Via Creativa: Lighten Up — Living “As If”

By: JUBILEE! Minister Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

“I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us,” writes the prophet Isaiah in today’s Hebrew text (Isaiah 63:7-9).

This passage is part of a larger group of scriptures called a communal lament. This passage, scholars say, was probably written to remind the Hebrew people of their time in exile in Babylon after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. This passage, however, appears alongside material believed to be written after the Jews had returned to their homeland, so this lament is meant to remind them of probably one of the worst events in their history at that time.

Which is why it makes this passage a good one to read over the holidays, especially as we wrap up our season of Advent. This church season begins four weeks before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Advent is meant to be a time of waiting, a time of anticipation, a time to reflect on what this world is like without the light of God breaking through into our otherwise bleak existence.

Actually, that sounds a lot like holiday depression – our own personal darkness taking hold of us in an otherwise dark season all around. But, what Advent invites us to do is this – while we anticipate the light of the Holy breaking forth in the birth of this tiny baby, we start to learn how to live our life “as if.” Advent reminds us to live “as if” Christ is already here. Advent invites us to live “as if” the darkness of exile and depression is already lifted. Advent invites us to live in the light right here, and right now, even when everything around us seems to be dark and gloomy.

All that living “as if” may make it sound like I’m saying that we should not live in the present. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Paradoxically, to live “as if” means paying even more attention to the present moment. The only place we can truly live is right here and right now. By paying close attention to what’s happening now, we can get a glimmer of what is to come.

By reminding themselves of how horrible life was during exile, the Jews knew that it could easily happen again. Anyone who has dealt with depression knows that, even in the happy times, that darkness lurks right around the corner, ready to pounce at the first opportune moment. But, remembering the dark times and giving them our full attention when they are present is key to overcoming them, because even in the midst of our darkest night there is still a glimmer of light that invites us to “lighten up” in the deepest sense of the phrase.

So, when the sad times come, be present to them. How can you be aware, even in the midst of broken hopes and dreams, that new hopes and dreams are being kindled? Are you, right now, making the connections — physically, mentally and spiritually — that you need to live into the future fully aware? Are you learning what you’ll need — physically, mentally and spiritually —  when your future arrives?

Most importantly, are you willing to be clumsy in pursuit of your goals? Are you will to stop trying to look like you walk unafraid, and admit that, most of the time you are basically scared to death?

Here’s the secret: We’re all scared to death. We’re all afraid that we’ll do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, make the wrong choice or dream the wrong dream. Here’s the other secret: There really are no mistakes that you can make that are so dire you can’t turn them around and learn something from them.

We’re all staggering clumsily down this road we call life, and the truth is we could all use a little help and we could all use a little encouragement to live fully in the present even as we anticipate our “as if” lives.

Our ancient Hebrew cousins knew this. “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them,” Isaiah told them. “In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

Even when we feel like there is no hope and that we’ll never dig our way out of our deepest depression – the Holy is there – present and ready to lift us up and carry us into our “as if” future.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Creativa: Lighten Up! — Everyday Miracles

By: JUBILEE! Minister Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

“Ask a sign from the Lord your God,” the prophet Isaiah tells King Ahaz. “Let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven,” he tells the king. In other words, dream big! Ask God to give you a big, no-way you could miss it sign.

But, the king was afraid. His land was being invaded by the Assyrians sweeping through the northern kingdom of Judea. Ahaz had allied himself with Syria and Ephraim against the invaders, but still he was worried. Too worried to think that God might give him some sign that he was on the right track.

In today’s Hebrew scripture reading (Isaiah 7:10-16), Isaiah gave him a sign anyway, and it’s one that scholars have argued over since the words were uttered.

“Look,” the prophet said, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Was the old prophet telling of Jesus’ birth? Scholars are quick to point out the verb tense used in this passage actually means the girl in question is already pregnant, or soon to be. So, it could not refer to Jesus who will be born hundreds of years later. As for the “virgin” part … that’s been debated by theologians for centuries as well.

What’s not up for debate, however, is the real meaning of Isaiah’s sign. What he’s saying here is that God doesn’t usually put on a big show, or give us really huge, blinking neon signs when we wonder what we should do … when we despair because our enemies are surrounding us from all sides and about to overtake us.

