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.

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)

 

 

 

Healing a broken system

heal atomicity creative commons

Americans read about foreign hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus and mistakenly thought those horror stories could never happen here because our health care system is so good.

We spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, which provided a sense of security that was badly misplaced.

The virus has exposed a broken system. Our faith compels us to try to heal it.

The heart of religion is about healing our individual and collective brokenness and repairing ruptured relationships with God and one another. We must be healed, and we also must be healers, both individually and collectively.

The accounts of Jesus’ life describe him as a gifted healer who offered healing to everyone free of charge. He could have leveraged his abilities, but he chose not to.

He never monetized healing. Instead, he offered it like grace to anyone who desired it. He sent his followers to heal collectively in the same unbrokered way.

We’re meant to do so as well. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Healing is far too important and central to the stories about Jesus for those who wish to follow him today to ignore it.”

We can’t pretend about our health care system anymore. Long before the pandemic, we knew it was broken.

Millions can’t afford it. Those with health coverage face crippling debt for something as common as cancer. Premiums and deductibles soar. The cost of drugs jumps exponentially.

We saw with the opioid epidemic how a profit-motivated system inflicts suffering and death on society by pushing drugs that enrich the bottom line.

The coronavirus stripped away any remaining illusions about our system.

A doctor in a New York City emergency room wrote last month about her experiences as the virus raged. Dr. Helen Ouyang described for The New York Times Magazine how the system was ill-prepared for a pandemic that the medical profession had long predicted.

She described patients crammed into the ER, lying in their own waste while dying unattended because of depleted medical staffs.

Doctors and nurses were among the sick and dying because of inadequate protective equipment, a situation Dr. Ouyang described as far worse than in any of the “third-world” countries she visited on relief missions.

Applauding health care workers every evening or posting grateful memes isn’t enough. We have the resources we need to fix the system. What’s missing is our resolve.

Profit will always be part of the system, but we can’t allow it to be the engine driving it. Providing healing at an affordable cost for all God’s children must be the overriding intent.

There are many ways to do this. We need wide-ranging discussions to plot the best path and then enact changes, knowing we’ll get pushback from those making enormous profits off the current, broken system.

When healing is turned into a high-priced commodity available only to those who can afford it, we get a sick society. What we need now is healing. And people committed to being healers.

(Photo courtesy of atomicity @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Monuments to war

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)

Our fixed points

Starry sky

Last night gave us a gloriously warm spring evening. We lit a fire as the sun set and poured a glass of wine. One by one, the stars and planets began to dot the deepening sky.

Saturn appeared first, a bright point in the southwest sky hanging above the treetops. Soon, Orion made its appearance. Eventually, the sky was filled with all these dots of light.

It was very soothing to do something that we humans have done as long as we’ve been around – light a fire for warmth, look up at the sky for inspiration and wonder and a sense of connectedness to our vast and amazing universe.

People have done the same thing since our earliest times. We’ve gathered and gazed up during the most horrific times in human history – wars, natural disasters, pandemics.

We’ve looked up at the stars from all regions of Earth, including the vast oceans and lakes, where stars are necessary to navigate — fixed points in the darkness that lead us where we need to go in unsettling times.

Times like now.

May we be reminded to look for the fixed points in our lives – the people who love us, the faith that directs us, the miracle all around us and within us that inspires and reassures us that we belong.

Let’s also aspire to be fixed points for one another, helping each other get through the times, just as we always have.

As Alexis Castle put it in her graduation speech: “There’s some people who are so much a part of us, they’ll be with us no matter what. They are our solid ground. Our North Star. And the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us always.”

Through their voices we experience another Voice, the One who creates fixed points to guide us. Our role is to look for the light and listen for the voice.

(photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/@philippedonn)

Why is all this happening?

eye photo pexels

When things happen as fast as they are now, we ask a lot of questions.

What’s the latest news? When do the newest virus-related restrictions go into effect? Who’s affected by them? Where will I be able to go?

And then the best question which we humans tend to ask most often throughout our lifetimes.

Why?

Why is all this happening?

We’re hard-wired to seek explanations – answers to “why” — so we can understand better. Parents know how often a young child will ask that question. Why do I have to do this? Why can’t I do something else?

Why is everything this way?

Sometimes, however, “why” isn’t an especially useful question when we’re trying to deal with a challenge. There are more helpful questions for the moment.

How
do I navigate this? How do I help others get through it, too?

Right now, we’re all trying to get through our lives being turned upside-down in many ways. We’re full of lots of questions, most of which don’t have well-formed answers.

But we intuitively know the answer to the most immediate questions.

How do we get through this? How do we heal from all this?

Together, as we always do.

There’s so much fear and pain and grief around us and within us now. We’re grieving the loss of how our lives were only a couple weeks ago. We feel pain from losing jobs and routines and connections.

We also grieve the loss of long-awaited events, things we’d worked so hard to achieve and celebrate – graduations, weddings, proms, big events that we’d circled on our calendar.

We fear what might happen in coming weeks and months before we begin to see an outline of our new normal.

But here’s the thing: We can get through by entering into not only our pain and fear and grief, but others’ as well. Once we share it, we no longer shoulder all the weight by ourselves.

And then it becomes manageable.

As Richard Rohr put it, “When we carry our own suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s.”

Even as we create physical separation to keep each other safe, we need to create shared, common spaces within us to heal together. We can’t withdraw from each other.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com/@magoi)

 

 

Being scared … and courageous, too

cowardly lion

When I was young, my mom turned our annual visit to Santa into a big day. She, my younger brother and I would take a bus to downtown Cleveland and visit the Sterling Lindner department store. We’d sit on Santa’s lap and then eat at the lunch counter.

One year, I remember standing in a long line to see Santa. “The Little Drummer Boy” was playing on the sound system. When it was my turn to sit on Santa’s lap, I got scared for some reason.

I remember my mom saying, “It’s OK. I’m right here.”

Hearing her voice made everything OK.

That memory came to mind today as I read about the upheaval in our world because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s scary stuff. The virus is dangerous. People are losing jobs. Events we’ve eagerly awaited are being canceled. Every aspect of our daily lives is in flux.

We don’t know how long it will last, or what the new normal will be when we emerge.

At times like this, everyone’s scared in different ways, to varying degrees. They should be! It’s our natural reaction, though it’s important to avoid getting trapped and frozen in our fear.

We need to be courageous, even when our legs are wobbly.

Courage isn’t an absence of fear – the two usually coexist. The question is which one we’ll choose to guide our response to whatever’s going on.

The cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” was a scaredy cat, literally afraid of his own tail. Yet when Dorothy needed him, he tucked that twitching tail into his outfit and went to help, in spite of his fear.

We can acknowledge our fear without letting it hold us back from doing what’s important.

And when we feel frozen in place, when we get that shaky feeling, we can remind ourselves to listen for our loving Parent’s voice reminding us: “I know this is scary. It’s going to be OK. I’m right here with you. Always.”

Artwork by Michael Scott Murphy
http://michaelscottdesign.com/