Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘science’

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:

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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?

 

Come Out & Come Spring Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

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The season of spring is one that many people point to as their favorite season–at least for those who live in places where winter cold is a reality and the arrival of spring’s warmth and sunshine is a welcome change. Even in other places where the weather doesn’t seem to change, like in Honolulu, Hawai’i where I once lived, one can sense the change. Though on the island of Oahu I never experienced cold weather and grey skies, I did experience a rainy season that eventually gave way to sunshine…and rainbows. I’ve also been to a place called the city of eternal spring or la ciudad de la eternal primavera, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

1280px-Cuernavaca_c274_oCuernavaca is located in a tropical region, but its temperature stays pretty much in the 70s Fahrenheit, because it is situated on the southern slope of the Sierra de Chichinautzin mountains. When you wake up in the morning in Cuernavaca, warm air flows up the mountains from the valley below. When you’re having a coffee in the late afternoon, cooler air flows down from the higher elevations.

Spring as a season, of course, is full of symbolism. Rebirth, new life, flowers blooming, etc, etc. Across religious traditions there is a rich tapestry of spring-like themes and expressions. In the Christian tradition we read a story each springtime about Jesus of Nazareth disappearing from a tomb where a body was supposed to be, and then varied experiences of people seeing or hearing Jesus alive. It’s impossible for me to address all of the nuance and history of the resurrection stories in the four Gospel accounts. For the sake of our conversation, I’ll simply remind us all that each of the four Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection are different. The original story, in Mark, is really short and contains no actual appearance of the risen Jesus. Luke and Matthew expand Mark’s story, and John has a different take. The fact that all four stories differ from each other tells us that there was no established narrative about Jesus’ resurrection in the 50-100 years after Jesus’ death.

We are looking at Matthew’s version, a story that includes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb, but without spices and ointment. A great stone stood between them and the inside of the tomb. Matthew uses the word “behold” a lot in this version. Behold! A great earthquake! And behold! One lonely angel of the Lord [same wording Matthew uses when Jesus is born]. The angel is like the Incredible Hulk and thus able to move that great stone out of the way, and feeling quite pleased, the angel plops down on that great stone and takes a seat. The angel is wearing shiny, white clothes and looks quite like Jesus did in Matthew’s transfiguration story. A little resurrection bling-bling.

discoJesus

Kudos to the Disco Jesus creator.

Anyway, the Roman guards, symbols of power and strength and the military, are scared out of their minds and are shaken. They become like dead ones. Not so powerful now are ya? The angel, with a play on words, says to the women: Fear not! He is not here, he has been raised.

For the women, this would have been good news for many reasons. First, because they were all still upset about what had happened to Jesus. Also, the fact that Jesus had been raised to life meant that the work and words of Jesus would also not die, i.e. the way of compassion, gender equality, acceptance of the unclean, the sinners, and the marginalized being embraced.  The women are invited by the buff angel to look closer in the tomb to notice where Jesus once lay. But then, they are instructed to go right away and tell the others who followed Jesus. The angel must have a limited vocabulary in ancient Greek, because the angelic hulk keeps saying: Behold! He is going before you into Galilee, Behold! I have told you…and then Matthew adds one more in there: Behold! Jesus met them…

The women aren’t afraid and leave quickly to spread the news. And Behold! Jesus appears to them and greets them with xairete, a common phrase that was an everyday greeting. Funny, isn’t it? In spite of the earthquake, a great stone, an angel, and lots of Beholds! Jesus’ first words to the women are akin to: hey, what’s up, how you doin? The women are smart and go right for the feet of Jesus. And no, that’s not weird. You see, Matthew wants us to understand that this resurrected Jesus is not a ghost.

