sake of this conversation, take it mean: a sense of connection to something bigger, A universal human experience—something that touches us all.

We all feel emotions. We all try to navigate those emotions. We think about our emotions. We all act on those thoughts. And our actions affect those around us.

Are you with me so far? I hope so. Now, stay with me, if you will, as I relate this to this thing called “Pentecost” in the Christian tradition.

 

Pente is a Greek prefix for the number 5 or the number 50—depending on the context, and would have been said by Greek-speaking Jews centuries ago. Later on, in Eastern Christianity, Pentecost was designated as a festival celebrated 50 days after the day when people commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

But Pentecost as a festival did not originate in Christianity; it comes from the Jews.

It was called the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot in Hebrew. This festival will begin Saturday, June 11th and end on Monday, June 13th. People will read the Torah, fast, eat special foods [specifically dairy products], and pray.

Shavuot is a celebration of the gift of the covenant—in other words, the giving of the Law [Torah] to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews celebrate Shavuot 50 days after the first Seder meal [linked to Passover] to remember the Torah and God’s promises.

Honestly, Pentecost [for most Western Christians] is not much of a consideration. Christmas [although less a spiritual tradition] and Easter are more known and widely observed. Pentecost is less-known, perhaps because it is about something called the spirit, and that in and of itself might seem elusive. Biblically, the tradition of Pentecost is based on the story in the book of Acts in the NT where the Spirit descended on those who were followers of Jesus Christ. Pentecost was historically known as the “birthday” of the Christian church, at least symbolically.

We are looking at John’s Gospel, however, and not Acts. John does not refer to any such event but instead tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his understanding of the Spirit.

And I will argue that this Jesus teaching in John is an “inside-out” teaching.

You see, Jesus’ followers, before and after his death, were not sure that they had what they needed to navigate life. It’s the universal idea of scarcity, that our ability to wake up, breathe, and to be alive is not enough. There is something missing.

We can most certainly empathize with the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. No question about it. They wanted concrete answers about the meaning of life. They wanted assurance that they wouldn’t be all alone. They were human.

And Jesus’ message to them reflects that. It is a message of help, comfort, and truth. Jesus promises that the spirit will be with them—no matter what. No wait—the spirit is also IN them. The word for spirit is Paraclete and originates from ancient Latin and ancient Greek. It means mediator or advocate. But if we really want to dig into its original meaning, a Paraclete is a person—someone who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and one who literally stands with someone and intercedes on her behalf. This is the Spirit of truth, not like the world promises, not like preachers, churches, religions, or companies try to sell you, but the spirit who lives in you, and she will always be in you.

Jesus wasn’t done. The spirit also leads to peace. Peace is eirene in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew shalom. Shalom is more than absence of conflict.  It includes maximal well-being for people and for society. Shalom is characterized by wholeness, healing, abundance, concord, reconciliation, social harmony, and spiritual and physical health.

We must notice here, however, that all this happens within the context of great sadness.

In the story, there is no repression of sadness here. Those who loved Jesus knew he was dead. But the message of John is honest. Sadness is recognized as something vital to our well-being, something to mindfully embrace—rather than to suppress. And the presence of the spirit speaks to this. The spirit is ever-present, even in our sad times. The difficult emotions that we often try to push down are recognized. The disciples felt sadness on the inside and expressed it on the outside. The spirit of wholeness, forgiveness, peace, and balance was also on the inside. How would they express that on the outside?

It is a legitimate question, and one that both Inside Out and John’s Gospel challenge us to ask ourselves. We feel all sorts of emotions inside.

How often do we suppress those feelings?
Are we honestly thinking about our emotions and where they come from?
Are we aware that our thoughts about our emotions lead to actions?
And, are we aware that our actions affect those around us?

Friends, maybe the religious significance of Pentecost isn’t widely known or observed, and perhaps that is okay. The idea, though, that a spirit lives in each one of us and accepts us as we are, and actually encourages us to be honest about what we feel, moving us to honest and compassionate action with others, is a beautiful and transformative thing. Keep in mind that this spirit of love, wholeness, and peace is poured out on all people; that should be emphasized. This spirit is freedom to be yourself; you don’t have to suppress who you are. This spirit makes all things new—meaning that each day of your life is a new beginning. No matter what happened yesterday, it’s over! This spirit brings life and makes you come alive, realizing that you have all that you need. Scarcity is not the problem; believing that you are not enough is the problem.

