Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘torah’

Building & Nurturing Reconciling Community

Matthew 5:21-24; 33-37 

So many labels.

labels
We are named this, that, the other thing.

We are told what we are capable of or not capable of. And we bring all of these experiences into our relationships. We bring all of this into community.

These labels, these stereotypes—they hinder us from fully expressing ourselves and sometimes they even keep us from connecting to others. I would argue that the divisiveness we experience in the world occurs because we too readily accept the labels given to us, and too readily apply labels to other people. The divisiveness begins in each one of us, as we seek to balance how we see ourselves with how others may see us. It is not easy, for sure, but essential work we all must do. Because if we don’t know, love, and accept ourselves as we are, and if we too often accept the labels given to us, we will find it difficult to have meaningful and positive relationships. It will be more difficult to be part of a community.

This individual work I will call self-reconciling—the work of getting to know yourself apart from societal, religious, and even family labels. Discovering how to love and accept yourself as you are, raw and unfiltered. That self-reconciling, in my experience, leads to reconciliation with others, in community.

Jesus of Nazareth spoke a lot about this type of reconciliation, within ourselves, and as part of a community. His quite famous “sermon on the mount” includes such identity metaphors as salt and light, and of course, the beatitudes–the affirmation of the marginalized as part of God’s reconciling work. We are looking at the latter part of this speech in Matthew’s Gospel, and this time Jesus shifts to a conversation about the Law.

What is the law? Plainly speaking, it was and is the Mosaic Law, the precepts and rules from the Torah; in other words, the first five books of the Old Testament. For Jewish folk in Jesus’ time, the Law was of utmost importance. It defined the behaviors of individuals, and also how people related to each other in community. Jesus, in the Gospels, interprets these Laws as Rabbis were prone to do. In his interpretation, however, was an underlying theme new to many:  laws were only good insofar as they valued and protected people.

In other words, it was not about who followed the laws more religiously. It was about how people’s lives were affirmed and embraced—that people had a right to be part of a safe community in which they could be themselves.

Please keep in mind that for Jesus, the Scriptures were not ending points that were God-words and therefore a done deal. Instead, the Scriptures were more like beginning points from which to re-form them. Jesus moved away from the authority of the written words in order to truly honor the spirit of the teachings themselves.

Each time he says “but I say to you” Jesus is placing a comma where others had placed a period.

The Scriptures were not dead and set in stone. God was still speaking through them—to people in the current age, and thus they should be interpreted in that age.

Thus, Jesus runs down a list of various laws and rules that his audience would have seen as hot button issues: marriage and divorce, murder, repayment of debts, adultery, and oaths [making vows/promises]. But in each case, Jesus focuses less on the letter of the law and more on what the spirit of the law was about—affirmation and reconciliation in community. A quick breakdown of the issues at hand:

Murder. It is not enough to just say that we shouldn’t kill each other. The point is in the valuing of another. People’s lives matter. Rather than prohibiting violence against another, this law is actually about wanting the best for others, actively seeking their well-being, affirming who they are, and even taking risks to do so. No one should go to a church or worship or do anything so-called religious before reconciling with others and loving them as they are. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually committed to this? Then it wouldn’t be about how many times you attend worship or educational classes or how many committees you serve on or any of that stuff. It would be about reconciliation with others and seeking the best for our neighbors.

Marriage and divorce. So easy to get caught up in morals here, but that’s not Jesus’ take. Instead, this law is about certain individuals being mistreated, in this case, women. Females were considered property in Jesus’ time. The rules for marriage and divorce were completely one-sided in favor of males. But the spirit of the law is about the valuing of persons and thus prohibits us from objectifying them or treating them as lesser. In blessed community, we value each other fully and consider ourselves to be of equal value and therefore deserving of protection and affirmation. In 2017 the spirit of this law is absolutely relevant. Still there are far too many people [who say they are Christians] who are fighting against and in some cases blocking the affirmation of two men or two women who wish to marry; and others who refuse to recognize the beauty and full humanity of transgender people. And females still experience objectification and are considered property. This is not what beloved community stands for.

