Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘water’

Wind, Water, and Life in Desolation

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

Spirit Sightings Inviting Change

John 3:9-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving the Church to Find God

 John 4:5-26

What are some specific places or activities that cause you to feel the presence of G-d?

Where or when is God especially absent from you?

 

Where do we think that God or the Divine or the Great Spirit or the Eternal Consciousness is?

Here?
[Sikh Gurdwara]
gurdwara

 Or here? [Hindu deities]
twindeities

Or here? [Mosque]
mosqueprayer

Or here? [Buddhist meditation]
WonFullMeditationCircle

 Or here? [La Sagrada Familia, Spain]
sagradaoutside

Or here? [nature]
NICA2 toucan CR1

Or here? Where you currently are…

Where and when we think that the Divine is present matters. Usually, it is in a building, a structure, a religious site supposedly constructed for the purpose of experiencing the Divine—whatever we call it—G-d, Jehova, Elohim, Allah, Brahma, the Eternal Consciousness, the Great Spirit…

What I learned last week as I visited seven different religious communities is that the Divine is definitely contained and limited by us.

Religion certainly can inspire and organize people to do amazing things that bring about peace and unity and justice. But religion, because of its limitations of the Divine, can also be so destructive that it turns people against one another—even leading to violence and killing and war.

Religion, in its extreme form, can limit our views and cause us to hold on to many prejudices and convictions that separate us from others.
It can isolate people and limit their imagination and creativity.
Religion can lead people to claim that they know where G-d is and where G-d is not.

But somehow this Divine Being or Eternal Consciousness we call G-d claims to live outside of walls, outside of religions, a G-d completely present with all kinds of people in many different places. G-d says no to restrictions.

Philosopher Paul Tillich once wrote: God is inescapable. God is God only because God is inescapable. And only that which is inescapable is God.

G-d is inescapable, not limited to buildings or even religions.

And this idea is promoted in the Gospel of John: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

Talk about an encounter with someone outside of your comfort zone—this was it. Jesus of Nazareth, of course, was not a Samaritan. Jesus’ “people” and her “people” did not like each other and thought each other’s religions were false. Jesus’ religious temple was in Jerusalem and her religious site was on Mount Gerizim. They both read different scriptures. Their two religious traditions both made competing truth claims about G-d. The divisions seemed to be too much to overcome, right?

But unlike John’s story about Nicodemus, another character who encountered Jesus, the Samaritan woman meets with Jesus during the day—not at night. And unlike Nicodemus, a prominent Sanhedrin member [religious elite], the Greek rendering of Samaritan woman is like a double negative. She was powerless in society.

She doesn’t even get a name in the story.

What she gets instead is living water.

What is that? In her case, a new identity in life. No person [much less a Rabbi], had ever made her feel that she was fully human. In John’s Gospel, the word salvation is not about saying some words and “getting saved” by joining some religion. In this Gospel, salvation is being delivered from something that holds you back.
In her case, she was delivered from the limitations placed on her life.

But…

As I mentioned before, our religions [and our G-d-buildings] often prevent us from experiencing the Divine at all. Our religious limitations also lead us to prejudice, misunderstanding, and misconceptions. So it still was for the woman.

She was still caught up in the where of G-d’s presence. Wasn’t the Divine limited to a certain mountain? Jesus’ response is liberating, I think:

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

All well and good, Jesus. But her religious traditions were so strong that she still was convinced that the Divine presence was limited to the future coming of a messiah.

Jesus responds, but he doesn’t say I am he.
He says simply:
I AM.

G-d is here. In this moment. You don’t have to wait for some messiah, you don’t have to run to some mountain or some temple—the Divine is here with you. The Divine is not limited to a certain space or even a certain time.

The Divine just is.

I don’t know what names you give to the Divine. I’m not sure where you think G-d resides. Truthfully, all of us around the world give different answers.

That’s okay, actually.
What we cannot do, though, is to insist that the Divine is surely in our churches or in our temples. What we cannot do is to claim that our religious buildings and traditions have more G-d in them than others. All the symbols, buildings, icons, and traditions that we create are simply meant to be reminders that the Divine is with us. That’s all. But they don’t contain or limit the experience of the Divine.

That’s why sometimes you will have to leave the church to find G-d. I am serious about this.

You will benefit from walking away from stained glass and pews and crosses and all that is familiar and religious to you. The Divine can be found and experienced all around you—sometimes in other people’s temples and places of prayer; other times outside amongst trees and birds and flowing water; or when you sit down with strangers or friends and share good food; or when life is heavy and sad and someone shows you compassion; or in a breath, a sunrise, a smile, a merciful act.

Let’s stop limiting the Divine to only what we know or think we know.
Recognize that religion is something that we humans come up with in order to give some cultural form to faith in a G-d we cannot see.

