Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘unity’

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.

Unity…but Not the Fake Kind

John 17:1-11   

Grab a dictionary—or more likely—google it. The word unity.

Here’s the definition:

  1. the state of being one; oneness.

2.   a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.

3. oneness of mind, feeling, etc., as among a number of persons; concord, harmony, or agreement.

And now, let me tell you a story.

 I was sitting at a table. This tends to happen when you have a meeting.

It was a group of leaders in a local church and I was an associate pastor. I can still see their faces. We had been participating in an urban/suburban partnership with some other churches. I worked in an Anglo-European church. The other churches in this partnership were made up of people who were African-American, Korean, and Puerto Rican. But I was sitting around the table with the leaders in the church where I was serving. And they were frustrated. They are confused. And I was hearing about it.

How come when we do pulpit exchanges only a few of them come here to our church?

Didn’t we have a strong contingent go to their church?

How come they don’t appreciate our grand, amazing organ? Don’t’ they know how much it costs to maintain it?

I think my brain turned off about 5 seconds into the conversation, but when I woke up again, I found myself asking them:

Did you participate in the summer camp with all the kids from our various churches?

Did you go to the lunch after worship at the Black Baptist Church?

Have you ever tried arroz con pollo at the Puerto Rican church?

 Too busy, apparently.

Then I am sitting at another table for another meeting. There are religious leaders of various religious backgrounds: Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Mormons, Sikhs, Secular Humanists, and Hare Krishnas. They are trying to agree about a statement they will make together about the rampant gun violence in Philadelphia and beyond. They want to say something. But they cannot come up with the right words. Just when it seems like they can do it, someone points out a phrase she is uncomfortable with. Then another person wants to change a punctuation mark. And we’re back to the beginning again.

I have a lot more than two of these stories to tell.

Maybe you do, too.

This word [and idea] of unity can be a sore spot for those of us who have sat at those tables and suffered through those meetings. If you’re like me, you’ve hoped for cooperation and shared values, only to encounter stubbornness and lines drawn in the sand.

So back to this important concept of asking questions as five-year-olds do:

WHY do we still talk about and strive for unity?

Is unity even possible?

I wonder what you think about that question. Maybe you’ll comment here so we can learn from each other’s perspectives?

In the meantime, let me share with you some thoughts about why I think unity—both the word and the concept, can be redeemed.

So that means we have to start with saying what unity is not.

 And that brings me back to this John passage that is part of Jesus of Nazareth’s farewell-bon voyage-arrivaderci-hasta luego-sionara-speech.  Often people picture Jesus standing on some huge rock or mountaintop, lifting his hands in holy prayer position and begging his Abba-God to help out all those Christians out there in the world.

jesusfunnyprayer

Sometimes we create committees, task forces, ecumenical teams, urban-suburban partnerships, multicultural exchanges, and interfaith cohorts. And we think that this is unity.

Perhaps there are some in the Christian tradition who still think that if people agree to a doctrine or dogma or sign a paper that says they believe a specific thing—this means that they are unified.

You see—we get unity confused with uniformity.

But John’s Gospel story presents another perspective.

Unity is about knowing.

Knowing is about being in relationship.

Relationship is about connection.

Unity is therefore about relationships and how they connect us.

And in John’s Gospel, there was no grand scene with rolling, white clouds and Jesus extending his hands to the heavens for a beautiful prayer.

Jesus of Nazareth prayed this prayer, said these words, in front of people.
And he wanted the people to hear what was said.
Because he was saying to to them.

One might go so far as to say this was a “wishful thinking” kind of prayer.

You know what I mean?

I mean the kind of prayer at another kind of table [the dinner table], when your little sister [with one eye opened and the other closed] says:

Dear God, thank you for this food that we are about to eat and thank you for telling my brother to stop kicking me under the table and for also inspiring him to share his toys a little bit more and to stop making faces at me when I’m singing in the show choir at school and also, God, thanks for helping my mom to understand that my math teacher is out to get me and that my friend Rebecca isn’t such a bad kid—she’s just going through a phase.

It’s a wishful thinking prayer of Jesus—one that isn’t really true yet.
Even his own disciples [followers] were not “one” in the way that he hoped.
They were a scattered, scared, and separated lot.

They were losing their connection.

Remember that this story was written long after Jesus’ death. So the intended audience would have already had that information.
So they need to remember.

