Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘spirit’

Spiritual Quotient

John 14:15-21

There is a book that I have recommended and I’ll do it again. It is SQ 21, or Spiritual Quotient 21, by author Cindy Wigglesworth. This book really spoke to me and inspired me; I highly recommend it and would value your response to it. Ms. Wigglesworth defines spiritual quotient as: the ability to behave with wisdom and compassion while maintaining inner and outer peace regardless of the situation and emphasizes the urgent need for development of the SQ if we as human beings are to navigate this complicated and often disconnected world and above all, to experience spiritual health as individuals and communities.

sq 21
Oftentimes, we react to the issues and problems in our personal lives and in the world with a regression to survival modes—leading to unhealthy behaviors, division, isolation, and personal suffering. As a whole human race, when we regress to survival mode, we fall back to leaders who command and control, create hierarchies, bureaucracies, and corporations, all limited in their effectiveness and certainly not mechanisms for positive and lasting change.

 

I would argue that part of this is because we have gotten to a point in which we neglect spirituality.

For example, when kids and youth are in school, we are absolutely focused on their retention of knowledge and how to best help students to function intelligently. Furthermore, in general, we “ooh” and “aah” at people who have high IQs.

On the other hand, I have great respect for teachers who really care about their students, but not just their IQ. Good teachers also care about student’s EQ—emotional quotient. How are these children and youth learning and developing emotional intelligence? I am absolutely grateful and inspired by those of you who are teachers and are committed to the emotional intelligence of your students. It is vital. And the EQ leads to the SQ, the Spiritual Quotient.

Spirituality may be an elusive term or concept for you. Let’s attempt to imagine spirituality as the use of the brain, feelings, and experiences, leading to something transcendent. Nearly every faith tradition and philosophy emphasizes this kind of spirituality, teaching that spirituality is the development of understanding of others with kindness and is being in service of something greater.  From this core is born beautiful ideas like the so-called “golden rule,” a cross-pollinated value across religions. It starts with: “don’t hurt someone, unless you want to be hurt. Then, it evolves to “love one another as you wish to be loved.” Finally, at its peak, it becomes “love others as I [insert higher power/god] love you.” It is a love of generosity and is reciprocal.

Allow me to share a story. This story is an old one, from India. I’m retelling it in a similar way to Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, an Indian yogi, mystic, and poet. Many years ago, a family in India owned acres of land. The parents who owned the land had two children. When the children were grown, the parents knew it was time to hand over the land to their children. So they did, though they did not split the land in two, rather they promised half of the produce of the land to each of their children—grains and such. Time passed, and the land produced. One of the children got married and had 5 children; the other person did not marry or have any children. Time passed, and one day the person who was married with 5 children thought: my sibling is alone; no children, no partner. Why do I need all this produce, if I am not alone? So one night, the person snuck some grains and produce out of the storehouses and placed it in the sibling’s storehouse. This continued for some time. But then, one evening, the other sibling who was unmarried and had no children, thought: my sibling is married and has 5 children. I live alone. Why do I need all this produce? So the unmarried person snuck some of the produce to the other sibling’s storehouses. This continued for some time—both siblings sneaking grains and produce back and forth without knowledge of what was happening. They were both participating in necessary work, don’t you think? Reverse osmosis. Finally, one evening, when both siblings were sneaking the bags of grains to the other storehouse, they bumped into each other in a certain spot on their property. They both did a doubletake, were surprised, and also embarrassed. They were very embarrassed by being caught in their generosity. Clandestine generosity that caused them discomfort.

So that spot on their land, where they met in the night, was a place they did not return to. Years later, after the two siblings had passed on, the town near their property decided that they wanted to build a temple. Where would they build it? They decided that they would build the temple in the exact spot where the two siblings had met in the night, surprised by their generosity.

So it goes that if we do not create that space within us, we will not build a temple.

Divinity will not be a living reality in our daily life. So we are to create that space within us, to build that temple, reaching out, stepping out of our survival instincts to do something generous and kind, that little something.

This is the idea [and practice] of spirituality, of deep connection, which says: we are DEEPLY connected. Think for a moment about anyone you know or have known who was what you would describe as “deeply spiritual.” What characteristics describe them? I don’t want to speak for you, but for me, the deeply spiritual people I have met were created that space within them and demonstrated love and care.