But if the Divine is a presence we believe to be merciful, loving, and universal—then the Divine cannot be limited to our spaces, times, and cultures.

May this impact how you live.

How Can This Be?

John 3:1-9

ASBWISCLast week, I participated in the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break program for college students. I journeyed with students, faculty, and college staff professionals to encounter seven different religious traditions, including: Reconstructionist Jewish; Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian; Sikh; Quaker; Won Buddhist; Hindu; Black Muslim and Sunni Muslim. There is no way to express how much I learned and experienced during that week. I am sure that as time passes, the stories will come to the surface and I will continue to discover meaning as a result of what we saw, heard, and felt. Keep in mind that this week was not about touring religious communities simply in order to gather information and knowledge about religions. This week was about meeting people and experiencing their cultural and religious practices. It was about connections between faith practice and actual life practice.

This week was about embracing my full humanity and the full humanity of others.

After all, if you are capable of stripping away all the surface stuff that we obsess over [how we dress, what we eat, how we pray, how we believe or don’t believe in a god, what language we speak, how we worship, what sacred books we read and claim]—if we look past those things—we can discover that any religious encounters we have with others are human encounters. Throughout the course of the week, we met people and shared stories; and food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. We sat together; stood together; bowed together; we lived together and cooperated across lines of difference.

Last Saturday, in the first few hours we spent together, our group discussed asking good questions and what that would look like during our week. After all, we wanted to be respectful and curious as we interacted with people from various traditions. We talked about the difference between a curious question and a judgmental question. Then, I asked all the students to write down a major question they had about what they were going to experience during the week. They wrote it on the back of their name tags so as to carry it with them the entire time.

Questions are important. They don’t have to lead us to answers, though. Sometimes asking honest and curious questions leads us to more questions…and even better questions.

So the questions I am asking today after this experience are:

How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together as human beings of diverse traditions?

How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence?

And what do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?

The story in the gospel of John is about questions. This question-asking is prevalent in most religious traditions and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student will ask the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider. This teaching method is utilized by Jesus of Nazareth quite often.

In this case, the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory” and is a name of a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council in Jerusalem at that time. He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice.

The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.
Now THAT sounds familiar….

Nicodemus met Jesus at night. And in place of asking a curious question, Nicodemus made a statement full of assumptions. We know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Jesus, however, changed the subject. No one can see God’s kingdom without being born from above. That phrase “born from above” is not the US version “born again.” Born from above is about a new vision for life and not about having superior knowledge.

Then, Nicodemus does indeed ask a good and curious question:

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coat

Jesus’ answer is not very scientific: Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Or maybe it was actually scientific. Water, after all, is a real thing. It is one of the known elements of nature and human beings. We are mostly water. Water goes around, under, and through things. Spirit, or wind, as Jesus calls it, is wild and free and creative. It blows where it wants to and cannot be controlled. You also don’t see it.

wind

Nicodemus’ mind was blown. Previously, his categories for life and religion were limited to what he saw in a temple and what he had read.

And I interpret Nicodemus’ final question to Jesus as a really, really good one:

How can these things be?

Yes, I’m with you, Nicodemus…how can these things be?

How can we live by water and spirit—free and unattached to traditions and dogmas and doctrines and prejudices? How can our religious practices make us alive in such a way that we actually live as better human beings?

How can these things be…

In me?

In you?

In all of us?

There were many surprises for us this past week. One such surprise happened at the Egyptian Coptic Church. A baby was baptized; the same baby was then immediately confirmed by the priest; the same baby then immediately received the sacrament of communion. The community walked around in circles with this baby. Everyone sang and some people shouted in celebration. The water was free. The baby was free. The community celebrated.

On Tuesday, at the Buddhist temple, during silent meditation, the wind blew outside. We could hear it. We could sense it. But we couldn’t see it. Our soft gazes continued with eyes half shut. And the wind blew. It blew as it wished. It was free.

Friends, let’s ask good and curious questions about our faith practices.

How can we love, heal, help, learn, cooperate, and celebrate together? How do we pray, read sacred texts, sing, meditate, or sit in silence? What do those behaviors encourage us to do and be?

After all, every single human being is of water and spirit—regardless of the categories we place on ourselves and others.

We are all made of water and spirit.

May we meet all people and share and embrace all stories; and may we share food; and prayers; and silence; and songs; and handshakes; and hugs. May we sit together; and stand together; bow together; help together; work for justice and peace together; may we live together.

How will this be in us?

Reconciling Light

John 1:29-42

reconciledWe form memories in our heads of events and people—long after the moment passed or the person passed. These memories, uniquely ours and certainly not entirely accurate—become the reality we place on that event or person.

