Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘transgender’

Do You Know Your H2O?

John 4:5-15

ebooA couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Dare to Understand Awards event. The featured speaker was Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. I have met with Eboo various times and consider him to be one of my mentors. He inspired me in 2007 when I met him for the first time and read his memoir, Acts of Faith. There was so much in his story that I resonated with and since then, I have been committed to the work of interfaith cooperation and understanding. Eboo, a Muslim, teaches in Seminaries and other religious schools, often encountering American Evangelical Christians, who tend to be the most skeptical or even fearful of people from other faith traditions—especially Muslims. And yet, this is the challenging and important work that Eboo does. He is not afraid to reach across lines of difference. He embraces the most difficult questions and faces the various conflicts.

Recently, Eboo has been focusing on the need for people of faith backgrounds to live out their faith more honestly and publicly. The reason for that is because today many of the most open-minded Christians are mostly silent about their own faith tradition, fearing that they will offend someone or sensing the practice of the Christian faith has nothing positive to offer Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secular humanists, etc. For example, Cassie Meyer, who works with Eboo at Interfaith Youth Core, says that most Christians have been conditioned to think that there are two ways to engage people of other faiths.

Liberal Christians feel they need to let go of any unique identity and affirm all religions as the same. Call it religious relativism.

Conservative Christians do the opposite. They hold on even tighter to their beliefs and sometimes see other religions as the enemy. Call it fundamentalism.

In both cases, this way of seeing the world does not lead to understanding and cooperation.

But there is another way. What about religious pluralism?  Pluralism claims that we are a diverse culture, worldwide. We have different truth claims. The real question is: how can we live together while being our true selves? The answer, at least, for Jesus of Nazareth, is to encounter the other, the one who others say is untouchable or unreachable. Enter the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, though it is not often talked about, was one who did not shy away from engaging with diversity—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic. He sought out those who were “untouchable” and on the margins. This is why he ended up in Samaria with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews like Jesus were not supposed to go to Samaria. Just consider that Jesus, a Jew, and this woman, a Samaritan, should not have met. The Jews believed their sacred temple was in Jerusalem and the Samaritans that their sacred site was on Mount Gerizim. They read different scriptures. They had competing truth claims about G-d. And yet, Jesus seeks her out and breaks the rules—only to offer her living water.

In this case, living water is a new identity. For the Samaritan woman, this was being fully human. She had been told that her life didn’t matter and that she was lesser. Jesus, though he was of another religious and cultural background, sought her out to tell her that her life did indeed matter, and that she was full of living water. This is the narrative the Gospels tell about this Jesus—that Jesus seeks people out who feel lost, broken, devalued, marginalized, and forgotten.

That story is good news for all of us.

And yet, within that narrative I also hear another one—that we live in a world in which certain people of certain cultural, political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds cannot meet; they cannot talk to each other. Those meetups are even banned by governments and the rich and powerful. And many of us are conditioned [or at least jaded enough] to start believing this narrative. Christians cannot meet up with Muslims; materially poor people cannot meet up with the materially wealthy; a 16-year-old from West Philly cannot be friends with a 16-year-old from Warrington; a gender-fluid person can never meet up with someone who has no idea about alternative pronouns or even what transgender means; Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians—they cannot meet up.

These types of meetup groups are prohibited and even impossible, so we are told.

Let me say that certainly for people who are marginalized or discriminated against, they have every right to be skeptical about such meetings. If as a transgender person you have been told more than once that your “new” pronouns aren’t real and even that your gender identification or expression is invalid or unnatural—well, you should not be subjected to that harsh treatment. If you’re Black in America and have experienced both the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and tokenism on many occasions—you have every right to disengage from those who have treated you like this. If you are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Jain and have been mistreated or misrepresented when you encountered Christians, you have every right to walk away from those encounters.

Let me be clear—just because there are nice stories about Jesus encountering and meeting marginalized people as they are and where they are does not mean that it’s easy and happens all the time in society. It doesn’t, and that’s the point. What Jesus did was radical, considered dangerous, and counter-culture. Also, Jesus was the one reaching out. He wasn’t the marginalized. He looked for and befriended those on the margins.

And that’s where the narrative can be beautiful and powerful. As a Christian [and as a human being] I have committed to befriending Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and others from marginalized religious communities. It is up to me to do that. Likewise, I have made a commitment to be a friend and a student when I am with my LGBTQIA friends, colleagues, and family—to learn from them, because there is so much I do not know.