Okay, I get it. Each one of us will have a different take on this story and the whole resurrection thing. Just like the conflicting accounts in the Gospels, we won’t have the same view of it all. And that’s just fine, because the whole point of the resurrection story isn’t to prove something or disprove it, the point is not to claim that one religion is better than all the others because its prophet rose from the dead; the point is to find resurrection ourselves. That’s what each person who followed this Jesus were invited to discover–the resurrection in their own lives. This idea is all around us in nature with caterpillars, seeds, and eggs–going to dark places and seemingly lifeless–only to emerge reborn and beautifully alive. So no matter how you see this story, hear this:

Behold! You and I are invited to come out, to spring forth. It can be scary sometimes to do that, to be our true selves, to emerge just as we are. But we are encouraged to do so. We are encouraged with love and with healing to trade fear for emergence, for new life. Great stones and obstacles are moved to the side and we have room…to come out, to see this day [and every one after it] as a resurrection day, as a new start, as another opportunity to say and live: this is me. This is who I am. And I am loved. I am beautiful as I am. I may have scars and wounds and I may have felt dead on more than once occasion, but right now, in this moment, I am me. It is spring and I’m coming out, I’m blooming again.

And all around us are people with great stones holding them back and all around us are people who have been wounded and mistreated and pushed to the margins, and we have this chance, every day of this life, to say to them: Behold! I love you as you are; I accept you here and now and always; and you can come out and experience love and be who you are. This is resurrection. This is every day. Come on out. Behold! Your are loved, you are beautiful, and you are made to love, and to recognize the beauty in others, and in all life.

P.S. MUST listen to this song. It’s great. It says this better than I can.

 

Are You Sure?

John 20:19-29

yesnomaybeWe are all unique and thus, the ways we see the world vary. There is one thing, however, that we can all probably agree upon. At some point, all of us have had moments when we doubted. You know what I mean—it can even be simple. You are in the grocery store and you’re staring at twenty different kinds milk and you’re just not sure which one you should purchase.

milkchoicesAlmond? Coconut? Soy? Low fat, skim, whole, organic? And which brand? So you stare and stare at the milks and the doubt creeps in. People keep walking by and giving you weird looks, but they just don’t understand. Too many milks! Because of their leering gaze you rush to finally decide on unsweetened almond milk, but as you collapse exhausted in your car you’re honestly not really sure that you made the best choice.

Okay, so that’s a superficial example, but there are obviously many, many examples that are much deeper and important. Have you ever doubted some of the bigger decisions like which school should I attend? Should I quit my job and start fresh? Should I move? Should I make myself vulnerable with this person, not knowing if they will accept my feelings or reject them? Should I date, should I get married, should I have kids? Should I get divorced? Should I come out to my parents and coworkers? Should I ever do any of these things? Doubt is part of life. It is part of our human makeup.

When we doubt, we question things. And people. It’s not about always having a conspiracy theory for everything, though, it’s critical thinking. When we ask how did something come to be or how did I get this idea we are engaging our brains in an active dialogue that leads to growth and perspective. Doubt also helps us see the bigger picture and initiates progress, because when we doubt, we question the current state of things and wonder: can it get better than this? It’s questioning the status quo.

Of course, there is such a thing as healthy and unhealthy doubt. Unhealthy doubt, according to psychologists and behavioral therapists, is driven by anxiety and moods. It’s kneejerk. It demands absolute certainty and is not supported by sense evidence. It is often self-defeating. Feelings are accepted as facts, even if actual facts contradict our feelings. Unhealthy doubt is about “what if” scenarios—most likely imagining the worst-case scenario.

Healthy doubt, on the other hand, asks questions and searches for evidence in a scientific manner, rather than being driven by anxiety or moods. When no solid evidence is found, skepticism ends and there is not an attempt to override it.  Healthy doubt is relaxed and reasonable.

skepticism-is-healthy-doubt-when-faced-with-lack-of-credible-8760996So let’s pause for a moment. Ask yourself: can I think of examples of times when I have doubted in an unhealthy way? Can I think of times when I doubted in a healthy way?

And now, a story all about doubt—both unhealthy and healthy.

The author of the Gospel of John tells us that it was evening, just after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and all the doors of Jesus’ best friends were locked. They were afraid, anxious, and locked up. They doubted, most likely, all of what they had seen and heard with their teacher Jesus. Would the Roman authorities come for them next?

Unhealthy doubt closed their doors. But Jesus offered them something else—peace. Shalom, wholeness be yours. Then he breathed on them to remind them to forgive each other and move forward. They saw his wounded hands and side. Apparently, they needed to see.