I can tell you plenty of stories about my childhood and adolescence—even a story from a few weeks ago! My story, my memory of what happened, is a creative weaving of thoughts, feelings, images, sounds, smells, and cognitive processes. But my memory isn’t perfect. Sometimes I put two events together and make them one. I combine sensory experiences with other moments in my life, even though they don’t belong together. I remember eating a goat cheese romaine lettuce salad three months ago and actually, it wasn’t a salad that I ate, but in fact sautéed kale with pine nuts. I tell stories about my high school days and how my friend Derrick did this thing or another thing, but actually it wasn’t Derrick, it was my other friend Ralph.

This doesn’t mean that we all just lose our minds as we get older, because kids do it, too. I was reminding my nephew George the other day of a hilarious thing he said a few months ago. We were talking about candy and George said:

Uncle Josh, we don’t get much candy here…we’re vegetarians.

Of course, when I told George this story, he made a face and pointed at me, saying:

No, Uncle Josh, I didn’t say that…you did!

Only time will tell if George will remember my version of the story, or his own.

Now that isn’t to say that all of our memories are just relativism. Yes, we all have our own memories of people and events, but most of us accept particular, well-known facts about experiences and people. For example, someone dies on a certain day. We typically know and accept the date. Someone graduates from school. We also have a date for that. A person lives in a particular city, speaks a certain number of languages, etc. What matters more than the simple, surface facts is how we organize our memories. Do we remember that there was love in a person’s life? And how do we know that for sure? Was something funny or sad? Do we have regret about something or do we think it was all worth it? Did an experience have a purpose or was it just random?

Today is a good day to explore this because we’re going to talk about Jesus of Nazareth again, and boy do we ever enjoy assigning memories to that guy and the stories about him.
coolJesusOverall we remember Jesus and the stories about him according to how we feel about them, who told us the stories, and what meaning we assign to them.

Enter Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor and director.

storieswetellPolley recently made a documentary called ”Stories We Tell.” The basic premise: Sarah sat down with relatives and friends and interviewed them, asking them to talk about her mother Diane Polley, who died in 1990 when Sarah was eleven years old. Here is a trailer to give you a taste:

It’s a documentary worth checking out. I am intrigued by the questions Polley poses:

Why do we have this need to tell stories? Why is it so essential to us? And why do we have this sort of desperate attachment to our versions of the past? And how do we allow for or do we allow for other versions of that past?

I think that this is particularly important as it pertains to religious stories, because sadly, throughout history, there have been too many people who have tried to say that there is only one version of the stories in our sacred books. And their version is promoted, and pushed on you, and shoved down your throat, and if they are rich and powerful enough, their version of the story becomes the version.

Sadly, such domineering storytelling can also lead to awful behavior. Sometimes the way people tell Bible stories can cause great suffering in people—some interpretations can hurt, push down, marginalize, and even bring about violence.

Appropriate now that we are exploring the Gospel of John of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This Gospel of John has actually been the basis for the dominant view of the story of Western Christianity, actually. Yes, you may remember such passages like: I am the way, the truth and the life; for God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son…yep. And I’m sure you have heard of such things as the Trinity [Father, Son, Holy Spirit] and the divinity and sinless nature of Jesus? These ideas come from John.

Yes, this 4th Gospel, written after the other three Gospels and not consistent with the others, is a basis for much of the theological and structural thinking of the modern-day Christian church.

I want us all to remember, though, that all the Gospels are not biographies. They are stories told in a certain way to bring about memories of Jesus in a certain way, and they are all storytelling to a particular audience.

This idea is expanded after years of research on the Gospel of John by author John Shelby Spong, in his recent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

the4thgospelSpong argues that John should be read as entirely symbolic and is never meant to be taken literally. Spong, along with many other Biblical scholars, state that no one person wrote John’s Gospel [or a disciple as many think], but at least three people wrote it over a period of 25-30 years. Also, the words attributed to Jesus were most likely not actual things he said. This includes all the “I am” statements. Further, the miracles recorded in John were not meant as historical evidence of actual events. Spong continues: likewise, the characters mentioned by name in John were not real people, but characters in the story, never meant to be thought of as actual persons of the 1st Century. In fact, John’s Gospel itself, argues Spong, seems to laugh at any literal interpretation of its own stories.[1]

That view, of course, challenges the view of many who read John so literally and as a historical book. This perspective also contradicts hundreds of years of institutional church teaching that eventually created the Christian creeds and orthodoxy.

But I present to you this view of the story because it is in fact valid.

It has been a silenced view due to the louder voices who have read John as a history book.

Some have argued [and I agree] that right now, in 2014, in spite of having more archeological evidence and textual study that provides evidence that religious stories are meant to be read symbolically—

Many, many people are interpreting religious books more literally than ever before.

