Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘shalom’

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?

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Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

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

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

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

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

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

bad-breath4

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

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

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

Thomas!

thomastrain

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

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

The story flips forward about a week later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

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

 

Embracing Doubt and Breathing Life

John 20:19-31

philomena fieldThe movie Philomena is based on the 2009 investigative book by British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] correspondent Martin Sixsmith, entitled, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, is an older woman searching for her long-lost son. When Philomena was a young woman living in an Irish-Catholic community, she gave birth to the baby boy, only to have the child taken from her at an early age. The nuns sold the boy to a U.S. couple for adoption.

Philomena was forced, according to church doctrine, to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into her son’s whereabouts. But Philomena never stopped thinking about her son, and so thus, when she meets Martin Sixsmith [played by Steve Coogan], and he wishes to publish and investigative report of her story, the two of them embark on a quest to find her son.

Here is a clip from the movie:

The film and story of Philomena includes a rigorous examination of faith and belief. Philomena and Martin were both raised Roman Catholic, but Martin is an atheist and Philomena holds on to her beliefs about the church and her faith in God. Martin is perplexed by this, considering all the great evils that were done to Philomena and countless others by the church, in the name of God. How could someone who knew of all the evils of the church continue to be so steadfast?

It is worth watching—at the very least, to stimulate thought and conversation about two words:

Faith and Belief

Most people often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is:

Why do people believe in God?

Most people assume that belief comes before action and therefore explains choices. So, in other words, you believe something first; that belief causes you to do something.

But in fact, most people, when thinking about belief, are off-base.

Let me explain.

Belief is a principle, a proposition, an idea that you accept as true. It could be an opinion, a religious doctrine—whatever.

Case in point: close your eyes, everyone.
Imagine the color green.

Now red.

Now yellow.

Now…magenta.

How about saffron?

I cannot get inside your head and actually see how you imagined those colors, but I can tell you this:

All of us imagined the colors a bit differently.

Your green may have been darker or light than mine. Your yellow may have been closer to red or orange. Your magenta and your saffron? It depends on whether or not you ever “saw” those colors in a book, in a painting, or used that particular crayon.

This is belief. You were taught and conditioned. This is what you believe.

Belief is what we think we know to be true.

Okay, now faith. This is trust or confidence in something or someone without necessarily having concrete evidence.

The Greek language of the New Testament of the Bible seems to use these words faith and belief interchangeably. But in this case, prepositions matter.

We can believe a million things about something or someone.

But how much do we have faith in something? How much do we trust?

That is why I argue that we have to be very careful about belief, because people can believe anything! And sometimes, like in the case of Philomena, extreme, stubborn belief in something can lead to awful behavior.

But faith, on the other hand, isn’t about being stubborn.
Why? Because faith is mixed with doubt.

Let me say that again.

Faith is mixed with doubt.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once said:

Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.[1]

I love that! Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.

So with ants in our pants, let’s explore Thomas’ story.

doubting-thomas-cartoon

Jesus died recently. The disciples are locked up behind closed doors, hiding from the authorities. But keep in mind that the male disciples were more scared than the female disciples who were brave enough to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who were they scared of? Well, the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy, and perhaps the Romans, too. They were so scared, in fact, that they did not believe Mary Magdalene’s story about meeting the Jesus with a green thumb [i.e. a gardener].

Lucky for them, Jesus appears. Jesus greets them with Peace be with you, which as I’ve mentioned before, really means shalom, which means wholeness as a gift of God. Then Jesus shows his hands and side. They rejoice because they see him. Then he breathes on them. After the breath that resembles the Creator breathing life into humanity, Jesus talks about forgiveness.

I like this translation of verse 23 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good.

If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

Seems to be Jesus telling the disciples to stop being afraid. Seems like faith, in this sense, is about unlocking the doors and going outside.

But then again, John’s Gospel story is yet to introduce Thomas.

Yes, Thomas, was outside the locked doors, like the women were, and so he did not see this Jesus appearance. And Thomas was not one to believe something just because everyone else did. He was a skeptic. He knew that Jesus died. Why would he believe something that these scared guys told him? They were most likely delusional.

Then John’s story skips ahead; it’s a week later.

Jesus magically walks through a wall again and repeats the wholeness blessing. But then Jesus talks to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side. But he doesn’t’ do it. Instead, the skeptic Thomas says: My Lord and my God!

Jesus closes with:

Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

And don’t miss the last part of John’s story, reminding us to whom this Gospel is addressing.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

a: or continue to believe

e: or Christ

The story is for all the skeptics—the ones who don’t see and don’t believe.