Friends, as people with H20 in our DNA, we can be water for each other in these encounters. We can make a positive social impact in society if those of us not on the margins seek out those on the margins and listen to their stories, honor and accept them, value their lives, and then join them on the journey. In life, you will encounter people who are worried, who carry way too heavy burdens, and they feel like their life doesn’t matter. You can decide to be water by being a listening ear, a helping hand, a ship out in the middle of the ocean, a glass of water in the middle of desert sand. There will be times when all of our own wells will run dry, and in those moments we will need someone to offer us a refreshing drink and to remind us that our life has value. Whether on the margin or not, water is in your physical and spiritual DNA. Let us be water for each other and refresh and heal the community.

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Transgender Remembrance: Freeing Ourselves, Freeing Others

John 11:38-44

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The Binding of Gender
It is not a stretch to claim that religious people, more specifically Western Christians, have had quite a lot of trouble with the idea of gender. We could spend hours discussing the patriarchal history and embedded male dominance of the Christian Church from its inception to the current day. So it only follows that the church has a poor reputation as to how it treats people who identify as transgender or gender fluid. For example, the recent bathroom access controversy has been spurred on by so-called Christian groups. They claim that transgender use of public bathrooms poses a “danger” to others. Of course, this crazy and unfounded fear is based on their idea that God does “make” mistakes, and since they believe that male or female is the only possible gender identification or expression, God must then work only in binaries. Anything outside of that rigid definition cannot be from God. Of course, that is neither Biblical nor consistent with any of Jesus’ teachings. It does continue to confuse and frustrate me how so many Western Christians struggle to accept that God is bigger than us, and therefore, gender is bigger than our limited perspectives.

Of course, a lot of it goes back to the scriptures and how people interpret them. If someone interprets them literally, then they assume that this is the very Word of God, unchanged. But they never do take the Bible literally. Instead, they impose their own agendas and interpretations to fit their own social, political, and moral perspectives. We all do, really. Just for fun, let me say this: if those who claim to take the Bible literally really did, well, surprise!

Jesus would in fact be transgender.

I’ll get to that later, but first we have to recognize, in all seriousness, the great harm that the Christian church has done to transgender people. It goes beyond religious marginalization. The church has bullied trans folk, physically and mentally harmed them, and the church has even killed them. We must admit to this.

According to the Human Rights Campaign and GLADD, in 2015, there were 21 reported murders of transgender people. Already in 2016, there have been 26 reported murders. This is just in the United States alone. This does not take into account those who are bullied and pushed to the brink of suicide, and those who go through with it. Friends, in a time in which hateful rhetoric has amped up against certain people, this should wake us up. We are not talking about gang violence or narco trafficking. We are talking about people being targeted and killed because of their gender identity or expression. The church, all Christians, we are responsible. We cannot allow this to happen. We must take a stand. How, you may ask.

First, maybe some of us need to learn. I know that I admit to knowing very little. I do research, read all the transgender and LGBTQ literature I can get my hands on, I ask questions of my transgender friends, family, and colleagues. I still have a lot to learn. We all do. We must listen. We must learn. To start, here are some terms to be acquainted with:

Terminology

Gender Identity:  a person’s innate, deeply felt sense of being male or female (sometimes even both or neither)

Gender Expression: external, and based on individual and societal conceptions and expectations

Transgender: gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex

Gender Fluid: a more flexible range of expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day.

Gender Queer: a fluidity of gender expression that is not limiting

By no means an exhaustive or all-encompassing discussion. Please comment and add your thoughts and added insights and knowledge.

Lazarus Bound, We Are All Bound
mummy
This brings us to the Lazarus story. Lazarus, like many transgender friends of ours in this world, was bound. He was bound with mummy-like burial cloths in a cave, a tomb. His friends and family thought he was dead. Jesus came along and told his sister Mary not to be so depressed about it, that Lazarus would live. Mary, in her binary thinking, agreed, but she was thinking about heaven. But Jesus was talking about today. No one understood, but it didn’t matter to Jesus. He went to the cave, a metaphor in the Gospel tradition for transformation or metamorphosis—the caterpillar’s cocoon. Roll away that stone. Lazarus, COME OUT OF THE CAVE! He did come out of the cave, but he was still bound. He was not yet alive, that his, until Jesus spoke the all-important words: Unbind him; let him go. Unbind Lazarus, let him go. Let Lazarus be Lazarus, whoever that may be. Stop limiting his life to your perspectives, or religious beliefs, or social conditioning. Let Lazarus go. Unbind.