Part of the reason why “religious” folk keep hanging onto laws that denigrate and divide people, says Jesus, is due to our spending way too much time arguing about oaths.

The formal swearing of oaths in court is something familiar to all of us. But have you ever thought about how much people swear oaths in churches? You want to join a particular faith community [or even attend a Christian school] and you must swear an oath. You must swear that you believe a particular list of things, a doctrinal statement, etc. For Jesus, oath-swearing was for people who didn’t trust each other. You say pious and hollow words. It has nothing to do with how you treat people.

And yet, in beloved community, oaths are unnecessary, because people speak the truth to each other, trust each other, and love each other honestly. I encourage you [and myself] to focus less on the labels we are given and the labels we give; I challenge you to focus less on rules and more on community.

How will we as a community value and affirm others?
How will we tackle the culture in our communities that devalues some because of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social status?

How will we continue to build beloved community?

 

Who Are Our Neighbors?

Luke 10:25-37

WhoMattersMoreWhelp, this is a well-known story.

I’ll try to highlight some of the details that may sometimes go unnoticed before I share some thoughts. First off, the person asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a lawyer. Why that is significant is because of what lawyers do. Lawyers qualify and define elements of the law, correct? Good lawyers are concerned about justice. So, in this case, the lawyer is examining the Mosaic Law of the Jewish faith to find out exactly what he must do to justify himself before God. This is not an attack on Jesus. This is a legitimate question. What do I need to do to be right with God? Jesus responds appropriately: “What does the law say?” And the lawyer knows:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, life, power, and thought; love your neighbor just as you love yourself.”

That’s from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And Jesus says: “There you go, good job. Done.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. So he asks a follow-up question: Who is my neighbor? And then Jesus tells the famous parable-story. Some insight:  it begins in a typical way like many ancient Jewish teaching stories—with an introduction akin to a joke: A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…

But in this case:
A dude is beaten up and dying on the side of the road, and then, a priest, a Levite, and….

And an Israelite walks by…right?

Uh, no. Remember that probably there were at least 70 people listening to this story. They all expected for the third character, the hero, to be an Israelite. But wait—it wasn’t. Before we get there, some quick notes on the first two characters. The priest decided not to help the dying man, most likely because he wasn’t sure if the dying man was a Jew. Better to be safe than sorry, because if he were not a Jew, going anywhere near him would defile the priest and he’d have to go through a lengthy process of becoming clean again. Oh, and also, the guy might die soon. So a priest certainly couldn’t touch him. The priest is the higher class, the elite. Then, the Levite. The Levites were not as high as a priest, but they were descendants of Levi and assisted the priests in the temple. The Levite decided to pass by, because maybe he saw the priest? How could he do that which the priest passed up? So the Levite walked on by. So now the lower-class Israelite will arrive and save the day, right? WRONG!

It’s a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a mixed race between Jews of captivity [when they were exiled from Israel] and the Samaritan people of the actual land of Samaria. Jews [called Israelites, too] were hostile towards Samaritans. The Mishna, the oral traditions of Judaism that developed about law, say this about Samaritans in Mishna Shebiith 8:10: “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.”

Right. That’s harsh. Also, you may remember Jesus talking to a certain Samaritan woman at a well of water? She told him: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan” [John 4:9]? This Samaritan, though, would be bound by the same law as the Jews. So seeing a dying person on the side of the road was equally dicey. This dying person did not qualify as the Samaritan’s neighbor. So why did he help?

Because he was moved with compassion.

He did the right thing, regardless of the ethnic and religious conflicts involved. He put himself at risk. And the crowds listening would assume that the half-dead person now rescued by the Samaritan was Jewish. So add that to the drama. Jesus tells the lawyer: go and do the same.

