Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘prayer’

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.

Temptation to Imagination

Luke 4:1-13

Temptation

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

Think about that for a moment.

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

For Christians, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a period of 40 days [not counting Sundays]. The forty days of Lent is about one tenth of a year. So observing Lent is like giving one tenth of your year to do something different. Of course, many people assume that Lent is all about giving up something for forty days, like chocolate or TV. But it’s not really about that. You don’t have to give up something for Lent. This period of forty days is supposed to be about self-reflection that leads to personal growth and also to doing good in the world and helping others.

So during Lent, I’ll be asking myself [and you] to use our imaginations. Return to the initial question:

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

The Gospel stories, including Luke, say in their story, that after being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus of Nazareth went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking: what does it mean to be me, Jesus of Nazareth?

And during that process, the stories tell us that Jesus faced temptations. I’ll leave it up to you how you wish to interpret the symbolism in the story. From my perspective, I don’t take it literally, but certainly embrace the symbolic meaning in the text. For example, it’s no secret that the Gospels have Jesus start his ministry in the wilderness and then end it in Jerusalem. The wilderness, in the Hebrew tradition, was a symbolic place where people were challenged and pushed to their limits; but the wilderness was also where people learned and grew as human beings. Jesus starts there, but he eventually makes it to the religious and cultural epicenter of that part of the world—Jerusalem. The Gospels tell the story in this way to remind us that it was necessary for Jesus to have sufficient time in the wilderness before tackling the challenges he would face in Jerusalem.

Also, there is the obvious parallel to the Moses story. Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Then, eventually they made it to Jerusalem. So you’ll need to embrace the symbolism of the number 40 to dig deeper into the meaning. The 40 days of Lent don’t necessarily have to be a literal 40 days. It’s just symbolism to remind us that at certain times in life we need a time in the wilderness for learning and growth.

wildernessSpecifically, the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness have their own symbolic meaning. First, Jesus was hungry because he had been fasting, like many other religious ascetics did in his time. After his fast Jesus was tempted by bread. But this was not just about controlling his appetite. Later in the Gospel stories this same Jesus would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. He chose to help them find nourishment because they were in need. This is important to note, because Jesus did NOT choose to feed, heal, or bless people because he was driven by fear or by the voice of someone or something else in his head. He chose to do those things himself because it came naturally to him. So perhaps the first temptation was more about facing the common temptation to act out of fear or desperation. Trusting that bread will be provided enables one to provide bread for others.

The second temptation is also fear-related.

Prove, says the tempter’s voice, that you are God’s Son and jump off the pinnacle of the temple. I think that Jesus was most certainly human in every way, and so I also think that from time to time he feared failure and felt inadequate. Any leader feels this sometimes. So the second temptation was to face the possibility that things would not always go as he hoped—that his followers and friends may not always join with him and that others would criticize and reject him. I mean, who doesn’t fear rejection, right? So by not jumping off the temple roof, Jesus claims a truth that regardless of what people say or do, his real self will not be harmed.

The third and final temptation is all about power. Even good people with good intentions struggle with this. If you know that you want the best for people and the world, shouldn’t the world then conform to your ideas of how things should be? Who better to rule the world than the person who has good intentions, right? I mean, who would blame Jesus for claiming the throne to better spread his message and revolution of love? But that’s the temptation.

Regardless of how good our intentions may be, taking power eventually leads to trampling others.

Perhaps this was the hardest temptation. Would Jesus claim the power that so many wanted him to have? His answer of “no” to that question changed the whole story, didn’t it?

Speaking of the story, the very next thing that happened after Jesus’ time in the wilderness should come as no surprise. Jesus left the wilderness and found people [in this case, Peter, James, and John]. He shared his experience with them and they made connections. You see, Jesus’ personal spiritual experience of 40 days wasn’t just an isolated time of prayer and meditation. It was purposeful. His self-reflection led to deeper connections with other human beings.

That’s what inspires me the most, because often spiritual practices like prayer and meditation and even worship stay in the wilderness or the sanctuary or a building.

Unfortunately, it is tempting in every religion to become isolated from others in the world and to forget that any spiritual practice should not only make you a better person, but it should connect you to others in a meaningful way.

So may your forty days be a time for self-reflection, asking the question: what does it mean for you to truly be yourself, and may you discover not only who you are but what you are becoming. This process truly is worthwhile.

I close with an excerpt from Edwina Gateley’s poem, Called to Become from There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013):

You are called to become a perfect creation.
No one is called to become who you are called to be.
This becoming may be gentle or harsh.
Subtle or violent.
But it never ceases.
Never pauses or hesitates.
Only is—Creative force—Calling you.