This leads us to John’s Gospel, with the same reciprocal, spiritual theme of the commandments of God being summed up like this: love God, love yourself, love your neighbor. Done.

In terms of spirituality, John refers to the Spirit of God within us as the “advocate” or “comforter.” It is a spirit of honesty that won’t lie to you or manipulate you; it is a spirit of healing and of love. And this spirit is in you; it is actually part of your makeup.

Jesus, a representation of God’s presence and love, does not leave humanity all alone. The spirit of Jesus, this same spirit of healing and of love, lives—not in a church, not in a religion—but in you. In all of us. When we see love; when we see compassion; when we see acceptance; when we see or experience healing. We see and experience this spirit.

Further, loving Jesus is not a test. It is a not a belief system. Remember that in John’s Gospel, we are looking at the most recent Gospel writing and the most inclusive in terms of audience. There is no exclusivity in John. The idea of loving Jesus is not saying that if you don’t love Jesus you are not loved or you will not have access to God’s love. It is simply an attempt to explain that this type of agape, holistic love is reciprocal. Jesus loves and receives love. God is in Jesus and Jesus is in God. We are in Jesus and we are in God. God is in us. It is not meant to be linear or predictable. It is precisely the opposite. It is spiritual. It is the spirit that lives in that space we open up inside ourselves.

When Jesus says that the disciples “know” the spirit, this [in John’s Gospel] means that they are in relationship. Abiding, being one, and knowing, are all the same thing in John. This is about connection. And this connection is called love. And love is the opposite of fear. Those who are connected to God’s love are connected to each other. And they live out that connection in the world. This gives them meaning. So may all of us create spaces within ourselves, to build temples of compassion, kindness, and reciprocal love. It is vital to our identity and to our world.

 

Spirit Sightings Inviting Change

John 3:9-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit-Connected Truth-Living

John 16:12-15   Inclusive Bible

I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. That is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.

connectTrying something new. Each week I would like for you to engage with me in what many refer to as conversational preaching or dialogical preaching. The general idea of such a practice is that the message comes from not just one person [i.e. me or any other preacher] but instead is a message formed in community. This will be a work in progress, but I am excited to see what will happen! There are a couple of people engaged in such work that I have gleaned wisdom from. First, Bruce Reyes-Chow, a minister in the PC USA and a consultant for the Center for Progressive Renewal, an author and speaker, or as he says: ⅕ Pastor and Chaplain, ⅕ Preacher and Speaker, ⅕ Consultant and Coach, ⅕ Blogger and Author, and ⅖ Stay at Home Dad.

Bruce recently gave a presentation for the Festival of Homiletics about conversational preaching. In his presentation, he affirms the possibilities of such a community-based sermon style, leading to such things as: healthy hospitality, creative space use, integrated worship. He states:

Conversational preaching pokes at our willingness and ability to graciously engage with others about issues of faith.

In this type of sermon, we can model disagreement, engage in faith re/formation, and expand our ecclesiology, i.e. our connection to the wider church and beyond. The dialogical sermon also helps individuals in the community of faith increase knowledge about the Bible and theology, develop broader perspectives, and to embody emotional and spiritual intelligence. Conversational preaching allows the community to approach and embrace common truths and bounds and promotes the health of community.

Doug Pagitt is the founder of Solomon’s Porch, a holistic missional Christian community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is also one of the founders of Emergent Village, a social network of Christians around the world. Pagitt is an author, professional speaker, and consultant for churches, denominations, and businesses on issues of postmodern culture, social systems, and Christianity. He recently was interviewed by the United Church of Christ and you can find that article here.

Pagitt actively engages in dialogical preaching and Solomon’s Porch is a faith community that knows nothing else. They work together to craft the message each week. In essence, here is how it works:

The speaker says something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of a second person’s statement. In turn the speaker thinks something he/she wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So now everyone ends up in a place they couldn’t have come to without the input they received from each other. In a real way the conversation has progressed.[1]

Sermons belong to the people—not the preacher.

