Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘relationships’

Forming Community

Matthew 14:13-21

rainbowgathering1What does the word/concept of “community” mean to you? It can seem a broad term, community, right? If you move into a suburban neighborhood, does that mean you are in a community? If you to the Community Center Shopping Mall does that mean you are in a community? What if we get more specific and say, as intentional community organizers do, that a community is a network of social and economic relationships and the places where those relationships interact. This means that just living near each other doesn’t mean you’re in community. There’s no economic exchange, and, for most, little social engagement. Community must be tangible and cohesive; it should bring people together in ways that allow them to do things they could not have done on their own. And then, there is such a thing as an “intentional community,” one in which there is a shared purpose and set of values, the people in that IC are entwined to some degree both economically and socially; and that being part of that IC means something.

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that many people in the United States want more community in their lives, because they often feel isolated and dissatisfied with everyday life that tends to be focused on work, consumption, and entertainment. If our interpersonal relationships within a community give us joy, meaning, or satisfaction, we can expect less of a focus on material and superficial things that leave us feeling empty.

Congregations, churches, communities of faith, are at their core, supposed to be intentional communities in which people find meaningful relationships, interact socially, share resources, and accomplish things they could have otherwise. Of course, just because someone puts up a steeple with a cross and places a sign that says “church” does not mean that it will be a community. I’ve spent significant time in my career visiting various churches, synagogues, temples, and other religious communities. Not all of them were communities. Some were merely buildings with signs; others were institutions. Forming and nurturing an intentional community takes time, cooperation, and the acceptance of the commitment community requires—active listening and sharing.

The type of community Jesus of Nazareth was intending to form and build was focused on gathering those who were marginalized in society and left out of communities. It is easy for us to forget that Jesus did not create nor establish a religion or even a church. Jesus was building community. And in Matthew’s Gospel there are various stories that illustrate what Jesus meant by community. In this particular story Jesus and his small community of followers came upon large crowds of people who were in need. After some healing and caring for them, Jesus’ followers were ready to leave. After all, there was not enough food for these people to eat. So they suggested to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the villages to get their own food. In other words, go to the market and leave us alone. But Jesus refused. Instead, Jesus told his followers to give the crowds something to eat.

But the followers of Jesus only had food rations—bread and fish that would most likely feed only 13 people. Jesus took those rations and gathered the crowds in a field of green grass, though it was a wilderness, far off, isolated. The fish then seem to disappear. Only the bread is divided among everyone. This is Matthew’s storyteller changing the story a bit from the original version in Mark, to make a point. The bread, offered to the crowds, was the sign of Jesus’ presence and the sign of the new community—one which would continue long after Jesus’ death. Because this feast was egalitarian. It was for all. It was a feast started because of compassion. It was a feast that created community intentionally. And in that community all were filled—people were made whole.

And let’s briefly mention the number 5000. Is it important? I think it is, because if we skip ahead a chapter in Matthew’s Gospel to chapter 15, we find another story about a feast where there is not enough food but suddenly there is. But this time, only 4000 are fed; Mark’s Gospel contains the 4000 story as well. This is the clue. The story about 4000 being fed takes place on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, Gentile country. But the feeding of the 5000 occurs near the Jewish villages of Galilee. So the 4000 feeding story is about non-Jews. The 5000 feeding story is about Jews. And it’s clear by the 5 loaves and the 5000 fed that the number 5 is important. That number happens to be the number of books in the Torah, called the Pentateuch. And the 12 baskets left over signify the 12 tribes of Israel. The feeding stories are inclusive.

One last detail to mention. In the culture and time of the people of this area, being unclean or touching unclean things was bad news. So people tried to avoid eating or touching anything that might render them unclean according to the law, food included. How were the 5000 to know that the food would be clean? They couldn’t really know. They couldn’t guess if Jesus and his followers kept up with the dietary restrictions. They couldn’t really prove that Jesus and co were clean because they had certainly touched and been with lepers and others who were unclean.

But they still ate anyway. And they were made whole.

They decided to eat together.

They decided to form this inclusive, intentional community. They made a choice. So we have this choice before us. Will we intentionally form and build an inclusive community where anyone can eat and be safe and belong and participate? This doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on its own. We must make that choice. We must make that commitment. May it be so.