But someone was missing. Thomas. Oft-called doubting Thomas wasn’t locked up. He was out. And he didn’t see Jesus appear, didn’t hear the double shalom, didn’t see the hands and side, didn’t get breathed on and told to forgive. And so, knowing that his colleagues were scared, anxious, and doubtful, Thomas refused to believe them without evidence. Why should he? Prove it.

Then, it was a week later.
Thomas was there with the others and Jesus appears. Shalom again, but directly to Thomas, telling him to reach out and touch the wounded hands and side. And Thomas decided to not touch anything.

In my view, Thomas engaged in healthy doubt, while his friends did not. He used the scientific method to arrive at evidence. He did not accept anxious, fearful conclusions and rationalizations. He asked: How do I know that this is really my teacher Jesus? And by asking that, he opened up to a healthy doubt that led to wholeness and growth.

So let’s ask the questions again: when have you doubted in an unhealthy way? And now, when have you doubted in healthy ways?

Spirit Sightings Inviting Change

John 3:9-17

Spiritdove.jpeg
Identity is theme of the 40 days of Lent. Who am I? Who is Jesus? Who are my neighbors? These identity questions should stay with Christians throughout this season, and lead to growth, connection, and cooperation. The Gospel stories of the New Testament give us an opportunity to ask these questions, and then to embrace a journey towards light and compassion. Though most of Lent we have been looking at Mathew’s Gospel, this time we take a detour and look at John’s Gospel, the last Gospel written, and the Gospel that stands alone much of the time, as it is very different from Matthew, Luke, and Mark.

The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is an intriguing one, and as our Lenten journey is about questions, so is this story. Now I’ve read and examined this story so much that sometimes I feel that there isn’t much left to explore. But for some reason, my reading of the story this time led me to a different take. You see, much of the time we tend to focus on the characters who encounter Jesus [like Nicodemus] as having some sort of problem, or as being in opposition to Jesus. But I don’t think this is the case with Nicodemus. He is a good question-asker, and Jesus loves questions. This type of question-asking was and is prevalent in many religious traditions, including Judaism and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student asks the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider.

So the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory.” He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice. The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.

The storyteller writes that Nicodemus met Jesus at night. My take on that is that Nicodemus had respect for Jesus. He didn’t wish to make a spectacle of the conversation; he preferred a one-on-one talk. We also must keep in mind that John’s Gospel often uses the light-dark symbolism. This could be one of those cases. Nicodemus came in the dark. He was about to meet the light.

The conversation started off reasonably well. Nicodemus showered Jesus with praise and respect. Jesus wasn’t all that interested, though. Instead, Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ perspective by saying something strange:

No one can see God’s presence without being born from above.

Born from above refers to the new vision for life that Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples and led them towards, and is not a statement of belief or some superior knowledge.

Nicodemus was curious but confused, as anyone would be. After all, humans are physically born only once, right? But again, Jesus was pushing Nicodemus to think beyond narrow and linear categories. For Jesus, being born from above meant being born of water and spirit.

stillwater
Water. Probably the most essential resource in all of creation. We all need water to survive. But more than that—water is powerful and creative. It goes around, under, and through things. It carves mountains and forges new habitats. It brings life wherever it flows. Pause for a moment. How are we like water? How does that affect the way you see others?

wind
Spirit.
For Jesus of Nazareth, spirit and wind were interchangeable. The spirit/wind is wild—it blows where it wishes and cannot be controlled. You don’t even see it. It is free of and at large in the world. Pause for a moment. How are we like wind? How does that change the way you see others?

I simply want to focus on these two identity images of water and wind.

As we ask: who am I? during this season, how are we like water and like wind?

And, if we consider that the people around us are also born of water and wind, how will that affect the way we interact and treat others?

The Gratefulness Factor

Luke 17:11-19 [NRSV]

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

gratefulThe adjective grateful means “thankful.” Gratefulness is an abstract noun formed by adding the suffix -ness to grateful and therefore means the state of being thankful.

Being grateful is a practice that all of us should take seriously. Why? Because gratefulness positively affects our brain function, according to a variety of studies out of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.[1] 

When you are grateful, your brain floods with reward chemicals. When your brain is experiencing gratitude focused on a specific person, i.e. thanking someone for how they have treated you, your brain fills with pleasure chemicals. It’s like eating chocolate—your reward center is activated and so your brain learns to crave that feeling again and again.