So that is what we will do. Here is the format we will start with. As I said before, it will be a work in progress, and I hope that via your feedback and participation, we can agree upon a way to do this that works well. On this blog, you can comment, of course. I also encourage you to email me if you wish to engage in further dialogue.

Here are the steps I will start out with:

  1. Induction : considering the context of the story/scripture passage and the community and those present in that community
  2. Discussion: there will always be Q & A with those present [in this case, online]
  3. Interviews and Sharing: at various points, invite people to share a story that relates to the topic. [guest writers and bloggers]
  4. Collaboration: At the end of each message, I’ll give the teaser for next week and invite you to make comments during the week via email, social media, etc.
  5. Note-taking/Research: at certain points we will encourage people to research certain things or to take notes.
  6. Evaluation: we will briefly sum up and evaluate the message.

So let’s get started. Today’s topic, like last week, is indeed the Spirit. We are looking at John’s Gospel and what is often called Jesus of Nazareth’s “farewell discourse” because he is about to leave his friends, the disciples. The context is of course that the disciples are scared, doubtful, and a bit confused. Jesus responds by speaking comfort to them, promising that even when he is gone that they will not be alone. The Spirit is the word parakletos in Greek, now called the Spirit of Truth. This Spirit will lead the disciples. The parakletos is an extension of Jesus Christ. As the disciples had been encouraged to follow Jesus on “the way” now they will be led on “the way” by the Spirit. Of course, Jesus is referred to as “way” and “truth” and “life.”

In other words, the disciples will not be abandoned, even though they think they will be. They are left in good hands. The Spirit will hear and then speak to them. This Spirit will point to a way forward, something beyond the limited and often imbalanced existence. This Spirit is present in all times and places.

Considering that background, my first thought is about the current state of the faith community I serve called the UCC in Warminster. In various conversations I’ve had with many people, I know that some are fearful of being abandoned, i.e. because we are still in the transition of looking for a new space and because we are in the process of re-organization, and because of money. Some are fearful that the congregation won’t make it and that they will be left without a faith community. They care about UCCW and want it to thrive and grow. So they are fearful and anxious. It isn’t change that they are worried about, it is loss. They don’t want to lose this congregation.

I hear this loud and clear, and often I share many of these feelings and thoughts. Of course, I admit to being in a different position than they are, because as pastor of the congregation, this is not only my faith community but also my job—my livelihood. So the anxiety or fear, quite frankly, is both about the congregation [not wanting to lose the community], but also the anxiety of losing a job and the uncertainty of that financial situation.

And yet, for some reason, the fear and anxiety I feel, though very real, does not take over my excitement and enjoyment as part of this community. If you were to ask me why I keep doing this, in spite of the challenges, I would say it’s because I am still having fun doing it, that I find joy in the little things and that I am still very hopeful about today and tomorrow. For me, this is the spirit at work in me. I can be honest about my feelings of anxiousness and even fear, and that leads me to balance and wholeness. The spirit comforts me with honest feelings and for me that is truth.

So let me ask you. What questions do you have? What does this spark? Question time.

Okay, now here is the teaser for next week:
What is faith to you? Can faith lead to healing? If so, how?

So what did we learn? How did it go? How can we improve?
Thanks for participating!

[1] Pagitt, Doug.  Preaching Re-imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Pentecost Inside, Spirit Outside

John 14:8-17; 24-27

 

What is on the inside eventually shows itself on the outside.

emotionsHave you seen the Pixar movie Inside Out? Many have, but just in case you missed it, Inside Out’s story revolves around a young girl named Riley, who is uprooted from her comfortable Minnesota home when she moves to the busy and chaotic San Francisco.

rileyHer emotions—Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Joy—disagree on how to handle this dramatic change.  Their disagreements start to stir up trouble in Headquarters, the central living and working place for the five emotions, and the audience is invited to watch as Riley and her emotions navigate and interact with the world around them. Inside Out illustrates how our minds react in social situations and create, process, and alter memories.

 

In essence, the movie confirms a universal truth of humanity:

For every feeling we have there is a thought, for every thought we have there is an action, and for every action there is a social reaction.
Take a look at the many emotions of Riley.