Instead, Isaiah, says, the miracle you seek is born in every moment, in every single mundane second of the day. God’s saving grace is as ordinary as pregnant woman, waiting to birth her crying, hungry, pooping miracle into the world.

Those miracles are born in every moment, whether it’s a welfare mom who just needs a few extra dollars to buy baby food, or even the insensitive heckler in need of a lesson in compassion and grace.

“You want a sign?” Isaiah asked Ahaz and asks us still today. “Stop looking for some big, dramatic thing. Lighten up! Just take a look around wherever you are, because miracles are hidden in plain sight in every moment. Every person is a sign from God … an ordinary sign … a need waiting to be fulfilled, a miracle waiting to be born … a miracle waiting to be accepted.”

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: Just Say No — Say No to Peace

By: JUBILEE! Minister Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

In our Jesus story (Luke 19:1-10), we find our guy entering the town of Jericho. Like all the other towns, a crowd gathers to greet this odd man who they have heard so many incredible tales about. They want to see for themselves if he is who all the rumors say he is. Among those who want to get a look at this Jesus fellow is a man named Zacchaeus.

If there were a modern day example of Zacchaeus, he would probably part of the 1% of the population who is filthy rich. He was a tax collector and regularly took from the poor to give more to the rich who already benefited from the largess of the Roman empire. You can guess just how popular old Zach was with the people of Jericho.

Alas, poor Zach was also a short man and he knew he had no chance to catch a glimpse of this traveling preacher unless he could get above the crowd, so climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view.

This is where Jesus teaches us how inviting himself to dinner with the most hated man in town can teach even we modern day people a valuable lesson about how to bring peace into the world.

Jesus, even amongst the throng that followed him, trying to touch him, speak to him or get a word of wisdom out of him, noticed this tiny, bald man hanging from the tree limb. When he spots him he tells him to come down because “I must stay at your house today.”

This move by Jesus must have outraged the crowd. They had probably heard that he was a prophet who healed the sick and took care of the poor and the outcast. Jesus took care of people like themselves, not that little rich crook who took everything from them without a tear in his eye.

But, Jesus knew what recently-departed former South African president Nelson Mandela knew all those centuries later – peace is not just for our tribe, but for everyone. Jesus, just like Mandela, refused to rob even this tax collector, this oppressor of the people around him, of his humanity.

Instead, Jesus gives us an object lesson about who is to be included in our vision of world peace – both the oppressor and the oppressed, both the rich and the poor, both the full and the hungry, both the clothed and the naked, both the homed and the homeless. No one is left outside the sphere of true peace. No one is excluded or dehumanized.

This is where the idea of peace, love and understanding starts to sound like a joke to some people. You mean we’re supposed to include even our enemies in our quest for world peace? We’re supposed to include those who kill, those who maim, those who oppress, those who leave nothing but suffering in their wake?

Yes, the Holy tells us, because even those who commit the most evil among us are still human beings, even if they act in inhuman ways. There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding and even our oppressors will climb the nearest tree for even a chance to get even a quick glance of that kind of inclusive peace as it marches by.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: Just Say No – Say No to Belief

By: JUBILEE! Minister Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

Former Catholic nun turned religious historian Karen Armstrong reminds us that the word “believe” used to mean something very different than what we think today. Before the 17th century,  she writes, the word “‘bileve’ meant ‘love, loyalty, commitment’. It was related to the Latin libido and used in the King James Bible to translate the Greek pistis (‘trust; faithfulness; involvement’).”

In short, belief used to be a verb. It used to connote how one lived, not what creeds or doctrines one gave their assent to.

The ancient Hebrew prophets knew this well, and constantly preached to their contemporaries not about changing their beliefs about God, but changing their behavior toward God and one another.  The prophets were constantly calling the wayward Israelites to stop focusing on their own selfish needs, to stop neglecting the poor and needy among them, to stop treating foreigners and outsiders as excluded from the realm of God’s love and concern.

In today’s passage (Isaiah 11:1-10), we find a classic Advent reading, one that is usually used to herald the coming of Jesus into the world as the perfect leader.

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

And what happens when this benevolent leader comes? The unthinkable – cows grazing with grizzly bears, lambs and wolves living side-by-side, lions becoming vegetarians and grazing on straw instead of other animals or people.  What an amazing world Isaiah describes to his listeners. What an amazing, impossible, world.

