Love each other.

The invitation is exquisite:

Love each other well.

‘Here, let me show you how’, He said.

‘It’s not burdensome, it’s easy’.

It’s light.

Why then is it hard to do?

That mortally vulnerable part of ourselves is such a tyrant.

So defensive about our own well-being.

‘Consider the lilies of the field’, He said.

‘Why are you so worried’?

Our timid unbelieving hearts do tremble.

Could it be that simple?

God, wouldn’t I love to be brave enough find out.

For my grandma.

Evelyn Olga Peterson | 2.14.1926 – 6.6.2016

[The following words were shared in remembrance of her life on 6.11.16 at Atonement Lutheran Church]:

If you knew my grandmother, Evelyn Peterson, even a little bit well, you knew that she loved to tell stories. If you had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her, or to know her really well, you may have even heard some of her stories more than once.

I want to honor her today, in part, by sharing with you some of these stories, and what it was she taught me through the telling of them.

Born on Valentine’s Day to Scandinavian farmers in a small town in Iowa, her father published a birth announcement in the local paper that read: “Ben Erickson reports that a new daughter showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day“.

Over time, this story somehow morphed a bit, and by the time I heard about this birth announcement from my grandmother, she told me that he had written “a little sweetheart showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day”.

The point of this re-telling of the birth announcement, however, is that it was true: a sweeter heart there never was.

My grandmother’s most defining characteristic was the sincerity with which she loved other people. Her love was lifelong and enduring, relentlessly forgiving, and unconditional. She saw goodness in people where others could not, and delighted in any opportunity to make someone she loved feel special and important. And if you were really listening to all of her stories, it became clear that almost all of the stories she told reflected this deep love she had for others.

She spoke of her own parents with such pride and affection. The way she talked about her father’s playfulness, her mother’s humility, both of their hard-working spirits, and their commitment to their faith, you could hear the love and adoration for them in her voice.

This always made a big impression on me when she spoke of them because I experienced her as embodiment of those same qualities. I once told her this, saying, “I think you are a lot like your parents”, and she replied “well, we grew up working alongside them on the farm”. Even as a young child, I understood what she meant by this. They taught her about virtue and about values through their example, rather than their words.

And what wonderful things she must have been taught through their example, because when she walked off the farm, and out into the world – as the first person in her family to attend college – she was ready to embrace this big, new world she would find herself living in with all the love, humility and faithfulness she had learned at home.

While her parents may have held a great place of honor in Evelyn’s big beautiful heart, she had room for everyone else too.

My grandmother adored her sisters and brothers, and often described them to me as her oldest and dearest friends. When Evelyn’s oldest sister, Irene, left the farm, she was so heartbroken by her absence that she begged her mother not to wash the bed sheets because they smelled like Irene’s perfume.

I could probably spend the rest of the afternoon recounting all of my grandmother’s beautiful stories about her siblings – the way her oldest brother helped her be able to afford college, and how devoted he was to her own children, the sacrifices her older sister made to help take care of the younger children on the farm, the courage and the depth of spirit she saw in her other brother, the closeness she shared with her sister nearest to her age, and the affection she had for her baby sister. She was proud of all of them – proud of who they were, and proud to belong to them.

What I learned from all of her stories about her beloved brothers and sisters was how important sibling love is, and how rewarding it could be. Often times, our siblings are our best allies, teachers and friends throughout much of our life, and if we take good care of these relationships, we can expect to be able to lean on each other well from the beginning of our lives until the very end. Well into their mid to late 90’s, my grandma was in regular contact with her living siblings — speaking with them on the phone weekly and even daily sometimes. They were each other’s greatest, most enduring support systems.

And while her brothers and sisters may have been her oldest and dearest friends, they were certainly not her only friends.

In fact, to be Evelyn’s friend, meant you were going to be her lifelong friend. She stayed in touch with people she had met while living all over the country, wrote them letters – or eventually emails – spoke to them as often as possible by phone, and prayed for their families regularly. My grandmother was always quite frugal with her money, yet I often noticed that she had a wonderful long-distance phone plan. Maybe one of her only real extravagances, but to her – it was money well spent.

