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Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Jude

I have to admit to being a little nervous today about the various forms some people's anti-Muslim sentiments will take on this – the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The recent controversies involving the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site and the media firestorm around Terry Jones' threat to burn copies of the Koran have whipped anti-Muslim sentiments to a level I haven't seen before. How tragically sad!

It's on just such a day that the reading of Jude seems so appropriate – for the small book starts with exactly the words I needed to hear this morning. "Relax, everything's going to be all right; rest, everything's coming together; open your hearts, love is on the way!"

Yesterday morning those words proved especially prophetic for me. Just as I started to worry about the energies that would be released today, a friend sent me a flier for an interfaith peace vigil to honor the victims of September 11 that will take place today from 11:30 AM until 1:30 PM at the Islamic Center of Southern California located at 434 South Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90020. The event is a wonderful opportunity for those of us worried about the possibility of hateful events occurring today to channel our energies toward positive ends. In other words, it's a chance for one four letter word (h-o-p-e) to beat out another four letter word (f-e-a-r). What a wonderful opportunity that is!

Chances are you are facing some circumstance this September 11 that is triggering some degree of fear or anxiety within you. It might not be a political or global situation. It might be something much more personal in nature. Whatever your concern is, listen once more to those wonderful words and make them the center of your day: "Relax, everything's going to be all right; rest, everything's coming together; open your hearts, love is on the way!"

May it be so.

Til next time …

Friday, September 10, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 2 John 1 & 3 John 1

I spent many years during my twenties and thirties being an activist for a variety of causes. During this time, I would work my regular 40 hour a week job and then volunteer another 20 or so hours.

I loved doing much of the work for it felt good to be around other passionate people who cared for many of the causes I did. I also loved having a sense that I was helping change the world in many positive ways!

By the time I reached my early thirties, however, I began to hit a brick wall. The years of working so many hours had begun to take a toll. I was also losing some of my optimism when it came to having a sense that I was making a difference in the world. I also started developing a HUGE martyr complex (i.e. "Why don't others CARE about the issues as much as I do, and why don't they DO as much as I do? I guess I'll just have to work harder to pick up their slack"). Let's just say, by the time I reached 32 it wasn't a pretty picture.

So what happened? How did a well-intentioned person get so far off course in his desire to make a difference?

I can't answer for everyone who has been in that position, but I can answer for myself. A part of that answer can be found in today's reading from 3 John 1. In observing the community, John wrote: "Dear friend, when you extend hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters, even when they are strangers, you make the faith visible. They've made a full report back to the church here, a message about your love."

I love the connection John made in that first sentence– the one where he connected their acts of service to their faith. That's what I was missing when I was doing my work in my twenties and thirties. When I did those acts of service, my actions were motivated primarily by my desire to impose my values and perceptions of how the world should be onto others. In other words, my acts of service were all too often driven by my need to control others. It's not surprising that I eventually became angry and bitter when others resisted my efforts to control.

In the middle and latter part of my thirties, I began to make a shift in the ways I engaged in acts of service. I began to think of my acts of service much differently. I began to see them as a natural expression of my faith. Over time those acts of service became less about my desire for control and more about something else: love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. That shift has helped increase and sustain my desire to give something back to the world.

So how about you? What motivates your acts of service?

Til next time …

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 1 John 5

I was talking with a member of the church I serve recently about issues of Justice and Peace. The individual said, "It's so discouraging these days. Having the conflicts in the Middle East continue, dealing with the economic challenges of the recession, thinking about the long term effects of global climate change… The list of problems seems endless. It's depressing – almost enough to make me want to give up hope."

I can certainly understand why the individual felt that way. The list of challenges we face these days IS overwhelming – and given the intransigence of many of our leaders (in terms of their unwillingness to reach across partisan divides and start putting the wellbeing of the planet before the demands of their own political parties), I can see why it might be tempting to contemplate throwing in the towel.

