Freedom to serve, liberty to love

Liberty. Independence. Freedom. We heard those words mentioned this past weekend. But often, something vital was left out of the conversation.

While freedom matters greatly – it’s a divine gift and individual right – how we use our freedom is the measure of our faith and our lives. Our independence must be grounded within our interdependence.

Our culture promotes the myth of the self-made person, though nobody ever is. We’re lectured to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be responsible for ourselves alone. We’re told that God helps those who help themselves – words preached not by Jesus but by Benjamin Franklin.

We worship zealous individualism: Don’t tread on me or limit my rights for any reason. I’m free to do anything I want regardless how it affects anyone or anything else. The person bleeding by the side of the road isn’t my concern.

Our faith presents an opposite way of living. It centers the “me” within the “we”, places the “I” within the “us”, locates our individuality within our mutuality.

When we lose that focus, we end up in very dark places. Look at us now! In a society with so much, we have so little joy and peace. Instead, we overflow with anger, hate, disillusionment, lying, divisiveness and unhappiness.

Mother Teresa reminds us that if we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

And we often forget. It’s a tale as old as time.

Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminding them that their ongoing problems — hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, and envy – are the result of forgetting their interconnectedness. It was true then, and now.

You end up in mutual destruction

“Remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives free rein” to selfish living, Paul says. “Out of love, place yourselves at one another’s service. The whole law has found its fulfillment in this one saying: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

“If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces, take care! You will end up in mutual destruction.”

It’s important to work for justice so all God’s children may have the freedom they deserve. But it’s equally important to remind ourselves that freedom isn’t meant to be used only for ourselves.

When we use our liberty selfishly, we put ourselves in a prison. Our egos, our fears, our self-absorption become the bars to our individual cells. Our lives become very small, narrow, and unfulfilling.

By contrast, love liberates us – love and love alone.

We’re liberated when we recognize that yes, I am a child of God, but I’m not the only child; I’m part of God’s family where everyone is loved equally and must be treated with dignity and respect and compassion. And yes, we‘re part of an incredible creation, but we’re not the only part of creation that matters.

Love liberates us

Jesus invites us into this way of living – help the person bleeding by the side of the road, care for the needy, heal the hurting, love everyone the same way you love yourself, be compassionate and connected.

We can experience life in abundance when we ground ourselves within God’s inescapable web of creation. We’re fulfilled by joy, peace and love when we live within this Spirit of mutuality.

We experience God and our true selves when we use our freedom to serve and our liberty to love.

(Image courtesy of CrittentonSoCal @ creativecommons.org)

Shamrocks, triangles, and our many-ness

Trinity Sunday was never one of my favorites growing up. We’d hear references to shamrocks and triangles and the nature of God, and I’d wonder: What do any of these theological lessons have to do with me?

 Well, everything, actually!

 Trinity Sunday – celebrated a few days ago – is one of my favorites now, a necessary reminder of who we are, whose we are, and how we’re meant to live together amid our differences. 

The lesson of many-yet-one starts with the truth that the diversity around us and within us is a sacred reflection of our Creator. Each of us is a beautiful piece in a masterful mosaic, one moving body out of many in this collective dance of life.

What holds it all together? Love, of course.

Loving relationship is the glue that centers everything in its perfect place, the thread that binds us snugly together, the gravity that prevents our heavenly bodies from drifting apart. It’s been that way from the start.

Our faith tradition begins with the poetic lesson that diversity is at the heart of the divine nature Itself. God says let us create in our image and likeness. Plurality, not singularity. And it’s all good!

Thus, we get not just one kind of tree, but many. Not just one type of fish or bird or forest or mountain or planet or … you name it. There are countless versions of everything, each uniquely radiating the same divine image.

Plurality, not singularity

So, too, for us humans. There’s great diversity within our human family. Each unique face is another sacred reflection of our multifaceted Maker.

And it all coalesces around love.