Calling you to become a perfect creation.

 

No Triage Necessary

Mark 5:21-43

triageTriage [in medical situations] is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. Triage is meant to make treatment of patients more efficient when there are not enough resources for all to be treated immediately. Triage comes from the French word trier, meaning to separate, sift or select.

Triage can be applied in the emergency room of a hospital, after a natural disaster, in war, and in many other settings. Essentially, the original intent of triage was to categorize patients in one of three ways:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in the outcome.[1]

Now, with modern advances in technology, triage scores based on physiological assessment findings determine which category in which a patient is placed. Some of these models are algorithm-based and of course, caregivers and hospital staff now have access to triage software and hardware products.[2]

I know many people who work in the health care profession. Here are some stories that they gave me permission to use.

I had a resident patient of mine who waited for me to come back from vacation before she passed away. I believe it was because she wanted to say goodbye and to be at peace. She always called me her granddaughter. She had no close family and no children to speak of. I was her only family. I did my best to make her feel as comfortable as possible…bringing homemade things in for her just to make sure she ate. I was there for her through it all and held her hand as she passed. I let her know that it was okay and that I was here….that it was okay for her to go…she died peacefully with me right by her side.
——————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I was a fairly young nurse–married and working in obstetrics. I was going through fertility treatment for a while with no success. At that time in my life becoming a parent was all I wanted. It just so happened that I was caring for a patient whose child was a stillborn. She chose to stay on the maternity floor, even though it was her day for discharge, the day when most mothers go home with their newborn. I went to her room to do her discharge teaching and of course to discuss whatever she needed to talk about. Well, I found myself becoming very emotional when I was supposed to be her support. She then put her arm around me and comforted me. Although I was supposed to be her healer, she turned out to be mine. I have never forgotten that patient or this experience, because I learned that sometimes I will be the one to experience the healing, This story continues to heal me after all these years!

I’m sure you have some healing stories of your own—I know I do. The thing about healing is that it isn’t limited to someone getting physically “better.” Sometimes healing takes shape even when someone passes away. Other times healing comes to the one who is supposed to be doing the healing!

I have great respect for health care professionals, because I cannot fathom how difficult some of their decisions must be. I get the concept of triage, I really do. In emergency situations when doctors and nurses are overwhelmed, what else can they do? They have to make the tough calls in a split second. Of course, they want to treat everyone, but sometimes that is impossible. So who gets healed first, second, and who has to wait?

Healing is complicated, isn’t it?

I know plenty of people who stopped participating in a church or synagogue or temple because a beloved family member or friend passed away after a long battle with an illness. They were told to pray, pray, and pray. They were assured that God would heal their loved one. And then, when their beloved passed, they were left feeling empty. What good did all the prayers do? Where was God? How come some others were healed and their loved ones weren’t? Did God have some sort of triage system, determining who received healing and who didn’t?

Also, I’ve known plenty of people who have lost a close family member or friend suddenly, and who have raised similar questions. How does the person still living find healing for him/herself? Will the prayers work? When will that emptiness and sadness they feel subside?

And finally, I’ve been in so, so many churches and I’ve heard numerous people praising God because someone was healed of an illness, an addiction, a problem, etc. And while I think that they should celebrate and be thankful, it still troubles me, for I know that while they celebrate, there are others right next to them who are not healing, and some who won’t heal from cancer or whatever ails them. And so, I still ask:

Is there a triage for healing? Does God heal one person over another?

I know what my gut response is to that last question: no. Absolutely not. God does not show favoritism. And yet, this issue continues to come up again and again, because there are still so many who do think that they are favored [or not favored]. This can lead, of course, to some thinking that they are favored because of how they pray, or live, or believe. And the flipside is that by doing that, they are subtly thinking and saying to others who are suffering that this is all because of something they did wrong, or that they didn’t pray enough or they just didn’t believe.

That is just plain awful.

Because I’ve seen people healed of physical ailments and they never once said a prayer and they certainly don’t believe in a god. Likewise, I’ve seen devout people of faith suffer from ailments and illnesses for years—never to encounter the healing they prayed for. So I argue that if there is a triage, it’s not what we think.

For example, some of us may need to heal physically, and it can and sometimes does happen. Medical professionals are amazing. For real.

Some of us, though, may need to heal mentally more than physically. We often neglect the healing of the mind.

And others may need to be healed spiritually, and you guessed it—that can affect the body and the mind.