She loved her husband, Bill, with a kind of devotion that I have rarely – if ever – seen from anyone else I’ve known. She supported his career and his creative ambitions, moving all over the country as his company directed, and never once complained about this. She simply rolled up her sleeves, made a new house into a home, found a church, befriended neighbors, and got involved in her children’s schools and activities.

Both of my grandparents lived far away from their parents, and my grandma decided early on in their marriage that every time she put a letter in the mail for her own parents, she would put one in the mail for my grandfather’s parents too. His family became her family; it was one of the many, may ways she showed her love for him.

She was also so proud of him – proud of his good looks, his brilliant mind, his beautiful singing voice, his commitment to God and to church, his service to his country, and his devotion to his family.

He was proud of her too.

He loved her cooking, and the way she took care of their home and their children. He would often invite people from work – colleagues and clients – over for dinner at their home without much notice, and while this is something that would drive most women completely crazy, my grandmother was so proud that my grandfather thought her kitchen and her hospitality would be the best way to impress someone in town.

As my grandfather became more and more incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease at the end of his life, she took care of him without argument. It was hard and it was painful for her most of the time, but she brought the same determination and devotion into that part of their marriage as she had to any other part before then. Her word was her bond, her promises were gold, and if she said she was going to do something, she was going to do it. When she said “for better or for worse” she meant it.

My grandmother taught me more about the determination of true love during these final years with my grandpa.

Of course, it may not surprise you to know that my grandmother’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren all benefited immeasurably from her love and devotion to them as well. My grandma talked about all four of her children – well into their adulthoods – with the kind of joy and affection in her voice that you usually only hear from new mother’s of tiny babies. She was completely smitten with each one of them.

While I was preparing for this eulogy, I asked my mom and her brothers if there was anything in particular they wanted me to include on their behalf today. And while they each had their own way of saying it, they all said the same thing: “I knew my mom would have done anything for me”.

And boy, was that true.

I only saw my grandmother as a mother to her adult children, but if any one of them needed something from her, she would drop everything, and go to them. I think every single one of her grandchildren would probably say that she helped raise them when they were tiny. And while she may have done that in part because she loved to be with us grandkids, she also did this because she wanted to help her own children manage the impossibly wonderful burden of good parenting.

And how lucky for us – because I know firsthand how much her grandchildren benefited from all of her loving attention.

Last Christmas, while we were all gathered at her house, I said that every single time I called her on the phone, she would say to me “well, isn’t that just the sweetest voice in all the world”. Several of my cousins immediately replied, “she says the same exact thing to me!” She made us all feel like the center of the whole universe, and I believe that her heart was big and deep enough for this to be true.

While she was being taken care of in hospice last week, I spoke with a good family friend of ours on the phone who told me that until she had met my grandmother, she had never known a grandmother could be so involved, so devoted, and so in love with her grandkids. This friend then told me that my grandma’s example of grand-mothering had made a huge impression on the way she herself wanted to be a grandparent. It brings me so much joy to think that in some way other peoples’ grandchildren too are the beneficiaries of my grandma’s beautiful example of love.

You might think she would have just about exhausted her ability to love other people by the time her great-grandchildren were being born, but it’s almost as if she became even more enchanted with the people in her life the older she got. She spent a month of every winter visiting her two great-grandsons in Louisiana, and looked forward to it all year. Last year, my older sister and I had babies 6 weeks apart and it nearly broke my grandma’s heart that she couldn’t be in the delivery rooms with us, she wanted to meet them so badly.

And just in case you thought my grandma’s love for others only extended to her friends and family, it was available in nearly equal measure for people she barely knew, and oftentimes people she had never even met. Just a few weeks ago, she was telling me a story about a little boy in her Sunday school class from the 1960’s that she often still thought about, and hoped he was well. This past week, I attended her prayer circle here at the church and learned she was still actively promoting various mission and charity opportunities, and faithfully collecting donations for people in need all over the world.

….

In these last couple of weeks, while reflecting on her life I have asked myself, how is it possible that one woman loved this well, this much, and this steadfastly? I believe she loved this well because she believed that God first loved her this well.