In John’s description of the last supper, Jesus prays to God that we, his beloved friends – we the many, we the different – may be one as they are one, living within and through each other. That oneness forms from our many-ness when love is present.

When there’s love, there’s no need for division or suspicion or competition or recrimination or insecurity or fear or privilege or superiority or violence or partisanship.

As we’re reminded, love drives out fear. Relationship grounded in love recognizes diversity as a blessing rather than a threat. It seeks to work with the other for the common good.

Our diversity leads us to our God.

Of course, we’ll never have the depth of love that eliminates all fear and competition and insecurity – not on this side of heaven, anyway. But our call is to work at building and nurturing such relationship in our lives and our societies.

Diversity at the heart of the divine

This work starts by recognizing we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it so beautifully. Our many, varied relationships with God, one other, and nature are intertwined. They can’t be teased apart or separated.

What we do in one relationship affects all.

And, yes, it’s very hard work! We are hard-wired to gravitate toward the familiar and the similar. But the wisdom of trinity challenges us to open ourselves to that which is different and to see God present within people, places and encounters that might seem foreign or even frightening on the surface.

Unfortunately, some forms of religion lead us away from this wisdom. They seek to create “culture wars” among God’s equally beloved children and reject the diversity woven into our very nature.

Our refusal to recognize God’s presence within our diversity causes much of the division, fear, mistrust, hatred, and deep unhappiness in our world. If we can’t accept our many-ness, we’ll never know the oneness of Spirit for which we are made.

 Trinity reminds us of this foundational truth and invites us into this loving relationship.

(Photo courtesy of jmccarthy99@creativecommons.org)

Gardeners, not gods

Writers, artists and composers love the garden of Eden story because it works on so many levels and gets to the heart of who we are as humans. The story isn’t about disobedience as much as broken relationships – with each other, with nature, and with God.

The creation stories remind us we’re made from relationship and for relationship. We’re fashioned within a trinity of relationships — with God, with each other, with nature.

Those relationships are interwoven. If one suffers, they all suffer. Everything unravels quickly if we’re ignoring one area of relationship.

We experience that so profoundly in our world today. Our “original sin” or fundamental failure is refusing to center ourselves within the nurturing relationships that are essential if we’re to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

Without nurturing relationship, we never experience love.

Made from relationship, for relationship

The parable of the garden of Eden reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how we are meant to live in harmony. The story places us in the role of gardener, not the garden owner. We’re meant to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation.

It nurtures us, and we nurture it. God is inviting us to become partners in this holy, ongoing work. And the story warns that if we choose not to accept the role and instead focus only on ourselves, we are “doomed to die.”

Of course, the humans in the story aren’t satisfied with the role of cultivator and co-creator. They decide they’d rather assign themselves the role of God – well, their self-indulgent version of a god, anyway – and do whatever they wish.

They delude themselves into thinking the garden belongs to them.

Once their relationship with creation begins to go awry because of their choices, so do all their other relationships. Their relationship with each other quickly degenerates into pointing fingers and assigning blame. They try to hide from God.

Every relationship quickly breaks down. Ultimately, they’re not so much driven from the garden as they’ve chosen to leave it by placing greed and self-interest above the garden and all within it.

I wish we could say that religion helps us refocus and re-center ourselves in the truth of relationship, but we all know that’s often not the case. It has too often been used to divide rather than reconcile.

A web of interwoven relationships

Instead of calling us back to our roles of gardener and lovers, religion has been turned into a weapon for cultural, religious and political wars. Loving relationship has been rejected for power and self-importance. The original sin is repeated.

Sadly, religion also gets misused as approval to rape, pillage and desecrate God’s sacred creation. Some “religious” people insist they can do whatever they want to nature because they, as humans, are all that matter.

Destruction and self-destruction result from this horrid theology.

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, a reminder of our interwoven relationships with all God’s creation. We need reminders of our call to be in nurturing, loving relationship with nature, one another, and God.