The lawyer wanted to know who we are obligated to love. Jesus answers with a story that says it’s not about obligation, of loving the person near to you, or like you. Jesus erases the line of difference. Whoever is in need or hurting is your neighbor.

mylifematters1Friends, in the course of 72 hours this past week, all sorts of &*$! went down. Two more Black lives were taken away. Their names are Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It was needless violence, and yes, it was committed by police officers and once again against Black people. And then, violent individuals not affiliated with the peaceful BlackLivesMatter demonstrators in Dallas, Texas, opened fire on police and civilians, taking the lives of five Dallas police officers and harming many others. As a white person, I cannot understand the racial profiling that others have experienced. I can only stand with my friends and colleagues while they express anger, frustration, and grief. I can only continue to work for understanding and peacemaking in our communities. I can only choose to be vocal and to say that Black lives do matter.

girlBLMWhen thinking about this burning question of who is my neighbor, this is what I hear:
My neighbor is anyone and all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice.
I cannot just walk by and ignore their suffering; I shouldn’t try to silence their anger, frustration, and sadness. I should love them. I should stand with them. Loving my neighbor compels me to help put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism in this country, inspires me to continue to talk with colleagues and church and community folk about why it’s important to stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.

I close with some words from the UCC’s Acting Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, Rev. Traci Blackmon:
Ultimately, the guns used to kill those 5 officers last night and wound 6 more and 1 civilian and the guns used to kill Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, 49 mostly black and latinx people who were LGTBQ at Pulse in Orlando, and the 9 people in bible study in Charleston, were loaded by our common enemies, fear and hate.  This same ammunition is responsible for the bombing of mosques and the burning of churches. This same ammunition fuels the escalating levels of death in our nation’s streets as a result of communal violence. Irrational fear and hatred that nurses at the breast of a nation increasingly divided against itself.

We must mourn them all because we are all connected.
And we must find our way back to love.
Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love.
Love is our only hope.

changestartsBLM

And look–the WNBA players who chose to wear these t-shirts while warming up for their game were just doing what we should all do. Their message was simple: CHANGE STARTS WITH US. Let’s stop trying to spin things to fit some agenda that isn’t helping to bring us together. Remember the Dallas police officers who protected Black Lives Matter protestors. Let’s set an example for all the kids and youth who are just waiting for us to cooperate and love each other as we should. Come on. Change starts with us.

 

How Do We Measure Success?

Luke 10:1-11

Speak Peace
This story, in my opinion, is about how one defines success.My initial thoughts on the background of this Luke story: it’s originally a Mark story, but instead of Jesus sending out 12 [as in Mark], Jesus sends 70, or is that 72? Some Bible translations go with 70, while others say 72. Why? I don’t have time to go into all that, but let’s just say it’s all about one little Greek word that appears in some of the copies of Gospel manuscripts and whether or not that particular manuscript copy changes the number, but it’s not really a huge deal. In my perspective, either 70 or 72 leads us right to the Old Testament, and more specifically, to Genesis 10. Often called the table of nations, Genesis 10 reveals all of Noah’s family and offspring. That family, of course, eventually led to the story of Moses, who in Numbers 11 appoints 70 elders and then two more. That’s 72. And these people were filled with “spirit.” Seems like a pretty strong connection to Luke’s Gospel story. The number 70/72 makes Jesus’ calling and sending of disciples a universal action and not some regional movement.

Those people are sent on the “way” to be with other people. They are sent to treat all people with equal respect, to heal social divisions, and to create and participate in open tables. They are “lambs in the midst of wolves,” which reminds them of their vulnerability. If they are to do this work, they will need to be vulnerable with the people they meet and accept their hospitality.

Without community, this work will not happen.

And so, away they go, in pairs. They are to speak peace to every house, which is shalom, the wholeness. If someone reciprocates that peace, peace will rest on that person. If not, the peace comes back to them. Finally, they are to heal the weak. We’re not talking about sick people as we often assume. Healing the weak entails addressing the unjust societal structures that separate people and oppress. Healing can be physical, mental, spiritual, or societal, or all of the above.

So in short, this mission, this living out the Reign of God looks like this: eating, drinking, healing, and fellowship. Oh, and also not dwelling on those who reject the peace and the healing. Shaking the dust off of one’s sandals, in my view, is about moving on and not resenting people, even if they reject you.