The spirit reminds you that if you love yourself as you are and you love others as they are, you keep the commandments that really matter.

Who you are on the inside shows itself on the outside.

So embrace, on the inside, a peace that lives in you—not the false peace that leads to more suffering, but the peace that is wholeness of heart, mind, and body. The peace that says to you: there’s no need to be afraid. Be bold, be strong–be you! This spirit moves you to be your higher self but also moves you to accept when you fail, when you are sad, angry, happy, or joyful. The spirit accepts all your emotions.

This spirit lives in you; now allow it to be evident on the outside in how you live and treat others.

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

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

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

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

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

What does unity mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, stay with me here.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking with the Spirit of Peace

John 14:23-29

peacewalk2On Sunday, May 1st, more than 400 hundred people from the Greater Philadelphia area participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk. I walked, as I have the past 5 years.

peacewalk6peacewalk3peacewalk4PeaceWalk1Some have asked me: what is the point of such a walk? I appreciate the question, as it usually comes from a place of curiosity and not judgment. People are quite interested in any gathering of people who identify as Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Christian, Jewish, Secular Humanist, Hindu, Jain, agnostic, atheist, etc….Why?

Most people you meet on the walk answer the question in their own way, but for the most part, we do share a common answer: Inner peace and outer peace.

Now, what do I mean by that?

Inner peace [however you choose to define it] is obviously an internal feeling/state of being in which you feel balanced, accept yourself, forgive yourself and others, and become self-aware. This is a constant, never-ending process.

By outer peace, I mean connecting to others in a cooperative, compassionate, and humanity-building spirit. The inner peace leads to the outer peace.

Along the peace walk I have met all kinds of people who have gone through a lot of difficult circumstances. Some have been discriminated against because of their religious tradition or cultural background.

peacewalk5They walk to forgive and to stand with others who stand with them. Some peace walkers participate because they are tired of seeing all the violence in the world—be it wars or gun violence or religious violence. They walk to stand for justice and to work towards peacemaking in our communities and in the world. Still other peace walkers show up out of curiosity. They wonder: what is this all about? They have never talked to someone who wears a turban. They have never experienced the Muslim call to prayer. They absolutely don’t know anyone of the Baha’i faith and had never heard of that tradition before. They walk out of curiosity. Even on a bike.

peacebike

And then there are those in the Philly neighborhoods, along the walk. They may not be “official” peace walkers; they didn’t know about the walk; they just noticed a large group of people walking through their neighborhood. And so they come out of their row houses and apartments. Kids wave. Some students ask: what is this walk about? When they learn that it is an interfaith peace walk, they shake hands and give a thumbs up. Other neighbors cheer as we walk by, or smile. They walk with us, too.

peacethumbs

Personally, I walk each year because of what I mentioned earlier. I seek inner peace for myself and know how essential it is to practice this. But I also recognize that things like meditation, prayer, or any personal spiritual practice must then lead to public practice, i.e. how I treat others and connect to others. So this walk is a continued commitment to make peace with others.

Working with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia provides opportunities for me and the Christian congregation I serve to pursue inner and outer peace. For example, we work regularly with Urban Tree Connection, and organization that cleans up vacant lots in Philly and transforms them into beautiful community gardens where roses and other flowers, vegetables and fruits grow. Residents in the neighborhoods where Urban Tree develops the gardens help out and connect with the volunteers. Certain areas of Philly that were once prime spots for drug deals and even violence are now peaceful and useful green spaces that the local residents take pride in.

UTC1UTC2

It is for this reason that UTC was recognized recently as a Zone of Peace.

Zones of Peace is a region-wide interfaith movement of churches, synagogues, mosques, other houses of worship, schools, and community-based organizations working to address the root causes of violence and make us safer in the communities where we live, work, and play. Zones of Peace recognizes organizations that are pioneering creative responses to violence and elevates their leadership. I am glad that we have been able to partner with peacemakers like Urban Tree. I have seen firsthand how this kind of work helps individuals to be at peace with themselves but also to be at peace with others.

Speaking of peace, like most religions, Christianity [or the following of Christ] was founded on the principles of peace. Jesus of Nazareth was most certainly a person of inner and outer peace; this is indeed what he taught to his disciples. Whether or not people who call themselves “Christians” in this day and age are actively seeking inner and outer peace is up to them. But this peace-seeking and peacemaking is most certainly at the center of the NT Gospels. In this particular segment of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his friends the disciples for his departure, i.e. his death. His words to them are both comforting and challenging. Allow me a moment to lift up some of the context.