Our faith reminds us that we’re not gods but gardeners. There’s a lot of restorative work to be done. It’s time to get our fingers dirty.

The price of living passionately

In 2004, Mel Gibson directed a film called “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps you’re familiar with it. The movie focuses on Jesus’ final hours, depicting his death in gruesome detail.

The rest of his life is mostly edited out.

Some of us were raised in traditions that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ suffering and death – referred to as his passion – while skipping what he was passionate about. The lessons he taught, the love he embodied, the relationships he established are relegated to verses recited on Sunday but relegated to the cutting floor the rest of the time.

The truth is that Jesus’ suffering and death weren’t his passion; they were the price he paid for his passion. And there’s a lesson in this story for all of us about living with the same passion.

He was passionate about healing and reconciliation, not only us to God but to one another as well. He passionately announced, embodied and created a sacred space where everyone is welcomed and treated as the beloved child of God that they are.

This alternate kingdom was the antithesis of Caesar’s kingdom, then and now.

The price for living passionately

He preached about God’s deep passion for the needy, the struggling, the oppressed – woe to the rich, blessed are the poor, the least are the greatest, help anyone who is bleeding by the side of the road. He made whole again anyone who came to him for healing.

And justice – he was deeply passionate about justice.

Gospel stories describe him staging a provocative Palm Sunday procession that confronts Caesar’s values of power, wealth, dominance, violence, and militarism.

He was passionately prophetic by overturning the tables of those who misuse religion – then and now – to amass power, preserve the status quo, and ignore the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

This was his passion. He lived it. He paid a price for it. And he invites us – no matter what faith or religious background — to do the same and live in a passionate way that challenges the status quo and heals the world. He challenges us to put our passionate lives on the line for those who are being trampled by the many opportunistic political and religious leaders of our world.

Each of us can, in our own unique way, bring love, healing, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection to our world, our society, our relationships. We’re forced to choose between between living passionately or playing it safe and never truly living at all, which is an even greater price to pay.

Jesus knew there would be a cost for his passion– there always is. He lived it anyway. May we, too, live passionate lives sustained by transformative love and daily resurrection.

Where did you go?

I was 4 or 5 years old when my mom took me to a department store. I recall standing next to her looking at some display, then wandering a few feet away to look at something else.

Shoppers moved into the space between me and mom and blocked my view of her. When I looked back, she was hidden from my sight. All these years later, I remember my panic.

Was she gone? Would I ever see her again?

My memory of that frightening moment is fuzzy, but I remember calling out to her. And right away, she stepped away from the other shoppers so I could see she was there.

I ran to her. She swept me up, held me and told me she was right here – she’d never leave me. She was watching me out of the corner of her eye the whole time.

We’ve all had moments of feeling lost or left behind by a parent, a group, a companion. Those terrifying moments can stick with us a lifetime.

We’ve all called out: Where are you?

Advent is a time of asking that question of God.

Where are you God in my life? In this mess? In this pandemic? In this divisiveness? I don’t recognize you. I’m not sure what you look like. I’m not sure you’re really here. Honestly, at this moment, I’m not sure you actually exist.

“Watching you the whole time”

Advent invites us to be honest and real in whatever we feel, and then watch and listen for answers.

We all go through times when we doubt the Creator’s presence and existence. We ask how God could allow things to happen and whether God really cares.

Who are you? Where are you? Are you even here?

It’s important to share our feelings and ask our questions, whatever they may be. When I became separated from mom in the department store, she didn’t know I was afraid until I called out to her. She responded immediately.

As I’ve grown, I’ve found that my feelings of separation and alienation most often come from my own distractions or my preconceived ideas of how things ought to be. I get so focused on one thing that I lose sight of everything important.

Something as small as a few shoppers can obscure my view of the ever-present Parent.

During my daily walks, I’ll get so focused on watching my individual steps – don’t want to trip! – that I don’t even look up at the gorgeous sky during the day or at the amazing stars at night.