Inside Out is indeed about our emotions, and additionally, I also think it leads us to think about our spirituality, which is in fact related to our emotions. If you’re wondering what I mean by spirituality, for the sake of this conversation, take it mean: a sense of connection to something bigger, A universal human experience—something that touches us all.

We all feel emotions. We all try to navigate those emotions. We think about our emotions. We all act on those thoughts. And our actions affect those around us.

Are you with me so far? I hope so. Now, stay with me, if you will, as I relate this to this thing called “Pentecost” in the Christian tradition.

 

Pente is a Greek prefix for the number 5 or the number 50—depending on the context, and would have been said by Greek-speaking Jews centuries ago. Later on, in Eastern Christianity, Pentecost was designated as a festival celebrated 50 days after the day when people commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

But Pentecost as a festival did not originate in Christianity; it comes from the Jews.

It was called the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot in Hebrew. This festival will begin Saturday, June 11th and end on Monday, June 13th. People will read the Torah, fast, eat special foods [specifically dairy products], and pray.

Shavuot is a celebration of the gift of the covenant—in other words, the giving of the Law [Torah] to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews celebrate Shavuot 50 days after the first Seder meal [linked to Passover] to remember the Torah and God’s promises.

Honestly, Pentecost [for most Western Christians] is not much of a consideration. Christmas [although less a spiritual tradition] and Easter are more known and widely observed. Pentecost is less-known, perhaps because it is about something called the spirit, and that in and of itself might seem elusive. Biblically, the tradition of Pentecost is based on the story in the book of Acts in the NT where the Spirit descended on those who were followers of Jesus Christ. Pentecost was historically known as the “birthday” of the Christian church, at least symbolically.

We are looking at John’s Gospel, however, and not Acts. John does not refer to any such event but instead tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his understanding of the Spirit.

And I will argue that this Jesus teaching in John is an “inside-out” teaching.

You see, Jesus’ followers, before and after his death, were not sure that they had what they needed to navigate life. It’s the universal idea of scarcity, that our ability to wake up, breathe, and to be alive is not enough. There is something missing.

We can most certainly empathize with the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. No question about it. They wanted concrete answers about the meaning of life. They wanted assurance that they wouldn’t be all alone. They were human.

And Jesus’ message to them reflects that. It is a message of help, comfort, and truth. Jesus promises that the spirit will be with them—no matter what. No wait—the spirit is also IN them. The word for spirit is Paraclete and originates from ancient Latin and ancient Greek. It means mediator or advocate. But if we really want to dig into its original meaning, a Paraclete is a person—someone who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and one who literally stands with someone and intercedes on her behalf. This is the Spirit of truth, not like the world promises, not like preachers, churches, religions, or companies try to sell you, but the spirit who lives in you, and she will always be in you.

Jesus wasn’t done. The spirit also leads to peace. Peace is eirene in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew shalom. Shalom is more than absence of conflict.  It includes maximal well-being for people and for society. Shalom is characterized by wholeness, healing, abundance, concord, reconciliation, social harmony, and spiritual and physical health.

We must notice here, however, that all this happens within the context of great sadness.

In the story, there is no repression of sadness here. Those who loved Jesus knew he was dead. But the message of John is honest. Sadness is recognized as something vital to our well-being, something to mindfully embrace—rather than to suppress. And the presence of the spirit speaks to this. The spirit is ever-present, even in our sad times. The difficult emotions that we often try to push down are recognized. The disciples felt sadness on the inside and expressed it on the outside. The spirit of wholeness, forgiveness, peace, and balance was also on the inside. How would they express that on the outside?

It is a legitimate question, and one that both Inside Out and John’s Gospel challenge us to ask ourselves. We feel all sorts of emotions inside.

How often do we suppress those feelings?
Are we honestly thinking about our emotions and where they come from?
Are we aware that our thoughts about our emotions lead to actions?
And, are we aware that our actions affect those around us?

Friends, maybe the religious significance of Pentecost isn’t widely known or observed, and perhaps that is okay. The idea, though, that a spirit lives in each one of us and accepts us as we are, and actually encourages us to be honest about what we feel, moving us to honest and compassionate action with others, is a beautiful and transformative thing. Keep in mind that this spirit of love, wholeness, and peace is poured out on all people; that should be emphasized. This spirit is freedom to be yourself; you don’t have to suppress who you are. This spirit makes all things new—meaning that each day of your life is a new beginning. No matter what happened yesterday, it’s over! This spirit brings life and makes you come alive, realizing that you have all that you need. Scarcity is not the problem; believing that you are not enough is the problem.