This is a story of faith, because after the resurrection appearances, these women and men were supposed to live resurrected lives themselves. They had faith in the presence of G-d, faith in the power of love to conquer even hate and death.

And even so, these people were so full of doubt.

I really, really like the Thomas story.

But I really, really dislike how many people misquote it and push belief on other people—telling them that this bad thing happens or this will happen to them if they don’t believe a certain thing.

Or, you know, if you are struggling or suffering….

Just have more faith!

But Faith isn’t something to possess.

Belief—sure, you can possess that. It’s what your mind has been conditioned and taught, so yes—your beliefs are in your head and are yours.

But faith is spiritual—beyond doctrines, words on a page, well outside the locked, closed doors of the church!

Faith is trust in and feeling of and action performed.

I myself find great inspiration in the 5th Gospel, ironically called The Gospel of Thomas. It was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The author and exact date of the Gospel of Thomas is still being researched, but it most certainly is an early Christian writing. It contains only sayings of Jesus. Let me close with two of them, related to faith and belief.

His disciples said, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.”

Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in this one house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move Away,’ and it will move away.”[2]

Friends, don’t get caught up in belief.

Embrace the doubts you have. Embrace the living that is breathed into all.

May your faith and spiritual practice move you to peaceful, loving, and compassionate action in the world.

 

[1] Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking

[2] Gospel of Thomas, Sayings 37 and 48.

Re-framing Blessedness

Matthew 5:1-12

different-greetings3How do you greet people? How do people greet you?

It depends on where you live, of course.

In Hawai’i, someone might approach you and say:

How’s it?

In Philly and South Jersey, I hear this a lot:

How YOU doin’?

Or, this:

Whazzup?

or

What’s up, yo?

Or the really short version:

“Zup?”

But I’m originally from the Midwest where people often say:

How are ya?

or

Howdy!

And in Canada, I’ve heard:

How’s it going, eh?

In Java or the Philippines you might be asked “where are you going?”
This is a formulaic greeting and the expected answer is “over there.”

Burmese or Cambodian people may ask “have you eaten yet?” (literally, “have you eaten rice?”).
But don’t get too excited—it’s not an invitation to lunch, just a simple hello.[1]

Many cultures use important gestures as well as words. In China, you might receive a nod or bow; older generations in Hong Kong may clasp hands together at the throat level and nod; In India, people place palms together as though praying and bend or nod, Namaste; in Indonesia some say selamat, which means peace; Japanese may bow from the waist, palms on thighs, heels together; and Koreans may offer you a slight bow and handshake (right hand in one or both hands); in Malaysia, some touch the other person’s hands with both of their hands, and then they bring their hands back to the chest, a salame gesture.

There are so many ways to greet other human beings.

What surprises many people from other countries is how people in the U.S. greet one another. For example, even when people greet you with how’s life? or how are you doing? they are not wanting to hear your whole life story. People tend to expect a very short answer like “fine” or “I’m good” or “Fine, thanks for asking.”

Of course, we say fine or good even if we are having a terrible day or even if our life is in shambles. How are you? We are like trained Pavlov’s dogs:

I’m fine.

Which really means:

0120OPEDanderson-masterBut there’s a new phenomenon I have noticed.
How are you? I’m blessed.
I’m blessed.

And then, when you leave someone, they may say to you:
Be blessed!

And now trending on Twitter, the overused, incredibly confusing:

#BLESSED

I’m on my yacht near the Cayman Islands.

#BLESSED

I got the job at McDonald’s and here’s my selfie of me in my new uniform.

#BLESSED

I just had a peppermint milkshake and so far no lactose intolerance.

#BLESSED

My team is playing in the Super Bowl and I love commercials, too.

#BLESSED

My stocks just went up and I’m making it rain.

#BLESSED

Blessed? What does that mean?

The dictionary says that as an adjective, blessed means: made holy; consecrated. This of course can be used as a title for a dead person who we think was somehow holy, i.e. “the Convent of the Blessed Gertrude” or “the blessed saint Tim Tebow.”

But blessed can also mean favored, fortunate, lucky, privileged, enviable, happy. See #BLESSED

Similarly, blessed can mean having a particular quality or attribute, i.e. Warminster is a nice suburb, blessed with an abundance of strip malls.

Ironically, blessed can also mean an annoyance or exasperation. There wasn’t a blessed thing anybody could have done!

