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Posts tagged ‘sikh’

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.[1]

Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone. Realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.[2]

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.[3]

You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.[4]

What does unity mean to you?

bettertogetherWISC
Say or think the first few things that come to mind. What is unity? According to a mash-up dictionary definition, unity is defined as:

Being together or at one with someone or something.
Unity is the opposite of being divided.

In the world, we certainly see divisions in many aspects of society—divisions in religions, politics, culture, nationality, race, gender, world view, and many more. Keep in mind that I am referring to divisions, and not difference. Having different religions, cultures, languages, and world views is what makes us human. Difference is good; difference is humanity.

Division is something else. Case in point: I have different political views from some of my friends and colleagues. That’s fine. Some of us can actually talk about these differences without getting angry or defensive. But others who have different political views than I do cannot even engage in discourse with me. They see only their own point of view and also see my different view as a threat, or as flat out wrong. And that my friends, is division.
Last week, as many of you know, I participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk for Reconciliation in Philadelphia with hundreds of people from various religious and secular backgrounds.

peace-walk-gallery-header_0Now to some, this kind of walk is pointless, because in their view, the actual event accomplishes nothing.

So what? People go on a walk. But they are still divided! Muslim women in hijabs; Wiccan women with no head coverings; Sikh men with turbans; Jewish men with kippas; Catholic men and women with cross necklaces; Buddhists with mala beads; Hindu women with saris; hippie and hipster folk with peace signs and long hair.

From the outside, the walk doesn’t seem like anything unified at all if one thinks that differences only separate us. What they don’t know is that throughout the year, the real influence of the walk is evident. It is not about one day or one walk. It is about the relationships that are formed. People build bridges of understanding, trust, and friendship across lines of difference. A Christian woman now sees her Muslim friend not as a Muslim, but just a friend. Likewise, a Sikh college student sees a Buddhist classmate as a colleague and does not identify him by his religious tradition.

That’s what this walk is about: a commitment of individuals [and communities] to embrace difference as healthy and beautiful, and to not see difference as division.

The Christian Bible most certainly addresses the theme of division and unity in both the Old and New Testaments. I will say, however, that American Christians often understand unity to be something only within their own religious circles. So, if you happen to be Catholic, unity might mean that various Catholics should get together, be on the same page, and cooperate. Mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, do the same thing. They create regional and national events to try to make unified decisions and also to join for unified worship and prayer. And ecumenical groups have joint worship services to express unity across denominations.

By no means am I saying that such things are negative—they are not. But this is not the kind of unity that the Bible speaks of.
Remember that the various authors who wrote the Bible did so over the course of centuries. And none of them had any idea about the religion of Christianity. Zero. It did not exist. It is really important to keep that in mind when you read the Bible. Instead of Christians, there were all kinds of people who were considered to be of the Jewish tradition [and they were not all the same]. There were also Greeks, and Romans, and Samaritans, and Africans, and Arabs, and many, many more. Religiously and culturally, even in the small area around where Jesus and his followers lived, there was diversity and difference. Later on, when Paul and other followers of Jesus of Nazareth started to branch out farther into Europe and the Middle East, they encountered even more difference.

All that being said, John’s Gospel was written well after that—even after Paul’s letters. So look at this prayer that is attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in John 14:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

We don’t have adequate time to dissect every part of this prayer so we will focus on unity as it is expressed here as being one. In order to do that, I’m going to borrow from Richard Rohr and his work, the Cosmic Christ. For those of you unfamiliar with Richard Rohr, he is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and self-emptying, expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

In The Cosmic Christ, Rohr speaks about the Incarnation of God that we assume happened in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Rohr states that the incarnation actually happened 14.5 billion years ago with a moment that many scientists call “The Big Bang.” In other words, two thousand years ago, according to the New Testament of the Bible, the human incarnation of God in Jesus took place, but before that there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast” according to the story in Genesis of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 1:3-25).

This, Rohr says, was the “Cosmic Christ.” Christ is in fact not Jesus’ last name, but the title for his life’s purpose. Jesus is the very concrete truth revealing and standing in for the universal truth.[5]

This idea is nothing new. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that the world was created by one God and that this God manifested in a human or in humans. So do many, many other traditions like the Baha’i faith, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, etc. Some traditions call that divine manifestation light. This concept is often called non-duality.

Okay, stay with me here.

Nonduality or nondualism, means “not two” or “one undivided without a second.”

Across religious and philosophical traditions around the world, nondualism takes different shapes. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s take nondualism to mean that there is no absolute, transcendent reality beyond our everyday reality. The universe is one reality, and we are part of it. Explore more about this idea and you will find that there is so much harmony across religious and non-religious traditions when it comes to this perspective, i.e. that we are all part of the same universe and connected to it.