They’re right there, but I don’t notice them.

“Invites us to be honest and real”

Or I obsess over some act of narcissism or injustice to the point that I lose my internal peace and no longer notice the countless acts of kindness and joy around me that more than outweigh the others.

I can so easily forget that love is our uninterrupted connection to one another and to the One who creates and sustains everything with an ever-present love.

So feel free to accept Advent’s invitation to stop, ask, and listen. To seek, knowing that what we want is right in front of us – obscured perhaps by our distractedness and panic, but present nonetheless.

And when we call out, to listen for that voice reminding us again: I’m right here. Watching over you the whole time.

(photo by Jasmic at CreativeCommons.org https://www.flickr.com/photos/58826468@N00/422104937)

Max and the fifth home

All Max the cat wanted was a home.

He didn’t have one that day many years ago when my daughter discovered him curled up in the corner of a park near our house, frozen with fear and overheating on a scorching summer afternoon.

Max was a house cat – he’d been neutered. But now, he was separated from home. Nobody knows why. Maybe his owners abandoned him. Perhaps Max – who was very inquisitive – boarded someone’s truck unseen and was transported away from his home.

How he got there didn’t matter anymore. Now, he had a second home.

Not that it was all easy for him. There were other cats in the house, one of which didn’t get along with him. Seven years ago, he was outside and got attacked, apparently by a much larger animal.

When I found Max that day, he was bleeding from the mouth and torn up inside. He nearly didn’t make it. The vets recommended giving him one more day and if there was no progress, it would be time to euthanize him.

On the day of decision, Max stood for the first time, took some wobbly steps and ate food. Down to his final hours, he clung to life and began to heal.

Sometimes, the final word is a purr.

“All he wanted was a home”

When I was divorced five years ago, Max came with me to his third home and was my companion. I’d arrive home from work and he was there to welcome me and demand attention.

He made sure I never came home to an empty house.

At night, he would jump on the bed and put his paw on my wrist as he curled in for sleep, wanting to feel that flesh-to-flesh connection. It was soothing.

When I moved a year ago, Max came along to his fourth home. He was content so long as he got a little tuna each day and a lot of attention.

After he nearly died in that attack years ago, Max’s need for attention and affection increased and could become annoying. He wanted to be petted nonstop. There were times I’d push him away or tell him to go away because it was too much.

Today, I miss the annoyance.

Max quickly went downhill over the weekend. He was 14 years old. Renal failure. It happens. Only one humane option left.

“Paw to wrist, heart to heart”

The vet gave him a sedative as he lay on my lap. I cradled Max’s head with my hand, reassured him everything was going to be OK, told him I loved him, and promised we would remain connected always.

He reached out his paw and touched my right forearm, maintaining our connection with his final breaths.

Gloria and I brought him home and buried him in the warm and welcoming shadow of his fourth home, even as he takes up residence in his fifth.

I believe the Creator of Life would never abandon a beloved creature or push them away. No, the God of Love cherishes and wants connections with us and among us: paw to wrist, hand to hand, heart to heart.

And home. God provides a loving home to all, no matter which number it is – first, second or fifth.

Welcome home, Max.

On the road to a better place

The last step in our mending process is choosing a new destination. Once we’ve identified our current location, we pick the place we want to go, map a route and head out.

We must envision a better place – and describe it for others – before we can get there together. We need to develop a path forward and extend a hand for others to accompany us.

That’s how societies heal and move forward again.

So, what’s our vision for our society? How is it different from the vision of those who want to keep us divided, angry, fearful, miserable and at each other’s throats?

Moving toward a different place begins with showing people what it looks like. It involves sharing our vision and our dream for how we can live together in ways that benefit all people of goodwill.

Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than anything. He described it, modeled it, lived it and enacted it through his words and his choices.