Yes, we have explore this word blessed if we are to get anything out of these famous words of Jesus [so-called sermon on the mount], found in Luke and in Matthew’s Gospel. Often called the Beatitudes, they are not just famous for Christians. People of many traditions are familiar with these words–Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. What we are looking at today is of course in Matthew’s Gospel, but you can also find a shorter version in Luke. Most people who study the Bible believe that Jesus did not say all this in one moment from a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee. Most scholars think that this sermon is actually a collection of Jesus’ words throughout his ministry, kind of like a greatest hits album.

Tour with the Rolling Stones to follow.

I have backstage passes.

#BLESSED

Now a lot of people think that Jesus invented the beatitudes but he didn’t. The beatitudes are part of a wisdom literature that dates back to the writings of what we call the OT and the Psalms and Proverbs. In Israel’s culture, poets and sages used beatitudes to encourage admirable behavior and traditional attitudes towards life. These ancient writings affirmed that blessedness was not about material fortune or prosperity. People were blessed when they were filled with and surrounded by a spiritual sense of well-being—both as an individual and as a community.

So, it’s kind of shalom-like, if you will.

Be at peace with yourself and be at peace with others.

#TRUEBLESSING

But then Jesus enters the mix with his twist of the beatitudes. That’s right, Jesus twists it. His beatitudes are paradoxical. They don’t fit our typical idea of blessedness. In fact, Jesus turns our idea of what blessed means upside down. Jesus says, in nine different ways, that being blessed means being:

Poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, peaceful, persecuted, and hated.

Uh….#BLESSED?

More like #ANNOYEDBYJESUS

Suddenly, I’m not feeling so blessed because Jesus’ beatitudes really seem to have an attitude!

But hey, let’s give it another look and see what blessed really means in another language. You see, Matthew’s Gospel was written in Koine Greek and the word for blessed is makarios. From that to the Latin word beatus. And then, to the English word blessed.

But did Jesus speak Greek as his first language? Uh, no. that would be Aramaic. And there are two Aramaic words that become makarios in Greek. They are ashrei and tovahoun. Unlike makarios, which is passive, the two Aramaic words are active. In English, their translation is wake up or get up.[2]

So all of a sudden, we are hearing this:
Wake up to be poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, and peaceful.

And get up even when you’re persecuted and hated.

I’m starting to get it, are you?

The beatitudes are more than feelings. They are not promoting any kind of self-help or get rich with Jesus scheme.
Instead, the beatitudes contradict what society says we should be about:

Make the most money; don’t worry about who you step over.
Think about yourself and your own closed circle and disconnect from others.
Be the strongest and mightiest and make war if you have to.
Don’t cry—don’t be weak.
When you give to someone, definitely ask for something in return.
Manipulate others or the earth as needed.
Give up on justice if it’s too hard or inconvenient.
If others talk bad about you, pay more attention to them than to those who know you and actually care about you.

Yes, Jesus’ beatitudes challenge our perspective and our behaviors. And they remind us that being blessed isn’t about having more things or even feeling happy all the time. In fact, Jesus’ beatitudes embrace the negative experiences we all have in life. In other words, we don’t have to answer “I’m fine” when someone asks how we are doing. We can answer honestly if we so choose. I personally like what one individual did when I asked How are you? He paused, looked up at the sky, looked over his body, pinched himself and then said: The sun is out and I’m alive.

I wonder if we were more honest with ourselves, our God, and each other, if those moments of disappointment and despair and even depression would become opportunities to find growth, healing, and wisdom. I think so. Everyone gets down, has difficult times in life, and doesn’t feel blessed at all. But if we’re honest in those moments, we can discover that all the things we chase after too much like superficial happiness, wealth, fame, and power—they don’t bless us.

#DISAPPOINTING

Instead, friends, recognize that being poor isn’t just about having less material things. It’s about being wise. It’s about detaching yourself from things and finding freedom, joy, and gratefulness in all that is simple and beautiful.

And Mourn openly and honestly when you are sad and don’t resist it; find comfort and healing.

Be humble with the animals, trees, land, and sky, and so cooperate with and enjoy Mother Earth.

Seek justice, but not just for yourself or for those who are close to you; seek justice for anyone anywhere.
This brings wholeness.

Be merciful to everyone, and mercy will find you.

Be honest on the inside, and this will show up on the outside.

Work for peace and never war, and then end your hate and start your love.

Stand up for others who are pushed down even when it will cost you something. This continues the circle of your interconnectedness to all living beings.

Accept that people won’t like you and will sometimes say bad things about you when you try to do good things. Don’t let that stop you. Instead, find joy in the fact that you even have an opportunity to do good.