Westerners struggle with nondualism. Why? Lots of answers to that question. In my experience, it is often because people have been raised to think that there are black-and-white answers to cosmic and nuanced problems, and also that there are clear opposites, i.e. male and female, good and evil, true and false. This is what we can refer to as binary thinking. For example, consider when countries like the United States wage a “war” thinking that it is on the side of good. At the same time, those on the other side of this war also think that their cause is right. So who is right? It depends on where you live, how you were raised, and your worldview, of course. Most people from the Eastern part of the world would understand this and not be freaked out by it. It is not relativism. It is non-dualism. Both sides of a war are seeking the same thing.

Contrarily, the opposite of nonduality is duality. In the West, as individuals, we see duality expressed with this idea—that I am here and you are there. All of you and the rest of the world is outside me. In other words, we are not connected.

What happens outside of my family or social circle, or house, or church is not related to me.

 

This is, unfortunately, how many Christians know Jesus.  They say they believe in and follow Jesus Christ, but they really have no idea what that entails. What they have actually done is to make two acts of faith, one in Jesus of Nazareth [the person] and another in Christ [the cosmic]. Jesus of Nazareth was a man—a human being who taught certain things and lived in a certain way. Christ is the “anointed” one who was and is divine. This concept of Christ is much bigger and older than Jesus of Nazareth or the Christian religion. This idea that the material and the divine co-exist is ancient and spans nearly all religious and philosophical traditions.

Imagine how a non-dualistic understanding of Jesus’ prayer in John 14 could be liberating and unifying. Imagine how it could embrace difference and combat division.

Jesus understood that to be divine was to be human, and vice versa.

He was well aware of his connection to all of nature, the communities around him, and the universe. He taught that anyone who hurt others hurt themselves. Understanding the connection between himself and God, Jesus was fully able empathize with another person’s pain and even the very cries of creation. Imagine if some of these highly-contested social issues were thought of in a nondualist way. There wouldn’t be so much fear of what or who is different. Case in point: I think the hurtful controversy about bathrooms and gender identifications would be less about the religious agendas like it is today and more about people—taking into account that non-binary is not a bad thing at all. And we are connected to each other. So if certain people do not feel welcomed to use a bathroom, we also do not feel welcomed.

gender-inclusive-bathroomsNot sure what your take is on whether Jesus was divine or not. Explore that on your own. What matters most is that if we separate God from humanity and vice versa, we’ll deal in division, absolutes, and binary things. We won’t be able to see God in the face of an enemy or in the faces of people in faraway lands or even in the faces of people next door who are different than us.

If this prayer teaches me anything, it is that our divisions are made up.

We are not divided. We are all connected. And the Divine is everywhere, in all of us. We are not alone. There is light in all things and in all people.

So take that idea with you—hold it close and express it in everyday life. We should all be one—with all our differences and uniqueness. We should be unified—as humanity and the natural world. Remember that you are not separated from the people and living things all around you. Remember that you are not separated from the Divine and the Divine is not separated from you. This is love and light.

[1] Gwendolyn Brooks
[2] Rumi
[3] Askhari Johnson Hodari, Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs
[4] Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations
[5] From Radical Grace, April-May-June, Volume 23, Number 2, 2010.

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Calling All the Prodigals

Luke 15:11-33

From the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures:

To practice forgiveness is fasting, good conduct and contentment.
Dispelled is anger as forgiveness is grasped.
Where there is forgiveness,
There God resides.

HugProdigalPerhaps there is no more-recognizable story from the New Testament Gospels than the story of the prodigal son. You could make a case for the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think the prodigal story is right up there. In my view, the worth and appeal of a good story is that it can be viewed from various angles. Each time you hear the story, you may notice or feel is somewhat different. This story is like that.

The prodigal parable is a reiteration of the same theme in two other parables: one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin. In both cases, something is lost and then it is found. Simple enough, right? But we will need to notice the narration in Luke’s Gospel story before the prodigal parable begins. It goes something like this:

Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about that and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”

You have to pay attention to that lead-in. In Jesus of Nazareth’s life, he was dealing with people—real people who were treated like dirt and dehumanized. They were called names like tax collector, sinner, leper, etc. And then at the same time, Jesus was dealing with his religious colleagues, the Pharisees and scribes. Don’t assume that this is a clear-cut good vs. evil thing; it’s not. The lost-and-found parables all present the same picture:

The lost were the outcasts of society; the dehumanized; the marginalized.

They were always found and embraced as being priceless.

Those already “found” were the religious elites, the rich, the powerful.

In the end of the story, they ended up lost.

So let’s revisit the story.

The father in the parable ends up giving all his assets to his two sons. The twist is that the younger son asked for his share prematurely, because according to the culture and time period, he was supposed to wait to collect his inheritance. But the younger son oversteps his bounds and asks his dad for the money up front. The dad obliges and splits his assets in half for both sons. It doesn’t take the younger son long to start blowing the money—a couple of days, in fact. But even after he spends it all, he’s still okay being far away from home. That is, until the economy goes in the tank. No food. So he gets a job feeding pigs. He is so hungry, in fact, that he envies the pigs and what they are eating! So they must have been Iberian pigs.