The triage, then, is in which healing each person needs first in order to be whole. Sometimes we think we need to be healed of a sprained ankle, but really that’s not the priority. Our negative thoughts about ourselves and about others are the priority.

Other times, we may feel down; our mental state is deeply affected by our past, so we bombard ourselves with psychological treatments. But deep down, the thing requiring urgent care is not our mind but our spirit. We have neglected our spirit for so long that we don’t feel anymore; we don’t find joy in simple things; we don’t laugh hard and out loud; we are so seriously devoid of spirit that we are withering away.

And other times, we pursue religion and dive into prayer and worship and service, but that isn’t the urgent need. We have mistreated our physical bodies so much that we’re sick all the time, feeling heavy and tired. And our minds aren’t active and have lost their creative edge, because everything we do now is based on something in the heavens. And as our body and mind degrade, our pursuit of spirituality does also.

This is why I enjoy Mark’s Gospel and its portrayal of Jesus as a healer. I’ve mentioned before that this Gospel is no-nonsense. There is less theology or “Christology” than the other Gospels. Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth is a doer and most certainly a healer.

I’ll admit—this story in Mark 5 is one of my favorites of the whole Bible. Essentially, it seems like one unified story: two healings for the price of one. Jesus is met by Jairus, a leader of a Galilean synagogue. His twelve-year-old daughter is dying. He wants Jesus, in his words, to heal her so she can live. So Jesus goes with Jairus, and a crowd follows.

But then, Jesus is interrupted.

A woman who had been suffering from a bleeding illness for 12 years, and who had visited every doctor she could find and had spent all her money, and yet the illness had worsened—she reached out to touch Jesus’ cloak. She thought that if she could just touch it, she might be healed.

This is called intercalation, a literary device whereby two narrative units are combined by splitting one apart and inserting the other between the parts. There is a broader point in intercalation–something fundamentally important that the writer wishes to draw out. So Mark’s writer inserts the bleeding woman’s story in the middle of Jairus and his daughter’s story. Why?

There are countless possibilities. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Jairus’ daughter was twelve. The woman was bleeding for twelve years. The bleeding woman had the faith to touch Jesus’ cloak as a means to healing. Jairus lacked that sort of faith and needed Jesus to come with him to his house. The bleeding woman was an untouchable—someone so removed from society because of her ailment. She was also poor. Jairus was well-known, well-off, and part of an elitist social class. Jesus calls the bleeding woman daughter, and it is Jairus’ daughter who is dying. I’m sure you can make more connections of your own.

But here’s what continues to floor me about this story.

First, the bleeding woman surprised Jesus. Oh yes she did! He looked around to find out who touched him. He was befuddled. No one else was interested. But he found her.

Secondly, Jairus’ family and friends gave up and told Jesus to go away. They laughed at him when Jesus said that the twelve-year-old was just sleeping. In the end, Jesus told everyone to leave.

He took the girl by the hand and told her to get up.
And when the girl did, of course, the people changed their tune. They were amazed. And Jesus, in classic Mark form, tells them to shut up and to give that poor girl something to eat.

So this says to me that healing happens at all times and in all places.

Healing is not limited to a select few.
Healing is different for everyone.
Who is a “daughter” to God is not who we assume.

We better stop creating our own triage—saying who we think is more important or less important. Jairus’ “important” daughter WAS the bleeding woman to Jesus. There was no difference.

And so it should be with us.

We should recognize that all of us need healing of different types and at different times.
And we must all balance our joy over a realized healing with the honesty and sorrow of someone still waiting for such a healing to come.

The encouragement in the story is to consider that everyone has access to healing, and it will happen in its own time. So no matter what you need to be healed of, you don’t walk alone. Sometimes a hand reaches out to you; sometimes you will reach out your own hand; others times you will pray; sometimes you won’t; at moments you’ll gather community together in order to heal; other times you will heal yourself; sometimes hoping for a certain thing to heal will lead you to unexpected healing of another kind.

So may healing come in its time; may you be whole.
And may this Ben Harper song help you get started.

[1] Iserson KV, Moskop JC (March 2007). “Triage in medicine, part I: Concept, history, and types”. Annals of Emergency Medicine 49 (3): 275–81.

[2] “Transforming Triage Technology (National Research Council of Canada website)”.

Gravity

John 17:12-19    

What is gravity?

Gravity is a force of nature that you experience every day. It’s produced by all matter in the universe and attracts all pieces of matter, regardless of type. The Earth produces gravity and so do the sun, other planets, your car, your house, and your body.