The spirit reminds you that if you love yourself as you are and you love others as they are, you keep the commandments that really matter.

Who you are on the inside shows itself on the outside.

So embrace, on the inside, a peace that lives in you—not the false peace that leads to more suffering, but the peace that is wholeness of heart, mind, and body. The peace that says to you: there’s no need to be afraid. Be bold, be strong–be you! This spirit moves you to be your higher self but also moves you to accept when you fail, when you are sad, angry, happy, or joyful. The spirit accepts all your emotions.

This spirit lives in you; now allow it to be evident on the outside in how you live and treat others.

The Three Ps, Every Day

John 15: 26-27, 16:4b-15     Inclusive Bible

Note: Paraclete can be translated: one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and/or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate

When the Paraclete comes, the Spirit of Truth who comes from Abba God, whom I myself will send from my Abba—she will bear witness on my behalf. You too must bear witness, for you’ve been with me from the beginning. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you. Now I am going to the one who sent me–yet not one of you has asked, ‘Where are you going?’ You’re sad of heart because I tell you this.

Still, I must tell you the truth: it is much better for you if I go. If I fail to go, the Paraclete will never come to you, whereas if I go, I will send her to you. When she comes, she will prove the world wrong about sin, about justice and about judgment: About sin—in that they refuse to believe in me; about justice—because I go to Abba God and you will see me no more; about judgment—for the ruler of this world has been condemned.

I have much more to tell you, but you can’t bear to hear it now.

When the Spirit of Truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. She won’t speak on her own initiative; rather, she’ll speak only what she hears, and she’ll announce to you things that are yet to come. In doing this, the Spirit will give glory to me, for she will take what is mine and reveal it to you. Everything that Abba God has belongs to me. This is why I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and reveal it to you.

graduation_capsGraduations are upon us.

It’s that time of year again when high school, postgraduate, and graduate students line up in robes with funny hats and tassels. After a painful race to the finish line of exams, papers, projects, and theses, they will sit in seats for a couple of hours listening to speakers and hearing their names called. They’ll march up to the stage and shake some faculty members’ hands; they’ll get a diploma [or in some cases an empty container, because their diploma gets mailed to them afterwards]. People will clap and take lots of pictures. Parents and grandparents will cry.

And pretty much all of the graduates will be in a state of shock and wonder.

Is it really over?

All the work, all the stress, all the challenges, experiences, and all the friendships?
Is it really over?

I remember all three of my graduations as being completely surreal. I mean, how can you really sum up years of your life in a ceremony that lasts a couple of hours? The truth is that you can’t. The robes, funny hats, tassels, diplomas, and ceremonies just don’t cut it. Yes, we mark these occasions as special, because to some extent, they are. But certainly, a graduation ceremony is no more special than any of the days or moments during the four years of high school or college. Certainly, those years are not defined by a piece of paper called a diploma. What about the relationships you forged? What about the challenges you overcame? What about all the things you learned, not just from books, but the things you learned about yourself, others, and the world?

We put so much effort into marking the occasion of graduation.
But once the hats are thrown up in the air and the parties end, what next?

Will tomorrow also be a special day with funny hats, robes, and celebration?
This is the question I would like for you to consider.

Is it possible for everyday to be a special day?

Mull over that for a moment.

And now, let’s move from funny hats to funny words, all beginning with the letter p.

Paraclete, Pentecost, and Promise anyone?

Certainly, the first two “p” words are strange.
What do they mean anyway?

Let’s start with Pentecost.

Pente is a Greek prefix for the number 5 or the number 50—depending on the context, and would have been said by Greek-speaking Jews centuries ago. Later on, in Eastern Christianity, Pentecost was designated as a festival celebrated 50 days after Resurrection Sunday.

But Pentecost as a festival did not originate in Christianity; it comes from the Jews.
It was called the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot in Hebrew.