Iberian01Mmmm…..herbs and nuts….

But one day he sort of wakes up and realizes that the people who work for his dad eat pretty well. So why not go back home and work? That way he would at least have food and a better life. So he concocts what he will say to his dad. It is a real dramatic speech, for sure. But as he journeys back home, his dad is already waiting for him excitedly. The son doesn’t even get a chance to give his great speech. His dad runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. He gets to wear his best robes and there is a huge party. The lost son is now found. The older brother, however, skips the party and sulks out of anger.

A quick observation:

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the younger son repented.

Perhaps he was just being practical. Read the story carefully. It wasn’t until he ran out of food and realized that working for his dad wouldn’t be so bad that he came up with a speech about being sorry for what he did. One of my professors from Princeton, the late Dr. Donald Juel, shared some insight about this: he suggests that younger siblings like the prodigal son have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. In this case, the younger son knows his dad and therefore convinces him to give up the inheritance earlier. He also knows that his dad is a big ‘ole softy and so his speech about not being worthy to be a beloved son but instead a servant would have indeed landed.

This view certainly makes the story more challenging, doesn’t it? Yes, but also more authentic, if you ask me, because forgiveness and showing grace to someone is messy.

Sometimes welcoming a prodigal back with open arms doesn’t lead to repentance or transformation. In fact, showing grace to someone often will not result in a reward and certainly not a big party.

Once you show someone grace, it is up to that person to do something with it.

We don’t know if the younger turned his life around after the party.

This parable, though not a true story, is representing real life. So the younger son represents the so-called tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The angry, older son represents the scribes and Pharisees who grumble and complain about those who hang out with Jesus. But all that really matters is that the lost [prodigal] is found and those who are already found [older son, Pharisees, scribes] are lost in their anger and resentment. They miss out on the party.

It’s a story about forgiveness.

Forgiveness. One of the most difficult things to make a part of your lifestyle. I hear it all the time. So I thought about the many obstacles to forgiveness. Here are some quick thoughts about that, some of it from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, in his article the 7 Rules of Forgiveness:[1]

One obstacle is that we sometimes think that forgiving means forgetting completely. That’s certainly not true in the case of someone who is abused, neglected, or victimized. No one should be told to forget the trauma he/she experienced.

Another obstacle to forgiveness is thinking that forgiveness makes a person weak. I think it’s the opposite, actually. When you forgive, you show great strength, because forgiveness takes time and energy and character. The people I’ve known in my life who have forgiven people, even when it was most difficult, were so strong and courageous.

The Weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
-Mahatma Ghandi

And lastly, possibly the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is anger. People find it very difficult to let go of anger. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes we assume that we should feel angry because we hope that the person the anger is directed at will accept our anger and as a result feel sorry for what they did. We assume that this gives us power. It’s the opposite, actually. The more you hold onto anger and resentment, the more you are victimized by it. Psychologists who work with patients who have been severely traumatized note that those who are able to let go of anger feel freer than ever before and also do not feel like victims any longer.

So yes, there are obstacles to forgiveness, but I think that this prodigal story helps us work through them, because the story shows us that forgiveness does not depend on the other person apologizing or accepting your offer of forgiveness. The father forgave the son even before he had a chance to apologize. The younger son does not repent at all and there is no indication that he felt sorry for what he did, because that’s not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The Pharisees, scribes, and even some of Jesus’ disciples wanted fairness in forgiveness. They wanted reward and punishment.

Oftentimes we want fairness in forgiveness, too.

The characters in the story felt that some deserved to be lost and others to be found. But Jesus rejected such a notion. Instead, he argued that the prodigal was found by forgiveness, not repentance. Moving forward, the younger son would then have to choose what he would do with that forgiveness.

Yes, this story is complicated, but it’s good news, too. Who doesn’t need forgiveness? Who wouldn’t appreciate a little grace now and then? The key is to realize that God doesn’t differentiate between prodigals. Whoever is lost is meant to be found—wherever they are on their journey. Forgiveness and grace don’t come in neat packages; they are extravagant actions. They know no boundaries or categories; they just are.

So whether today you find yourself feeling like quite the prodigal—marginalized, lost, left out—remember that you’re worth being found. And when forgiveness is offered to you, do something with it. Pay it forward.