He reached out to those who were on the receiving end of someone’s cultural, religious or political war and invited them into this alternate and already-present kingdom that operates on love rather than violence and respects everyone as an equal child of God.

He described it as a place quite opposite of how his society operated – the last are first, the greatest are the least, the hurting are freely offered healing, those who are struggling take precedence.

He invited everyone into a different way of living. That’s our intent, too.

Offering the world a very different image

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed this pattern. He offered a different vision – a new destination – for a racially divided society. He offered his dream of a world where all God’s children were treated as equals. He advocated and enacted it as best he could while inviting others to join the holy and creative work.

How we go about it matters greatly.

We must resist the temptation to respond to violence – physical or verbal — with our own. We can’t allow those promoting war to suck us into their anger and hostility and fear.

We’re not here to join in their mutual destruction; we’re here to transform.

This doesn’t mean we allow others to spew hatred unchecked or harm others without a response. The question is in what form we respond.

Trading insult for insult gets us nowhere – eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth stuff. Instead, we challenge purveyors of war with a vision of peace built upon nonviolent work for justice and equality for all God’s children.

We’re not going to change the opinions of those consumed by a war mentality, but we can reach the many people who are listening to our conversations and, like us, looking for a better world.

Most of all, we begin this re-creative act by living and enacting our vision through our daily lives, making it real in our interactions with others. Slowly and inexorably, the movement grows and the healing occurs.

That’s the journey. And it’s already begun.

(“Praying Hands” image courtesy of josephleenovak @creativecommons.org)

Ready for change?

Whenever we make a major choice – an election, for instance – we create a possibility for change. Such a time is at hand. A long-awaited day has arrived in our deeply divided society.

We can keep going down the same dead-end path, or we can turn around and begin anew.

A lot of people are ready to chart a new course.

By every measure, our society is a mess. And, let’s admit it, so are we. We’re anxious and stressed and exhausted by years of chaos and conflict and bullying and divisiveness and lying and incivility from leaders in all parts our society, including religion.

We’ve inhaled a lot of toxic stuff, making it difficult to breath. We’re ready for fresh air. We’re yearning to heal and mend and move forward.

None of this is new. It’s a tale as old as time.

We humans have a history of falling and getting up. We wander away from what matters – love – and get completely lost. The question is how long we wander before we realize we’re lost and begin to find a way back.

Our Scriptures are full of such stories, tales of people and societies that were lost and then found. Our faith tradition is full of second chances, falling and rising, sin and redemption, death and resurrection, and division and reconciliation.

How do we get back on track? How do we mend and heal? Our faith provides a template.

The journey back begins with recognizing how far we’ve wandered off course. Prophets come along in many forms and challenge us to take an objective, unflinching look at ourselves.

They urge us to see what a mess we’ve become. See what needs to change. Compare what we’ve become to what we’re meant to be.

Then, we repent – a word that simply means aiming to do better. We commit to personal change as well as collective transformation. We re-center ourselves in love and renew our work to redeem and heal the world.

The mending process requires commitment and effort. Healing doesn’t just happen. Division doesn’t magically disappear. The fever won’t break until we address the underlying causes and eradicate the illness.

It’s holy and sacred work. It’s the work that’s given to us to do.

No, not everyone will be on board. Many will insist things are great and we need to keep heading in the same direction. They’ll continue stoking fear and hatred and endless wars over culture, politics and religion.

No matter.

We don’t need to get everyone on board; all we need is enough people committed to making a difference. That’s how it always works.

Each of us is a strong stitch than can pull things back together. Stitch by stitch, we repair what others have torn apart. We make all things new again.

That is the story of our faith. That is the way of human history. People come along to repair what others have ripped apart, including the parts of themselves that have gotten torn.

Tomorrow: Looking at ourselves

(“Praying Hands” image courtesy of josephleenovak @creativecommons.org)

We need one another

One Lisa Fotios at Pexels

What do you miss during social distancing?