The Unbinding, Freeing Jesus
The people were sure they knew who Lazarus was [he was dead to them], but Jesus reminded them of how limited their thinking was—not just about God, but about people, too. Jesus of Nazareth could indeed heal Lazarus, but in order for Lazarus to be truly free, the people had to unbind him.

Honestly, I cannot imagine what transgender people have gone through and go through. I can only listen to their stories and then stand with them. I have never experienced what many of them have—to be criticized, marginalized, or even targeted—not because they committed a crime, or fought in a war against you, or did or said something bad to you. Just because they are. That is brutal. Absolutely devastating. And as Jesus taught, we cannot follow God if we do not stand with those who are truly marginalized. I’m not talking about fake marginalization, I’m talking about people who are clearly targeted and attacked physically, mentally, and spiritually—who are told that their bodies and minds don’t matter. This is beyond wrong. This is evil.

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I told you I’d come back to this business about a transgender Jesus and the Biblical interpretations and so here we go. Suzanne DeWitt Hall, in her article Jesus the First Transgender Man in the Huffington Post, makes an interesting point. For all those who say that transgender people are outside of God’s natural order, let’s apply their so-called literal translations of the Bible. The teachings of the ancient church through today, in general, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood person. He was born of Miriam [Mary in Greek], so therefore, he was carrying her DNA. Also, the Bible [and Christian church] has taught that Jesus was the new Adam, born of the new Eve. Stay with me here. The Hebrew book of Genesis states that Eve came from Adam’s rib, obviously a male rib, right? And then Eve became female. So she was male, and then was female? Transgender Eve. Oh, and fast forward to Jesus. He was born of Miriam [Mary], but not of Joseph, if you believe in the whole incarnate birth thing. So…Mary was the new Eve, passing on her gender fluid identity to Jesus.

Add to that the creation stories in Genesis which state that God created humans in God’s likeness, male and female. So what is God? Man? Woman? Both? Neither? Uh-huh, you feeling me now?

It’s a joke when Christians try to say that transgender people or those who are gender fluid, are not living as God intends. They make their faulty arguments all the while ignoring the Bible itself. Most people will be quick to tell you that God is not a man, but if so, then why do they continue to insist on calling God “he” and not “she” or neither gender? Look, it’s time for the church, it’s time for Christians to grow up and to actually read the Bible. And it’s time for Christians to embrace people of all gender identifications and expressions as they are.

Take a quick glance at the dictionary definition for the prefix “trans.” It means across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly. Hello, Jesus. Christ crosses all borders and limitations; Christ is beyond the church, beyond religion; Christ is through all and in all; Christ changes people thoroughly and helps them feel alive again. So yes, Jesus was/is trans. Jesus showed us what it can be like to just love and accept people as they are. That kind of relationship is healing. Friends, we must see all of our trans neighbors, friends, family members, and colleagues as we see ourselves. They are beautiful, they are good creations, they are deserving of dignity, respect, and love. No more binding. No more hating. Time for all to be free.
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Losing and Finding Sheep: Empathy

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Being Bound, Being Free

Luke 8:26-39

freedomDoves

Okay, this might start off a little strange. We’re going to talk about a very important theme for all of us as individuals, and extremely important for the health of humanity. But to do so, we’ll look at an incredibly weird and confusing story. Are you ready? Let’s give it a go…

Demons. Really?

I’m no expert on demons, evil spirits, or whatever you wish to call them. I like Hellboy a lot, but he’s kind of an anti-demon + anti-hero, wouldn’t you say?

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In fact, I should probably go to my friend and amazing author, Lucas Mangum. Flesh and Fire just might help set some context as to how demons are presented in literature [both religious on secular].

fleshandfire
Maybe Lucas will even chime in! Lucas, are you down there in the comments?

Anyway, this Luke Gospel story is about a bunch of demons. Jesus steps onto gentile territory and he is met immediately by a demon-possessed man. He is called a man of the city, like the woman of the city with the alabaster jar whose tears washed Jesus’ feet in the previous Luke story.