And if during this part of your journey you feel that you’re not a prodigal, remember that we’re not made to just hang out with the people who seem “together” or “found,” whatever that means. Instead, we are supposed to seek out and befriend those who feel lost, or hurt, or pushed to the margins of society. Why? Because they deserve to be treated as the human being they are. So be lavish in your forgiving and grace giving to others. Don’t hold onto anger. Let all the prodigals, including you, experience the healing and transformation of forgiveness.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201403/7-rules-forgiveness

Adding a Friend

John 15:12-17

When I was a teenager, there was a song that I learned in a youth ministry program that stuck in my head. The song Draw Me Close by Kelly Robert Carpenter spoke to me on an emotional level.

Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend

In college, I encountered other songs. My church was Mt. Zion Baptist in Sioux City, Iowa. At Mt. Zion, music was one big emotional ball of cathartic energy. People cried, shouted, danced, laughed, applauded, and sang like their lungs might explode in five seconds. I loved it.

O what fellowship, o what joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms…I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free…what a friend we have in Jesus…

Take a listen…..

I felt that at Mt. Zion, no one cared what kind of emotional response you had to the music. Everyone had space to express themselves as they wished. If you wanted to be quiet, you could, but your neighbor just might be shouting and dancing next to you. Even the minister, while he was preaching, if he detected a tired atmosphere in the congregation, that people were bored or at least ready for lunch to begin, he’d start singing. And then the choir would join in. And then we joined. And we were back. And before we knew it, lunch was served.

Then, in graduate school. I started interning in churches. For the first time, I encountered a lot of people who participated regularly in church activities and worship, and who claimed to be Christians, but who did not care for songs like Draw Me Close or the gospel songs of Mt. Zion. In fact, I discovered early on in my professional vocation as a music and worship leader that this opposition was strong and loud.

Even church musicians and pastors didn’t want to sing these songs because, according to them, they were too emotionally-charged.

At first, I got defensive and didn’t know how to respond. But the more I researched the history of music used in services of worship [not just in Christianity, but in other religions, too]—I discovered that their argument was a reaction to changes they didn’t like. You see, music has been and always will be, emotionally-charged.

If a song doesn’t move you in some way, you don’t really remember it.

Some people, for example, claim that their hair stands up on the back of their neck when they hear certain symphonies of Mozart. Others fall into a rhythmic trance when they listen to particular hip hop songs. Still others are mesmerized by pop choruses; and some cannot get enough of the twang of country music or the hard-driving guitars and drums of heavy metal.

The fact is, music is emotional.

Now I fully admit that some songs are cheesy and annoyingly repetitive—in every genre. But our reaction to types of music is based on our social conditioning and our tastes. And so, one song that brings about a great emotional response in someone may not do the same for another person.

In spite of this, much of the Western Christian church [specifically mainline denominations with European heritage] continues to say that emotional songs are inferior to say, songs in the Reformed tradition that require an organ and were written during a certain time period and, according to them, are reverent songs that fit into 4-5 stanzas.

Again—don’t get me wrong. Reverence certainly has its place—in music, prayer, etc. I’ve been to prayer services at Sikh Gurdwaras, for example, and the songs they sing [based on their scriptures], certainly exhibit reverence for the divine presence. At the same time, though, emotion is involved. The divine is not aloof and far off, but here, in this moment, in relationship with all humankind. They use different instruments and vocal styles to reflect that. Consider also that I’ve participated in Hindu songs and prayers that follow meditative moments and then break out into celebratory clapping with cymbals. And I’ve been to plenty of live, secular music concerts during which people broke down in tears or looked like they were at Mt. Zion the way they danced and joyfully sang along.

Music, regardless of religious background, is often a bridge for us to see that humanity and the divine are connected.

That brings me to this saying in John’s Gospel, a continuation of the vine and branches metaphor. Jesus has just finished describing the beautifully-connected relationship between vinegrower, vine, and branches. Now, Jesus gives a simple command: love one another as I have loved you. And then this: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

But we need to know that laying one’s life down is not about dying. I have heard this phrase misquoted to explain why missionaries die in other countries or why Iraqi or Kenyan Christians are killed or why women and men of the military die at war.

I think this shows great disrespect—both to those who die, but also to those who are living. In John, Jesus doesn’t ask people to die for a religion.

If we say that and believe that, we are no different than any religious fanatics in the U.S. or around the world who hide behind religion in order to commit violent acts.

No, Jesus says, in the Greek, lay down one’s psuche. Psuche is roughly translated into English as breath, life-being, or soul. Apply that to the phrase and here are some possibilities:

  • lay down (or set aside) your heart
  • lay down your mind
  • lay down your soul
  • lay down your being

Keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth and the writers of John’s Gospel were all influenced by Eastern philosophy. Psuche is a holistic word to represent our humanity—including our ego.

egoEgo means “I” in Eastern philosophy. It is the the named self, self-consciousness of self-recognition.

When you say: “I am.”

Ego is preoccupied with our future existence; ego helps us survive sometimes.

But ego also can distract us from simply knowing our own selves, i.e. being present in this very moment, and then knowing the people around us.