So why not do it? Why not throw in the towel?

Well, eac person has to answer that question for her/himself. All I can do is offer my take on why I refuse to surrender my sense of hope. The reason I refuse to give up is that for me – the central tenet of my faith is this: "One life can make a difference."

I mean this on two levels. First, I mean that Jesus – the one whom I recognize as Christ – came and affected a change in God-consciousness and manner in which millions of individuals relate to God: even across the span of two millennia. That's the first way I mean "one life CAN make a difference"!

The second level has to do with how individual followers of this God revealed through Jesus have profoundly affected the course of human history. I look at the way some of those followers (the abolitionists) put an end to the practice of slavery; I look at the way some of those followers (the suffragists) expanded the power and influence of women; I look at the way some of those followers (the human rights activists) have expanded the civil rights of African-Americans and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender people. All of these examples show me what a difference individual followers of Jesus can make.

While there were certainly periods when such individuals did not represent the mainstream "Christian" position (i.e. for decades mainstream "Christian" folks were the ones who instituted slavery, who denied women the vote, and who advocated withholding basic human rights to many groups), the AMAZING thing about our faith is that it teaches us if you hang in there and hold on to your foundational principles long enough, you CAN change the world! You can even change the course and practice of this thing called "Christianity" – sometimes the most difficult institution to change of all!!!

With that in mind, I am bold enough to think that it will be the actions of individual followers of God who will change the atmosphere of hopeless and despair that seems so pervasive these days. These followers will provide the impetus to get us out of Afghanistan. These followers will provide resources (and a sense of moral direction) that will help point us toward a more equitable and vital economic system in the 21st century. These followers will generate a culture of care for our natural world that will put an end to the ways we abuse our planet.

In fact, most days I can't wait to spring out of bed and do my part in helping turn things around! That's why it's easy to read the words from today's passage that say – "The conquering power that brings the world to its knees is our faith!" – and believe it!!

So how about you? In the face of the multitude of challenges we face these days, how have you responded? Have you given in to despair and hopelessness; or have you found ways to connect with "the conquering power" that can empower you to do your part in bringing the problems of the world to their knees?

Til next time …

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 1 John 4

Have you ever had the experience of reading something and finding yourself agreeing 100% - yet sighing as you put down the reading material and thinking to yourself, "If only it were that easy." I have that experience every time I read today's passage from the 4th chapter of 1 John.

The 4th chapter of 1
John is probably the second most famous chapter dealing with the topic of love in all the Bible. It ranks behind only 1 Corinthians 13 in that regard. Some of the wonderfully stirring words contained in the chapter read: "My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God," the author observes. "The person who refuses to love doesn't know the first thing about God, because God is love – so you can't know him if you don't love."

On the surface, I completely agree with those sentiments. In reality, however, I have a challenge living into those words. Every time I read them, for instance, I can't help but thinking of a person whom I'll call Brian. Brian was a student of mine while I taught in the juvenile detention center. He had been locked up because he shot and killed his neighbor. Brian was one of the most difficult people I have ever known to get along with. He had been raised alone on a remote piece of property with his father – so he had virtually no social skills. No matter how hard you tried to engage him, Brian would never respond. Not to humor, not to praise, not to supportive words – not to anything. Practically every other word out of his mouth was a four letter word, and he LOVED to make fun of others. He also had the coldest eyes I have ever seen in a living human being. To make matters worse, he and his attorney managed to manipulate the legal system. This allowed Brian to get off for the murder with only a couple of months served!

Looking back on the few weeks I taught Brian, I ask myself, "Did I love Brian?"

The answer is complicated. On one level I can truthfully say yes. I did love Brian when I looked at him and saw a wounded child of God. In other words, I loved him on the abstract level. When it came time to interacting with Brian on the concrete level – did I love him? Nearly twenty years later, I still I don't know if I can truthfully answer that question with a resounding yes. Sadly, today's passage doesn't draw a distinction between loving someone in the abstract and loving someone in the concrete. From its perspective, love is love.