She never missed an opportunity to remind me about how great, and how big the love of God is. And she never doubted that the love of God was sincere towards every single one of His creations. She simply shared in that abundance of Love, and gave freely from it’s overflow.

As some of you may know, ever since I was a little tiny toddler, I have always called my grandmother “Mana”. It’s an affectionate name I gave her before I could say the word “grandma”. I have two sisters, Leslie and Bailey, who then also called her Mana. When we were growing up, we had a little saying in our house that went like this: “Leslie is a Mommy’s girl, Bailey is a daddy’s girl, and Whitney is a Mana’s girl”.

She was my angel right from the beginning. The sweetness of her spirit and the radiance of her love made me want to be near her. Until I met my own daughter, whom I named Evelyn after her, I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone as purely, immediately, and tenderly as I have loved my grandmother.

As soon I understood that her time on earth would be coming to a close, I knew I wanted to spend as much of those last days, hours and minutes with her as I could. I kept telling my family and the hospices nurses that she didn’t like to be alone, but really I think I was sitting by her bedside for my sake most of all.

By some miracle of grace or timing or both, I was with her when she took her last breath, and when her heart sweet, sweet heart beat it’s last note.

And in that last moment, her final letting go, I felt a wave of the most exquisite tenderness roll right into my own body and fill my whole heart with joy. I knew then – in a way I have been unable to explain, nor deny – that she was happy, and that she was HOME.

Reunited now with so many of the greatest loves of her life, and most importantly reunited with the One that made her, I know that her love has been made perfect and her joy is complete.

 

Mana, we will all miss you terribly every single day. But, I also know that the best way for us to honor you now is to love each other well… just as Christ Jesus first loved us.

Amen.

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power.

– Walter Brueggemann

I AM

Fact: when Jesus spoke to the crowds of people that gathered to listen to him, he the spoke in an ancient Semetic language called Aramaic. Another fact: the English language version of Jesus’ teachings that we have access to today were not translated from Aramaic, but instead translated from Greek after first being filtered through Greek philosophy and greek language.

Consequently, much of the modern English canonical gospels are a representation – and sometimes a downright manipulation – of the teachings of Jesus that best supported the Greek culture and worldview at the time.

That’s a hard one to swallow if you have been living your life according to every single Greek-to-English word of your NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, or even AMP version of the Bible. Nevertheless, it’s important – and I think that every serious Christian, and every serious spiritual seeker should be well-informed about this.

Because here’s the thing: if you attempt to throw that translation process into reverse, and get as close as you can to the original meaning of the original words that Jesus spoke, you wind up getting confronted with some pretty significant challenges to the fundamental ideology of a lot of modern, western Christian thinking.

For example,

“In Aramaic, the word that is later translated as ‘I am’ is really ‘I-I.’ Aramaic doesn’t have a ‘being’ verb. You can’t actually say ‘I am’ in ancient Aramaic, nor can you do it in ancient Hebrew, as far as that goes. So really what Jesus is saying is, ‘I-I.’ [In other words:] The connection of the small self, which in Aramaic is called ‘nafsha’, is the self that is growing, evolving, learning through life. And the connection between that and the greater self, or what would be called the ‘only I’, ‘the only being’, ‘Alaha’, or ‘the One’, or ‘God’.”

– Neil Douglas Klotz, from his interview on Insights At The Edge via Sounds True.

I cannot tell you how many times some well-intentioned Christian person has reminded me that Jesus once said “I am the way, the truth, and the light”, as a way to justify their idea that belief in the person of Jesus is the only legitimate path to heaven.

It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to spoil anyone’s worldview in a painful way, but is of great significance to me that the word(s) “I am” would not have been linguistically available to Jesus in the language in which he was teaching at the time. Furthermore, if what he actually said was something closer to the Aramaic word for “I-I”, this piece of Jesus’ message – and it’s theological implication – becomes quite transformed.