Secondly, when you are grateful, your anxiety and depression symptoms may lessen. Research shows that even something simple like keeping a daily gratitude journal has interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. Those who are anxious sleep better; those who are depressed experience more positive changes; their depressive symptoms rate better on regular mood tests. Gratefulness challenges and upsets the negative thought cycle that can send us into anxiety and depression.

Third, a grateful brain means that your hypothalamus is working better. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. In 2009 studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system [of which the hypothalamus is a part] is activated when we feel gratitude. Gratefulness actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly.

Furthermore, when you’re grateful, you are more resistant to stress. Your body and brain, in a state of gratefulness, have the ability to bounce back from stressful events like trauma, homelessness, grief, or job loss.

I mentioned earlier that gratefulness helps you sleep better, and this factor contributes to you experiencing more positive emotions overall. When you are grateful, suggest some psychologists, your prefrontal cortex where memories are formed is being trained to retain positive information and reject negative info over time. Makes me think that practicing gratitude just might lead to increased happiness, right?

Absolutely, says David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar who gave a Ted Talk all about the link between gratitude and happiness.

Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing. He’s the co-founder of gratefulness.org, supporting ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living). I invite you to listen to his Ted Talk or to check out his webpage. Some really good stuff there. To sum up some of his Ted Talk, Mr. Steindl-Rast says that “there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.” He makes it clear that gratitude is not realizing that people are worse off than you. So pointing to be people going through tough times or those in horrific situations and feeling lucky or better off is NOT gratefulness. Instead, being grateful requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your life—not comparing your life to another’s. So you can be grateful by appreciating even the simplest things in your life. And you can be grateful when you show appreciation for another person, which is openly expressing gratitude. Finally, Steindl-Rast says that being grateful occurs when something valuable to us is freely given. We do not earn it; rather, it is a gift.

davidgratefulGratefulness is the theme of the Luke story about a Samaritan leper giving thanks. I absolutely love this story, because I think it speaks to people on a universal level and you don’t even have to be a religious person to be blessed by it. There are obvious clues in this story as to how this thankful person was seen by others. He was a leper, so he was untouchable and lived on the margins of society. And, he was a Samaritan, so he was hated for his nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t care about those things. Jesus chose to heal this Samaritan leper; he made him clean, along with nine others. The now-healed Samaritan leper realized his new situation. He shouted out with joy. He turned back, approached Jesus, got on his knees, and he said thank you. And then Jesus sent him out—on a new path of gratefulness, a new life.

I think the story speaks for itself. Practicing gratefulness can change our lives for the better. So to close, how can we be grateful like the Samaritan leper?

  1. We have to stop and give full attention to the moment we are in. This means letting go of those future and past-focused thoughts.
  2. We need to look at our lives right now and ask: What am I grateful for in this moment? What opportunity is life presenting me, for which I can be grateful? Keep it simple. Consider your senses, the weather, your ability to learn something, a pet, food, a friend, your body, or nature. Think of each of these things as a gift as opposed to a given.
  3. Practice this gratefulness thinking especially in times of transition or when you feel particularly vulnerable to stress.
  4. For some, keeping a record of gratefulness is a very meaningful and powerful thing. Consider writing down your gratefulness in a gratitude journal.
  5. Lastly, express your gratitude to others. There are many ways to do that: short FB messages, a kind email, a phone call, even a text! Taking a risk to acknowledge someone’s kindness, patience, or character is powerful.

So find ways to start or to keep practicing gratefulness. Make grateful living your way. Become aware that every moment is a gift—you have not earned it or bought it. You don’t know if there will be another moment given to you. So this very moment is an opportunity and gift. What are you grateful for?

[1] Alex Korb Ph.D. PreFrontal Nudity: The Grateful Brain, The neuroscience of giving thanks, Posted Nov 20, 2012.

What Do Our Tears Mean?

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Frederick Buechner[1] wrote:
You never know what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not… God is speaking to you through them—of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you, to where you should go to next.

Do you cry easily and often? Or do you struggle to cry?