 

Thrice Love

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

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

thricelove
Let’s start with three questions we all ask:

  1. Am I loved?

  2. Do I have a purpose in this world?

  3. How am I connected to others?

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

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

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

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

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

First, God says:

I am here for you.

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

Second, God says:

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

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

Third, God says, through Jesus,

I know and acknowledge that you suffer.

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

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

Make this a part of your everyday life.

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

Go and do likewise.

 

Sacred Connections

John 17:6-11 NRSV

Perhaps you’ve heard of a little movie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

IamOneForce
One particular character in the story is called Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen). Chirrut says a mantra throughout the film:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

He repeats this phrase over and over again, especially when he is in dire situations. Whether fighting hordes of storm troopers, imperial walkers, massive weapons of destruction or the stigma of his blindness—Chirrut remains calm and confident as he says:

I am one with the force and the force is with me.

Check out this trailer with a clip of one of his scenes.

Because this movie [and the Star Wars story in general] is pretty well-know, I thought I’d ask some of the members of our faith community what they think this phrase means to them. Here is what they said:

The force links us all…it flows through all living things.

I am one with everything and everything is within me.

I can change the world by changing minds.

The force is everywhere and it gives me strength.

We channel the energy of the universe so much that we embody that energy.

When I am connected spiritually, I become an active part of God. Like a cell in a body.

I’m in a state of strength of mind and body that keeps me focused.

The force, in Star Wars lore, is an energy field that connects all living things in the galaxy. The power of the Force can be used by individuals who are sensitive to it. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi who uses the force, states:

ObiWanHS-SWE

“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

So when Chirrut says I am one with the force and the force is with me he is affirming the ancient teaching that all living beings are connected and can access a strength, a power, within themselves if they are sensitive to it. Chirrut himself is not a Jedi who would then use the force in obvious ways. And yet, Chirrut, as a blind person, is often able to see better than those around him who are not blind. He can read people’s feelings. He can sense movement. He is convinced that the force lives within him and therefore connects him to the greater, which is the force itself—the dynamic, connecting energy of all life.

Take a glance at Social Media and you’ll notice that people are really connecting to this Chirrut’s catchphrase—and not just because it’s related to Star Wars. I think we all have a deep sense within us of wanting to be connected to something greater, and being able to access that connection within ourselves. We are all seeking meaning in this life, this world, our everyday existence. Yes, it’s that age-old question: why am I here? But it’s universal, this question. Why do we do the things we do, get out of bed in the morning, go to work, to school, eat, interact, etc? Why are we alive? What am I connected to that has purpose? Don’t all religious traditions ask these questions?

Now look, I wish I could say right now that this idea that we are all one and part of a whole, that Jesus also taught and lived, I wish I could say that all the religions practice it. Most of them teach it, for sure. But sadly, because religions are made up by people with agendas and sometimes greed, we drift from this core ideal of sacred connection to God and each other. But I am choosing to focus on the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and not the many, many mistakes that the religion of Western Christianity has made.

In John’s Gospel, I might add, the most eclectic Gospel—Jesus prays an incredibly long prayer in this chapter 17 and it is called, by many scholars, the most universal and cosmic prayer of the Gospels and probably of the whole New Testament. It is likely that this prayer was not something said by Jesus in one setting, rather that it is a mashup of various prayers/teachings of Jesus while with friends and disciples. Such is oral tradition. People pass things on that they experienced.

The general idea of the prayer is belonging and connection. We belong to God, to Jesus, and to each other. Reciprocity:  all that has been given to Jesus has been given to us. End result: we are one. So, you may ask, what happened? How did Christianity become exclusivist and even militaristic? Not because of Jesus. Not because of the Bible either. Historically, each religion develops over time. Well, Western Christianity, after experiencing a mystical period in which people like Origen of Alexandria, Egypt and Gregory of Nyssa saw Jesus as the union of the human and the Divine in one person and thus the possibility for the Divine and the human to co-exist in all living beings, later councils and church leaders moved towards dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the Divine and the human are two separate entities. Over time, Jesus went from cosmic and connected to individualistic and separate. The Divine and the human in Christianity parted ways.

