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Posts tagged ‘religion’

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

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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.

 

Do You Know Your H2O?

John 4:5-15

ebooA couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Dare to Understand Awards event. The featured speaker was Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. I have met with Eboo various times and consider him to be one of my mentors. He inspired me in 2007 when I met him for the first time and read his memoir, Acts of Faith. There was so much in his story that I resonated with and since then, I have been committed to the work of interfaith cooperation and understanding. Eboo, a Muslim, teaches in Seminaries and other religious schools, often encountering American Evangelical Christians, who tend to be the most skeptical or even fearful of people from other faith traditions—especially Muslims. And yet, this is the challenging and important work that Eboo does. He is not afraid to reach across lines of difference. He embraces the most difficult questions and faces the various conflicts.

Recently, Eboo has been focusing on the need for people of faith backgrounds to live out their faith more honestly and publicly. The reason for that is because today many of the most open-minded Christians are mostly silent about their own faith tradition, fearing that they will offend someone or sensing the practice of the Christian faith has nothing positive to offer Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secular humanists, etc. For example, Cassie Meyer, who works with Eboo at Interfaith Youth Core, says that most Christians have been conditioned to think that there are two ways to engage people of other faiths.

Liberal Christians feel they need to let go of any unique identity and affirm all religions as the same. Call it religious relativism.

Conservative Christians do the opposite. They hold on even tighter to their beliefs and sometimes see other religions as the enemy. Call it fundamentalism.

In both cases, this way of seeing the world does not lead to understanding and cooperation.

But there is another way. What about religious pluralism?  Pluralism claims that we are a diverse culture, worldwide. We have different truth claims. The real question is: how can we live together while being our true selves? The answer, at least, for Jesus of Nazareth, is to encounter the other, the one who others say is untouchable or unreachable. Enter the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, though it is not often talked about, was one who did not shy away from engaging with diversity—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic. He sought out those who were “untouchable” and on the margins. This is why he ended up in Samaria with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews like Jesus were not supposed to go to Samaria. Just consider that Jesus, a Jew, and this woman, a Samaritan, should not have met. The Jews believed their sacred temple was in Jerusalem and the Samaritans that their sacred site was on Mount Gerizim. They read different scriptures. They had competing truth claims about G-d. And yet, Jesus seeks her out and breaks the rules—only to offer her living water.

In this case, living water is a new identity. For the Samaritan woman, this was being fully human. She had been told that her life didn’t matter and that she was lesser. Jesus, though he was of another religious and cultural background, sought her out to tell her that her life did indeed matter, and that she was full of living water. This is the narrative the Gospels tell about this Jesus—that Jesus seeks people out who feel lost, broken, devalued, marginalized, and forgotten.

That story is good news for all of us.

And yet, within that narrative I also hear another one—that we live in a world in which certain people of certain cultural, political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds cannot meet; they cannot talk to each other. Those meetups are even banned by governments and the rich and powerful. And many of us are conditioned [or at least jaded enough] to start believing this narrative. Christians cannot meet up with Muslims; materially poor people cannot meet up with the materially wealthy; a 16-year-old from West Philly cannot be friends with a 16-year-old from Warrington; a gender-fluid person can never meet up with someone who has no idea about alternative pronouns or even what transgender means; Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians—they cannot meet up.

These types of meetup groups are prohibited and even impossible, so we are told.

Let me say that certainly for people who are marginalized or discriminated against, they have every right to be skeptical about such meetings. If as a transgender person you have been told more than once that your “new” pronouns aren’t real and even that your gender identification or expression is invalid or unnatural—well, you should not be subjected to that harsh treatment. If you’re Black in America and have experienced both the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and tokenism on many occasions—you have every right to disengage from those who have treated you like this. If you are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Jain and have been mistreated or misrepresented when you encountered Christians, you have every right to walk away from those encounters.

Let me be clear—just because there are nice stories about Jesus encountering and meeting marginalized people as they are and where they are does not mean that it’s easy and happens all the time in society. It doesn’t, and that’s the point. What Jesus did was radical, considered dangerous, and counter-culture. Also, Jesus was the one reaching out. He wasn’t the marginalized. He looked for and befriended those on the margins.