What do our tears mean?

cryingAccording to Michael Trimble, British professor at the Institute of Neurology in London, and author of Why Humans Like to Cry, tears are necessary to keep the eyeball moist, and contain proteins and other substances which maintain the eye healthy and to combat infection. Trimble writes: “Humans cry for many reasons, but crying for emotional reasons and crying in response to aesthetic experiences are unique to us.”[2] He goes on to say that tears of joy or sorrow, in other words, the tears that are highly emotional, tell us a lot about ourselves. Emotional crying can help us highlight what’s important and what we need to focus on, says Dr. Lauren Bylsma[3], at the University of Pittsburgh, someone who has conducted various studies about tears and crying.

Tears
I’m sure you probably already knew that there are different types of tears. According to Dr. Bylsma and her co-author Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, the first type of tears is basal tears. Basically, we cry to lubricate, nourish, and protect our eyes. This can happen involuntarily, of course. The second type of tears is reflex tears. You cut an onion or if you are allergic to things like smoke, pollen, or ragweed, and well, you tear up. Lastly, the third tear type: the tears that we shed after fighting with someone close to us, getting treated badly, empathizing with someone who is suffering, or crying for help. These are emotional tears.

Truthfully, researchers haven’t quite figured out why we cry. They have theories, of course. Some scientists, according to Vassar psychologist Randy Cornelius,[4] say that emotional tears were [and are] ways to signal distress without making noise. You can make others know you are vulnerable by crying, even if you cannot speak a word. Thus, over time, according Dr. Bylsma, humans have developed a purpose for emotional tears, which is to signal that there is a problem or to ask for comfort or support from another.

vulnerableAnd the research shows that crying can be valuable in a cathartic way. If someone cries in a social situation in which the people are accepting, that person is more likely to feel better after crying. In fact, we will feel better than other social situations in which we held back tears, because we felt unsafe, in danger, or embarrassed. Furthermore, other researchers suggest that emotional tears contain stress hormones that the body can physically push out while we are crying, therefore making us feel calmer. And finally, the difference between happy and sad tears is not very big. Dr. Bylsma states that after crying the body returns to “a state of homeostasis after being aroused—whether positively or negatively.”[5]

I’m fascinated by this. I myself do not cry a lot, but when I do, I can say that the majority of the time I feel better afterwards. And, I can also say that if I cry with people who care about me and accept me, the feeling is not unlike euphoria. So what of the crying woman in Luke’s story?

It all took place in Simon the Pharisee’s house, which should tell us something. The Pharisees were mostly in opposition to Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching, and were certainly not happy with Jesus hanging out with the so-called unclean, marginalized, and sinful. Keep in mind, though, that we cannot make the Pharisees out to be the “bad people” because many times in the Gospel stories, the readers [you and I] are supposed to put ourselves in their shoes. Anyway, the story is not about Pharisees as much as it is about a brave woman who was already shunned and who came into the house [she was completely unwelcome] and brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She came from the city, but it is not said that she was a prostitute, as some interpreters say. Clearly, though, in the eyes of Simon, she was a category and not a person. She stood behind Jesus crying her eyes out, and then she covered his feet with tears and tried to dry them with her hair. She then kissed his feet and anointed him with the ointment. Of course, the host Pharisee mumbled under his breath: If this guy really were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is. She’s a sinner.

Jesus then addressed Simon by name and told him a parable. That was, after all, the purpose of such a meeting at the house—debate and discussion. The parable of the two debtors is pretty clear. Both people owed a lot to a money lender; both were forgiven. Who would be more grateful? Logically, the one who owed the most. Simon got it. Would he get that this woman was a human being, capable of love and not just a category?

Once again, in Luke, Jesus turned. Big deal! He turned toward the woman. Then, he said to Simon: do you SEE her? Yes, that’s the climax, folks. Her tears, her love, her expression of sorrow, were all accepted and embraced. She showed hospitality. She had no more debt. She was forgiven. And her tears told that story. What do you think?

Teaser for next week: Luke 8:26-39: what binds you? In other words, what are the things that keep you from being your whole self? What would it feel like to be unbound, free?

[1] Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-humans-like-to-cry/
[3]
http://www.pitt.edu/~bylsmal/
[4]
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129329054
[5]
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/10/tear-facts_n_4570879.html

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