Gravity pulls things and beings towards the center of the earth.

In 1687, the story goes that Isaac Newton wasn’t paying attention while sitting under a tree [I guess kind of like Buddha?], and then an apple fell on his head.

Eventually, Newton—busted up head and all—came up with the law of universal gravitation.

gravityappleEvery object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe. The amount (force) of the attraction depends on the mass of the object.

So, for example, you’re sitting in front of your laptop. That laptop is actually attracting you, but you don’t feel it, because the mass of your laptop is so small compared to the mass of the Earth, there is no physical pull.

Newton’s law also says that the greater the distance between two objects, the less the objects will attract each other. So the farther away an object is from the Earth (or any large body), the less it will weigh. If you stand at the top of a tall building or a massive mountain, you will weigh less than you do when your feet are on the ground at sea level.[1]

Gravity has inspired that well-known phrase:

What goes up must come down.

In fact, some of you may remember a song that begins that way; a little Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Spinning Wheel

Now you may be wondering why the heck I am talking about gravity. Well, this part of John’s Gospel is all about a really, really, REALLY long prayer of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s a prayer for and about the cosmos.

And it’s a prayer worthy of a bigger space [like outer space]; but most importantly, it’s also a symbolic affirmation of gravity itself.

What goes up must come down.

You see, when most people think or talk about this thing called prayer, they assume that prayers are said to some god far off in the heavens. So prayers are lifted up to the heavens, right? That’s why incense is often used during prayers. In my opinion, this is why many people in the West actually don’t pray or meditate all that often, because prayer is reduced to some sort of religious ceremony in a temple, sanctuary, or building. Many people even claim that they cannot pray without the presence of a religious leader who can tell them what to pray.

And yet, any devout Muslim, Christian, Jew, Baha’i, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, or Pagan will tell you that prayers can be said anywhere.

There are no “more important” prayers that one can lift up than the humble prayer of a small child hoping that her mom’s illness will get better; or the dad praying that he will find a job; or the teenager praying that the bullying will stop; or the old woman praying that she will feel no pain when she passes from the earth.

But of course, we’re only human, and so we still have the tendency to place greater importance on certain prayers, and in this case a prayer attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel. It’s a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor, as Jesus is hoping that his friends the disciples and all his followers, and all the world, may be one as he is one with his Abba.

If you think this prayer seems long, you’re right. Its text takes up nearly 1/5 of John’s Gospel. For sure, this prayer has been analyzed to death as people try to make sense of its apocalyptic nature, theology, John’s community and context, etc.

And there are traditions like “ascension day” in certain Christian circles that may include this prayer as Jesus’ farewell before he disappears into the heavens.

Or, until he ascends, that is.

And while I’m no “high church” expert, and nor am I one who observes ascension day, I will say that this concept is gaining some ground with me.

After all, what goes up must come down.

Think about this for a moment.

All of this prayer is about unity. It is about relationship; and interconnectedness; it is about protection, comfort, and assurance. And God’s reign of love and mercy and peace on this earth, as it apparently is in heaven.

What goes up must come down.

So if we take gravity as not just a physical force, but also a holistic force that is included in our spiritual and mental practice, prayers lifted up must come down.

What ascends to the heavens eventually descends.

So rather than thinking of Jesus and his life and teachings as something that POOF! went away in the blink of an eye, because, well, he went up to heaven, we say….

What if this unifying, beautiful prayer was lifted up so that it would come back down?

What if Jesus, as John’s Gospel clearly says a million times, was “lifted up” for more than just disappearing, but for the purpose of reappearing?

What goes up must come down.

Imagine if we stopped obsessing over what Jesus or God do in heaven or what we need to do to get to this heaven.

Imagine if we thought that everything we prayed for was lifted up, only so it could come back down to us?

Maybe our prayers would be different?

What if prayers always come back to the earth to stay, in the form of everyday life?

What if there is no such thing as the divine presence staying up there in heaven?

What if the divine is here, feet on the ground, in you and in me?

Now that’s pulling us to the center of something, isn’t it?

Prayer, meditation, or any sort of conversation within yourself that seeks a deeper connection with the divine, or a deeper connection with yourself—pulls you towards your center. You are grounded, on this earth, and this is your identity.

We are all children of the earth, and not of heaven.

We are meant [and made] to be one together—not just with Christians or with those who look and act like us—with all children of this earth. We are meant to be one in our humanity, because we all utter prayers or look up sometimes or cry out or wonder or worry or cry or shout joyfully or calmly sit or clasp hands or lift hands or simply wish for things to be better, or more connected, or more peaceful, or more compassionate.