He is an outcast.

He doesn’t have a home, he doesn’t even have clothes. The people of his community even tied him up in shackles. They bound him to try to control him. Jesus, however, approaches him and commands the oppressive spirits to leave the man. Jesus sees him as a human being. But the man is tensed up and yells at Jesus to leave him alone. When Jesus asks him his name, he is able to get out: Legion.

This name makes sense, because a legion of demons was oppressing him. Apparently, the demons are reasonably smart and have thought things through; they have considered their options. The abyss? Not such a great place for demons to have a summer home. The abyss, in ancient Judaism, was a place where evil spirits were tormented. So yeah…no. So the demons beg Jesus to let them escape into some nearby pigs that were minding their own business. Jesus agrees and the demons enter the pigs and the poor animals rush down the steep bank of the lake and drown.

I grew up in Iowa and while I did not live on a farm, the farms were all around me. And so were the pigs. So what’s up with that, Luke? Really? Poor pigs…

Obviously, this is not good news for the guys who work with the pigs. Can you imagine? They were eye witnesses. There they are, minding their own business, when their pigs start going crazy like lemmings and run down the lake’s bank to their death. I imagine that they were ticked off. Which is great for the story, because their anger moves them to run off and tell a bunch of people. Meanwhile, the once-bound and oppressed man is now sitting at the feet of Jesus [just like the lady with the alabaster jar], and now he has clothes on and his sane. But the people of the town don’t celebrate; instead, they are afraid and tell Jesus to get the Galilee out of town. The newly healed man, demon-free man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay in his town and tell everyone what happened.

I’ll get right to it. I’m not one who believes in demons or evil spirits—at least not the kind with horns and not the ones who make people’s heads turn in complete circles or spit out green fluid. I like reading about them in stories and comics, because I do think they point us to the real thing. That “real thing” is evil, or the personification of evil, and the way that evil can bind and oppress a person, a family, a community, etc. We have no clue as to what really afflicted this guy Gentile territory. Was it his past? Did he suffer abuse of some kind? Was it a chemical imbalance, addiction, what was it? I think Luke doesn’t say for a reason. The point is that he was afflicted by a myriad of things, so take your pick; put yourself in his shoes; put other people you know in his shoes. The first thing that stands out to me is that any kind of afflicted person is still a human being—even if people tie that person up, declare the person untouchable and even inhuman.

Still a human being.

The other thing that I notice is that not only was this man untouchable and marginalized, but the evil spirits themselves ended up in pigs, another untouchable, unclean living thing, at least for the Jews of that time. Remember, Jesus was in Gentile territory. Poor pigs.

And yet, in light of the recent horrific and tragic events in Orlando, Florida [and the sad, ignorant and hateful responses to it by politicians and others], I am going in this direction: you see, we seem to be able to talk about people who have drug or food or gambling addictions; it’s commonplace to talk about people who are bound by an abusive past. But how often do we admit to how many people are bound by prejudice? How many people have evil in their thoughts and worldviews, so much so, that they are willing to hurt others who are different than they are, using hateful words, bullying them, or even resorting to violence? It’s happening too often. And we rarely talk about it. Many of us have family members or friends who are clearly prejudiced against certain people. Gay? Lesbian? Transgender? Non-binary? Black, Asian, Latin American, African, Eastern European, Arab, Spanish-speaker, Atheist, Arabic speaker, Muslim?

They are afflicted, they are bound by their prejudice.

Some of it is a result of social conditioning. Maybe they were raised to hate a certain group of people. Perhaps they went along with their peers in school just to fit in. Or maybe at work it was just easier to put down the person who was different. Whatever the case, prejudice is evil. It is affliction. It binds people.

I, as many other people, I am tired of prayers for families of victims of hate crimes. I’m tired and angry. I’m not saying that prayers don’t matter. I AM saying that prayers are not enough and that sometimes we hide behind them. It’s easier to say we’re praying for the families and victims in Orlando; it’s a lot harder to actually do something about the prejudice and hatred in our own communities, families, schools, and churches. We live in a world in which is easy to spread hatred via social media with one click and a thousand shares. But it’s equally easy to do the opposite—to combat hatred and to cooperate, love, and embrace pluralism of all kinds. Churches pray, but what do churches do? I’m tired of all kinds of prejudice, including subtle prejudice and all the excuses that we continue to make as to why we won’t stand up and say enough is enough! Why we won’t be more courageous in our communities and risk upsetting relationships with friends, classmates, work colleagues, church friends, and even family. Our inaction binds us. Evil happens and we stand silent.