Jesus’ teachings, and many of the teachings of the apostle Paul, were about the spiritual goal of attaining self-knowledge of one’s own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world. Some called this enlightenment [like John’s Gospel] and others called this salvation.

Simply put—it’s about knowing yourself fully, as you are.

Keeping this in mind helps us to better understand the meaning behind these Jesus words of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. We are commanded to love each other in a better way, and this love involves knowing ourselves in the present moment, and knowing those around us. It means setting aside that which would prevent us from truly loving others as they are.

The vinegrower God is a relatable divine presence. Jesus called his followers friends. The command here is not to be religious or to believe certain things; the command is to love in a certain way.

Consider Lean on Me and the great Bill Withers:

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
If there is a load you have to bear That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load
If you just call me

We all have loads that we carry in life, and our pride can get in the way of admitting how we feel in the present moment.

We’re meant to lighten our own loads, and the loads of others.

This is how God is a friend. God is not meant to be heavy at all. Jesus, a good friend, said if your load is heavy, come to me, and I’ll give you rest, because my load is light.

This is how much we are loved.

And this is how we are supposed to love others.

It is possible—it really is—to meet people where they are and as they are. If we push aside our pride and the things that distract us, we can become aware of your own prejudices or any other obstacles that keep us from loving others.

Can you accept it?

The divine is a friend.

That’s music to the ears!

Embrace friendship with your Creator; see and accept yourself as you are, in this moment; seek out and nurture divine friendship with your brothers and sisters of the world.

Rising up to See Life Next to Death: Reflection on the Events in Boston and Beyond

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

I had prepared to say something different, but Monday came and Boston became a focus for many, and as the week went on, things changed. I am not ever sure that words are adequate in this kind of situation. But when I feel compelled to respond, that means I should. As a religious leader, as a person of faith, and as a human being—I feel that I have a responsibility to respond. So I will tell you a story.

This week I was part of PECO Energy Company’s Voices of Diversity and Inclusion event. Essentially, it was an interfaith dialogue [a panel] of five people from different faith traditions. They each shared with PECO employees and executives about their faith practices, the challenges and misunderstandings they face, and how they work with others for the common good. It was a really amazing program: people talking about faith in the workplace! Well, on Thursday afternoon, after the panel, one of my colleagues, a practicing Muslim, turned to me and said:

Josh, the reports are still coming out of Boston.
I hope that the perpetrators of this violence are not Arab.
Or brown.
Or Muslim.
I hope.
Oh, I hope not.

I paused for a moment, for my colleague had real concern on his face. I found out later that his son is a college student in Boston and was due to return to school on Friday. As a parent, my colleague was thinking about a lot of things. Of course, he expressed to me that he wished this kind of violence would never happen in the first place. But he admitted that his initial thought after Monday’s events was clouded with apprehension. He had experienced too many times when Muslims in general were blamed for a wide variety of violent acts or politically-motivated incidents. When tragedies like this occur, his first thought is about the safety of his family and friends who are Muslim or who are of Arab or Indian descent. Will they be blamed for something they have nothing to do with? My colleague is a peaceful man. He also likes to joke around. His son, the college student at Boston University, is a musician and a poet.

I did not know what to say to my colleague, so I just listened. But after we talked again on Friday [he had obviously cancelled his trip to Boston], I felt compelled to say something.

I say this as a religious leader, but also as a person of faith who is friends with various people who are Muslim. What happened in Boston was awful. No one denies that this kind of needless violence is horrific. But actually, what happens in Syria every day is awful. What happens in Palestine and Israel is awful. The murders in Guatemala are horrific. The violence that is happening in Chicago to young people is awful. Any violence is awful, actually.

But over the last week, I’ve heard and seen reactions to this Boston violence turn into blaming. This is what my colleague was apprehensive about. People often blame particular groups of people—simply because of their faith tradition, cultural background, nationality—or even the color of their skin! Enough is enough. Such blaming is extremely harmful. As individuals we are all responsible for our actions. If we hurt others, we are responsible for the injury and suffering we cause. But just because individuals may identify with a particular group does not give us license to dehumanize whole religions, cultures, or nations.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said it best last week:

The first thing we have to do is to signal that [the perpetrators] represented nobody: they didn’t represent young people, they didn’t represent Chechnyans, they didn’t represent college students, they didn’t represent Muslims. The murders of all traditions belong to one tradition: the tradition of murderers.

We are tempted to jump to conclusions and to blame. When we walk through difficult and sometimes violent valleys in life, we are tempted to blame something or someone for our sufferings. We may try to convince ourselves that we will feel better and that our suffering will ease if we make someone or something responsible. But blaming doesn’t relieve our sadness, anger or fear. It just causes more suffering. When we blame or seek revenge, we dwell in hate; we walk the path of destruction. We cause fear in people.