Those who love me will keep my word…

This does not mean that those who love Jesus keep up to date with certain religious rules or even the Bible for that matter. The word Jesus spoke of was and is a reality of being. The word is how you orient yourself, how you love, how you treat others, how you live. Jesus’ disciples were taught to follow Jesus’ example of living in love.

Don’t let your hearts be troubled; don’t be afraid.

This was Jesus sending a clear message to his friends that in spite of challenges and uncertainty, inner peace and wholeness was still possible. If they were to live in love and love was the opposite of fear, well then, this makes sense. But to bring this home, Jesus spoke of a spirit that would help his friends remain connected and inspired. The Greek word here in John has been much debated. Some go with par-ak-letos, which means alongside and called. Sometimes English Bibles translate it as advocate. And further, the Greek word Paraclete borrows from the Hebrew language word nacham, which means comfort. So Paraclete, the promised spirit, is both helper and comforter.

Inner peace personified and offered to all. And finally…

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives to you, do I give to you.

In this case, peace is a loose translation of the Greek word Eirene. It may be helpful for you to consider Eirene and the Hebrew word shalom or the Arabic salaam. The word means the well-being of all people and the world—wholeness, reconciliation, harmony, and health. Outer peace.

To close, I return to this concept of inner peace leading to outer peace. As individuals, we first need to commit to alleviating personal suffering if we ever hope to work towards alleviating suffering in the world.

Swami Brahmananda from Bengali once said: When you find your peace there is one less person suffering.

Likewise, Kelsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk, wrote: Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.

So friends, first you must ask how often do you sense a spirit of inner peace within yourself. What practices fill you with a sense of wholeness and balance? Which practices or behaviors or relationships do not? Once you set yourself on a path of inner peace [and it’s a lifetime process, remember] you will find yourself on a path of peacemaking with others. Inner peace leads to outer peace and meaningful and positive connections with others.

So let us commit as individuals: to promote peace in our homes and communities. Let us commit to work with others to eliminate the causes of hatred, to honor dignity of all people, to lay down our weapons, and to find non-violent solutions when tempted to hurt another.  Let us commit to be an instrument of God’s peace: to make our homes and neighborhoods zones of peace, free of fear, filled with respect, and marked by deeds of kindness. Hope to meet you on this path as we walk it.

From Urban Tree Connection volunteer coordinator [and friend] Sue Witte:
As a 11 or 12 year old I was totally blown away by Jesus saying “Love your neighbor as yourself”, felt how very profound that is, and looked around to see where I could possibly find a mentor for that.  I even asked God why I wasn’t created at the time of Jesus, so that I could actually experience loving one’s neighbors as one’s self, truly, in the deepest sense. 
Later, I had the great good fortune of meeting Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, founder of the Sufi community and mosque in St. Joe’s area, who said “love all lives like your own life”.  I experienced him doing it and it became my life’s goal. I always think that if I am ever able to fully do that, it will be enough because it’s so inclusive of all of God’s beautiful qualities. We just have to get out of the way, clear our minds and hearts of all that stands in the way!  If we can do that, there will be nothing but love, equality, equity and peace. 

May peace prevail, may the hearts melt in love and may all lives truly be our own.

May we walk every day in such a way as to spread the vibration of peace far and wide.

Also, I encourage you to check out A Young Person’s Perspective on the Peace Walk, written by Rachel Steinig.

Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

empty-easter-basket-green-grass-white-13295986The tomb is still empty. Really, it is.
The peeps have been eaten [or at least mostly eaten], the baskets emptied of their sugary substances and plastic grass, and the Easter egg hunts are a distant memory. It’s the week after, and the tomb is still empty.

candyComaIn Luke’s Gospel story, a group of women discovered an empty tomb and no body, and two guys in shiny, white clothes [apparently part of some Elvis impersonator caravan]. And they were happy, because they were told that Jesus was no longer dead in the tomb. So they rushed to their friends the disciples, and told them, and were met with sarcasm and rebuttal. They were called foolish. Only one of the men, Peter, decided to make his way to the tomb, and of course, when he did, it was empty.
Now we shift to John’s story, so put on your seatbelts. We’re not in Luke-Kansas anymore!

John sets the stage for us and says that it’s evening, and all the doors of the disciples’ house are locked. They were afraid, not of the Jews in general [because that would include most of them], but afraid of the religious and political authorities who they felt were out there looking for any followers of this Jesus of Nazareth who had died. Add to that the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing, and well, the disciples didn’t want anything to do with that. They were keeping their heads down.