Friends, don’t just be blessed. Wake up to live compassionately; stand up to live for justice.

#Amen


[1] The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash By ALINA SIMONE, NY Times, JAN. 19, 2014

[2] Abuna Chacour

PEACE: What Is It?

Isaiah 11:1-10

I thought that there was no better way to start a message and conversation about peace than to hear from the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died at the age of 95 this past Thursday, December 5th. His life and work are a testimony to what real peacemaking looks like. And that is why as we ask the difficult question today: what is peace? I wish to include Mandela in our reflection.

Often during this time of year, Advent and Christmas, the word and concept of peace can be quite superficial and abstract. We talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we hear familiar words from prophets like Isaiah, we call the infant Jesus a peace child, and we sing silent night and peace on earth until we’re blue in the face. But what does it all mean really? Does one season and one day out of the year have any real, peaceful impact on our lives and on our world?

That is the question I am holding today. Do our words and beliefs about Jesus as the one who brings peace really mean anything? Or is it just a holiday tradition of hanging up pretty lights and tinsel and singing familiar carols and exchanging gifts? Is peace real? Is Christmas about peace? Do we really live peace in our lives?

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in being calm and comfortable for a few moments on Sundays in Advent and then on Christmas eve—no interest in entering a church and singing some songs, lighting some candles, doing the same Christmas traditions—when out into the real world all is conflict, tension, and suffering. For me, hiding the tension makes me feel worse. It’s hard to sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger without thinking about kids in Syria, Palestine, Southern Sudan, West Philly, and Camden. Peace? Not so much for them. It’s painful for me to put up lights and exchange gifts when I know for a fact that there are plenty of people who see no light in their lives and don’t want gifts, because they just want food…or a job…or safety….or health.

So what is peace?

I’m coming clean here, being honest with you. This second Advent candle of peace is a tough one for me. I myself am full of tension; I’m full of conflict internally. And the world around me doesn’t seem to be cooperating.

But I do find something that speaks to me in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

I also find encouragement in what Nelson Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Peace as the presence of justice; peace as living in such a way that brings freedom to others. This stays right with the prophet Isaiah’s perspective. For Isaiah, the people of Israel had become a stump—dead, nonmoving, apathetic, unjust. So when Isaiah speaks of a plant growing out of this dead stump, it is a hope, a dream—that the people would wake up, be alive, and bring justice and peace to their lands, to their communities—to themselves. Isaiah’s belief about God was that the presence of God [called spirit] would be obvious in people because they would live differently. They would not be dead stumps but alive in this spirit. The spirit would awaken the people as an active agent of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and justice. This spirit, at work, would show itself as the poor would be uplifted [no more injustice for them]; people would be equal and not pushed down, the evil oppressors would hold no more sway.

And only then, with the dynamic action of the spirit in people to bring about justice—only then would there be true peace. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion–a little child leads all of them. These images of contrast, of yin and yang, of strength and weakness, hot and cold, opposite things living together in harmony—are the image of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which people recognize the tension of injustice and suffering and do something about it. A world where hurting and destroying is not the norm.

And now to the other questions I received this week about peace:

  1. Did Jesus have one main definition of peace or was he concerned with many different types of peace – inner peace, peace between people, peace between countries? What was most important to him when he spoke about peace?

What we know of Jesus is found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. Each time that Jesus used the word peace he usually meant shalom. This of course is the Hebrew word that expresses God’s desire for all of creation. Shalom means that people are in a good, healthy relationship with God; people are in healthy relationships with each other; they are in healthy relationships with their physical bodies and minds; and people are in healthy relationships with the whole earth [animals, trees, land, etc.]

So for Jesus, peace was about all of us living in balance—recognizing our deep connection to each other and to all living things. Jesus of Nazareth would have been well-versed in the Torah and in the writings of the prophets, like Isaiah. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he was echoing Isaiah’s call for the people to create a peace on earth. It was all about action. One clear example is in the Gospel of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39).

For Jesus, acting out shalom was the whole point. How do we treat others? This was the proof of true peace. Let’s add a cool twist to this. Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY, explores deeper.

When you slap someone on the right cheek, consider that it is a back-handed slap. Why? Because in the time of Jesus, the left hand was not used for greeting or for doing much at all in public. The left hand was used for what we now call toilet paper. Yes, that’s right. So keeping that in mind, the right hand slapping someone’s right cheek would be a back-handed slap. This demonstrates to the other person that you are above them; a back-handed slap is to push someone down or insult them as lower than you. Turning the other cheek then, is not really an act of being passive, but rather an act of showing another that he/she is your equal. It is not responding to violence with more violence. Jesus actually never taught passivity or getting walked over. Shalom/Peace for Jesus was about seeing others as equals. In the end, Jesus was concerned with a holistic peace that was demonstrated in peaceful living with others.