So it is appropriate to hear the voice of Psalm 23—a song that expresses the human reality of walking through deep valleys of pain and suffering but offers a hopeful response. Everyone has to walk through such valleys. But the psalm pushes us to journey through these valleys of the shadow of death without fear. We should not be afraid because we are not left alone. We should not fear because if we walk the path of compassion laid out for us, we won’t stay in the deep, painful valleys forever. Eventually, we will emerge from that place of death to find goodness and mercy. Do not fear. You are not alone.

stillwaterIt is no surprise that Psalm 23 is often read at funerals or during difficult times of loss or uncertainty. The stark images given to us are of green pastures and still waters; good paths stretched before us to walk on. But the darkest valley is still there and we walk it, too. There is evil. There are enemies. There is discomfort and fear. But even so, in the valley and in the midst of fear and hate, there is still oil that drips and a cup that overflows. Goodness and mercy follow us.

 

tabithaThe story of Tabitha is like Psalm 23 in that it also presents us with images of contrast. A little church in Joppa close to the Mediterranean Sea. A woman named Tabitha [Dorcas in Greek] lives there. Her name, from the Aramaic, means gazelle. She is called a disciple—equal to the disciples mentioned in the Gospels. She is known for her generosity of time and gifts. But beloved Tabitha gets sick; Tabitha dies. The mourning widows of the town prepare her body in the traditional way and place it an upper room. The other disciples of Jesus there contact Peter [staying nearby] to come immediately. He does, and Peter arrives just before the burial. Broken with sadness, the women show garments that Tabitha had made, reminding Peter of her generosity. But Peter asks everyone to leave.

He falls to his knees and starts praying. Then, he says: Tabitha, arise! She opens her eyes and sits up. She takes Peter’s hand and he lifts her up. And then Peter invites all the people to come back to see Tabitha alive.

Remember that the people who wrote Acts were the same authors of the Gospel of Luke. Take a look at Luke and you will notice something. Tabitha’s resurrection story is familiar. When Peter tells her to arise he uses the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus [9:22, 18:33, 24:7]. It is also the same word used in the story of Jesus raising a little girl [8:49-56].

The details in the story are very similar, too. First, someone must be a messenger and contact someone, calling them to the place where the person has died. Second, bystanders mourn. Third, during the miracle, people must leave the room or place where the person is. Finally, the person raised up must take another person’s hand. So Acts, meant to be read with Luke, is making a point. What Jesus lived and taught is now being lived and taught in people.[1]

This healing legacy is older, though. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miraculous acts of this kind [I Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37]. Rising from death to life had been happening, with God’s help, throughout the centuries.

But for the many of us who identify with the disciple Thomas, wanting to see and touch such a resurrection—we wonder about the validity of this. But I think there is hope for us skeptics. Both the Old and New Testaments offer stories of resurrection, but not just of dead bodies. Something is resurrected in people and that something is hope. Human beings are instruments, vessels, agents for God’s transformative and merciful power. Even in times of death and sadness and despair, there is life. There is resurrection.

I guess, with God, rules are meant to be broken. Life coexists with death; joy with sorrow; healing with pain.

I hear Psalm 23 still ringing in my ears. In the valley of the shadow of death, there is still hope; there is still life.

Friends, neither this psalm nor Tabitha’s story deny the pain, suffering, and death of the world. But both say a defiant, confident thing:

We are not alone, even in the painful valley. Someone is there to offer a hand to us.

Even when we feel dead, there is still life. A hand reaches out to us.

And there is no fear.

So in light of this, if you identify as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who said do not be afraid;
if you are a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or of any faith background;
if you are an atheist or agnostic–

Let us all be advocates and instruments for peace and reconciliation everywhere and now.

If we are finally recognizing that everyone around the world walks through deep, difficult valleys; and that people across the globe, near and far, suffer needless violence; and that hate can grow out of fear and misunderstanding; can we live a double dose of mercy where there IS this hate? Can we be extra peaceful where there is violence? Can we be even more accepting of those who are different when there is prejudice and discrimination? Can we pray even more when despair seems to win?

Will we defiantly and truly live out the no fear in love thing?

I’m convinced that we can be peacemakers and bearers of reconciliation in a broken world. But we will need to acknowledge that everyone, around the world, has to walk through horrific valleys where suffering is real and it’s easy to be afraid. We share this. But when we walk through these valleys, we have a choice.

Will we become more afraid? Will we look for others to blame or even for revenge?

Or, will we walk through those valleys together? Will we accept the hand and help of another who offers to get us through those valleys? And will we offer our hand and help to others when they feel alone or suffer or get scared?

Sacred Scriptures are radically telling us something: do not fear. Again and again the scriptures tell us to not be afraid. Even in the face of death, we should not be afraid.