And this binds us together, because what goes up must come down.

If we express our desires for a better world and for loving and compassionate relationships, and for justice, and for love—what goes up must come down.

This day, take a moment for meditation, or prayer, or whatever best suits you. Take a moment. Lift up all that you wish for your life and the lives of others, and for the world. And then, be aware, that what you lift up will eventually come down.

And then you’ll have the opportunity to make those desires a reality on this earth.

[1] For Dummies, Boning Up on Gravity.

Unity…but Not the Fake Kind

John 17:1-11   

Grab a dictionary—or more likely—google it. The word unity.

Here’s the definition:

  1. the state of being one; oneness.

2.   a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.

3. oneness of mind, feeling, etc., as among a number of persons; concord, harmony, or agreement.

And now, let me tell you a story.

 I was sitting at a table. This tends to happen when you have a meeting.

It was a group of leaders in a local church and I was an associate pastor. I can still see their faces. We had been participating in an urban/suburban partnership with some other churches. I worked in an Anglo-European church. The other churches in this partnership were made up of people who were African-American, Korean, and Puerto Rican. But I was sitting around the table with the leaders in the church where I was serving. And they were frustrated. They are confused. And I was hearing about it.

How come when we do pulpit exchanges only a few of them come here to our church?

Didn’t we have a strong contingent go to their church?

How come they don’t appreciate our grand, amazing organ? Don’t’ they know how much it costs to maintain it?

I think my brain turned off about 5 seconds into the conversation, but when I woke up again, I found myself asking them:

Did you participate in the summer camp with all the kids from our various churches?

Did you go to the lunch after worship at the Black Baptist Church?

Have you ever tried arroz con pollo at the Puerto Rican church?

 Too busy, apparently.

Then I am sitting at another table for another meeting. There are religious leaders of various religious backgrounds: Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Mormons, Sikhs, Secular Humanists, and Hare Krishnas. They are trying to agree about a statement they will make together about the rampant gun violence in Philadelphia and beyond. They want to say something. But they cannot come up with the right words. Just when it seems like they can do it, someone points out a phrase she is uncomfortable with. Then another person wants to change a punctuation mark. And we’re back to the beginning again.

I have a lot more than two of these stories to tell.

Maybe you do, too.

This word [and idea] of unity can be a sore spot for those of us who have sat at those tables and suffered through those meetings. If you’re like me, you’ve hoped for cooperation and shared values, only to encounter stubbornness and lines drawn in the sand.

So back to this important concept of asking questions as five-year-olds do:

WHY do we still talk about and strive for unity?

Is unity even possible?

I wonder what you think about that question. Maybe you’ll comment here so we can learn from each other’s perspectives?

In the meantime, let me share with you some thoughts about why I think unity—both the word and the concept, can be redeemed.

So that means we have to start with saying what unity is not.

 And that brings me back to this John passage that is part of Jesus of Nazareth’s farewell-bon voyage-arrivaderci-hasta luego-sionara-speech.  Often people picture Jesus standing on some huge rock or mountaintop, lifting his hands in holy prayer position and begging his Abba-God to help out all those Christians out there in the world.

jesusfunnyprayer

Sometimes we create committees, task forces, ecumenical teams, urban-suburban partnerships, multicultural exchanges, and interfaith cohorts. And we think that this is unity.

Perhaps there are some in the Christian tradition who still think that if people agree to a doctrine or dogma or sign a paper that says they believe a specific thing—this means that they are unified.

You see—we get unity confused with uniformity.

But John’s Gospel story presents another perspective.

Unity is about knowing.

Knowing is about being in relationship.

Relationship is about connection.

Unity is therefore about relationships and how they connect us.

And in John’s Gospel, there was no grand scene with rolling, white clouds and Jesus extending his hands to the heavens for a beautiful prayer.

Jesus of Nazareth prayed this prayer, said these words, in front of people.
And he wanted the people to hear what was said.
Because he was saying to to them.

One might go so far as to say this was a “wishful thinking” kind of prayer.

You know what I mean?

I mean the kind of prayer at another kind of table [the dinner table], when your little sister [with one eye opened and the other closed] says:

Dear God, thank you for this food that we are about to eat and thank you for telling my brother to stop kicking me under the table and for also inspiring him to share his toys a little bit more and to stop making faces at me when I’m singing in the show choir at school and also, God, thanks for helping my mom to understand that my math teacher is out to get me and that my friend Rebecca isn’t such a bad kid—she’s just going through a phase.