This is a prayer, a conversation, around a table, after a meal, and with friends.
It’s an unexpected answer to a common question:

What is eternal life?

The answer may be surprising to some of us.
Eternal life is defined as knowing.

For those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, life for them was knowing their Creator and knowing their teacher Jesus.

But please remember that knowing God in John’s Gospel is not about doctrine or belief. Knowing is being in relationship.
Knowing is about connection.

And those who followed this Jesus were overhearing a prayer said about and to them.
And the prayer said: be one.

I think this is significant and relevant, if we choose to listen.

And so I ask: for you, what does being one with other humans mean?
Notice I did not say what does it mean to be one with other Christians, or people like you…
I’m asking, what does it mean for you to be one with others in this world in which you live?

What does it mean for you to be connected to God and to be connected to Jesus [if you identify as a Christian], and then to know others, and to be connected to them?

 

Prayers of Love, Prayers of Unity

John 17:20-26

It happens. A strange letter arrives in the mail, a weird email in my inbox, a random post on my Facebook page. People I don’t know, or I may know of them, but they are certainly not close friends or colleagues. I’m invited to something–a gathering of pastors for prayer; a group of community leaders for discussion; an event sponsored by some political figure. It is more than an invitation, I find out. The more I read the fine print, the more I realize that they want me to support their cause. A prayer meeting is not just to pray; it is to express how the government is evil and things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and undocumented workers are destroying the very fabric of the U.S. So come and pray about that. Or, the community meeting is not about learning or education or even networking. It’s about money, and how much money I can give to certain lobbyist groups, causes, or organizations. And the “Christian breakfast” invites are really fronts for political rallies for some candidate that of course, is looking for my vote and all of your votes. xianSpam

Each one of these comes with strings attached. And in every request, there are many assumptions made. First, whoever is inviting me assumes that as a Christian, I am just like them. I think like them, pray exactly like them, read and interpret the Bible just like them, worship like them, even vote like them. So the organizers of such gatherings are shocked when I call or email them back with a response of no—not because I cannot attend, but because I choose not to attend. How could that be? Am I not a Christian, just like them?

It is a common theme in our world today, I think. If someone doesn’t believe or think or even look like we do, they could not possibly be connected to us. We assume separation. People who disagree draw lines in the sand, rather than hearing out the other’s argument. People with differing worldviews never share a coffee, glass of wine or a beer, or a lunch. Even those who hang out or befriend another of a different religion, political stance, or philosophical view are told that they are watering down their own beliefs and stances. It seems that all too often we have to be exactly the same, or we cannot be together at all.

That is why, in this moment, I think it extra important for us to walk through John’s Gospel. Written last out of the other three Gospels, John has a nuanced perspective. Consider that when it was written, people had formed different religious and cultural groups, identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. We call them churches now, but these groups didn’t look much like what we see today. They were communities of people who lived together and supported each other. They were people from various backgrounds. They didn’t believe the same things. They interpreted their experiences of Jesus and God very differently. They even argued and had strong disagreements about ethics and theology. All of this is in the Gospel of John if we look for it.

Consider that these stories were written long after Jesus’ death and at a time when these faith communities were already expanding; assume that contextual, relevant interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings were being made. In other words, John’s Gospel interprets Jesus in light of the context and experience of that particular time and culture. We get a glimpse into a time, place, and culture simply by reading the words written about Jesus and even the words attributed to Jesus. You can read a novel about some historical figure like Abraham Lincoln or even see a movie, but it won’t really make sense to you unless you have some grounding in the historical context and cultural dynamics.

It’s no different with the Bible.

In the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine [and then in Greece, etc.] traditions were for the most part, passed on by oral tradition. They didn’t have email archives, metal file cabinets, videos, or audio files of Jesus. They had memory; and experiences; and stories told by one person to another and then to another, and then to another. Much later, scribes wrote it all down. In fact, John’s Gospel is particularly unique in its storytelling, because most scholars believe that various authors put it together over an extended period of time. It was a community of people called “Johannine.” In their context, Jesus’ story was often about relationship. And so it is in John 17, the longest speech attributed to Jesus—in the form of a prayer–26 verses.

 This prayer of Jesus focuses on unity, love, and relationship.