The earliest Christian communities did not take these stories literally. It was their tradition, both oral and written, to tell stories and to interpret events differently. How one person told stories about Jesus did not have to match another person’s story.

 Why does this matter?

Because the Gospel of John [and other Bible stories] have been used over time to push people down, to make people feel guilty, to control, manipulate, and sadly, the stories have been used to justify horrific acts of violence, genocide, slavery, and prejudice. That is why you must recognize your freedom as you read the sacred stories. Do not be limited by what I say or write, or what someone else tells you to believe. John’s story was not meant to be read one way.

And we are not meant to see Jesus in the same way, to form the same memories, and to tell exactly the same story.

Instead, we are meant to see, hear, and experience the symbols in the story and to focus on the way Jesus lived.

But there’s still a white elephant in the room.

Actually, it’s a white lamb.

lambWhat do you think of when you hear lamb of God?

We’re conditioned to think that the lamb is sent to slaughter. We are conditioned to think of Jesus in the same way.
I am a sinner, you are a sinner, so Jesus must die.
Blood must be spilled.

But John’s Gospel writers were shaped by entirely Jewish thought and religious practice. There is a special day in the Jewish liturgical calendar, known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. [2] During Yom Kippur, you can find the phrases lamb of God, died for our sins, and washed in the blood of the lamb in the religious rites. This idea is Jewish.

But over the centuries, Western Christians applied Yom Kippur symbols to Jesus. This led to the idea that you and I deserve to be punished for our sins. That’s why, some say, that God sent Jesus to take the punishment as the sacrificial lamb.

But Yom Kippur isn’t about this at all. Yom Kippur is about turning around and leaning towards the divine. It is about the human yearning to be one with God, in other words, to discover God’s love fully and honestly, so that this love can live inside you. The John community saw in Jesus a person who fully lived with love and offered love to all people. He was light. This Jesus gave them courage to love God and their neighbor.

This Jesus had shown them that to recognize God in yourself was to recognize your full humanity.

Look, I’ve always been inspired by John’s Gospel, but not because I think the stories are literal. I am inspired by John because Jesus of Nazareth stood with and up for the forgotten, the suffering, the prisoners, the hated, and the pushed down— all those our cultures push to the margins. This Jesus doesn’t make me feel guilty at all, actually, but Jesus’ story moves me to speak up for justice, to walk with someone when no one else will; to never stay silent about injustice, and to love people as they are, above all else.

I am also inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlkjrI remember memorizing his speeches in junior high. I remember watching videos of the march and reading his writings from prison. Each year in this country, of course, students and others participate in service projects in observance of MLK day. That’s fine, I guess. But one day out of the year doesn’t tell the story that needs to be told. King’s life and work changed the lives of so many who were suffering horrific discrimination. Violence. Torture. Death. I cannot understand that myself. All I can do is remember something King once said:

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…this is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.[3]

Reconciliation is still needed badly in our world [an understatement, I know]. Beloved community is hard to find. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return? This is rare! No, racism has not been eliminated. Yes, discrimination is alive and well–even if it takes different forms and is called by different names.

So all of us have work to do, and it will take a LOT longer than one weekend! You see, the legacy of MLK is so much more than famous quotes and speeches, service days, and book reports. His life is meant to inspire us to reconcile the broken relationships and communities in our lives. We ought to be inspired to allow our love to overflow out of our comfort zones and into the lives of people who are different than us. We ought  to build bridges of mutual understanding and trust and stand up against racism, prejudice, and oppression anywhere in the world.

And so it is with this Jesus, friends.

Why would it be any different?

Jesus’ life and work were and are so much more than quotable quotes, or names we attach to him, or church dogmas and doctrines. You see, everyone reads his story a bit differently and that’s okay. But the story of Jesus must move us to compassionate action and reconciling love, regardless of how we interpret the story.

So may the story of Jesus move you to treat everyone in your workplace with dignity, respect, and acceptance. If there is injustice, may the story move you to stand up even if it’s dangerous or unpopular.

At school, students may the story inspire you to never stay silent when a kid is being bullied, pushed down, or made fun of. May the story move you to love freely and to accept everyone as they are.

Don’t put up with racism or any kind of prejudice.
Don’t be silent when injustice is loud.
And in life, may the stories remind us of illuminating light, and of flowing waters of justice, and of beloved community, and of reconciling mercy and love.

And then, the story will not just be told, but it will be lived–again and again.

Amen.

 


[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

[2] Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious.

[3] The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957.