And that’s where the narrative can be beautiful and powerful. As a Christian [and as a human being] I have committed to befriending Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and others from marginalized religious communities. It is up to me to do that. Likewise, I have made a commitment to be a friend and a student when I am with my LGBTQIA friends, colleagues, and family—to learn from them, because there is so much I do not know.

Friends, as people with H20 in our DNA, we can be water for each other in these encounters. We can make a positive social impact in society if those of us not on the margins seek out those on the margins and listen to their stories, honor and accept them, value their lives, and then join them on the journey. In life, you will encounter people who are worried, who carry way too heavy burdens, and they feel like their life doesn’t matter. You can decide to be water by being a listening ear, a helping hand, a ship out in the middle of the ocean, a glass of water in the middle of desert sand. There will be times when all of our own wells will run dry, and in those moments we will need someone to offer us a refreshing drink and to remind us that our life has value. Whether on the margin or not, water is in your physical and spiritual DNA. Let us be water for each other and refresh and heal the community.

Called to Be Unique, All Invited

John 17:20-23; 26

uniquesuess

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we see each other and treat each other.Sure, it is an election year and so that tends to contribute to all the crazies coming out. But it is disturbing just how many people right now [including the Republican candidate for president of the U.S.] say things against certain groups of people simply because of the way they look, what language they speak, and what religion they do or don’t practice. This is unacceptable and dehumanizing. Most people agree that this is true. If so, then there is no way that one can support any politician, leader, or person who participates in such harmful activity, using hate speech and subtle + not-so-subtle prejudice to separate people. This isn’t about “agreeing to disagree”–this is about humanity. We can disagree about politics and social issues, but we must be unified when it comes to our humanity and the humanity of those around us. If we don’t stand up against the hateful rhetoric and prejudice, then we are no better than those who are doing it.

What I’d like to focus on is uniqueness and unity. How do they go together?

The thing is friends, we focus a lot on our differences in this world—what we disagree on, how we look or act differently, the unique ways we dress or eat or talk or vote or live. Differences are good; they really are. We are ALL unique. We think differently and act differently. This is how we are made. Christians in particular have historically focused on difference. If you are not Christian, you are over there. If you are Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Baptist—you are over there. Denominations, sects, and classifications. And even more so when it comes to those who do not identify as Christians. Are you Muslim? Hindu? Jewish? Jain? Sikh? Buddhist? Baha’i? You are…over there. And if you are agnostic or atheist, well, you are far over there.

But I don’t see this as the vision of Jesus of Nazareth. The person that people based an entire religion on [the most prominent one in the world to this point] did not see difference as a problem or a separation. Oneness was possible for Jesus.

But oneness did not equal sameness.

Jesus felt the presence of the Divine in his life and that presence informed his world view. God, the Abba, was in Jesus. Jesus was in God. And Jesus had a vision that all people, regardless of background and status, could also be one with this God. The “glory” that Jesus speaks of in this John prayer is quite amusing. Glory? I mean, what type of glory did Jesus of Nazareth really experience? Right. Not much. Humiliation? Check. Isolation? Check. Torture and death? Check. So what is this glory that John’s Gospel speaks of? The way I see it [and it’s just my view] is that Jesus’ glory was in realizing that all people were children of God, and that especially included those who were always left on the outside of religious institutions. In Jesus’ time, it was the poor, the widows, the lepers, the tax collectors, the blind, lame, and the Samaritans. In every era the names change, but the issue doesn’t. Did Jesus give the glory he had to others so that they could start more churches, conquer land, and gain power? No. He gave glory to people so they could be one.

Completely one. This oneness is not ignoring difference or uniqueness. This oneness doesn’t mean we have to agree all the time, look the same, pray the same way, eat the same foods, speak the same languages, practice the same religions. This oneness means one thing. That the Divine loves us and loves Jesus. That this is the name of God—Love. And that the love between Jesus and this God is in people. In us.For me, this is our humanity. This is what binds us together.

I was raised a Christian, and so, Communion is a very familiar ritual for me, and for the most part, it has been a positive experience. I was raised in a tradition in which everyone could receive Communion. As a kid, I saw it as a fun event. As a youth, I saw it as a chance to eat and drink with others like a great big family. Then, as a young adult, I saw it as a community-building event in which people of all kinds could do something together and embrace each other as they were. Now, I see it as an agape feast. An invitation to everyone, no matter what, to be at the table, as they are. Bring your uniqueness. Bring your brokenness. Bring your doubt. Bring your enthusiasm. Bring your sadness, your skepticism, your pain. Bring yourself. And you have a place. As. You. Are.