It’s a shame, but it does explain why we see many so-called Christians deal with absolutes and clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. Binary thinking. And it speaks to the fact that in the U.S. we are often “here and there” people. You are Muslim? You are there. I am Christian and so I am here. You are gay and I’m straight? You there, me here. You are trans? You are over there and I’ll stay here. You are Black, Brown, or Asian and I’m White Anglo? Let’s stay in our lanes.

But that’s not a narrative I’m buying into.

I’m hearing the Jesus of John tell us another story, that we are all connected by something greater. Hear the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action of Contemplation, from his writing the Cosmic Christ:

We eventually know that Someone Else is working through us, in us, for us, and in spite of us. After enlightenment, our life is not our own. Now we draw from the One Big Life, the Christ mystery, the Christ nature, the Christ source. We stop fretting about our smallness. The individual will never be fully worthy or correct, but that same individual can still remain utterly connected if it stops over-defending itself. Our yes deeply matters. The word for that yes and that connection is, quite simply, love.

In Christ, we become Love.

That’s what is in us; that is what surrounds us.

You know why this is important, right? Because life is scary sometimes; because there are bullies out there who will try to steal your joy and weigh you down; because sometimes we can feel so lonely and empty that we ache with sadness. So we must return to that sacred place, that place of connection that Jesus spoke of. God is in you, in me, in everyone, in all living beings. Love is in you, in me, in all living things. We are connected by this. It gives us energy, strength, and even the ability to do things we thought were impossible.

So embrace that you are part of the whole.
Embrace all living creatures as they are and with compassion.

You are one with this Sacred Love; and the Sacred Love is with you.

 

Community within, Community Expressed

Sense8 is an original TV series streaming on Netflix, created by the Wachowskis, the two people behind the Matrix trilogy. Sense8, a play on the sensate, tells the story of eight strangers: Capheus, Sun, Nomi, Kala, Riley, Wolfgang, Lito and Will, each from a different culture and part of the world. As the story develops, all eight characters have visions and find strange connections to the others even though they are all worlds apart. They realize that they are all sensates, humans like anyone else except for the fact that they are linked with a mental and emotional connection, allowing them to sense and communicate with each other, as well as share their knowledge, language and skills. The eight sensates try to live their lives and figure out how and why this connection has happened and what it means.

Here are the eight sensate characters in the story:

sense8
Capheus,
a matatu driver in Nairobi, a passionate fan of movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a son who is trying to earn money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother.

Sun Bak
, daughter of a powerful Seoul, Korea businessman and a star in the underground kickboxing world.

Nomi Marks,
a trans woman hacktivist and blogger living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita. She was born Michael but changed her name to Nomi, which stands for “Know Me”.

Kala Dandekar
, a university-educated pharmacist and devout Hindu living in Mumbai, India. She is  engaged to marry a man she does not love.

Riley Blue,
an Icelandic DJ living in London.

Wolfgang Bogdanow,
a Berlin, Germany locksmith and safe-cracker who has unresolved issues with his late father and participates in organized crime.

Lito Rodriguez,
a gay, closeted actor from Bilbao, Spain living in Mexico City with his boyfriend Hernando.

And Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer haunted by an unsolved murder from his childhood.

In the story, the sensates represent the next step in human evolution. Their brains have subtly but powerfully changed so that they are able to connect with each other across long distances without being detected or listened to. They can have conversations in two places simultaneously, flipping back and forth between a rainy café in Germany and a sunny temple in India, while a character in Korea vapes with a character in Iceland. They seem to be physically in the same place as the others, having a face to face conversation. A common phrase for the sensates becomes:

“I am also a we.”

I wish to explore this idea of deep connection—how it is on the inside and then how it can be expressed on the outside. Have you ever felt a deep connection with someone you just recently met? How did it feel? What did that connection lead to? And, do you ever have the experience of feeling disconnected, even from people you have known nearly your whole life? See, connection is not about longevity; it’s not even about having things in common, looking the same, or sharing all the same perspectives. Connection, I argue, is an energy. It is an energy between people, between us, when we feel that we have been seen, heard, and valued as we are. Connection is that energy that fills us when we are not judged, when we are truly seen and valued.