Jesus healed this seemingly untouchable, non-human. But then the newly-restored man was then told to tell the scared and prejudiced people of his town what God had done. What God had done. My take is that whether you believe in this god or not,there is a universal theme here. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human. People will make categories and draw border lines and spread hateful rhetoric to keep us separated. They do that because they gain something from it [usually money and power]. But we can’t make excuses anymore. It’s time to admit to the prejudice that binds us as individuals and communities. The moment is NOW to stand up against your family members, friends, or co-workers who spread hate to others. Unfold your hands, open your eyes, and actually do something. Spread humanity. Spread cooperation. Spread love and acceptance.

Teaser for next week: Luke 9:51-62: Is it difficult sometimes for you to move on from your past? How can we stop looking back so much and move forward?

 

Side note: to all my friends and family and colleagues who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, or Non-Binary—I love you and I’m angry, too. I pledge to do my best to stand up against hatred and prejudice. My prayers will be my actions. And the same goes for all my Muslim friends and colleagues. Love you, too. I stand with you.

Why Unity Is Love & Light

John 17:20-26

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

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

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

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

What does unity mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, stay with me here.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Welcoming Everyone is Crazy

Mark 3:20-35

Two Sundays ago I called the Norristown Courthouse eight times.

Eight times.

You see, a month ago, I received my fourth summons to appear in Norristown, PA for jury duty.

juryDUty

Now this won’t be a rant about someone’s “civic responsibility” or bureaucracy, or the government, or whatever. Instead, I’m going to tell you my jury duty story, because something happened there that mattered to me.

I was shown great hospitality when I didn’t expect it.

Let’s go back to Sunday night. I didn’t sleep well. Perhaps I was anxious and overly tired, because I usually am on Sundays, and Monday is my day off. Or maybe I was anticipating something new and interesting; after all, I had received jury duty summons before but never actually had to show up. My lawyer friends scoffed, knowing that a clergyperson such as me would never get selected for a petit jury, much less a criminal case. But I couldn’t sleep, maybe because I thought: why not?

I rolled out of bed on Monday morning—resembling the freakiest of zombies—and I made my way to the courthouse. I went through the metal detector, scanned my little summons paper at the door and showed my ID. I put on my plastic badge with my juror number; I was in!

The room was packed. There were 300 people in there. Whoa. I couldn’t believe it.

jurorNo food, no drink. Just sit down.

That’s what the sign said.

Everyone looked tired. Some were visibly cranky. One guy all dressed up in his suit and with a briefcase, sauntered about the room as if to say:

Look at me. I’m so important. Can’t you see I have better things to do? Look at me!

One lady, in front of me, was intensely knitting something as if to say:

This is our lot in life. Suck it up, grin and bear it, we’ll be here for a WHILE.

Two other ladies in front of me gossiped about their families; a woman in a hijab asked me and the woman sitting next to me if we knew exactly what these numbers meant on our plastic badges. One lady didn’t my eye contact with a single person while she frittered away on her laptop. People kept coming in; some were visibly frustrated with traffic, or the parking, or perhaps…life in general?

The lady on staff who scanned us in and gave us our plastic badges entered the room periodically and said:

Juror number 5609, you need to fill out your juror info form. 5609? 5609?

Bueller, Bueller, Bueller?

bueller-anyoneThough we were all supposed to arrive at 8:00 a.m., it wasn’t until about 9:00 a.m. that the same lady patiently calling out numbers put in a DVD to fill us in on all the details of being a juror. The DVD speaker, Larry Kane of Comcast, reminded us:

If you are in need of an internet connection, you may visit the juror’s lounge and ask for the internet connection cable. That way, you can connect it to your laptop.

Yeah, thanks, Larry. But the nice lady calling out numbers just told us that wi-fi was free.

The DVD mercifully ended with Larry telling us how much of a privilege it would be to serve as a juror.

Another period of time passed.

tell-me-again-about-jury-duty1The kind lady who scanned us in, gave us our plastic badges, called out the numbers of people who hadn’t filled out their info forms, explained the DVD, answered a multitude of questions, and continued to run back and forth to the courtrooms—finally addressed us again around 10:30 a.m.