Let’s explore those three things. First, love. We have been talking about this a lot in John, and with good reason. To love is a command of Jesus. God is love. Those who love are of God. There is a direct correlation between acts of love and acts of God. If a person shows love to another, they show God to that person. Likewise, if a person refuses to show love to another, God is not present in that act and they are not of God. But this is not meant to be mere metaphysical language. Jesus was clear with the disciples about love. It wasn’t a feeling alone; it was how you lived. The disciples could love with the love of God. They were capable of it. Otherwise, Jesus wouldn’t have told them to do it in the first place!

Second, love is tied to that word relationship. Jesus had a unique and intimate relationship with God, who he called Abba [Father]. God knew Jesus; Jesus knew God; Jesus made God known to the disciples; they were to make God known to the world. That is a lot of knowing!

So look at the actual Greek word: ginoskoto know. Its meaning is intense. Ginosko means deep, interior perception that influences one’s emotions and actions.[1]

Knowing in John’s Gospel is not just about being aware—oh yeah, I know that guy, or at least, I know of him…

Knowing means being changed. Knowing affects your life. Knowing moves you to be. This relationship connects you to something bigger.

God knows all of us.

We are known by God.

Jesus knows God; God knows Jesus.

Jesus made God known to others.

We are to make God known to others.

And how does that happen: love.

But this leads us to the most difficult and misunderstood part of this prayer: unity. In the letters and emails and posts I get, this word unity is thought to mean the absence of disagreement or conflict. We are supposedly unified, because we believe the same things. We are unified because we hold the same commitments. We are unified by what we eat or wear or the language we speak. We are unified by our sameness. Don’t get me wrong—I am a big fan of finding people who connect with me because we share a common value, concern, or passion. I am a bridge-builder.

But being one or the idea of unity isn’t about sameness.

I mean, the colleagues and friends I have who stand with me on certain issues or share important values with me are quite different than me in a lot of ways. Some practice other religions or don’t practice any religion. Some of them speak other languages. Some live in different states, towns, or countries. Others participate in things in which I have no interest. Some don’t go to church. Some enjoy hobbies that are completely boring to me. On some issues, we completely disagree. They vote for different people or don’t vote at all. So are we unified? Are we one?

That is the question. You see, I think in American Christianity we often forget that being one isn’t about a piece of paper we sign, saying we believe the same things. It isn’t about doctrine or dogma or even some mission statement we agree upon. Unity, according to this prayer of Jesus, is based on the two things we already unpacked: relationship and love.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t mention the Apostle’s Creed or some Council in Nicaea. The disciples don’t sign on the dotted line. But they are challenged to make a choice, aren’t they? They are challenged to mirror the life-giving relationship of Jesus and God.

Be unified in your relationship: know each other by how you love each other; be known to each other by the love you receive; and then make love known to the world.

Funny enough, the unity of Jesus isn’t even meant to benefit the church.

Unity is meant to bless the world.

The phrase so that the world may know is repeated again and again by Jesus, and it’s almost annoying! But I think there’s a reason for the repetition, because we tend to ignore this challenge!

We like unity if it makes us feel better about our religion or because unity strengthens our numbers and gives us a louder voice so we can fight against others who disagree with us. We like unity if it gives us black-and-white understandings of God, morals and ethics, and salvation.

Less to think about.

We embrace unity if it allows us to avoid conflict and especially that particular issue that we have trouble with…

But this kind of unity? It’s not really about us at all!

It’s about others.

We are supposed to be one so that the world notices our love.

And this unifying love points them to the unifying love of God though Jesus.

Crazy as it may sound, churches and people of faith, if we are really interested in following Jesus, we need to be with other people who are different in order to experience a loving, unified relationship with God and in order to show love to the world. Love pushes us to widen the circle, reach out, and include. But we shouldn’t assume that they will think, believe, pray, sing, dress, talk, or behave exactly like us. In fact, we are challenged to embrace the differences, the disagreements, and the uniqueness. Why? Because in that kind of crazy, inclusive, diverse, raw community, we get a glimpse of what Jesus was praying about.

We start to get it—that God knows us and loves us as we are.

We open our minds to grasp that Jesus lived this loving relationship on earth.

We begin to know God and be known out of love–not obligation or fear.

Then, we live that love in the world–not obligating others, not causing fear.

Friends, the more we love, the more our relationship with God is real.

The more we love, the more we know ourselves better.

And the more we love, the more our relationships make a real impact.

Amen.


[1] Strong’s #1097 – γινώσκω.

 

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