I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it’s worth saying again. In this life, it is really important to pursue and nurture relationships/connections with people who value you, who see and hear you and accept you, as you are. That most likely means that you will have these types of strong connections with only a handful of other humans and that’s fine. Hey, the characters in Sense8 are only deeply connected to seven others. The energy of connection in our relationships is vital to our health.

The language and concept of connection is obvious in the Jesus of John’s Gospel. Jesus is portrayed in various I AM statements, and all of those identity statements lead us right back to the idea of connection. Jesus said I AM the vine and you are the branches. Straight up connection talk there. And now here in John 14 we find Jesus talking about dwelling places, though not your typical house or apartment. Jesus speaks here of a realm of dwelling beyond the brick and mortar. Dwelling in Abba God’s house is not heaven—it is the presence of God, and it goes both ways like a swinging door of connection. If God dwells in you, then you also dwell in God’s house. And vice versa. The place, the connection for all of us has already been prepared; it is simply up to us to embrace it.

And then the Jesus of John takes it one step further, or maybe in this case, Jesus humanizes it even more, because our good friend Thomas is still asking great questions. Thomas asks the how question and Jesus responds with love and care. How will you know the way to this connection? Well, I AM way, I AM truth, I AM life. No one comes to the light, to the connected Divine, to God, except through path, truth, and life. If you know your path, and truth, and life, then you will know the Divine. And from now on you do know, and you have seen.

Wonderful and beautiful language, but of course I have to mention [albeit briefly] that this beautiful part of John’s Gospel can also be negative trigger for some. Why? Because sadly some make it a habit of taking words from the Gospels attributed to Jesus and turning them into clobber texts, exclusive religious dogma, or even opportunities to say to some people they don’t like that they are doomed and that God doesn’t love them. Rather than spend more time on those who use this as a clobber text, I prefer to focus on what the text actually says within its context, also considering the audience it was written to. Keep in mind that John’s Gospel is the most inclusive Gospel writing, apart from the Gospel of Timothy, probably. John is a text written for a mixed group of people. It’s meant to open up the message of Jesus to a wider audience. It verges on universality sometimes. It’s often ambiguously symbolic and even combines different religious traditions. But John’s Gospel is not exclusive. Jesus’ I AM statements, each one of them, are meant to invite and include more human beings. Many rooms in Abba’s house, remember?

So this oft-quoted phrase about way, truth, and life is not a claim that Christianity [which didn’t exist at the time, by the way] is the one true faith and that Jesus is the only way to God. It doesn’t say that. The word only just isn’t there. What IS there is a kind and loving invitation to be connected in a deep and powerful way. Be connected to Jesus/God/the Divine/the Light, however you wish to call it, but be connected to this way, truth, and life, which is the power greater than all of us that connects us across genders, orientations, cultures, languages religions, countries, and differences. This connection is love and compassion—practicing that in our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing people as they are. Accepting them. Seeking and nurturing this connective energy gives us purpose and meaning in life. What do you think?

 

What Gives You Life?

John 10:1-10

Open-Gate
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of religion and politics. Now before you run away after hearing this, please hear me out. I know some of us prefer to avoid that conversation, but I think it’s really important to address it. Religion and politics have been intertwined ever since human beings started saying and defining those two words. Though people who live in countries like the U.S. that claim to be democracies often think that religion and politics are separate, it’s time for some honesty. Religions have always influenced political policies; political movements and policies have influenced religions. Currently, many in the U.S. are perhaps recognizing this for the first time, even though it is nothing new. When things like health care are discussed, or marriage rights, or abortion, climate change, capital punishment, gender equality, trans rights, etc., it quickly becomes clear that a person’s religious tradition [or lack thereof] informs how they view these issues. If you haven’t noticed, since the new administration took office, many religious groups across the spectrum have been more vocal about government policies that are inhumane, harmful, and even evil.