Aside

Still Speaking and Water Still Flowing

Matthew 3:13-17

funny-baby-catholic-baptismBaptism stories are always fun to tell because if you think about it, what is stranger, funnier, or more awkward than dressing up someone in white clothes, sprinkling water on his/her head and rubbing it into his/her hair while people stare? Or, if you come from another tradition, what is odder than dunking the person in a religious bathtub, a pond, or some body of water while people stare? Wearing white in this case is also awkward because that means whatever is underneath is of great importance.

Hmmm….do I go with the Steelers jersey underneath the white, see-through robe, or the Led Zeppelin t-shirt?
Whether someone is baptized as an infant or a child, as a teenager or as an adult…we have to admit that this ceremony is a bit weird.

So last Sunday I was asked to lead such a ceremony at a friend’s house. Mom and dad, two honest people, were just not sure what it was…a baptism, a dedication, a christening…what do these things mean and what we were actually going to do?

Really good questions, actually.

What are these things and what are we going to do?

50+ people were staring intently at this baby boy all dressed in white and screaming his eyelids out. He was red in the face; would he ever stop crying? Mom and dad tried to soothe him and so did the two godparents looking on. But he just wailed louder. I finally put the water on his head.

First time [Creator]: kid is still screaming.
Second time [Jesus]: tears rolling down like a waterfall.
Third time will be the charm, right? Spirit: he didn’t like it one bit.

Even his dad was like…geez, this kid is not content right now. So I said the blessing and a benediction—as fast as I could. Poor kid—he probably just wanted to eat; or sleep; or get the diaper changed. And here I was talking about him to all those people and asking his parents questions and then putting water on his head and oh, that white outfit just wasn’t a good look for him. I don’t blame him for crying. Man, these baptism/dedication/christening things are so weird.

I still think that the parent’s questions were right on.

What is this and what are we going to do?

heQiBaptismWhat is this Christian rite of baptism [just another way of saying tradition]? What is this so-called sacrament? There are a hundred different answers and it depends on your tradition. For the sake of time, let’s just say that a sacrament in general terms is a ceremony or ritual that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. But some people take that much more seriously than others. I would argue, though, that most people take it just about as seriously as my two friends who had their kid screaming through the whole thing. They both wanted to do something to mark the occasion of the birth of their child. They wanted family and friends to be there and experience it. They wanted to celebrate and eat and drink.

But it was less about religious tradition and more about all that other stuff.

For the house was filled with Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, and plenty of agnostics/atheists and non-religious folks.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

The water ceremony—at least for me—is more about identity and community than anything else. I said this to the whole group gathered: it takes a whole village to raise a child. I asked them to agree to be part of that village. I asked mom and dad to agree to give freedom to their kid to explore spirituality and to ask questions. I asked the godparents be honest and to be mentors.

And I reminded everybody that this crying baby was….a baby. All of this won’t be remembered. He will have no recollection of the so-called sacrament. Even one day when he’s older and people show him pictures, he will still not directly connect to that experience.

So what was this?

It was, in all honesty, a moment for the adults—the friends and family—to embrace each other and their commitment to be the village that raises the kid.

And what will they do?

That question is yet to be answered. The kid, as he grows up, will answer with his own life. His family and friends will answer by how they accept and love him, mentor him, and teach him.

Fortunately for him, it’s quite possible that he will never again have some strange guy rub water on his head or say strange words while he’s crying.

You know, Jesus was baptized, too, but it was a lot different. It’s a story told by all 4 Gospels. Jesus wasn’t a baby, but an adult. And there was no ordained clergy to put water on his head in the name of the Trinity or whatever. Jesus’ baptism story must have been strange, because all 4 Gospels tell a very different version of the same event.

Kind of makes we wonder if this cartoon about Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount is right:
funny-pictures-auto-scumbag-jesus-469460Yep. The Gospels of the NT often tell very different versions of the same story. Why? In storytelling, the audience matters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels were all written for and to different people. So each Gospel tells its own story so as to make sense to the hearers.

Matthew’s version includes a unique dialogue between John and Jesus. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “No, Jesus, I should be baptized by you—not the other way around.” It’s almost like a “you first, no you first” kind of kid’s game. Well, that happens until Jesus reassures John that it’s okay for John to be the baptizer. Jesus literally tells John: Release it. Let it go. All the ideas of hierarchical relationships—who should baptize, who should be baptized, religious rites, etc.—let it go. This is a clear attempt by Matthew to address some controversy in the early church. You see, some people were uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized by someone else. That would imply John in the role of priest and Jesus as underneath John. At least, that was their worldview.

But that’s not all. Many wondered: isn’t baptism supposed to be reserved for sinners? So how in the world could Jesus be baptized? Some people believed that Jesus was without sin. So to them, this makes no sense!