Why? Because the gospel is a gospel of blessed contrasts: Life co-exists with death. Where there is hate, there is love. Where there is separation there is unity. Where there is ignorance there is understanding. Where there is violence there is peacemaking. In the valleys of doubt and fear, there is comfort and confidence. When we feel completely lost, a path of goodness and mercy is laid out before us.

So friends, what life will you bring to a dead relationship or situation today?

What bridges of mercy and compassion will you build this week?

Who will you reach out to in the deep, difficult valleys of life?

Rise up without fear. Rise up to love. Amen.


[1] John C. Holbert, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, http://www.Patheos.com.

Hmmm…Bread

John 6:35-51

NYE Reflection #4: Imitating Bread

 

VIDEO/STORY: JR Martinez: you have a voice: you want to make a change?

JR Martinez’s story is inspiring. In the blink of an eye he went from a confident nineteen-year-old in Iraq cruising in the desert in a Humvee to a helpless, burning soul trapped inside a military truck torn apart by a landmine. Then, a bitter, painful recovery in a hospital bed. 34% of his body burned, lacerated liver, broken ribs. A glimpse into a mirror to see that his face and body would never be the same. He shouldn’t have survived. Even when he did make it to a hospital, he almost didn’t survive. How could he recapture his will to live? What was the point? But something clicked in JR after his mom strongly told him that it didn’t matter what he looked like on the outside. He started to realize that no matter how dark the place was that he was in, it mattered more how we he would choose to live his life. What mattered most was who he was and how he lived. So seven months later as an outpatient he visited another injured, depressed patient and shared his story with him. JR found that this helped that individual hope. He started visiting other patients. He started encouraging people with his story. He started to uphold a new philosophy by keeping 2 words in his back pocket: adapt and overcome. JR moved from imagining to happening. Rather than being paralyzed by the tragedies and struggles of life, he chose to act, and his voice and his story continue to bless people and inspire them to make positive changes in their lives.

Katie Britt, one of the participants from UCCW, was inspired and moved by the whole experience of NYE. Katie has a unique perspective and reflection that she will share with you now.

As I hear Katie tell her story–as I remember JR Martinez’s story—I am inspired and encouraged by how their experiences, but good and bad, moved them to do something positive. I know that Katie will take these experiences with her to college and find ways to bless others and accept all people for who they are. She will encounter obstacles, but like JR, Katie will find ways to adapt and overcome. But I admit to you that this week most of my thoughts have stayed in the dark place that JR talked about, as I continue to think about the events of last Sunday. I’m sure most of you know of what happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, at the Sikh Gurudwara, the place of prayer, worship, and community for members of the Sikh religious community. A peaceful and well-established community of Sikhs in that part of Wisconsin is devastated by the loss of six human beings at the hands of a gunman. There is no explanation, no appropriate words to say. It’s just tragedy, loss, anger, sadness, and pain. When I heard about the shooting, my mind raced back to our visit to the Sikh Gurudwara in West Philadelphia. It was only last December 4th that members of this church—youth and adults—experienced the hospitality of the Sikh community in Philly. We experienced their prayer service, wore head scarves, and shared food with them. And now this. One of over more than 700 attacks on Sikh communities in the United States since the events of September 11th, 2001. Why Sikhs? What have they done? Have they prayed too much? Have they been too peaceful? Why?

The answer lies on the outside. Many, many people in this country see turbans and headscarves and think one thing: Muslim. Still others move much further to: terrorist. Suddenly, what’s on the outside seems to matter so much more than what’s on the inside. I spent a few days talking with my friends and colleagues in the Philadelphia interfaith community. There was candlelight vigil in Philadelphia. There were letters, phone calls, and emails to the Wisconsin Sikhs, but also to the Philly Sikhs. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus–people of various faiths wanted to show their support and express their great sadness. But I sat in emptiness wondering why it always takes something as horrific as this for us to wake up. I questioned why especially in our Christian churches we choose to remain so ignorant of our neighbors—how they live, practice their faith, who they are as people. I just wondered if we actually lived what we say we believe on Sundays—how would that change our world, or at least the little corners of the world we live in? Instead of being silent, what if we used our voices loudly to speak out against discrimination and prejudice? What if we believed that the men, women, children, and youth of the Sikh community were part of our family?

And then my thoughts turned to bread—the delicious bread that the Sikh people shared with us on that December afternoon. We dipped it in the curry and the yogurt sauce. We laughed. We learned as they taught us. We asked questions. We sat on the floor together. I left the Sikh Gurudwara filled. Why? Was it the bread, or was it something else, something way more significant and important? And why now, after the violent event of last Sunday, did I feel so empty? I felt hollow and with a bad taste in my mouth, because I don’t understand how we as human beings can hate, hurt, and kill simply because of someone’s appearance, or simply because we don’t know anything about them and they are different, so we assume that they are a threat to us. And my emptiness deepens when I think about my own Christian community—that often we are silent when it comes to injustices, persecutions, prejudices, and hate. I watch the NYE videos and remember how accepting and passionate about justice the youth were for those 5 days in Indiana, and I wonder why we don’t keep that going.