It’s a wishful thinking prayer of Jesus—one that isn’t really true yet.
Even his own disciples [followers] were not “one” in the way that he hoped.
They were a scattered, scared, and separated lot.

They were losing their connection.

Remember that this story was written long after Jesus’ death. So the intended audience would have already had that information.
So they need to remember.

This is a prayer, a conversation, around a table, after a meal, and with friends.
It’s an unexpected answer to a common question:

What is eternal life?

The answer may be surprising to some of us.
Eternal life is defined as knowing.

For those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, life for them was knowing their Creator and knowing their teacher Jesus.

But please remember that knowing God in John’s Gospel is not about doctrine or belief. Knowing is being in relationship.
Knowing is about connection.

And those who followed this Jesus were overhearing a prayer said about and to them.
And the prayer said: be one.

I think this is significant and relevant, if we choose to listen.

And so I ask: for you, what does being one with other humans mean?
Notice I did not say what does it mean to be one with other Christians, or people like you…
I’m asking, what does it mean for you to be one with others in this world in which you live?

What does it mean for you to be connected to God and to be connected to Jesus [if you identify as a Christian], and then to know others, and to be connected to them?

 

HOPE: What is it?

Isaiah 2:1-5

 

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth  instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:8-12a

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

hg.catchingfireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, recently released, is the second movie in a series based on the three novels written by Suzanne Collins. The story of the hunger games focuses on selected people from various districts who are called tributes. They must fight to the death in order to provide food for the people of their particular district. For 75 years, the oppressive, wealthy Capital has staged the games. But in the previous games, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) won as a couple. Thus, they became victors—heroes for the oppressed people of the districts. But they are soon forced to obey the demands of the Capital’s leader, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) and compete to the death once again. Why? Because Katniss’ bravery and stubborn defiance have made her a symbol of hope for the people.

In one scene, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ sister says:

Primrose Everdeen: Since the last games, something is different. I can see it.

Katniss Everdeen: What can you see?

Primrose Everdeen: Hope.

It is this hope that has been the spark for a rebellion by the people of the districts against the oppressive rule of the Capital and President Snow. Sensing this, Snow puts an awful plan in motion to destroy Katniss and Peeta and to crush the hopes of the 12 districts.

snowOf course, the Hunger Games draws out some very appropriate and timely themes for us today. For certain, we live in a world in which there are millions of people who suffer needlessly without enough to eat, in unsafe conditions, and forced to compete against each other.

The strongest theme in this particular movie for me happens to be the use of fear to control people and the ability of hope to change the game.

That is what we will explore.

Throughout this season of Advent, I will be asking questions and encouraging you to ask them, too. So what questions do we have about hope?

I received two questions this week that I would like to share with you:

 1. What did Jesus have to say about hope?

 2. How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?
How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

 3. And my question: what IS hope?

Since I am the one talking, I get to start with my question.

The English dictionary defines hope as:

 -a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

 -a feeling of trust.

 -[verb] to want something to happen or be the case.

But honestly, a dictionary definition is not really adequate, because hope as a concept has developed over thousands of years, throughout cultures around the world. Psychologists who study human emotion state that hope is an emotive response to circumstances that are pretty terrible. Hope can result when people are unsure about the future or are currently experiencing a tough time. Something happens in a person’s brain—he/she can open up to a new reality and remove the mask of fear and despair. This mental image of hope allows a person to see the big picture and helps creativity grow.

But hope, say psychologists, is actually quite different from positive thinking. Being positive is a therapeutic and systematic process used to reverse pessimism. But it can often lead to a “false hope” in a fantasy or an outcome that is highly unlikely. On the other hand, hope is cultivated when people have a goal in mind, determination that the goal can be reached, and a plan as to how to achieve the goal.[1]

In other words, hope is more than just a positive, mental image. Hope is thinking that turns into action.

Hope is imagining a better tomorrow when today is terrible.

Hope is taking the small steps necessary towards that tomorrow.

But what does the Bible say about hope?
A lot, actually, but we do not have the time to explore all of it.

So let’s start with Isaiah, from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Biblical literature, hope is about expecting or anticipating.

Isaiah is part of what we call prophetic literature. Everything you read in Isaiah is symbolic and not literal. In this second chapter of the prophet’s book, we are told that Isaiah saw the words. How does one see words? The Hebrew language helps us here. “See” means “envision.” Right away, the words on a scroll or on a page jump out at us. They are alive; they don’t stay on the paper. They are envisioned. Seen. Alive.