I miss hugs. Concerts. Attending church. Sharing a birthday cake. Being there in person to feel someone’s joy or pain or struggle.

I miss Singo, a sing-along version of bingo. During Singo, nobody cares about political labels, age groups or religious affiliation. Everyone sings familiar lyrics together, and strangers get up and dance with one another.

Everyone just enjoys each other’s company.

All those activities are on hold as we try to contain the spread of a virus that leaves death and battered bodies in its wake. When the time comes that we can safely be social again, I hope we’ll do it with a renewed appreciation for each other.

I hope the pandemic has taught us how much we need one another.

We needed that lesson. We’ve become so divided that we’ve forgotten we’re intimately bound to one another.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we’re all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Mother Teresa said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

How did we forget that? How did we lose the pleasure and peace of each other’s loving company?

Perhaps a confluence of factors is responsible for fraying our common fabric.

Our culture worships individuality, the myth of the self-made man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps without anyone’s assistance at all. It’s all about me and my rights.

The Americanized version of Christianity promotes this self-centeredness, too. The prosperity gospel preaches self-absorption. Pad your personal accounts – financial as well as spiritual – while telling those bleeding by the side of the road to work harder.

We’ve got political, social and religious leaders trying to sell us the bitter pill of division as well. They want us to quarantine within political, social and theological bubbles, pushing away everyone who is different.

They frame it as us-against-them and promote nonstop political, cultural and religious wars against anyone not inside our bubble.

No! They’re selling a lie. The last three months have reminded us how much we need to stop the fighting and start reconnecting with one another.

Those connections are what we miss.

God made us as social beings. We’re hard-wired to be together and have relationship with God, with all God’s children, and with all God’s creation. Those artificial divisions deprive us of what we need most.

Hopefully that’s the pandemic’s lesson for when the time comes that we can safely come together again as extended human family.

We need one another.

(photo by Lisa Fotios @pexels.com)

 

 

 

Faith in our broken society

values burrows.nichole28 CC

The pandemic has shown us that we need to change not only our individual lives but our collective ones as well. There’s a lot in our society that’s deeply broken and needs fixed.

Our spending priorities are askew. Our health system is a mess. Our leadership is lacking. Our decisions favor some lives and render others expendable.

In times like these, prophetic voices challenge systems and shape discussions. We need to be those voices.

We can’t hide inside places of worship. We must get involved in what’s happening outside our doors.

Faith and values apply not only to our personal lives, but to our collective lives as well. If they don’t, our faith is only half-hearted and our values null and void.

Our religious tradition urges us to love God with all our hearts in all areas of our lives, not just the convenient parts. We’re to love our neighbors – all of them, in all situations – the same way we love ourselves.

Real faith is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Throughout history, many religiously observant people have endorsed superficial faith. Some Christians peddle the notion that Jesus’ values — love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, caring for the needy, promoting peace — should apply to personal lives but can be excluded from our collective choices.

They say our society should be run by conflicting values – wealth, greed, privilege, self-interest, domination.

The same mentality created slavery and Jim Crow. White Christians insisted that their oppressive systems were exempt from Jesus’ commands to treat everyone as an equally beloved child of God.

We can’t limit faith to a few areas of our lives. We can’t ignore what’s being done by the various social systems that need our support or our inattention to continue.

That’s the real test of faith.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. … Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

One form of religion mustn’t gain privilege or supremacy; rather, faith compels us to ground our collective decisions in the loving values that are the foundation of all true religion.

Our conversations about the many challenges confronting us must begin by acknowledging our shared responsibility to care for all God’s children and all God’s creation in all circumstances.

It’s all-or-nothing.

We’ll sometimes disagree about how best to accomplish goals, but we must always be in accord on the underlying intention for all we do. Love alone must be our motivation.

If we choose a different starting point for our collective decisions, then we’ve not only lost our way but any semblance of faith as well.

(Photo illustration courtesy of burrows.nichole28 @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Healers in a broken system