Question #2:

How can you create peace when the other party doesn’t want there to be peace?  Can peace be one-sided?

When we seek peace with another person and that person rejects it—this is a sign of deep hurt and a broken shalom in the other. We often forget that we cannot control the attitude or the behavior of others; we just cannot. Even if you are behaving in a most peaceful and compassionate way, this will not change the person. He/She will ultimately have to make peace with him/herself first before accepting your offering of peace. So in this case, yes—peace can be one-sided.

When we forgive or offer peace to someone, this action is healing for us. We must recognize this. Only then will we be able to see that any person who cannot accept peace or forgiveness is greatly suffering. Of course, this does not excuse bad behavior. But when we offer peace to someone, we do it because it brings peace to us and we hope that the other person will also experience such a peace. But we must accept that we cannot force a person to be at peace; this will enable us to have compassion and to be able to move on.

Good questions.

In conclusion, let’s hear these words from Nelson Mandela, reminding us that peace in ourselves, peace with each other, and peace in the world— this is not a reality for everyone. So we must join with others and be the buds that spring out of the stump—committing ourselves to peaceful, just living and recognizing that all people deserve love, acceptance, and wholeness.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

 May we keep walking as agents of peace. Amen.

Storms and the Peace Within

Luke 12:49-56

Last Sunday an unexpected visitor came to the church building. Twenty-four years old, he had the courage to drive to the NE suburb of Warminster all the way from Philly to walk through the doors of a strange church only seeking a conversation.

As a consequence, my meeting was interrupted. I was pulled out of conversations about worship music style, planning for the calendar year, leadership, etc. This young man simply wanted to talk. Could it wait? Why the interruption? I had things to do. But I left the meeting after someone hinted that he really needed to talk now. And so we did.

What I found out was that this conversation was as much for me as it was for him.

He is an incredibly intelligent, mature, and wise individual. Wise beyond his years, actually. He grew up in the church, was a “star” in the choir and everyone always referred to him as the “model” kid in the church—the highest moral character, the ethical wherewithal, the “godly” lifestyle.

But my new-found friend came all the way to the suburbs because there has been a storm raging inside of him for quite some time. Something is wrong. Something has been eating at him, little by little, causing a pause in his seemingly smooth ride through life.

Last Saturday, he came with his mom to the car dealership right next to the church. She bought a vehicle there some ten years ago. He just came to accompany her.

And then he saw the two signs on the front window of the church building.

One is a rainbow flag with the words: God is still speaking.
Image
The other is purple with the words: Open and Affirming. Image

Simply because of these two signs—visible to him from a car dealership—this young man drove from Philly to talk with some joker like me.

The storms moving him inside were related to all the hypocrisy he has witnessed in the church. People so quick to judge others for their lack of morals or their “alternative” choices that “lead them astray from Jesus”, yet these same people who judge are the very ones who also lack morals and most certainly fail at following Jesus. So they hide behind the Bible and religious tradition, sit in a pew weekly or at a table for meetings too; they think that they are holy enough to predict the weather or even who gets into heaven.

He’s had enough. The storms inside him say that there is a “gospel” to share with the world and with those who are hurting and alone, but if THIS is the gospel—hate and judgment and fear and hypocrisy—then forget it!

Because he is talented! He’s a singer, an actor, a performer. He’s a good listener. He accepts people as they are.

What does open and affirming mean? he asked me.

I tell him: It means that we try to accept people as they are, no matter what. It means that though we fail sometimes, we really seek to be an inclusive community of faith. Anyone who wants to worship or pray or learn or serve others is welcome with no strings attached. We don’t accomplish this every day or all the time, but that is what we try to be for people. Open and affirming. God loves us as we are; we ought to love others as they are.

He listens intently. And then he says:

I think that this is the gospel—to love and accept people as they are.

Eventually, he leaves—he goes back home to Philly. I go on with my day. A day later, he writes me an email thanking me for the conversation. He offers to help with any service or project coming up.

I thank him for the conversation and then I more clearly notice the storms raging inside me; and in the world.  

Today we are exploring one of Jesus’ hard sayings. Yes, it’s true—this Jesus of Nazareth of the Bible is not the friendly, Mr. Rogers character who makes us all feel better about ourselves and then tells us to go home and relax. Today we hear the peaceful guy now saying he isn’t about peace at all.