Have you ever encountered someone like Brian who pushes every last button you have? If so, I wonder how you have managed to reconcile your experience of such a person with the sentiments contained in today's passage. I hope we'll all use those wonderful – yet challenged words from 1 John 4 to draw us into deeper levels of consideration of this thing called love.

Til next time …

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 1 John 3

Every time I think I could not possibly more shocked or appalled at what some folks do in the name of Jesus, I find that I am wrong: some self-professed follower of Jesus manages to find new ways to further shock and appall me.

Case in point: one Terry Jones – pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL.

Mr. Jones announced recently that he has declared September 11 "International Burn a Koran Day." His goal is to exploit the painful memories that linger from September 11, 2001 and use them to inflame anti-Muslim prejudice around the globe.

How sad. How horribly, horribly sad.

I find it ironic that if individuals from another country and/or another faith tradition were to sponsor an "International Burn the Bible Day" that Mr. Jones and his followers would probably be the first ones to complain about such acts of religious bigotry.

My dilemma, then, is to figure out how to respond to Mr. Jones. Do I respond to his actions fueled by bigotry and hatred with my own expression of hatred and bigotry aimed in his direction; or do I search my heart for some other response?

Thankfully, I have the words from the third chapter of 1 John to help guide me in my discernment process today.

"My dear children, let's not just talk about love," the chapter states, "let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we're living, truly living, in God's reality."

So what does practicing real love look like in this situation?

Practicing real love can take numerous forms. One form it took for me was to show my solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers by joining things like the Facebook page titled "People of Faith Opposed to the Burning of the Qur'an." Another form it took was in my decision to resist the temptation to say hateful/hurtful things about Mr. Jones – and instead hold him and the Dove World Outreach Center in my prayers so that their hearts might be changed.

In this highly charged (and highly politicized) environment, I would ask you to find time today to consider various ways you can practice real love by responding to Mr. Jones' inflammatory words and actions. It's especially important to find the time to do this in the days leading up to September 11 as the levels of fear, distrust – and sadly even hatred – will undoubtedly continue to escalate in many of our communities.

Til next time …

Monday, September 6, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 1 John 1-2

Having been raised in the Inland Northwest, I grew up in a part of the country that had white supremacist and separatist groups peppered throughout the country side. When I first heard of the existence of these groups, I simply clumped them together in my mind as if they were all affiliated with the outrageous KKK.

As I grew up, however, I realized that wasn't the case. Many of these groups claimed different roots. What shocked me most was that several of these groups tried to present themselves as if they sprung from the Christian tradition. I learned an entire branch of these groups came from what is called the Christian Identity movement. One of the most visible of these sects during my teen years was a group called the Aryan Nations.

The presence of such groups taught me an important lesson: not every person or group that claims a connection to the God revealed through Jesus is what they claim to be.

So how do we discern whether or not an individual or group that claims to be committed to following Jesus' way is actually serious about their claim?

A portion of today's reading is helpful in providing a way of determining that.

"Anyone who claims to live in God's light and hates a brother or sister," the author begins, "is still in the dark." The author continued: "It's the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God's light and doesn't block the light from others. But whoever hates is still in the dark, stumbles around in the dark, doesn't know which end is up, blinded by darkness."

Clearly the groups of which I spoke earlier were in the business of propagating darkness. It wasn't hard to discern that given their hateful rhetoric. There are other individuals and groups, however, that also hate that can be much more difficult to catch. This is particularly true during election cycles when individuals and interest groups emerge purely to breed fear and distrust toward others. That fear and distrust can easily turn into hatred – the ultimate form of darkness.

As we move beyond the Labor Day weekend into a season when the election cycle begins in earnest, I would encourage all of us to keep the words from 1 John in mind as our guide as we try to discern which individuals/groups propagate light and which individuals/groups propagate darkness.

Til next time …