At the end of the day, Communion, as any religious tradition, needs to mean something in our lives. For me, I still embrace Communion because it challenges me to open my table. It moves me to set a place for those who disagree with me, don’t look like me, don’t act like me. And it also reminds me that no matter how I feel or what kind of difficulty I am going through, I also am welcome at this table. I am accepted. I have a place here.

If we come to the table as we are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love.

If we accept and affirm all people as they are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love. So friends, be your unique selves and embrace the uniqueness of others. Anyone or anything who tries to make us all the same or disparages certain groups of people because of what they look like, their sexual orientation or gender identification, their religious tradition, nationality, language, etc–anyone or anything that does that, WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND AND SAY NO. With our honest and bridge-building words, with our kind and grateful actions. May it be so.

diversity2

Money, Religion, and Politics—Oh My!

Matthew 22:15-22

Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!

But in this case, it’s money and religion and politics—oh my!

Yes, that’s right. It’s time to talk about these SCARY things. It IS almost Halloween, after all.
Let’s talk about money, first, which leads to politics, which leads to religion!

Jesus of Nazareth probably wouldn’t be invited to anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, because apparently he really liked talking about money. He talked about it a LOT. A whole lot more, in fact, than he ever talked about sexual orientation—or sex in general.

Oh wait—he didn’t talk about sex.

But money—well…

Money and taxes were reality in the 1st and 2nd Century for the people of Israel and Palestine. Some may argue that things have not changed much. Well, I will beg to differ, because it was different back then and over there in that part of the world. Let’s give culture and history it’s due here; let’s look at money and taxes in this particular context.

Jews like Jesus in first century Palestine paid numerous taxes: They paid temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, and even more. But the “tax” that Jesus is asked about in this particular story is the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome. This tax supported the Roman occupation of Israel.

Um, sad, no? The Romans occupied Israel [not their land], but Israelis had to pay taxes to their oppressors.

But of course, as in every situation, some sided with the oppressors.

There were Jewish folk put in power by the Romans and they benefited from the occupation. So obviously, they supported the tax.

One more layer to it: those who were religiously devout [think about the Pharisees] had to pay this Imperial tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius; this picture was a proclamation of his divinity; having the coin itself would mean breaking the first two Commandments of Mosaic Law. So by paying this tax, the religious leaders were in fact honoring Caesar as a god. Obviously, the temple authorities were ultra-sensitive about this issue. And then Jesus started making them more sensitive about, it because…

Jesus taught that the Roman imperial system left out certain people.

Jesus said that the last should actually be first in God’s world. He told a story just before this episode about a wedding reception hosted by a king. Many rich people and dignitaries were invited, but they ignored the invitation. In the end, the king ended up inviting anyone he could find even from the streets, and they filled his banquet hall.

The injustice of the social systems mixed with the apathy of the religious leaders had put things out of balance.

But the Pharisees could not see that in Jesus’ message, for they were far too worried about, you guessed it—

Money, religion, and politics…oh my!

So they asked Jesus a trap question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? No good way to answer that.

So Jesus asked them a question.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.
Whose face is on the coin, and whose title?

How quickly the Pharisees produced said coin which was a symbol of Roman oppression and a sure sign that these very religious leaders were actually compliant in this unjust system. They eagerly showed Jesus the coin and told him that it was the Emperor’s face on it.

And while they considered the sad irony of all this and held tightly to the Emperor’s coin, Jesus quipped:

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.

This was Jesus asking them to wake up and notice that they were contributing to the injustice. None of their religious piety mattered, because it was empty. They cared more about the coin with the face on it; they cared more about their precious religious laws than they cared about the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, the forgotten.

So who were they? Were they Caesar’s subjects, or God’s children?

It’s a sharp question—and one we often avoid.

Because political affiliations [or lack thereof] tend to be very personal; we don’t like to talk about it. But many remain very loyal to said affiliations. And the way we spend and earn money is nobody’s business, we say. But meanwhile, we often measure ourselves [and others] by how much money we have or how many material possessions we own.

And then there’s religion. We say we don’t want politics or money mixed in with religion. But sadly, many churches are full of poisonous politics and gossip and people vying for control; churches even favor certain people who have more money and listen less to those with very little money.