Division? Fire? Water?                      

Let’s find some context: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It’s going to get worse, of course. His ideas are dangerous. The political situation is tense.

Jesus is stressed [worn out]. Luke’s storyteller makes sure we know it.
Luke also doesn’t hide the fact that this gospel book was written many, many years after Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. The “divisions” existed within the Christian community itself—long after Jesus’ death. There is also religious persecution—something that American Christians have no idea about. But certainly people of other religious backgrounds do.

Put yourself in the shoes of an American Muslim.

What does it feel like to be mistrusted, even when you’ve never done anything suspicious? What would it be like to deal with people’s daily stares at your head scarf or to hear constant complaints about the Muslim’s need for daily prayer? With all that is happening in Egypt right now, what would it be like to be grouped together with political and religious fanatics, simply because you identify as a Muslim?

This is persecution. We need to keep this in mind in order to better understand Luke’s point of view [and Jesus’].

You see, this difficult saying of Jesus is expressing a truth that being a follower of this Jesus Way actually causes conflict and is anything but comfortable.

Quite a contrast to the typical American church ideal.

Luke calls the Jesus community the kingdom of God. This kingdom, however, is not governed by powerful people but by equity. All people are cared for, forgiveness is the mark of the community, the poor are lifted up, wealth is shared, and the weak and lonely are honored.

No doubt that if we were to transform our communities into this kind of “kingdom,” things would be uncomfortable and there would be division.

Our Open and Affirming sign [the rainbow one] was stolen the first time it was hung up outside on our building. Why, do you think?

Because taking a stand and saying to all who traverse Street and York Roads that gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people are full members of the kingdom of God and therefore full members of our church community—this caused division. It still does. People left this church because of that stand. There’s no denying it. It happened.

Now by no means am I saying that we are “right” or “more Christian” than other churches. That would be contrary to the message here and also not true. The point is that most forms of our religion called Christianity avoid creating the kingdom of God. Otherwise, churches would be full of homeless people, ex-cons, people on welfare, kids and adults with mental or physical challenges, divorcees, single parents, people who speak different languages, identify with a variety of cultural heritages, etc., etc. But that’s too hard. That could cause division.

And that is Jesus’ point in Luke’s story.

It is much, much easier to try to follow religious rules and to participate in habitual traditions than it is to ask this question: Who is in need?
Who is lost, hungry, and sad, discriminated against, ridiculed, lonely, or hurt? Who has storms raging inside them?
Let’s help them with no strings attached!
And if we ourselves cannot help them, let’s find someone who can!

THAT is not easy to do, is it?

But within this hard saying of Jesus, there is also wisdom and strength. For the conflict, strife, and division can lead to….greater peace. Shalom.

 ImageNot a superficial peace which is just the absence of conflict and therefore not real.

Instead, a peace born out of harsh reality that passes all understanding.

So we get two famous, important symbols: fire and water.
ImageNotice that they are opposing symbols. The same, yet the opposite. Both fire and water purify and clean; they can destroy, but they also bring new life.

God in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a fire—a presence with people, a voice, a guide.
Fire hones, burns, refines.

Water is cleansing, healing, baptizing, renewing.
In the natural world, living things do not resist or “fight against” fire and water. They are natural parts of creation. Nature takes them on, confronts them, incorporates them—recognizing fire and water as necessary. And then, after the water and the fire, nature is renewed. Life after death! Peace after conflict! Calm after storm!

But you and I are like the Pharisees [and many others]. We think that we can predict the weather and the natural order of things. People in Jesus’ time, where they were living, knew that rainstorms could come quickly and flood the ground. Also, temperatures in desert areas could soar in a moment and scorch everything. Water and fire. They were sure that they knew about the weather outside. But what about the weather inside themselves? What about the storms in their hearts? What about the fire and water that needed to transform their ways of thinking and living?

Already, communities were splitting. They were not noticing this. Already, they were losing touch with their true essence as human beings, as God’s children. They failed to recognize it. Sound familiar?

Do you recognize the storms within yourself?

Or do you ignore them, hoping that they will go away?

I have thought a lot about this since my conversation last week with the twenty-four-year-old with storms in his head and heart. And I’ve struggled all this week with all that is going on Egypt and around the world—the raging storms outside and inside.

Then I remembered something else that this Jesus of Nazareth said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Not the peace the world gives, because, quite frankly, the world gives us squat. Another war here. Or there. People die in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Syria…peace?