This festival began Saturday, May 23rd at night, and continued through Monday. People read the Torah, fast, eat special foods and specifically dairy products, and pray.

Shavuot is a celebration of the gift of the covenant—in other words, the giving of the Law [Torah] to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews celebrate Shavuot 50 days after the first Seder meal [linked to Passover] to remember the Torah and God’s promises.

And now, what in the world is a Paraclete?
No, it’s not a pair of soccer shoes that float through the air.

parachute

Paraclete originates from ancient Latin and ancient Greek. It means mediator or advocate. But if we really want to dig into its original meaning, a Paraclete is a person—someone who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts, one who refreshes, and one who literally stands with someone and intercedes on her behalf.

This is often why Paraclete is translated advocate in English Bibles. But as you can see, Paraclete is the word used in John’s Gospel, and its meaning is wider than just advocate.

And the last p word you’ve heard before, but do you really know what it means?

Promise.

promise

Certainly, there are types of promises, some of them being: vows, oaths, commitments, and even legal contracts. The type of promise that goes with the other two p words of Pentecost and Paraclete is really none of those types of promises.

It is a covenant promise.

Keep in mind that a covenant is very different than a contract, which is based on law, and often built on fear. A covenant is based on grace, and built on love.

Covenants have a growing edge; they are fluid; they don’t impose limits.
In a covenant, accountability is mutual.

And finally, covenants require community affirmations and re-affirmations.

Of all the three p words I’ve mentioned, perhaps promise is the most important one, or at least the word from which the other two flow. There is no Pentecost with promise. There is no Paraclete without promise.

You see, Western Christians are notorious for marking liturgical days [like Pentecost], putting on strange robes and funny hats, giving special speeches, and observing one day as an extra special one.

But that’s not at all what Paraclete and Promise are about.

The Paraclete, the Spirit of God, is a promised reality. The Spirit is not limited to a day, or a time, or a place, or even to a religion. The Spirit flows as it wishes, and it flows through all. And the Spirit is part of the covenant promise, for the Spirit flows with grace and fills with love.

I return to the question I asked you to consider:

Is it possible for every day to be a special day?

Consider: what if every day were Pentecost?

No waiting for some mythical “Holy Ghost” to come down, or for some second coming—no waiting. Today.

What if impatience for “better days” or anxiety over what is to come took a back seat to the realization that today, right now, there is spirit, and promise, and life?

How would that change our living?
Our decision making?
Our treatment of others?

The Spirit–She is already here—proving us wrong when we say that there are only certain days that are special, only certain times when we can be filled with compassion, understanding, and joy. She is here today, standing beside us in times of need and standing up for that which is right. She is in us and around us, and so every day is an opportunity for us to change, to discover ourselves, to find wisdom, to listen, to learn, and to love.

A Spirit Perspective on Life

John 16:12-15

Our perceptions are incredibly important. How we see the world—our perspectives—determines how we react to things in life and also how we interpret the t hings we experience. So let’s do some activities to reinforce that idea.

What do you see?

illusion1

You may see a lakeview with a tree and two people standing.

 Or, do you see an infant in the fetal position?

 What do you read?

illusion2

Did you skip a “the” in the triangle?

illusion3

Which word did you see? Good or evil?

Quick: How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”

Two, you say? All right.

But wasn’t it Noah, and not Moses?

What do you see in this picture?

illusion4

Coffee beans. Right. Me too.

But what about the poor guy buried in the beans? Do you see him?

Look on the lower left-center side of the picture.

illusion5As you look at this picture, do you believe me when I tell you that there are no triangles?

 How we see and perceive things makes a huge difference. But what our eyes see is not the whole story—not at all. Our perspectives, attitudes, and our worldviews determine how we interpret what we see. For instance, some of you may have already seen these pictures before. This time, was your perception different than the first time you saw them? And, for those of you seeing these for the first time, I’ll venture a guess that your experience was quite different than mine.

Often we cannot see what we are not expecting to see.

This is called confirmation bias, the tendency for us to favor information that confirms our preconceptions or assumptions regardless of whether the information is true.[1]

We look to see what we expect to see.