Matthew’s Gospel is of course making a point—or at least trying to. Unfortunately, many so-called religious people limit the waters of baptism to a chosen few—people they choose. But Jesus, in Matthew’s story, contradicts that. Water [and baptism] is for everyone. It’s for all who are not perfect.

And that’s everyone.

Jesus is on the same level as us; he is immersed in water just like anybody else; he identifies as real person. The heavens open, but not to prove some sort of religious doctrine or to fit into church hierarchy.

The heavens open to mark the occasion as important, for sure. Pay attention, world. God doesn’t show favoritism. God is pleased because God desires for humans to understand identity. God is not some cold, non-empathetic deity equipped with rotating, exploding judgment lightning bolts, although that might be a cool anime movie.
GodInstead, God understands suffering, and crying, and doubt, and fear, and love, and curiosity, and confusion, and humanity…as it is.

People have tried for so long [and still try] to say that God only loves some people and only cares about my people and not them; and people still say this person who is gay or lesbian or Arab or from another land or speaking a different language or someone who is just plain different is outside of grace and mercy.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

Here’s the thing—if someone is never baptized formally in a church or even in a house—this is not really important.

Now some people will NOT like this on FB or repost this, for sure. But questions are much more important than the ceremony.

And how we treat people is way more important than baptism.

So what is this water?

stillwaterWater itself is a flowing, renewing, refreshing source of life for all living things—including us. When babies are well, babies—they are almost ALL water [75-78%]. That’s why they are so squishy. Water is part of our physical makeup. The rest of us are 50-60% water. We need it in order to survive. When the heavens open, so to speak, water comes down in the form of rain or snow.

So if you need to, forget the word baptism. Forget the word sacrament.

But remember to notice water.

Water is a sign of life. And water is provided for the whole planet.

Water should be available to everybody in the world.

The fact that some people in our world do not have access to water is a sign of our degrading humanity and our need to change. Water itself is essential—not to be a symbol for religions to argue about—but as a physical source of life.

And focus on identity. Because the second question of what will we do is one we must ask every day of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re an infant, a kid, a youth, or an adult. I think that God still speaks to anyone and everyone. Yes, we all talk about that differently and that’s fine. But I do think that God is still communicating with us. And I do think that God is pleased with people as they are. There is no hierarchy in humanity. We have created this lie ourselves. No one is more important than another, no one loved more or blessed more. We don’t have to wear white outfits or jump through religious hoops for God to love and accept us.

God is pleased with how you are you.

If you have ever been made to feel or have ever been told that the waters of healing, compassion, and purpose aren’t meant for you, then let the water wash over you. Put those harmful words aside. Let them go. Anyone who excludes certain people is just trying to control the water.

But the water is strong and free to flow and move as it will.

Just as God’s love is free to flow and move as it will.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah yesterday, and the girl chose this poem to be read in her rite of passage ceremony. It is a beautiful way to finish this.

200px-Lucille_cliftonLucille Clifton’s poem, blessing the boats:

 May the tide that is entering
Even now the lip of our understanding
Carry you out beyond the face of fear
May you kiss the wind then turn from it certain
That it will love your back
May you open your eyes to water
Water waving forever
And may you in your innocence sail through this to that

Water you can notice every day. It pours from the sky and comes up from the ground. It is not limited to a sacrament or a building or a church. Water is the still speaking, still flowing creator at work. And so be baptized, sprinkled, immersed, washed, refreshed and renewed by it every day. And be inspired to love, to show compassion to others…and be inspired to forgive. Because we are all filled with and surrounded by water….all of us. May the rivers carry us on our journey and lead us to live with love. May the still speaking and flowing water move through us and be shared with all creation.

 

Low Expectations and the Power of Touch

  John 20:19-31   

Some of you know that from March 16-23 I decided to participate in a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire’s Better Together initiative. The program was called Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break. There were 44 students from the school from around the world, hailing from various cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of the students were Christian [both Protestant and Catholic]; some Muslims; some Hmong shamans; some Hindus; some agnostics; some atheists; a Wiccan; and some Buddhists. A diverse group, to say the least.

BetterTogether

Most of these students have been taking a course at the University called Engaging Religious Pluralism. As part of this class, students learn about other faiths, but do not limit their learning to textbooks and classroom environments. They actually engage people of other faiths and experience their faith practices. The goal is to promote a better understanding across religious lines and to empower younger generations to be interfaith leaders.

Work in pluralism focuses on being curious and engaging. Pluralism is actually not the same thing as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with someone who is different than you, i.e. I guess I have to sit next to you or share this planet with you. Pluralism goes beyond just tolerating another person, but is an active attempt to understand that person’s worldview.[1]

Pluralism is based on real human encounters that include dialogue and experience.