Isaiah challenges the people to walk in Yahweh’s light. They are to reject war and turn to ways of peace. This was shalom. Shalom is wholeness. Shalom is a vision of balance, justice, and unity. But this shalom is not realized yet.

This is important to understand because Isaiah was not a prophet who lived in some fantasy world. He saw the extreme poverty, oppression, and injustice in the world. That was reality. Suffering was reality. Isaiah was a realist. Hope was not false or merely a once-a-year, Christmasy kind of hope.

The world of Isaiah’s time and the world of our time was and indeed is screwed up—out of balance. So to have hope seems absurd.

At least, it seems absurd if it is just a good idea or a feeling.
Hope without action would have been absurd. But Isaiah’s hope is a calling out to the people for change, for them to help, to heal, to bring justice, to find balance in themselves and then to bring balance to others.

Prophetic books like Isaiah do not tell us about a current reality, but rather, challenge us to start building an unseen reality.

Build hope where there is despair.

When the night is long, scary, and full of despair, can you imagine the dawn?

I hear Katniss Everdeen: The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand.

sunpersists And so I return to one of the questions asked about hope.

How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?

How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

For each person, it will be different. The absence of hope, for many is fear; despair; hopelessness. So what is causing those feelings in your life? Identify the sources of fear and despair. And at the same time, identify a path that you may take to overcome fear and leave despair behind you. What steps can you take today? Tomorrow? Next week?
In short, we won’t hope without hopeful thinking turning into hopeful action. I can think positively and pray all I want, but if my prayers and thoughts don’t move me to positive action—I’m stuck in my fear and despair. This kind of progress in the midst of difficulty is not easy, for sure. But hope that is more than thinking is a spark that can set a fire.

And a very appropriate question during Advent: What did Jesus have to say about hope?

Actually, nothing. At least not specifically.

Jesus of Nazareth never mentioned the word or concept of hope. But he did talk a lot about fear. There are a myriad of Gospel passages attributed to Jesus that mention fear. And in each case, Jesus of Nazareth tells people: do not fear.

Why? Because when we fear, we have way too much trouble envisioning a new day.
When we are paralyzed by fear, we stop thinking wisely and certainly stop moving.
When fear dominates, we stop loving and accepting people as they are.

So it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ most famous words are echoed by Paul in the letter to Rome. And what else could be more appropriate for us to hear during Advent season [and every season of the year]?

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Awake from sleep.

In fact, wake up your neighbor from his/her sleep. Wake up the world.

For the dawn is near.

Hope is real—if we live it.

Do more than imagine hope. Forge a path for it in your life.

Amen.


[1] Snyder, Charles D. The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. New York: The Free Press, 1994, pg. 19

Humility: the Path Home

Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Gallen.TaxmanPeter Gallen, The Tax Collector and the Pharisee

The other day I was talking with someone about prayer. He told me:

I don’t really pray.

Okay, I thought, but why don’t you pray?

God has enough to worry about. There are kids who are dying of hunger. There are people who die of cancer. The world is full of problems and suffering and my problems seem too small to bother God with them.

I paused. He had a good point, after all. Sometimes our petty problems and situations are not really that urgent or dramatic—by comparison. And certainly, I remember many times in church worship services when the prayer concerns and celebrations seemed quite silly or insignificant.

God has enough to worry about. Why should I bother with prayer?

Right. Why should we bother with prayer? I mean, without question, prayer is confusing. Lots of churches think they know how we are supposed to pray. There are formulas and step-by-step prayer books sold to us. Some people pray the Lord’s Prayer in a pew where there is stained glass. Some just sing the Kyrie. Others cry their eyes out and jump up and down, hands extended in the air. Sometimes a choir sings with the prayers, creating an emotional response. Others kneel down. Some fold their hands and close their eyes and are silent. Others chant, whisper, roll over beads of a rosary, or burn incense.

Is God at all impressed with this prayer pageantry? Are God’s ears tired of hearing about our small problems?

Why pray at all?

And so, we find a story in Luke’s Gospel that seems to spell it out for us.
Aha! THIS is how we should pray!

In fact, our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox Church have taken this to heart.
jesusprayer
The Jesus Prayer [literally, The Wish], is a short, formulaic prayer:

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν            Greek

ܡܪܝ ܝܫܘܥ ܡܫܝܚܐ ܒܪܗ ܕܐܠܘܐ ܪܚܡ ܥܠܝ ܚܛܝܐ.       Syriac

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.            English

The prayer is based on the tax collector’s words in this Luke story. Many believe the prayer to have originated in the Egyptian desert in the 5th Century. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. It is a prayer method called Hesychasm, to keep stillness.[1]

Now to some, this prayer may seem to be a bit of self-loathing.
Woe is me, woe is me—
I’m such a bad dude—
God have mercy on me,
and I’ll be in a better mood.