But, in the all-of-a-sudden, freaky-John style, Jesus appears out of nowhere. He says: Shalom, peace be with you, and then shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are happy about this whole seeing Jesus again thing. This was pretty cool. After all, to this point, they had done nothing but deny, run away, and betray. And then they locked themselves inside their house after the women disciples told them that the body was missing. And now. Jesus was here! Great.

Like a broken record, Jesus says Shalom again. And: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Then Jesus breathes on them [though I don’t imagine some weird, awkward breathing like when you eat garlicy food and want your friend to smell your breath].

bad-breath4

I imagine a more symbolic sort of breath like in Genesis’ creation story. A breath that gives life or purpose. Perhaps a breath to help them remember? The women already did remember the things that Jesus said and did. But these disciples, because they were afraid, had forgotten.  Well, here comes the answer to our question about the whole breathing thing, because John’s author tells us that Jesus then said:

Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive.
In that breath is God’s Spirit and that Spirit is one of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anyone at this point wondering if this whole forgiveness part was needed by these particular disciples? I mean, really, their track record wasn’t all that great. I wonder if that statement about forgiving others was also about forgiving themselves. Either way, we’re not given much time to think about it, because the most interesting disciple outside of Mary Magdalene [in my opinion], takes center stage.

Thomas!

thomastrain

And not the train!
Thomas, the doubter! Yes! Welcome back! How we missed you…

First, he’s called Thomas the twin, and here’s what I will say about that. He has no named twin so, you and I could very likely be his twin. That’s literary device at its best. We are meant to be with Thomas here.
He didn’t see Jesus appear, He didn’t hear the double shalom, he didn’t see the hands and side. He didn’t get breathed on or told to forgive. He was out.
Was Thomas less afraid than the others?
Or was he just unlucky?
We don’t know. But we do know that Thomas was not buying this whole “we’ve seen the Lord” thing. Yeah right. These fearful, cowering men had seen Jesus? Prove it.

The story flips forward about a week later.

Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.

And then Jesus says: Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].

I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to a confusing translation from Koine Greek to English. I’ve mentioned this before, but often in our English Bibles, the word belief appears, and in my opinion, it is a lazy/Western biased translation that does not take into account the many possible meanings and nuances of the original word.

Belief is absolute certainty in something that you know to be true and is not at all tied to spirituality or religious practice—at least it wasn’t until much, much later in history. Trust and faith, however, are two words that appear often in the New Testament and carry with them much larger meanings than just believing that something is true.

I’ve come across so many people who assume that because I am a Christian, I believe this or that or the other thing, or what that thing says on TV or what that person says, and with complete certainty. Of course, when I tell them that I don’t believe in more than half of the stuff they said do, they are confused.

Why?
Because many people, including Christians, assume that faith is belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word faith in John’s Gospel is a verb, not a noun.
Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more like an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith includes trust.
So as we’re standing in the empty tomb, left to wonder what happened, or if we find ourselves in Thomas’ shoes, doubting the whole thing, is that so bad?

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

I’m going through a time in which I don’t think God exists.

Do you feel guilty or strange about it? Well don’t! Embrace that thought.

In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Faith, he says that his doubts keep him moving and that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual and personal growth. In terms of his own personal thoughts about God, McLaren has “sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs [he’s] had to release, while others have proven themselves as ‘keepers.’”[1]

I don’t think doubt is really the problem. I think an unwillingness to question belief is a problem, because consider: isn’t holding onto a belief out of a sense of false security a very dangerous concept? I would say, look around the world, and the answer is a big, fat, YES.

Because if we’re convinced that doubt is “bad” and not something so common, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. Instead, our so-certain belief system becomes a rigid, intolerant and self-righteous existence.

Freedom to doubt, however, helps us to deepen, clarify, and even explain certain aspects of our spirituality and of our day to day lives.

So friends, there is room for your doubt and plenty of it. Embrace it and allow it to challenge certain belief systems and perspectives that may be doing you harm. From experience, I can tell you that if you do that honestly and at your own speed, like Thomas you will encounter healing, reconciliation, and a rejuvenated enthusiasm for more exploration.

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

[1] Brian McLaren “Doubt: The Tides of Faith”

 

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

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

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

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

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

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

This is about being honest and being connected.

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

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

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

So don’t do it.

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

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

This is a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

The women choose to remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

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

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

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

May every day be resurrection day.

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

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