Kids get shot in Philadelphia; violence happens in Warminster and the suburbs, too. We often lose the essence of our humanity and so families are broken; and real friendships are so hard to find.

Peace? Really?

Yes, really, but not the peace that the world gives.

Not comfort.

Not sitting in a nice, comfy chair and watching the world turn.

Instead, a peace that is wholeness and truthful. A peace that doesn’t ignore the storms.

A peace that is about fire and water.
A peace that confronts the storms within ourselves.
A peace that recognizes that all of us are like nature and part of it—we have hurricanes, storms, earthquakes, and tornadoes inside ourselves.
We change as the seasons do.
And if we recognize that this is just part of our natural cycle of change…
Then, we get through those times and we emerge renewed, rejuvenated, reborn with…
Added strength, perspective, knowledge, and spirit.

And then we are able to see the beauty of the weather changes. Like the Northern Lights.
ImageImage And we are aware that we are not alone. We share these experiences with others.

We are connected, just as all of nature is intertwined.

Friends, peace is not nice and comfy. It can cause division—even in ourselves—as we seek justice, reach out to someone in need, and decide to leave our comfort zones.

But this peace-living is whole and real.

Recognize your storms and embrace them.

Be open to having a conversation or to making a connection to someone who also is dealing with storms. And don’t be afraid of the conflict. It will lead to true, inner peace.

Amen.

Peace and Presence, Inspiring Love

John 14:23-29

Graduation! It’s that time of year. Students will be graduating from high school, college, graduate school—it’s a major milestone in their lives. It is the result of a lot of struggle and hard work; the facing of challenges and the overcoming of obstacles; times when they thought they wouldn’t make it; graduation is a time to remember the people, who helped along the way—who supported, encouraged, walked with them, and advocated for them.

I remember fondly all of the times when I graduated. Each graduation was unique and important. But today I want to remember [with you] my high school graduation. I, along with two other students, was chosen to address the crowd at our graduation. The three of us, rather than give a speech, read a book. We read a Dr. Seuss book: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. I’d like to start by reading from…

ohtheplacesCover 

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

Seuss

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets.  Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”


seuss2

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there in the wide open air.


seuss3

Out there things can happen and frequently do
to people as brainy and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew.

Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO![1]

This book—and my graduation experience–came to my mind when I looked at this passage in John 14. Now obviously, Jesus was not giving a graduation speech [though I think he probably would’ve rocked it if he had]. But this part of John does sort of feel like a graduation speech for disciples who needed to hear something inspiring and relevant. Now of course not all of us are graduating soon, but I still think the message applies to all of us. You get the feeling that the words in John were not meant for just a select group of people. Jesus appears to address everyone in the challenges and the blessings of his words. That should not surprise us, though. After all, we are reading John’s Gospel, written so long after Jesus’ death. This was a Gospel that had more universal appeal, simply because it was written with a wider audience in mind. By the time these stories were written, the early communities that followed Jesus [what we now call the church] already existed.

Today we’ll need to look closer at some particular phrases in Jesus’ speech. First, those who love me will keep my word…

It can be tempting [and it has been very tempting over the centuries] to reduce Jesus’ teachings and life to rules and theological viewpoints. But let’s try to stay above that fray, as best we can. The word of Jesus is not a word per se, and certainly is not the word as defined by some to be the book we call the Bible.

Jesus’ word is a reality of being.

Remember John’s Gospel starts with that explanation. The word was there from the very beginning, the word was with God, the word was God, and the word became flesh. So word is living. And how did Jesus live?

Well, for Jesus of Nazareth, living involved the fruit of loving people. Sometimes this meant healing; others times, teaching; sometimes, feeding; and other times, caring for and guiding; other times, forgiving. That is by no means an extensive list. But you get the idea. Jesus lived to love. Love, for him, was less a feeling and more an action.

So for the disciples [and us] to keep Jesus’ word, is to keep on loving.

Just as Jesus loved, we are supposed to love. Just as Jesus healed, we are supposed to heal; just as he cared, we are supposed to care; just as he forgave, so are we to forgive; and just as Jesus gave peace and wholeness, we are supposed to…

But wait a minute. It all sounds nice, but isn’t Jesus about to ditch the disciples?
Isn’t he about to leave them alone?

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Okay, now THAT’S BETTER! Suitable for any graduation speech, I think. Yes, I’m going to leave and you will definitely be on your own. But you won’t really be alone, because an advocate will go with you on your journey. And you will have wholeness—something that is far beyond what the world can possibly offer you. So don’t be afraid.