In Luke, this is Jesus’ version of success. How does it compare to what churches actually do and say? Hmm…..

I think it’s obvious that most churches today are more concerned than ever before about measuring success. How many people sit in the pews or attend worship? How much money are we taking in? How many new members did we receive last month? Do people remark about our beautiful building? Are we well-respected in the community? I could go on, but you get the idea. The institutional church bases most of its measurement of success on business models or societal structures. For generations, the U.S. Christian church was a standard, old reliable institution in each town, city, and suburb. Then post-modernism came and went. People in those towns, cities, and communities began to see the church institution as no different than any other. Where was the meaning? What made the church uniquely wonderful and different? In fact, most people saw or experienced awful and hurtful things in the church. No wonder they left. No wonder the institution started to decline and continues to decline.

But the institution is not the church, and thank god.

The church is community.

As Jesus sent out people to heal and reconcile, he sent them out in community to be community. Buildings didn’t matter. Strategic financial planning or marketing didn’t matter. What mattered was community, and what that community stood for: justice and peace.

As such, any faith community is our group of 72. We are not in this alone. Faith and spirituality are communal and we make a huge mistake when we try to make it isolated, like when people say: my Bible says, or my God does or says…In our church structures, we struggle the most when our leaders and volunteers are completely autonomous. We become fragmented, burned out, and disconnected. Why? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to work. We are supposed to be a community of staff, volunteers, leaders, etc. Males and females, non-binary zes, children, teenagers, young adults, older adults, people behind the scenes and people in front, creative and visionary minds and detail-oriented and task-oriented minds. We are supposed to be radically together in community. This means that every little and big thing we do in our faith communities is for the good of the whole, for something bigger than ourselves.

How do you measure success? It matters how you answer that. People struggle their whole lives trying to achieve goals they never reach and end up feeling tired, disappointed, and out of balance. But what if this story offers us some insight? What if success is not measured by numbers, money, degrees, and prestige?

What if success is measured by community, and how people treat each other within that community?

What if success is welcoming all to the table?

Consider this from St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.

Note: next week I’ll post something about Luke 10:25-37 and ask the question: Who Are Our Neighbors?
I’ll say right now, however, that #BlackLivesMatter!
BLM
And all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice, we won’t stand by and watch it happen; we won’t be silent. You should have the space to express your anger, frustration, and sadness. We love you. We will stand with you. Let’s put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism. And let’s stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.

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.

Living on the Dry Ground

EXODUS 14:15-16; 19-22  

I grew up in Indiana and Iowa. Tornadoes happen there.

tornadoI remember one day in the summer when I was a kid. I was walking home; this was in Indiana. The weather was so strange. Everything was eerily calm. It was like listening to music really, really loud and then someone pulls the plug and it all goes silent all of a sudden. It’s weird. No wind, no sound, nothing. Storm clouds did not appear on the horizon; it didn’t smell like rain. There was absolutely nothing that would serve as a warning sign for extreme weather. The sky was a beautiful orange color and then it almost looked purple? Did I mention how calm it was?

But then, as I got about halfway home, the wind picked up. It wasn’t gradual either. From one moment of calm, things got crazy in a second. Leaves and branches and debris started blowing behind, in front—all around me. I shielded my face and covered my eyes…

And I started to run.

That’s what we did in the Midwest when the eerie calm turned into a malevolent, strong wind. You don’t look back; you don’t take your time; while the sirens blare, you just run to the nearest place. I made it home. The winds got worse and a funnel cloud formed a few miles away. It’s amazing to see such a thing if you are looking at it from a distance. It’s beautiful. It’s short-lived.

Tornadoes, for the most part, last less than 10 minutes. That’s it.

Some tornadoes only last for a few seconds and then they’re gone.

But in a short time, a lot can happen.

Consider my former front porch in Iowa. The entire thing was lifted off by a tornado. Ask the farmers who discover farm equipment miles away from where they left it.

Weather is really not something we can control, right? Sadly, though, some are trying to control it with chemicals and other things. Perhaps one of our most fatal human mistakes is when we try to control nature. It always ends badly, doesn’t it?