And I continue to think about bread—and this time, I wonder about the bread that Jesus talked about. We’re reading John’s Gospel again, and once again, we find Jesus using that famous I AM statement. Should bring us back to the Moses and the burning bush story. The I AM, ego eimi in Greek, appears 24 times in John’s Gospel. It’s Jesus taking on a prophetic role, being the voice and human embodiment of the Still-Speaking God. This time, I AM the bread of life. The divine name of God is linked with earthly, natural things. It makes sense if you think about it. The dust had settled after such an amazing event involving fish and bread [again] when 5000+ people were fed. People were in awe. Jesus wasn’t impressed, though. He tried to move the people to think differently about what had happened. They were thinking about wheat, white, rye, or pumpernickel. Jesus was thinking about life. The people remembered manna from heaven—all the things from their past. Jesus called them to the here and now.

So of course there was resistance to Jesus’ message, but it wasn’t as we often paint it. It wasn’t resistance from the Jews in general. Keep in mind that Jesus himself and the majority of his disciples were Jews. No, this resistance and argument came from within Judaism itself. The Jews of the temple aristocracy were not ready to accept this new perspective that seemed to feed so many with radical ideas. Again in John’s story, our author reminds us that Jesus wanted the people to “see” with new eyes. In order to understand living bread the people needed to see a new way.

It’s at this point that Jesus brings his message home. He uses the phrase “truly, truly,” what we call the double amen saying. The double amen is meant to grab our attention, to let us know that something important comes next. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. But the English translation of whosoever believes sells the Greek short. This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] and then obtaining eternal life. It’s a verb in Greek that is less related to the head and more about action. Truly, truly, I say to you, whosoever lives faith has eternal life. Consistently, Jesus’ message was that faith involved an action. People were not healed simply because they “believed” in their heads. They were healed because they reached out to touch a cloak, put down their mats to walk, ripped off bandages, climbed trees, and physically changed direction. The eternal life, the living bread, was not some sort of heavenly goal that you waited for your whole life, but was instead a way of day-to-day living in the now of God’s loving presence.

As people sought to live out this idea, the concept got practical. Be Imitators of God, Paul said. Don’t just talk about Jesus and living bread, but live it out in the world. Don’t just say you love God, but show it by loving another person. Don’t just talk about justice, but make it happen in your community. Don’t just quote scriptures, prayers, and songs, but walk, run, jump, and move to do works of compassion and mercy. Bread that lives. A message grounded in action. It’s like Mahatma Gandhi once said: my life is my message. Jesus of Nazareth modeled this. As bread of life, he gave his life for the service and love of others. He became nourishment for those who were hungry, refreshment for those who were thirsty. He embodied this. Then he mentored others to do the same. We, imitators of God, are to be bread for the world. We are to embody this love, grace, compassion, and life-giving service in the world. But we must remember that we are not perfect—not superhuman bread, not puffed up about it, not pious, not overly proud or sure that we’re better because we’re bread. Otherwise, we will not be nourishment or refreshment to those around us. But if we’re ourselves, admitting that we don’t have all the answers, that we fall, too; that we struggle with faith, money, family, behavior, and life—we humbly become the bread that truly feeds people. Those who encounter us will find a friend or an advocate. Those who are oppressed or pushed down will find safety in our standing with them and for them.

Friends, as people of faith who follow this Jesus Christ, we are supposed to believe that our lives are active participation in the work of God that feeds the world. We’re called to embody a God who gives of self without reward in mind. We’re meant to eat of the living bread that fills our souls with compassion, honesty, mercy, and love. But if we claim this bread, this Jesus Christ, we do so at our own peril. As fellow preacher Rev. Juan Huertas says:

We cannot eat of this bread and forget.
We cannot eat of this bread and walk away.
We cannot eat of this bread and go on with life as usual.[1]

My empty feeling this week stem from this disappointment—that in the church we often pay little attention to being “feeding people,” we spend less energy seeking to be a community of the “living bread for the world.” Sadly, we often spend more energy fighting over the things that separate us, the things that exclude others, that close our doors. We even start to question whether certain people are created equally in God’s image. And yet, we’re offered this living bread. What will we do with it? Will we replace hate with love, ignorance with understanding? Will we decide that being a follower of Christ means living as a follower of Christ, being bread of life for whosoever needs it? I hope and pray that it doesn’t take tragedies for us to really do this. May we use our voices to encourage, bless, and stand for justice. May our hands and feet move to acts of compassion. May we be living bread in all places and times. May we see with new eyes that this kind of living is God’s loving presence in the world. Amen.

 


[1] Rev. Juan Huertas pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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