But, as Dave Matthews points out, we humans have already done the impossible many times over. We’ve figured out how the cross the vast oceans, first in boats, and later by learning how to fly. We’ve built, and destroyed, huge and amazing cities.

We even landed a man on the moon, and trips to the stars and back are now just business as usual.

If you had the opportunity to tell all these ancient Hebrews about every one of those human achievements, they’d get a good laugh. All of those things were beyond their comprehension.  But, we still laugh when we  our modern ears hear about a world where the wild and the tame live together, where evil and good co-exist, where nations are at peace with one another. We can hardly believe it.

The reason why we can hardly believe it is because we still believe it can’t happen. Our very solid belief that such a world will never exist is exactly what keeps it from coming into existence. We can’t fathom this Utopia Isaiah describes, and so it never materializes.

This is how belief keeps us handicapped. This is how belief keeps us mired in our tribal divisions of “us” and “them.”

It was the prophets — those who could see the world through the lens of infinite possibilities, unhindered by limiting beliefs — who brought us the ability to traverse the waters and the air — even to traverse outer space.  Until we, too, can begin to see the world without the filter of our limiting and divisive beliefs, we will be stuck in this dog-eat-dog world that we have created.

It’s only when we ditch our belief that some things are impossible that we learn we can to, indeed, do the impossible. I know it’s hard to imagine but we could do anything under the stars.

Breathe deeply.

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Via Negativa: Just Say No — Say No to Justice

By: JUBILEE! Minister Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge

One morning, a judge, leaving for work, was annoyed to find that his car wouldn’t start. He called a taxi, and soon one arrived at his house.

Climbing in, he told the driver to take him to the halls of justice. “Where are they?” asked the driver.

“You mean to say that you don’t know where the courthouse is?” asked the incredulous judge.

“The courthouse? Of course I know where that is,” replied the driver. “But I thought you said you wanted to go to the ‘halls of justice.'”

You can understand the taxi driver’s dilemma. The courthouse can’t always be thought of as the “halls of justice” – especially when so much injustice is passed down by the judges who preside there.

The recent Solomon-like decision by U.S. Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act comes to mind. While they struck down one section of the law, so now those who have legally married in states where they can, those who live in states where it remains illegal are left in legal limbo – still strangers in the eyes of the law. Where does the court get the idea that their decision is a just one?

What they have done is basically told gay and lesbian people that they can only be married in certain states if they want the federal government to recognize their union and grant them the benefits and responsibilities of marriage. By keeping intact the section of the law that says states don’t have to recognize marriages outside their lines, the court has made it perilous for gay and lesbian couples to move or travel, since they may be married in one state, and unmarried in another – just by crossing a state line.

Instead of having the courage to declare marriage equality the law of the land they have kept intact this patchwork of laws, which harkens back to another case of patchwork justice – that of anti-miscegenation laws in the 1960s that kept mixed race couples married in states where it was legal, but unmarried in states that outlawed it.

How can that be justice?

Perhaps we need to define our terms. What is justice? Does justice mean getting the decision we think is right? Does justice mean getting a judicial redress of inequality? Does justice mean punishing the bad and rewarding the good? In our society, it can mean all of these things. I fear, though, that the prophet Amos (Amos 5:18-24) would give us a confused look if we told him this is what justice is about.

Amos was no lawyer. He didn’t work in the “halls of justice.” He was a goat herder from Tekoa – but God had put a message in his heart for the masses – a message of justice and righteousness – and it didn’t have anything to do with getting the outcome we want from a court of law.

Amos would have understood justice as “mishpat.” Under this kind of ancient Hebrew justice, the neediest of society are cared for.  A just society takes care of anyone who is in need. An unjust society ignores the needy, or even passes laws making it difficult for the neediest to meet their most basic needs. A just society is concerned not so much with equality as it is with equity – what is fairest for all, not just for some. This is the kind of justice that Amos says must roll down like water – like an ever-flowing stream!

As Rumi reminds us, justice is giving water to the trees … bestowing that bounty in its proper place. Justice is what makes goodness take root and grow in this world.  Justice is not about which side wins the court case. Justice is about creating a society where courts are not needed – because fairness and equity are not just the laws of the land – but written in the trees themselves as well as in each human heart.

— Breathe deeply —

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