Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘water’

Casting into the Deep Water

Luke 5:1-11   

As human beings, do we remember that we are part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space? We often forget. Instead, we often experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. And this delusion can be a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. So said Albert Einstein, the Physicist & Nobel Laureate. And he also said that our task then is to “free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Image result for einstein

This is what I would call a paradigm shift—a movement away from what society conditions us to believe about ourselves.

See, most of us are socially conditioned to believe that the family we are born into is where we belong and it defines who we are. We also are conditioned to view others who look different as the other—not related to us. And, as we grow older, our personal desires [or individualistic impulses] can dominate our thinking and living. We also tend to show the greatest care and affection for those who are in our small social circles—particularly those circles in which people look similar and behave in a similar manner. We may wade in the waters of diversity and difference a bit, so to speak, or dip our toes in the water, but we won’t actually dive in to immerse ourselves in difference or diversity.

Not if we buy into the identity that society assigns us.  

And this is where we are today, is it not? We live in a world [and society] in which people are afraid of other types of people. People have a different skin color—someone else fears them. People live out their sexuality or their gender identity or expression differently—someone fears them. People practice different religions or no religion at all—someone fears them. Rather than seeing all of these human beings as part of this thing we call the universe, of which we are also a part—we end up being afraid of each other and seek isolation in our small, homogeneous social groups. And by doing that we are unable to empathize with other’s feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. We only see, hear, and feel our own. And eventually, we de-humanize those who are different.

And in the process we de-humanize ourselves.

That is why Einstein’s words are completely relevant today, about widening our circles, embracing all living beings, and the whole of nature and its beauty. In essence, we need to go much further than just testing the water of diversity, but we need to immerse ourselves in it.

We need to venture out into the deep water.

Now consider an interesting fact about water. If a body of water is shallow, it’s loud. Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Well, you know that closer to shore it’s tough to swim. The waves are crashing again and again, tossing you about. It’s fun, of course, to ride those waves, but not great for swimming. But have you even ventured out a bit further? If you have, then you know that the deeper you go the less you are tossed about. In fact, I have been in some oceans where the water was calm. I could swim easily. I didn’t feel the undertow. I glided across the water. It was quiet.

Image result for still waters run deep

There is a well-known phrase which I’m sure you’ll remember.

Still waters run deep.

It originated as a Latin proverb and lives on in English as an idiom.

Do you know it?

Still waters run deep.

Simply put, it means a mild exterior manner (“still waters”) may hide a more passionate or dangerous internal nature (“run deep”). For example, it can mean that someone who is quiet still contains great wisdom or a deep understanding, or that someone who seems so passive and shy is instead plotting world domination.

What you see on the surface doesn’t tell the whole story, in other words. 

Stay with the mental imagery of a body of water that sinks to great depth—it shows no flowing movements on the surface. You don’t see it moving, but it’s deep.

Let’s stay in the water and invite Jesus into our conversation. Luke’s Gospel tells a story about Jesus and the lake of Gennesaret. By this point in the story, a crowd was pressing in on Jesus. Luckily, he was able to get on a boat that was on the shore of the lake. He used the boat as his podium to teach the crowds, asking a man named Simon to push out a bit from the shore. Distance from the crowds. Jesus needed space. And after he taught them, he then engaged the local fishermen in conversation. He asked Simon to cast out his nets into the deep water.

Simon wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea. They had already worked all night long but hadn’t caught any fish. Notice he didn’t say that they had cast out into the deep water yet. He just said that they hadn’t caught anything. But eventually, Simon agreed to give it a try.

So he cast his nets out into the deep water.

Image result for cast nets into deep water

And they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. They had to call the other boat to come out and help them haul the fish in. Even so, the two boats were so full of fish that they started to sink. The people were amazed.

See, I know that oftentimes this story is used as some kind of evangelical tool. Go out and catch people. Convert them—that’s what Jesus was telling us.

Well, I’m not sure. What I see here instead is Jesus using extremely symbolic water as an invitation to a big paradigm shift.

Because society conditions us to stay on our side of the lake, to stay in our lanes, to not reach across lines of difference.

Don’t venture out to the deep water. The self-fulfilling prophecy we are given is that we should limit ourselves before we even try. We usually ask: what can or can’t I accomplish” meaning that we’ve already accepted the boxes we’ve been given. The fisherman only saw themselves as fisherman. And so they went through their routines and caught nothing. They assumed that this was their lot in life. This is who they were. But the paradigm shift came and they were challenged to cast their nets into the deep water, into places unknown, and to discover a part of themselves that was there all along but was never fully embraced. Jesus was pushing them to stop asking limiting questions like “what can we accomplish or not accomplish” and instead to ask “What do I want to accomplish?”

They moved from “I can’t catch any fish after a whole night’s work” to “I really want to catch fish so what avenues have we yet to explore, can we go deeper?”

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Water, Light, Spirit…BEGIN!


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Water is essential for life.

Image result for water is life

Without water, we die. Without water, there is no life. Period.

Look around the world right now and you’ll notice that there are far too many people who struggle to survive…because they don’t have access to drinking water.

844 million people don’t have clean water.
(WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2017)

31% of schools don’t have clean water.
(UNICEF, Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring, 2015)

Every minute a newborn dies from infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
(WHO, 2015)

Worldwide, 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is due to a water-related disease.