She maintained her bright smile and said:

Okay, everyone, thank you so much for your patience. They are ready for you, so what I’m going to do know is to read off 50 juror numbers. If your number is called, that means you have been randomly selected. Please stand and I will escort you to where you need to go.

She paused and smiled.

And I know that you’re tired and that the weather isn’t great, but hang in there. We will get you moving, and those of you who aren’t called, you are free to use the facilities or to get a drink of water, or whatever you need. Thanks again for your patience and your service.

One guy behind me sighed so exasperatingly loud that I could feel his eyes rolling even though I couldn’t see them. Another lady to the right shook her head in disgust.

But the patient, kind lady wasn’t fazed. She started calling juror numbers. My number ended with a 09. Numbers 08, 07, 06, and 10 were all called, but not mine.

Some people breathed a sigh of relief, others scoffed in disappointment.

And…the 50 chosen—they left…

Never to be seen again.

Finally, it was about noon and the kind-hearted, smiling, patient, hospitable lady [how I now thought of her] addressed the remaining lot by saying:

Some news, everyone. The last case to be tried is a criminal case.

Some groans in the crowds.

It has now gone to bench. So yes, I’m sure some of you know what that means. You’re free to go home! Don’t forget to scan your papers on the way out so you receive your stipend check in the mail. And thanks for your service.

And with that, three people actually said, a la Homer Simpson:

woohoo

We filed out of the courtroom. Some people were actually running. I’m not kidding. Cars whizzed out the parking lot.

As I sat in my car, I reflected on how jury duty experience had been so less painful than I thought. Why? The welcoming, hospitable, incredibly-patient lady on the petit jury staff who led our tired, grumpy lot through the morning.

On an early Monday morning in Norristown’s Courthouse, that seemed crazy.

Crazy, why? Because true hospitality is crazy. Do you know who was in that crowd of 300? Women and men of various socio-economic levels; people of all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds; transgender folk; religious and non-religious folk; people late and people early; people eager and people confused; full of all kinds of people.

And yet, that woman welcomed us all. Truly. I saw it.

And you may think I’M crazy for saying that this staff member of Norristown’s Courthouse was more like Jesus than most churches, but for me, it was true.

So let me explain why, and then you can draw your own conclusions.

Jesus of Nazareth, in Mark’s Gospel narrative, even as early as chapter 3, is already called crazy. The crowds who followed him, his own disciples, his own family—they are all confused about what he’s doing and saying, and they’re afraid of what might happen to him. Already Jesus had cast out a couple of demons and healed some sick people, and it was getting worse. He hung out with so-called sinners [called the untouchables]. One of his disciples collected people’s taxes; Jesus found it convenient to heal people on the Sabbath. So from the get-go, Jesus’ brand of religion did not fit the religious laws or social customs of the day.

So it’s no surprise, don’t you think, that people called Jesus crazy. Well, in their words, they called him demon-possessed, but in our context, demon-possessed would be batty, nuts, bananas, 5150ed, bobo, bonkers, certifiable, cray-cray.

Even his own family thought he was a little coo-coo, and that’s why they started to get protective. Can you blame them? Any parent out there, do you want your son or daughter to be at risk? Would you be happy if they chose a vocation or a calling that led them into danger, no matter how important it might be? Parents and family go into protective mode.

Jesus, stop. Just stop already. Tone down this radical hospitality to all people. It’s dangerous.

It’s been my experience that most Christians who regularly attend churches often think of hospitality as being friendly and nice to people—especially new visitors. But it’s usually temporary, because eventually, most church folk expect said new people to blend in eventually and learn the way that the church already does things.

Well, that’s not cray-cray Jesus’ brand of hospitality. Instead, Jesus meets people where they are and as they are. Everyone’s invited, no matter how messy and chaotic it may become.

That’s called radical welcome.

So I’m left with this question: are we considered crazy for the radical hospitality and welcome we show to all people?

We should be.

We should be pushing the limits of what hospitality and welcome mean—no matter how crazy it may sound or if it’s not religiously or socially acceptable.

If we truly embrace the radical welcome of Jesus for ourselves, this ought to be reflected in our treatment of others—how we welcome and accept them as they are.

How crazy are we?

Not nearly crazy enough…

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