And depending on what stage of life we are in, perceptions change. We illustrate this all the time with kids. There are some things we don’t want a child to see, but we in fact see these things daily as adults. So we shelter the child from those things—at least until he/she is a bit older and perhaps more able to “see” and “experience” the thing in a healthier way. I am about to perform a wedding this afternoon. The young couple soon to get married will hear me give them some advice and a blessing for their relationship. But my words won’t mean much, you know. They haven’t even begun to experience the challenges, blessings, joys, and sorrows of a life partnership. Ten years from now, if things work out for them, I could say the exact same words I will speak today. But I guarantee that this young couple would perceive my words to be different ones than I spoke at their wedding. Why? Because after many experiences, day-to-day life together, and the altering of their own individual views, their ears would hear something else.

Today’s story in John is all about perception. Jesus of Nazareth, trying to comfort his disciples before his departure, leaves them with a new way of seeing things. They won’t be alone. The Spirit will be with them and guide them through this crazy life. The story refers to the Spirit as parakletos, the ever-elusive Greek word that can mean so many things. This parakletos, the Advocate, is the Spirit of truth. This Spirit will lead the disciples into all truth. This Spirit is Jesus’ legacy, for Jesus himself was full of truth, and it is the truth that leads them on their way. But the disciples would not, could not accept such a shift in perspective right away. How could anyone or anything replace their rabbi Jesus? And yet, Jesus kept on insisting that his Spirit would be speaking to them—long after he was gone.

But notice that Jesus is also very honest with the disciples—about their tendency to cling to the past and their nostalgia–their inability to let go. He said to them:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

Sounds like what we often say to someone when we’re unsure if she can take difficult news or constructive criticism. Sounds like what we say to someone who isn’t ready to change his perspective, or at least recognize that there is more than just one way to see things.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

The disciples loved Jesus; they did. They relied on him. But they were not supposed to be co-dependent. Their calling was not supposed to be limited to their hometowns or to their narrow worldviews. The disciples were meant to be mature, growing, creatively transformed people. They were meant to move forward and to let go. They were not alone, remember. The Spirit was with them! Jesus’ teachings and example were with them.

This was their new perspective and their new way of life. Be humble. Recognize and embrace the Spirit’s presence; be connected to that Something Greater; let that Spirit move you to heal, to forgive, and to love.

Friends, like the disciples, we too can become clingy, nostalgic, static people. We can get too comfortable and stay in the same place. We can start to see the world as a depressing, scary, and awful place.

And then our lives aren’t life at all.

But we are offered another perspective. We are asked to stop putting Jesus and God in a box and to be open to a reality shift. Seeing life with a Spirit perspective means that our theology [how we think about God] is dynamic and forever changing. The way we see God and the world cannot remain the same; God is not limited to a church or a sanctuary or a song or a book or a doctrine. God is not limited even to our past experiences.

The Spirit is not a spirit of oppression or depression, but a Spirit of freedom, joy, and fulfillment.

This Spirit changes our perspective. The world is bigger.

There is more than just one way to see things.

We are connected to Something Greater.

We are connected to others in the work of compassion, justice, and love.

The Spirit is poured out on all of us; we just need to recognize it.

So what do you expect to see each day in your life?

Do you expect God to love you?

Do you expect to have opportunities to help someone?

Do you expect to see positive change in relationships that are broken?

Do you expect healing where there are wounds?

Do you expect to find strength to overcome the struggles you have?

Do you see the work of the Spirit around you and in others?

What actions, movements, creative moments, prayers, experiences, relationships, and enterprises make you more aware of the Spirit?

Which things make you less aware?

All of us are invited to a new perspective. The Spirit is in you. Recognize it. Perceive. Broaden your worldview. The Spirit is in your decision-making, in your day to day living. Notice the Spirit in others. And be led in this way. Find spiritual fulfillment and growth.

Walk this path knowing that you are not alone.

Each moment of your life has purpose and meaning.

And in those moments when this is hard to claim, when you feel alone or lost or completely broken—close your eyes.

Take a breath.

Listen.

Open your eyes and see things anew.

Hear new sounds.

And keep breathing, knowing you are never alone.

Amen.


[1] Baron, Jonathan (2000), Thinking and deciding (3rd ed.), New York: Cambridge University Press.

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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