So like the Pharisees, we often miss the point.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, religion, and politics. They are part of life. We should not fear such things.

But they cannot be how we define ourselves.

Who are we? Are we subjects in an empire, loyalists to faces on a coin? Are we limited by our material wealth and boxed in by politics?

Or, are we children, created equally with the capacity to love and to show mercy, and to be impartial as the Creator is?

I’ve always felt that faith communities ought to inspire this kind of positive identity in people. Faith communities should be teaching and telling people that they are created in the image of God and all equal—with gifts to share, with purpose and potential; with the tools to love and to make a difference.

Churches [and people in general, for that matter] should never define people by their politics, religion, or how much money they have.

Instead, what if the coins with the faces on them did not matter so much to us? What if our religious and political affiliations also mattered less?

What if our behavior—how we live our lives and how we treat people, mattered the most?

The Pharisees are meant to be examples. We are supposed to walk in their shoes. Because like them, many of us have found ourselves getting too caught up in the politics of power, the pursuit of material wealth, and the imperialism of religion.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are members of churches only because their parents forced them to go or because it’s the status quo or merely because a particular church aligns with their political or social worldviews.

But I think that more and more people in this world want to commit only to things that make a real social impact in the world. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds want to find something like a spark or a light within themselves. And they want to join their light with others to make an even brighter one.

So friends, let money, religion, and politics, be what they are. Don’t let them define you.

Instead, be defined by the beauty and light given to all living creatures. Be defined by how you love and care for others.

How to Love in a Scary Place

John 10:1-10     and     Psalm 23

A SIDE NOTE:
Not really sure why, but recently Rihanna’s song We Found Love has been in my head. I really don’t have any idea if her song has anything to do with what it makes me think about it. But I will just say that the phrase “We found love in a hopeless place” rings true for me. So listen, if you want, and then read the rest…

—————————————————————

You know what it feels like.

Your heart races out of control, beating so fast you cannot believe it.
The palms of your hands start to sweat.
You’re short of breath and you’re having trouble taking air in.
Your stomach turns in circles.
Your shoulders tense up and other muscles spasm uncontrollably.

You are afraid.

Fear is an emotion that directly affects our bodies and not just our minds. We, like animals, have a reaction built in to our systems called a fight or flight response. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

The fight or flight response is pretty helpful to animals and humans alike when real danger is present. Imagine a saber-toothed tiger or an angry, fire breathing dragon coming right at you.

sabretoothedtigerAn extra shot of adrenaline and quick thinking would be useful, right?

But honestly, most of us are not facing tigers and dragons. And unlike animals, who do face a lot of predators and other dangers quite often—our fight or flight response may not be helping us.

A little bit of fear might be helpful to keep us alert and motivated. But a lot of fear overcomes our common sense. Our judgment gets clouded and we get lost in that fear.

Neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains that

“in a time of crisis, you’re not thinking the way you normally do. You may find yourself acting before you even realize what you’re doing. When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses.”[1]

Sounds good if the tiger is bearing down on you, but most of us are not running from this kind of danger. So this fight or flight thing can lead to poor decisions. You can hear a loud noise and think that you’re in danger—even when that loud noise is a balloon popping. You can see a person who is approaching you on the street as a threat to you—even when he’s going to help you by letting you know that you dropped your wallet on the ground.

And even when your fight or flight response starts to calm down, the effects continue. Our coping mechanisms for fear are not the best. We often cope by wanting to sleep, taking drugs, binging on a variety of things, etc. And ironically, our fear can become chronic and more common, even in normal situations.

And we might as well call it anxiety now.

Most scientists talk about fear and anxiety interchangeably, even though they generally define the two terms like this:

Fear is a negative emotional state triggered by the presence of a stimulus (like a tiger) that has the potential to cause harm.

Anxiety is a negative emotional state in which the threat is not present but anticipated.[2]

So, simply put:
The fight or flight response of fear can keep us alive.

Anxiety can keep us from living.

And this is where we separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom—and not in a good way. All animals can detect and respond to danger—just like us.

But when it comes to anxiety, we are the champions.

We can actually anticipate danger and project danger onto situations that haven’t even happened yet. We’ve developed the ability to fear things that do not even exist today!