Of course, this is part of the problem with our world in general. We don’t encounter and engage those who are different than us. We don’t talk, learn, experience, touch, feel, hear, smell, taste, and understand. We watch 30 second clips on TV or read comments on an internet blog. We make judgments about others based on such ridiculous things. And in turn, I would argue that we disconnect ourselves from our own humanity and our own religious practice. By neglecting to encounter and engage our neighbors, we neglect to know ourselves fully. That is why I got involved with this project, and also because I care deeply about younger generations. So much talk these days in Christian circles about how young people do not go to church. What’s happening? People in churches get scared and more protective of their religious territory. Meanwhile, younger generations are less and less interested in faith community. I know this. I’ve studied this. I have experienced this firsthand. So I wanted to spend a week with these students to learn from them.

In our meetings to plan the week, we discussed what types of experiences they wanted to have. We were in agreement. We wanted to experience the religious practice of others. We wanted to put on head scarves, eat the food, take off our shoes, sing and chant, smell and taste, see and touch. How do people pray? How do they bless? What books do they treasure? How does their worldview make them better people and inspire them to cooperate with others? How are we different? How are we the same?

For a week we visited 8 different faith communities: an African Methodist Episcopalian Church, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Hindu and Jain temple, a Won Buddhist temple, a Sufi mosque, a Quaker meeting, a Baha’i devotion, and a Reformed Jewish synagogue. And we also engaged 6 service-learning partners: Heeding God’s Call, Philly POWER, Urban Tree Connection, Philly Food SHARE, Church of the Advocate, and New Sanctuary Movement. It is impossible to express just how much we learned and experienced. If you want to learn more about our week, backtrack to these blog entries.

Today’s message—considering my Interfaith Encounters experience and my experience with John’s Gospel–is about low expectations and the power of touch. I mentioned in my Resurrection Sunday [Easter] message last week that the stories of the Bible don’t mean much unless those stories connect with our own stories. So today, let me share some personal stories with you—about Thomas and Jesus and about my week with UW Eau-Claire students.

Each time I read the Jesus resurrection stories, I am reminded of just how low our expectations have become. The Sunday after Easter is the lowest-attended Sunday of the year. Think about why. We really have low expectations for the Gospel stories. Christmas Eve and Easter stories are mere history, fantasy, or tradition. We rarely encounter them [meaning, we rarely read them], and thus, we rarely engage them [meaning question them]. Because of that, we also have low expectations for God’s Spirit moving through our lives and in the lives of others. We set the bar very low for transcendent experiences and things that change us. We ought to participate in religious practice because it moves us to new places and inspires us to do good.

But we are often disconnected from the stories. Thomas? Disciples behind closed doors? Jesus’ hands and feet? We are more connected to television characters and reality show stories than to these things.

But what if we TOUCH the story? What if the story TOUCHES us? What if we refuse to be content with simply hearing old, old stories and participating in old, old traditions? What if we start to expect great things to happen when we read these stories? When we worship? When we pray? When we learn? When we serve? What if the stories become real in our lives and affect us? What if the stories make us better people, challenge us to be more merciful, push us to love people?

What if our religious practice didn’t stay trapped in a book? Or a tradition? Or a doctrine?

mother-bethel-churchOn Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. we joined Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. The service included vibrant music with keyboard, drums, and inspiring vocalists. Even a little dancing! Towards the end of the service, people were invited to pray in the front of the sanctuary. People just came. No theme. No reason other than to pray. Music. Prayers.

Then, something unexpected.

Their prayers do not end with the Lord’s Prayer and an amen. They end with hugs. Strangers, old friends, family—it didn’t matter. A prayer ended with an embrace.

sikh1That same day we were in Lawrenceville, NJ at the Sikh Sabha. As the bus pulled up, Kavi Pannu and other community leadership greeted us in front of the gurudwara and directed us to a well-laid-out carpet where we could remove our shoes;

Youth brought us head scarves and explained how the afternoon would proceed.

We all sat on the carpet together, side by side, touching each other.

sikh2There wasn’t enough room for personal space.

After the prayer service, community members dropped down white cloths; langar meal began.

We ate with our hands—curry and yogurt and beans and rice.

We tasted and smelled and felt.sikh3

On Monday we visited the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Chalfont.

bhara

After removing our shoes, we were led upstairs. Worshipers entered the prayer space and the three priests present that evening in the temple for Shiva Abhishekam rang bells and chanted songs–waving lit candles in the air. Their songs filled the space. The incense burned. One of the priests started to fling water towards all of us gathered there. We felt the drops. Then, water from the Ganges River was placed in our right hand by the priest. We drank it and received a piece of fruit.

bhara2We heard this from our hosts:

Any religious practice should make us a better person.

But in John’s story, the disciples were locked behind closed doors!

Scared, depressed, and apathetic. Jesus came and offered wholeness to them.