Curiously, in many other religious, psychological, and philosophical disciplines the idea of a relationship between a “small self” and a “greater Self” – as indicated by this Aramaic word “I-I” – is a common theme. This is more common in far Eastern spiritualities, where concepts of “Buddha nature“, “Atman and Brahman“, and “Tao” invite it’s practitioners to seek spiritual enlightenment by liberating oneself from a “small-self only” orientation towards oneself and the world, and uncover a connection to the [choose your favorite word for the divine, i.e. God, Source, the One, Only-I, etc.] within.

Western psychology also has a way of conceptualizing this phenomena. The notion of the “small self” would probably be best described as “ego”. Ego, in psychological terms, is understood as the part of ourselves we experience as limited by time and space, and contained within a physical form. Ego, or small self, is something I’m confident we can all identify with; it’s the part of ourselves that worries about whether people like us, if we will be able to pay the rent, whether we will be happy, or what might make us happier.

Additionally, there are transpersonal psychological theories that discuss the idea of a “greater Self”, and often point to this concept as a fundamental part of psycho-spiritual health. In Jungian psychology for example, there is this notion that self-realization is available only through the development of an ego-Self (as in, greater Self) axis, or the ability to get your ego and the divine part of your consciousness talking to each other on the regular.

So, here’s what the phrase “I-I” means to me: “The way, the truth, and the light” is accessible to everyone. There is no dogma that can dictate this path, and there is no governing body to decide how it must be done. There is just you-YOU. You, the vulnerable human being subject to all the vicissitudes of your daily experiences. And YOU, the you that’s got a direct line to God.

Perhaps Jesus was saying, “Look, if you can get these two aspects of yourself – the human and the divine – communing with one another”, well … that is the way, that is the truth, and that is the light of human existence.

 

Maybe

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,
silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth
like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer storm.

By Mary Oliver

The Religious Right

“Jesus never asked anyone to form a church, ordain priests, develop elaborate rituals and institutional cultures, and splinter into denominations. His two great requests were that we “love one another as I have loved you” and that we share bread and wine together as an open channel of that interabiding love.”

― Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

I left the church in 2005 because of an absolutely irreconcilable conflict between the moral code I found in the pages of gospel, and the values I saw being paraded out by the institutional church in America. (Not everyone; not every church, but still far too many).

Ten years later, I am trying to go back to church, and hoping to find people who take the actual example of Jesus seriously by loving one another well. Period. No other agenda.

A lot of my Christian friends talk with me about their feelings of grief over the way the loudest, most extreme “spokespersons” for their faith behave. I feel the same way, which inspires me to sympathize deeply with the sincere practitioners of Islam who must simultaneously watch their faith become so grossly misrepresented by groups of terror-inciting extremists.

So, why does it always happen this way?

It seems to me that the MINUTE the religious institution gets in bed with any branch of the government, we might as well brace ourselves for deep spiritual loss.

The history of the church in this country is complex, and I have no interest in romanticizing it. But there was a time when the church was brand new – just Jesus and his crew – and it was exceedingly good. Compassion and humility were the moral cornerstones of that community, and a belief that “Heaven” could be realized when we are able make peace with ourselves and each other in the *present* moment.

TELL ME, PLEASE: how did we get so far away from that?

The following video is offensive in many ways. I wish it weren’t. I wish it were less satire, and more documentary film. I wish the woman delivering the message could communicate the information in it without having to make fun of some of the people featured in the clip. Samantha Bee may be one of the funniest people on late night TV right now, and I really appreciate a lot of her work. But I also appreciate that her humor is often mean & biting. (I guess we just can’t all be Ellen, the good-person saint of comedy).

Nevertheless, Bee is able to use comedy to expose something fairly underrepresented in the more mainstream media, and grossly underrepresented in church, and I think it’s worth sharing in spite of it’s tone.

You can watch the video by clicking this link: The Religious Right.

I believe that this is why the church has such a negative image in America. This is why people with moral sensibilities about how to treat others who are different than themselves, and how to treat the planet we all inhabit together wind up leaving and loathing the church.

It’s a big deal. We have to confront it. I’m doing my part. Sam Bee did hers, I guess, too.

“Quick to listen, slow to speak.”

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life”.

– Deitrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together

Sodom

Did you know that the biblical story of Sodom’s destruction is really a referendum on inhospitality? (Hint: not homosexuality).

#true.

Here’s the story: A man named Lot is the protagonist in this tale, and is described in this story as a “servant of the Lord”. He lives in Sodom, which happens to be an aggressively hedonistic town. According to the tale, the people in it are consumed with reckless greed and lust, which often times turns violent.

One day, Lot (our main character), sees two angels (i.e. living, breathing, divine messengers) walking up to the city gates of Sodom. He rushes towards them, and begs them to come stay in his house – in order that he might protect them from the violence of the city. They agree to this, and all is going well for a brief little moment.

Not terribly long after their arrival at Lot’s house, however, “all the men from every quarter” of the city surround the house and start yelling for Lot to surrender these heavenly visitors to them so that they can rape them. [Short hand: Some drunk, belligerent, and obviously violent men want to rape God’s angels, whom Lot has taken personal responsibility for by agreeing to house them.]

Soooooo, Lot goes outside and pleads intensely with the men at his door to leave them be, and even goes so far as to offer up his virgin daughters to the men in exchange for the angels. Of course, this is all kinds of troubling to me, but it’s also important for us to understand that at this time in history women were regarded as significantly less valuable than men (property), and humans as less valuable than angels, I imagine.

You tracking with me? Because this part is supremely critical: LOT IS NOT OFFERING HIS DAUGHTERS TO THE MEN OUTSIDE HIS DOOR BECAUSE SEX BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN IS BETTER THAN SEX BETWEEN A MAN AND A MAN. Instead, he is offering his daughters to these men because he believes that allowing these men to abuse a piece of his own property is better than allowing these men to abuse two of God’s messengers.

Do you understand?

The Bible itself describes Sodom in this way:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”. – Ezekiel 16:49

Now, I do not see one single word about homosexuality in there.

Do you?

So, did I miss something? OR, is it just SO.MUCH.MORE.CONVENIENT for modern heterosexual Christians to convince themselves that homosexuality (something that doesn’t touch them personally) incurs the wrath of God instead of what the Bible actually says – i.e. arrogance, overindulgence, and indifference (something that may strike a bit closer to home)?????!

On behalf of every single LGBTQ+ person who has been needlessly tortured by their religious family, friends, clergy members, and law makers, I am sick and sorry about that.

Perhaps we can start making some progress here if we all understand the original story better.

Goddess

“We need Goddess consciousness to reveal earth’s holiness. Divine feminine imagery opens up the notion that the earth is the body of the Divine, and when that happens, the Divine cannot be contained solely in a book, church, dogma, liturgy, theological system, or transcendent spirituality. The earth is no longer a mere backdrop until we get to heaven, something secondary and expendable. Mat[t]er becomes inspirited; it breathes divinity.” — Sue Monk Kidd

I admit it. The word “Goddess” is a leap for me sometimes.

It’s so hard to redefine the concept of God we inherited in our youth. In fact, I think it’s often easier to simply reject God outright, rather than allow God to become truly expanded in our hearts and minds.

Nevertheless, this is what I am trying to do.

I am trying to discover all of the things that got left on the “cutting room floor” when my own religious tradition became canonized and organized. So, I pay attention to words like these because they confront me.

Reading this, I hear myself thinking “Ah, yes, that must be true. But, oh my, how uncomfortable too. I don’t know how to get there genuinely yet”.

…That’s all.

Many Ways, Many Truths, Many Lights…

“I use metaphors.

… One way is just to think, for instance, of biodiversity. The extraordinary thing we now know thanks to [the] discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes, is that all life… you know, all the 3 million species of life and plant life – all have the same source.

We all come from a single source.

Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet.

Unity creates diversity.

So don’t think of One God, One Truth, One Way. Think of One God creating this extraordinary number of ways. The 6,800 languages that are actually spoken – don’t think there’s one language within which we can speak to God.

The Bible is saying to us – the whole time – ‘Don’t think that God is as simple as you are’.

… God is bigger than religion”.

— Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, from Enriched By Difference on Becoming Wise.