Pretty much all of us can attest to the fact that we’ve felt anxiety of some sort in our lives. Some of us have suffered from anxiety disorders that drastically affect everyday life. Having known many people who have suffered from anxiety, it is not something you “get over” and telling people to “calm down” won’t help either.

So I think that it’s good to talk about fear and anxiety in an authentic way so that no matter where we are in life, we can discover ways to really live.

Psalm 23 and John’s “Good Shepherd” story are two examples of scripture establishing something:

Fear is real, but love can overcome fear.

I don’t know whether you buy that or not, but let’s give it a try.

First, though, we have to realize that both the Psalm and the Gospel talk about sheep.

sheep
Let’s be honest–sheep aren’t always the greatest of metaphors for us as humans—or so we think. But sheep are not the zombies or robots that blindly follow anyone off a cliff or who just say baaaaah and then roll over on their back with their legs in the air.

Although that last thing sounds like fun.

The idea of the sheep metaphor is that sheep discern good voices from bad voices. In other words, they recognize when the caring, compassionate love-leading voice speaks to them and knows them by name. They filter out the dangerous voices that may try to harm them or lead them by using fear or manipulation.

Thinking like a sheep is being aware of those who love and care for you, and those who don’t.

In John’s community in Palestine, everybody knew about shepherds and sheep. Taking care of or tending sheep was just as it sounds. Shepherds took great care of their sheep. They indeed  called them by name. The sheep responded to the shepherd’s voice. At night, the shepherd led the sheep into a safe place.

So Jesus of Nazareth, in John’s Gospel portrayal, draws upon Hebrew stories and a cultural context of sheep to get his point across.

You see, John’s community knew all about fear.
Many were persecuted for their culture and religion in the new reality that was Roman rule. The 1st century was scary. So Jesus referred back to the book of Numbers to encourage his followers:

He would go out before them, come in before them, lead them, and bring them in.[3]

This would have been encouraging, because the disciples were worried about the “bad” shepherds or the “thieves and robbers” who would lead them to dangerous, scary places. In their context, even the leaders of the temple were scattering the sheep, robbing them of their money and dignity, and refusing to feed them.

But there’s a twist.

Not only will Jesus lead his followers into the sheepfold at night, but he will also lead them…OUT.

The sheepfold, where the sheep sleep at night [a place of safety], is not where they stay. They emerge from the sheepfold and into the scary world, but with new life.

They were led out by resurrection.

Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is the way of comfort and sustenance, abundance and strength, even in the face of death.

And the good shepherd way is the way of love and not fear.

Jesus’ followers, after his death, were learning how to love even when they were scared. They were learning how to be compassionate, even when times were tough. They were discovering how to call others by name, treat them with great care, heal and show them mercy— even when things were terrifying in the world.

Maybe that’s why the image of the good shepherd was trending more on Twitter than the image of the cross. People responded much better to the image of the compassionate, leading, loving shepherd. This was carved on walls and catacombs.

good-shepherd

The good shepherd was bigger than the cross.
The way of love was stronger than the way of fear.

I wish the image of the good shepherd were more prominent than the cross.

That’s right–I said it.

Frankly, religion has become so much about fear these days.

And why?
So certain voices can manipulate, oppress, harm, and scare.

Friends, the fear and anxiety can hinder us. We can become convinced that the world’s empty offer of quick relief from scary things is worth our time and energy. So we sell out to fear and anxiety that can lead to prejudice, isolation, and even violence.

But we shouldn’t listen to those voices, because they actually don’t care about our humanity.
Anytime we make decisions based on fear and anxiety it does not work out well.

Anytime we judge someone because we’re afraid we allow prejudice to creep in.
Anytime we close doors out of fear we miss opportunities to open them.

So let us walk the way of love instead. Don’t give your time, attention, or energy to fear. Instead, give your time, attention, and energy to loving action.

And don’t dwell on scarcity. Instead, learn to think and talk and act as someone who is grateful. And generous.

Following the lead of the good shepherd is not ignoring fear—it is facing fear, but with love. This is resurrection.

Think about compassion, practice empathy, live gratefully.

Be love.

Help others find love in a hopeless place.

 

[1] Szalavitz, Time.

[2] “Searching the Brain for the Roots of Fear”, the NY Times, JOSEPH LEDOUX, January 22, 2012.

[3] Num 27: 16-18.

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