Thomas wasn’t there. Eventually, he had to see for himself. He had to touch in order for this experience to be real. He wasn’t content with a second-hand story. He encountered Jesus; he engaged Jesus. Thomas makes we wonder: what if our religious practice was free and actively moving in the world, capable of risk-taking, open to new perspectives, and not afraid to express doubt? What if atheists and agnostics were encouraged to join our faith community? Thomas was welcomed by Jesus. Don’t we see more of ourselves in this doubting Thomas who wanted to see for himself?

Thomas says: “My Lord and my God!” but that is not the end of the story. Later on, the disciples still don’t recognize Jesus’ presence. They hesitate to answer questions about faith because they are afraid to say: I don’t know the answer! They reach for faith but don’t quite make it. Like Thomas, they don’t “believe” until they eat with their hands–share a meal. Only then are their eyes opened.

I am healed by the message in John’s story, because the story invites us in. We weren’t there. We didn’t see. We are all like Thomas. We are included in the story that we often feel left out of. We’re encouraged to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It’s understood that we will have doubt and be skeptical. We are not rebuked–we are blessed with wholeness, too.

On Tuesday, at Won Buddhist Temple the silence was a blessed wholeness.

buddhist2I could even hear the breathing of the person next to me.

Once the chanting started, the silence remained in my mind. The prayer bowl resonated all the way through the wooden floor.

buddhist1

That afternoon, the Wisconsin students carried signs protesting gun violence in Philadelphia: Stop straw buying! Halt illegal gun sales!

SAMSUNG

They stood on Torresdale Ave. and hundreds of cars passed, honking their loud approval. The students even engaged the gun shop owner in conversation.

At Philly food SHARE’s warehouse, near the East Falls section of Philadelphia, the students packed boxes full of perishables and organized shipments for soup kitchens and shelters.

phillyshare

On the decorated walls were murals and their motto:

“Do Good. Feel Good. Eat Good.”
phillyshare2

On Thursday, snow was on the ground and a chill was in the air. But the students were enthused to be in West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection.
SAMSUNG urbantree2They cleaned up trash, removed dead brush and prepared the vacant lot to become an urban garden–a safe and functional place that could inspire and promote positive human interaction.

SAMSUNGOn Thursday evening, at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi community, our mouths were filled with food.
bawa

One of the Muslim student leaders led us in the ritual of ablutions.

ablutions2The water trickled down our arms and covered our feet, refreshing us.

ablutions

Another female Muslim student from Saudi Arabia carefully and patiently helped others put on their head scarves.

scarves2 scarves

Upstairs in the mosque, the prayers began to echo.

Bowing, hands in the air. Arabic prayer-songs. Embraces.

mosque2

On Friday, we journeyed to the University of Temple part of Broad Street and visited the Church of the Advocate; immediately, our senses were overwhelmed by the Gothic cathedral and the artwork everywhere.
SAMSUNG advocate2 SAMSUNGBut our noses told us something else was going on in the kitchen. Church of the Advocate serves an average of 1,000 people each month, Monday- Friday. Anyone can get a hot meal. One man, proud of this effort and grateful for it, stood outside in the cold and shook all 50 hands in our group, asking each person’s name.

The chef and volunteers in the kitchen laughed as they shared about their work.

advocate3

We smelled the food.

Then we smelled cleaning supplies.

SAMSUNG

We found ourselves in the Gothic sanctuary once again—this time helping their sexton to clean.

That evening, at the Baha’i Center of Philadelphia, we sat at the table to eat and talk. Devotions began and people of different ages read sacred scriptures. A song and then a prayer.

bahai

And plenty of laughter. Stories. Embraces and pictures.

smiles smiles2Smiles.

smiles4 smiles3

 Our last gathering as a whole group was on Saturday afternoon at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church, before the long bus trip to Wisconsin. A closing time of sharing and challenge and reflection. Some students verbally shared how they expected to use their new-found understandings to be leaders or to stand up for others. Some shared that their experiences were transcendent, powerful, even life-changing. Embraces and pictures and laughter and some tears.

closing2 closing

Friends, this experience has left me wondering:

What would it be like if we started acting more like Thomas?

What if we expected more out of our sacred stories and our religious practices?

What if we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and live our sacred stories?

What if we choose to encounter and engage people who are different?

What if this Jesus, who taught that God’s Spirit was in everyone; who taught that forgiveness was given to us and required of us; what if this Jesus, who offered wholeness, even to the ones who still doubted and needed to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell; what if this Jesus were real in our stories and in our lives?

What if sacred stories became part of our stories?

What if we expected more out of our faith practice—that it would actually make us better people?

May it be so.


[1] What is Pluralism? Diane Eck.

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