And here’s the thing—access to water affects a person’s whole life. If a kid, for example, has access to clean water, he/she does not need to travel miles to fetch water. That kid can then stay in school and get an education. Also, with clean water, disease and sickness is lessened, and the child can grow up healthy with access to more opportunities. And, with clean water access comes better food security and reduction of hunger. Access to water can break the cycle of poverty.

Now for many living in the U.S., water scarcity is not a thing. Many of us used to think that that kind of thing happened in far away places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Flint, Michigan happened. You remember that? Also, as recently as last year, there were a few days in certain Philadelphia suburbs when the water was unsafe to drink due to septic issues. Imagine if that problem were to last weeks, months, even a year?

Many of us take water for granted. It’s coming out of our faucets, shower heads, flushing our toilets, and making our coffee. But what if you had to travel miles on foot just to have access to water? How would that change your view of it? Water would become precious to you. Water would become life for you. Water would be more valuable than money.

We ought to view water in this way—as a precious treasure, and something that all people [and all living things] deserve access to. For without it, life is no more.

I hope that you can embrace water as a tangible thing but also as a symbol of life, of wholeness. For that is what a small story found in all four canonical Gospels is all about—water.

You may have heard of this tale. Jesus of Nazareth, now a grownup, heads to the river Jordan in the middle of nowhere to meet up with this crazy preacher named John. Now, there’s context here, right? John is Elizabeth’s kid, and Elizabeth is somehow related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Were they cousins? Very possible. But the Gospels seem to point out that John and Jesus didn’t know each other yet. How could that be? Well, it’s possible that when King Herod was trying to kill all the first-born sons of Judah back in the day that while Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah and John went somewhere else to hide. Perhaps Jesus and John grew up apart from each other. And then, it’s possible that Jesus heard about this crazy preacher by the river Jordan and wanted to meet him. It’s possible. But we really don’t know. What we do know is that the first version of this story, in Mark, is shorter and just says that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to where John was and got baptized, i.e. submerged in the water of the river. Then, the heavens opened [I’ve always taken this to mean that it may have rained], and then the Spirit came down [fluttering like a bird] and a voice told Jesus that he was a pretty good dude.

But the later Gospel writers added some commentary, because honestly, this story is problematic. I mean, think about it—many people believed [and still believe] that Jesus of Nazareth was without sin. So, why in the world would a sinless Jesus need to be baptized by John, who was doing that so as to forgive people’s sins? Um, yeah. So the later Gospels try to explain it away and in my opinion, they fail at it. I actually think this whole “sin” thing isn’t the point of the story at all.

The point is the water.

Image result for water

See, John and Jesus were doing the same thing, in their own ways. They were preaching and teaching what the ancient Hebrew prophets did, like Isaiah, telling anyone who would listen that the world was messed up, out of balance, and injust [especially to the vulnerable and marginalized], and that Yahweh had just about had it. Time to repent [which means turn around], time for a 180 and the water was a symbol of that. You submerge yourself in that river, you make a decision to move forward in a new way. You leave behind whatever was dragging you down. You commit to being just and compassionate to others. You decide to be just and compassionate with yourself.

The water is the tangible element in nature that everyone needs to survive. There is not one single living thing on this earth that doesn’t know about water. Every day water is part of our lives. So it’s the perfect, universal, tangible symbol for something that may seem not so universal or tangible—the Spirit.

See, many read this story as Jesus’ big moment when God pretty much certifies Jesus as the Messiah and some type of demi-god. In fact, that’s what most people wanted. Truth be told, if you read the whole story in the Gospels, John had his own views about who the Messiah would be. We have NO IDEA how John really reacted to meeting Jesus. We just know from the earlier story in Mark that John baptized Jesus. And then they went their separate ways. So make your own conclusions.

But what resonates for me is what is consistent in the story—the water. The water changes the people who are baptized in the Jordan river. The water changes Jesus of Nazareth. After the water, Jesus launches a movement of ragtag, poor, marginalized people who promote justice, peace, and love. They go from town to town, and eventually make it to the epicenter, Jerusalem.  The water-spirit drives them there, keeps them together, motivates them when they lose momentum, fills them when they feel empty.

The last thing I’ll say about this story is that the voice coming from heaven was mostly likely heard by lots of people. In other words, don’t take the story so literally that you see these events as happening all in the same linear time frame. The voice was meant for Jesus, yes, but was also meant to be heard by others, and was also meant to be heard by you and me in 2019, reading this story.

Because we’re invited to the water ourselves.

We’re invited there no matter how long it takes us to get there, or where we come from, or who we call ourselves. We are invited to the water, invited to submerge ourselves in it, to feel its drops trickle down our face, to feel the sensation of cool water in the middle of a hot desert. Yes, we’re invited to the water and we NEED this water to live. It turns us around, it reminds us of who we are and who we are becoming, and then we just might have a chance to embrace this Spirit-thing that is sometimes hard to understand or accept. The voice is also for you and for me, for all of us, telling us that we are just fine as we are made, we are beloved as-is, but that also at any time we can go back to this water and make a change.

We can turn around. We can do a 180. We can keep becoming.

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.

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