I’m into this.

But we need to look closer at this spirit word, par-ak-letos, the Greek word that appears here and is translated [loosely] in English to both advocate and holy spirit. Let’s break it down.

Para means alongside.

Kletos means called.

Par-ak-letos, literally translated, means the one called alongside.[2]
In a daily life application, this word par-ak-letos could apply to someone who is summoned to court in Greek law to help out as an advocate—to plead someone’s case.

Keep in mind that the people of the NT were not all Greek. Yes, the New Testament, as we know it, was written [for the most part] in Koine Greek. Over the centuries, though, manuscripts of the Bible were copied and changed. This is proven, because various NT manuscript copies of the same passage but from different years are not exactly the same. Whenever you translate something from one language to another, this is bound to happen. So please understand that paraclete is a good guess. And remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and many of his disciples most likely did, too. So often when you read a Bible story, you are seeing words translated from Aramaic into Greek [and sometimes mixed together], before being translated into a language that has nothing to do with Middle Eastern languages: American English.

And just one more thing to add to the craziness. Paraclete, in Greek, is also borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT].
The word is nacham. This means comfort.
You may recognize from Psalm 23: your rod and your staff, they comfort [nacham] me.

Essentially, take the Greek word for paraclete [one called alongside] and nacham [comfort] and you get what we see here: helper and comforter, later called Holy Spirit.

At this point you may be scratching your head or perhaps wondering what’s lighting up your Twitter feed or how you can discreetly escape, but please don’t despair or turn your brains off just yet. I’m saying all this just to help us understand that all these words for spirit are not necessarily interchangeable, but words from a variety of linguistic and cultural origins trying to describe something somewhat indescribable.

The presence of God promised by Jesus is indeed mega-inclusive.

This promise that we will not be alone is bigger than we think.

Comfort. Help. Advocacy. Presence.

This could be why Jesus finishes his disciple graduation speech by talking about another elusive word.

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

Yes, peace. I’ve said this quite a bit, but it’s worth restating. Peace is a poor translation of the Greek word eirene, just as peace is a bad translation of the Sanskrit word you hear in Yoga class, namaste. Namaste actually means I bow to the god within you or the spirit within me salutes the spirit within you.[3]

A lot more than peace and love, baby.

In the same way, the Greek eirene and the Hebrew shalom mean a lot more then peace, bro!

Eirene, a translation of shalom, is promoting the well-being of all people and society. It is wholeness, abundance, reconciliation, social harmony, and spiritual and physical health.[4]  

Again, Jesus is going all-inclusive here.

First, the spirit is for all and doesn’t leave us alone.

Second, the wholeness beyond superficial understanding is poured out on everybody.

I don’t know, but I have always been greatly encouraged by this section of John’s Gospel.

Like the confused and scared disciples, you and I will go to many places in our lives. Some of those paths we walk will not be all that great. We will encounter obstacles. We will have tough decisions to make. Oh, the place we’ll go, but oh, how hard it is to go there sometimes!

But we don’t go alone, and that’s what encourages me. We are not meant to journey alone. The wholeness of God is part of our experience with other human beings who also journey with us. We meet people in all the places we go. Some help us and some don’t. Some encourage and love us, and some don’t. Some places will be wonderful; some will be meh or awful.

But regardless, we don’t go alone. And we have a loving, comforting, challenging, holistic spirit walking with us. This is not a fantasy, but a promise. If we love as we are supposed to love, we will notice that this spirit is with us. The command to love goes right along with the promise of the spirit’s presence.

Love–and you will experience wholeness beyond understanding.

So friends, let’s be a place and community of love where the spirit lives. Let’s draw the circle wide—believing that God’s promises are not just for a few, but for all. Let’s not push people down or to the side; no one should stand alone or be left alone. Let’s live and breathe side by side with people of all ages, backgrounds, beliefs, perspectives, and personalities.

If Jesus’ love knows no limits, why should ours? Our love should not be scared of borders or differences. Jesus opened doors that were once closed. He opened hearts that were hard.

We can open doors.
We can welcome and invite.
We can show hospitality to all kinds of people in a million different ways.

And when we do this, when we draw the circle wide, invite in, love people well—we notice that the Spirit is in us and part of our lives. And then, oh, the places we’ll go! Amen.


[1] Oh the Places You’ll Go! Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1990.

[2] Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary #3875 – παράκλητος

[3] Chatterjee, Gautam (2001), Sacred Hindu Symbols, Google books, pp. 47–48.

[4] Strong’s Concordance 7965.

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