Perhaps that is why any formulaic prayer has its limits.
And that is just what Jesus was trying to get across in this story.
Every formula, doctrine or dogma, church tradition or rite that tries to tell us that a particular prayer is putting us on the holy fast track is only holding us back.

Like I said–prayer can be confusing.

But prayer is supposed to be liberating.

Nowhere in scripture do we find limitations on prayer. Jesus does not hand out evangelism tracts with the “Jesus save me/sinners prayer” attached. Instead, Jesus holds up two people as an example of prayer: a Pharisee and a tax collector.

On paper, this story seems black and white, doesn’t it?
Pharisee=bad. Tax collector=good.
We’re done! Let’s go home!

But wait a minute—remember that whenever a parable of Jesus seems black and white, we’ve just been trapped. And this time it’s a prayer trap. We see ourselves just like the tax collector, or at least, we really, really want to.

I’m humble. I can beat my chest and say that I’m a sinner. Thank GOD I am not like the Pharisee. Thank HEAVENS that I don’t brag about how much money I give to my church or how often I go to worship or how many committees I have led. Thank the LORD that I would never stand up in front of people and say how religious I am…

Trapped.

By claiming that we’re not like the Pharisee, we become the Pharisee.

The thing is…we like to be exalted. We enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done or a duty fulfilled. We even go so far as to think that giving money to the church, doing religious things, having a good reputation in society, earning a respectable salary—we think that this justifies us. And in doing so, we distance ourselves from certain kinds of people who we see as lesser than us. How much empathy do we have for others when we pray? How often do we pray for those on the other side of society? Like the distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector, we create distance between ourselves.

Trapped.

You see, I think this story tell us that prayer is about so much more than we typically say and believe.
Prayer is not about checking something off of our to-do list for Christianity 101.
Prayer is not dumping a laundry list of anxiety, hang-ups, and annoyances.
Prayer is not selling something or buying something.
Prayer is not reminding God of how great we are and so reward us, please.

Prayer is about paying attention

to the world, to others, to the trees, to the animals.
Prayer is about paying attention to more than just ourselves.

Prayer escapes our sanctuaries, temples, books, rituals, and words.
Prayer moves through each day, hour, minute, second—each breath.

Prayer does not make us more holy or even better people. It is not some self-improvement program. Neither is prayer about crying our eyes out, feeling bad for ourselves, or focusing on our faults. We can do all these things, thinking that this will get us closer to God or somehow impress God with our humility, but just when we think we’re closer to God and that we’ve got prayer figured out—we are farther from God and our prayers are hollow.

Because in the end, God doesn’t give a flying fig about our accomplishments.
God doesn’t read our online bio or our Facebook profile and say:
Wow! You are really successful. Keep it up! Heaven awaits you!

Instead, God awaits our true humanity.

masksTake off the masks.

masks2

Shed the pompous clothes.
Get rid of the religious piety.

God sees us as we are.
We are tax collectors and we are all Pharisees—all of us.

But mercy and grace await humanity; and humanity is humility.
This is good news for you, me, and even for the guy who refuses to pray.

Humility is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. Humility is seeing other people as they are with open eyes, not judging them or creating distance between us or classifying them. Humility leads us to the most human and divine of all places—home.

Home is where addicts, the depressed, the lonely, the angry, the sad, the mentally and physically challenged, the lost, the sick, the hungry, the beaten, the forgotten, the abused, the mourners, the bullied, and the marginalized can all be themselves and can all be accepted and loved.

This is prayer’s home. It is by open invitation. All Pharisees and tax collectors welcome.

So friends, pray in whatever way you need to. Pray with eyes open to the world and the people, trees, and animals in it. Pray with hand and words and breath and beads and bowls and chants and songs and service and hugs and smiles and tears.

But pray as a human being. Recognize humility as the path home, and then your living will be driven less by your need to be applauded, recognized, and given high status; instead, may your living be driven by grace and mercy.

May you find your way home.
Amen.


[1] “Orthodox Christian Study on Unceasing Prayer Part I – John Kotsonis – Theandros – An Online journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy”. Theandros. Retrieved 2010-07-03.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...

myrandomuniverse

a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor

learn2practice

mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century