We need to leave space for these conversations to happen and people of all religious traditions and secular traditions should not ever be afraid to stand up against any policy or political movement that threatens people’s humanity or rights. It is our responsibility to do so, even if said policies do not affect us personally, because they affect our neighbors. Of course, this is what Jesus taught and did—even though it was not popular. In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as the presence of the Divine as hoped for in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah—bringing justice, healing, and reconciliation to an unjust, wounded, and divided world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often expressed identity with I AM statements, in Greek the ego eimi. In fact, John’s Jesus uses this phrase seven times. I AM…the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. And in John 10 Jesus also expressed what Jesus is not. Jesus is not a thief or destroyer of life, but instead a giver of life, a full life. John’s metaphor involved sheep, a shepherd, and a gate. Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd, one who will lay down one’s own life for the sheep, stand with them when they are in trouble. In fact, this image of Jesus as good shepherd is a more ancient symbol for Jesus than the cross. Before Roman Christianity developed its own symbols, followers of Jesus resonated with the simple image of a shepherd who cares for sheep and knows them by name.

good-shepherd

Sadly, as mentioned previously, religions are created by humans and thus end up serving the desires of humans. That means that religions easily lose their way when they stray from the core elements of message and practice. Jesus, in no Gospel account, was violent, uncaring, exclusive, or judgmental.

Jesus didn’t try to steal people’s identities.

Jesus didn’t destroy people’s lives. Jesus was a giver of life to all. And yet, particular brands of Christianity [including American Christianity] have skewed Jesus’ message and even the image of the good shepherd to be about exclusion, judgement, and even violence. It is so sad to know that there are people who claim to be a follower of this Jesus and consistently mistreat people because of their cultural or linguistic heritage; their gender expression or identification; who they love; how much money they have; the color of their skin. This is why, as I mentioned, it is essential for us to not be silent while this is going on. We cannot hide from the wolves and thieves who seek to destroy. We must confront them, for the sake of our friends and neighbors who are being bullied, and excluded, and told that their lives do not have value.

And we need to tell the blessed story that gives life. Everyone deserves this type of love and care that the good shepherd offers to all. Everyone. And all of us should be loving and caring in this way, in the world. For if we choose to identify with this good shepherd, if we choose to believe that God offers us a full life and acceptance as we are, then doesn’t it follow that we should wish for others to experience the same thing?

You see, I think what gives us life as individuals is a good place to start. So ask yourself: what gives me life? Who are the people who give me life? Go to that place. Then, think about all those around you—regardless of their religious traditions or lack thereof; no matter what gender they express or identify with; no matter who they love or what they look like or how much they make or what language they speak. Think about those around you. Don’t you want them to feel alive, cared for, loved? My answer is yes. And all of us who do answer yes to that question, let’s do something about it. Be life-givers in your conversations, your interactions, your decisions, your tweets, and your connections. And if you feel bullied or destroyed or hurt or not invited—I am sorry that this has happened to you. It’s not something you deserve. What you do deserve is love and kindness and community. Let’s work on that together.

 

Who Do You Meet on the Road?

Luke 24  

 path

Not that long ago if we needed to walk, drive, or take public transportation to a place we asked other people how to get there. Then, we used paper maps. After that, we typed the address into a computer and printed out Mapquest directions. Remember that?

mapquest

Then the GPS with the somewhat unreliable suction. And now, of course, when we want to go somewhere we simply tell our phone where want to go, the mode of transportation, and we not only get directions to that place, but how long it will take us, alternative routes due to traffic, construction, or a Godzilla attack, and also we get to see our progress on the screen, right before our eyes.

The roads we travel have seemingly become more accessible with this kind of technology. It is true—we are traveling more now as a human species than ever before. We honestly don’t have the same excuses for not going places and the whole “I got lost” argument usually falls pretty flat these days. All that aside, traveling the road to a destination is an important metaphor in life. I invite you to think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on—and all the different kinds of places those roads led you to.

When I was younger and living in rural Iowa, country roads [and even gravel roads] were part of life. I spent a lot of my time walking down these roads, as public transportation was scarce and I didn’t have a car. Where we lived in Central Iowa, the roads rolled over hills [yes, Iowa has hills!] and at the top of certain hills you could see for miles. Before you got to the top of the hill, though, you couldn’t see anything. Gravel roads are interesting, mainly because anything or anyone that has traveled ahead of you kicks up dust. The general rule when you are walking on a gravel road is to wear sunglasses or to walk backwards. Otherwise, you’ll be begging for eye drops in a hot second. The other type of road in Iowa I remember distinctly is highway 65/69. That thing went on forever, and when we had to go to faraway places, at times I felt that it would never end. The speed limit is 75 and you still feel like you’re crawling along. Maybe it’s the eternal stretch of cornfields on your way through Nebraska? Think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on.