Just ask the great Pharaoh of Egypt–perhaps Ramses II [and thousands of ancient Egyptians]–the ones mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Insects, plagues, strong weather, and parting seas bombarded them. This is the Exodus story, a tale rich with natural images, but also a story that displays a two-sided, yin and yang theme. Nature can act beautifully and protectively. But on the other hand, that beauty can turn ugly and the protection can turn to destruction.

Moses and the Israelites, seeking to escape slavery and Egypt, cross the Red Sea because Moses lifts up his staff and the waters part for the Israelites. They cross unharmed, but the Egyptians, in hot pursuit, do not make it. The once-dry land spills over with raging waters and they all drown. The Israelites win and the Egyptians lose.

Even as the Israelites journey on to the Jordan River, they see the floating Egyptian corpses in the water.

There is a cloud by day and fire by night.

There is dry ground and there is flood.

There is a great escape from slavery, but then a famine.

There’s a heck of a lot more to this story than meets the eye, don’t you think?

For example, most Christians know that the New Testament contains Gospels [4 of them made it into what we call the canon]. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John passed the test and are printed in the various translations of the Bible. These Gospels tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but they do so in different ways. Each one adds and subtracts details and inserts different viewpoints about the same stories.

The same goes for the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Genesis, we get more than one perspective about how the earth, sky, waters, animals and plants were created. We also get different points of view about how man and woman came to be. And in Exodus, we have varied perspectives, too.

How, you ask?

Well, just like in the NT, the OT books were not all written by just one author. Books like Exodus are compilations of different writers with different perspectives. Oral traditions got handed down and were added into the mix.

This particular Moses and Pharaoh story is told in three different ways.

The first version, and most likely the earliest version, is often called the Song of Moses; it appears in Exodus 15. It is a retelling of the Red Sea event in the form of a poem.

The second version appears in selected verses of Exodus 14.
This is considered a non-priestly version. A nice summary of this second version is provided by my OT professor from Princeton, Dr. Dennis Olson:

1. The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites

 2. The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)

 3. Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned

 That version is dated much earlier than the third and final version, called a priestly version. This third version, also selected verses of chapter 14, could be summarized as such [again, thanks, Dr. Olson]:

1. The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD

 2. The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide

 3. A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides

 4. The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side

 5. After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians

 Okay, why does this matter?

Because there is always more than one perspective to the story.

There is always more than one way to look at life.

Sometimes we are walking on dry ground and we feel like we’re being overwhelmed with floods of water.
Other times we may be inundated with rain and feel that we’re in a desert.

Sometimes a cloud can be wonderful. It can bring rain that sustains crops and provides sustenance. It cleans. It refreshes.
But other times clouds hide things from our vision. Literally, they “cloud” our path. They can also signal an upcoming, destructive storm.

A victory for some people means a loss for others.
Life for some means death for others.

We’re meant to live in this tension of duality the yin and yang [light and dark].

Creation and new beginnings are like that.

Yahweh creates something new.
People are invited to start over again.

They are asked to let go and to walk forward.

But it is not easy to do.
There will painful changes that people must make.

Letting go is really, really hard.
Complaining is really, really easy.

We all crave the “greener grass” on the other side of the fence, but when it comes time to do what is necessary to make a significant change in our lives, we lose our enthusiasm all of a sudden.

Walk on dry ground?

Maybe not…

But that’s just it.
We have to let go and walk forward if we are to create and refresh.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Egyptians in the story [or any oppressors for that matter] and try to keep the status quo going, refuse change—at any cost. We are capable of enslaving ourselves and enslaving others.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Israelites did, and complain that the grass is always greener and that our current situation is always worse than somebody else’s.

When we don’t let go to let newness come, we drown in our stubbornness.

So the story invites all of us.

Let go.
Walk forward.
Live on the dry ground.

Live in the tension.

We are invited to see each day of our lives as an opportunity to be refreshed, re-created, and propelled forward.

After all, we cannot control the weather of life. And remember, weather changes pretty quickly.

Will we embrace the dry ground?

 

Alarming Love

Romans 13:8-11a

Matthew 18:15-20

Sell your crap.

Pay your debt.

Do what you love.

This was the title of Adam Baker’s TED TALK in 2011—the story of how his family moved away from being the “typical” debt-laden U.S. family trapped by the next thing to buy to a family that envisioned freedom from that debt and then took the necessary steps to truly be free.

Let’s listen to a bit.

Adam argues that most of us live a life based on a script.

And we did not write that script—someone else did, or perhaps even a government, or a company, or an institution wrote that script for us.

The script, sadly, can become our life.

And that script involves debt.

debtFinancially, many people in the world are born into debt. Those who are fortunate enough to be born into a family without debt have a better chance, but even so, they often accumulate debt of their own. It piles up, because we follow the script of what we are supposed to buy, what is the next “logical” step in our relationships, when to get the house with the yard, the new car, and where to send our kids to college.

But is this really freedom?

I don’t think so—not if we’re following someone else’s script.

Not if we’re buying things because we think we need them or because that celebrity or that commercial told us to.

Not if we’re moving from one life decision to the next without actually reflecting on those decisions because…

We’re just following someone else’s script for our lives.

So I want to talk about debt; obviously, so far we have been talking about the financial kind of debt, because that will help us in the rest of this discussion.

In order to understand relationship debt, we first have to understand financial debt.

I include two Bible passages—one from Matthew [words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth] and the other from Romans [Paul’s letter to the Roman church] to help us honestly reflect and hopefully act.

First, Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew’s discussion about debt is based on human relationships and Torah Law. The Torah is the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Matthew’s debt discussion, the author includes references to Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Jesus of Matthew is concerned about how people treat each other. There was [and is] conflict between humans. How do we deal with such conflict?

The root of said human conflicts is a problem—which happens to be a problematic word—and that word is sin.

Not enough time to break down just how misunderstood this word is. So let’s just stick to Matthew’s view.

Sin isn’t about morality but more about missing the mark. Sin is a failure to be human—as we are created to be.

So when two people fight about something, talk behind each other’s back, hurt one another—this is sin or missing the mark showing itself. And there is no prayer, or physical offering at the altar, or religious duty that one can do to solve such conflicts. Notice here that it is completely up to the humans themselves to work this out. There is no mediator-priest.

The first step is to confront the other person directly. Honesty and direct communication come first. The goal of the confrontation, however, is to prove who is “right” or “wrong” but to reconcile. The goal is reconciliation and thus the direct confrontation is motivated by love.

Jesus concludes the relationship debt teaching with this:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Just in case we weren’t paying attention, we have the ball in our court.

Whatever we hold onto, we carry with us.

Any debts we have weigh us down.
If we keep others in debt to us, they are weighed down.

But if we choose to lose our own personal debts and release the debts of others, there is great freedom for all.

But clearly, Jesus leaves it up to us.
If two or more of us AGREE on earth, it will be done.

Do we agree to forgive the debts of others?

Do we agree to clear our lives of the debt that weighs us down?

————————————————————————————————

And now to Paul and his letter to the Roman church—a church under an empire and in great debt.

Time to WAKE UP!

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Paul flips things around: owe no one [including Rome] any THING.

But love one another.

Loving fulfills the law.

Then he lists some of the commandments [back to the Torah again, like in Matthew] but adds an emphasis that was Jesus’ teaching:
Any can be summed up in this word,
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The reasoning?
Love does not harm another person.
So love does indeed fulfill all the law.

If you don’t harm people, you won’t break commandments.
You only owe one thing this to the world and all its creatures—love.

And we are invited to wake up to this reality every day.

It’s not a script; it’s not predictable; it’s not popular; it’s not mainstream; it won’t be easy; it will be risky; love is like that when it’s actually lived out.

It’s like theologian Karl Barth once wrote:
Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.

Friends, owe nothing to empires, institutions, companies, things, and even people! Don’t allow debt of any kind to weigh down your life and your humanity.

True freedom is letting go of any debts that exist.
And in true freedom you will learn how to love.

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