The reason that the road is a an oft-used metaphor for life isn’t hard to understand, is it? Because all of us use all kinds of roads to get from one place to another. The roads wind and turn and go up and down and stretch for miles. They are made of dirt, cobblestone, gravel, asphalt, grass, and rock.

Sometimes we can see what’s ahead on the road; sometimes we can’t see anything at all.

The other part of the road is life metaphor is who you meet on that road. Believe it or not, even on lonely, country roads in rural Iowa I met people, or sometimes other living beings. As you can imagine, along a country road in Iowa, there were animals. Cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, and all sorts of creatures. Just when I thought I was completely alone on the road, they greeted me with a sound or a smell or a movement. And from time to time I encountered a farmer, or a person walking their dog, or someone on a tractor. Kids would appear on bikes or motorcycles. Cars whizzed past. It honestly makes me think a lot about life. There have been many times when I have felt like I was walking down a lonely stretch of rural Iowa roads—not sure if I would encounter anyone, not convinced that the road would ever come to an end. And then, I was surprised. I was surprised by life I didn’t expect to see—connections with people that recharged my batteries and picked me up off the mat.

Those connections with people on the road of life, whether short or long ones, helped me get to know myself better and reminded me that I was not alone.

Of course, part of the road has also included recognizing that unfortunately, some people I meet on the road are not kind and not healthy for me to be around. Those encounters [and the consequent walking on/moving on from those relationships] taught me a lot about the kinds of people who really do care and truly accept me.

The story in the Gospel of Luke 24 is often called “The Road to Emmaus.” It involves two people, former followers of Jesus of Nazareth, walking on a road after Jesus’ death. Emmaus, according to historians and scholars, probably was not a real place at all. Further, the two people on the road are not identifiable. So this is the storyteller saying to us: You are Cleopas. You are walking on that road with someone. You don’t know where that road will take you—Emmaus? Timbuktu? A hole in the space-time continuum? We are walking down that road. And we don’t know where it leads. But where we are going/where the two disciples are going, isn’t the point.

The point is who they meet on the road.

A stranger. Any random person you may encounter while at the grocery store, a park, on a street corner. A stranger. You have no expectations for this encounter. But the stranger seems to care about what you’re going though. You’re sad, lost, distracted. The stranger listens. This stranger then seems to share some of your sacred stories and important feelings. The stranger accepts you as you are, where you are on that road to seemingly nowhere. Eventually, the two travelers in the story recognize the stranger. It was Jesus—their teacher, their friend. They felt connected again, but only after they ate together. Must have reminded them of their favorite moments on the road. In fact, their eyes were open and they even saw themselves as newly alive.

Now I know that for many of you, maybe Jesus won’t be the stranger you meet on the road. Maybe that religious narrative isn’t where you are right now. We get caught up with the name and concept of Jesus too much, if you ask me. So just consider—if you were to meet a stranger on the road who listened to you, accepted you, and inspired you to open your eyes—who would that person be?

And, are you open enough to affirm that this person could actually be anyone? The person next to you pumping gas? The child laughing at the playground? A teacher? An acquaintance at church, or school, or work?

See, I think that Jesus never meant for us to be so reliant on some religious idea of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. I think that Jesus meant for his followers and friends to find resurrection in themselves, along the journey, on the road, and to have their eyes opened by the encounters with people on that road. Because when we share with each other, we feel less alone and more connected. When we open ourselves to random encounters and distance ourselves from the unhealthy encounters—the ones that try to change our story and don’t accept us as we are. When we do that, I think we can be surprised. We can meet each other on the road and find encouragement and connection. Because this road is not a straight line. And sometimes you will feel alone and disconnected. But keep walking your unique road. Encounter people who will truly listen to you and accept you. May our eyes be opened.

Wind, Water, and Life in Desolation

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

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