The Arusha connection

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Within a one month period I have met two strangers with whom a hither-to unknown connection with a far away small town in a far away country became the icebreaker into a wonderful conversation and future connection. The small town is Arusha in Tanzania. I have mentioned how, in the course of eye examination, the ophthalmologist and I, two complete strangers, discovered that indeed we have some connection through the small town of Arusha.
Less than a month later, it happened again. This time I accepted to attend a venue – dinner actually – where all the guests, though they knew one another from church, to me they were complete strangers, except the two hosts. By chance (here we go again) I was paired with Sandy (not her real name). The idea behind the pairing is to find out in conversation relevant information to introduce your partner to the whole group.
“So you are from Tanzania”, Sandy asked. I answered yes.
“From Arusha?” The same question I was asked a month ago.
“No, actually from Moshi, fifty miles east of Arusha, on the foot of Kilimanjaro” Again, almost word for word, my response to the ophthalmologist.
That set us on to the most uplifting conversation I could ever have imagined. Not only was she in Arusha with World Vision (and my daughter works with World Vision in Arusha) the two of us also have an Israel connection. We shared memories of Mount Scopus, the Lutheran church’s Augusta Victoria hospital and World Vision in the same area, Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, the Anglican St. George’s  College and Christ Church.
But what is most fascinating is that this discovery between Sandy and me was a shared experience with all the other pairs. They all have extensive international experience and mindset and they have passion for the church and its mission. Furthermore, even though they know one another from church, the time we spent eating and talking revealed much that turned out to be fresh insight about each one.
The larger picture for me is that we are never strangers from one another. There are no aliens among us. We belong together. It is fear only that separates us to believe that those we don’t know are different from us.

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How connections free the mind

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Almost 5 years to the day, I posted a blog here about a memorable experience I had in Israel many years ago. You can read the blog here. In my forthcoming book I emphasize the significance and importance of relationships for change, transformation, wholeness, and what have you. I cite many examples from personal experience – sort of testimony – to illustrate the fact that what one needs is, one, the intention or the will to step out of one’s “comfort zones” and two, an open mind. With that, possibilities for connection and relationship are everywhere.

My journey to Kibbutz Regavim

Having expressed the desire to live in a kibbutz for three months as a volunteer, my friends at the Swedish Theological Institute set about finding a suitable choice. They did not have many choices because I was already in my early thirties. Volunteers were mostly high school and college kids. So they found Kibbutz Regavim.
Located near Caesarea, Regavim could be reached only by train, if using public transport, and there was only one service per day to Binyamina train station. My plan was to travel by bus from Haifa after a weekend tour with my Ugandan priest friend, to Netanya, then Hadera and then catch the train to Binyamina.

I arrived in Netanya a little before six. The sun was orange over the Mediterranean Sea to the west where it appeared to be sinking into the water. It was calm and comfortable in late Spring and the sea breeze a soothing feel to the skin.

It was the first time I was in Netanya – I might have passed through between Jerusalem and Haifa but this was the first time I was there for an extended time. I roamed along the beach for a while, then up and down Sderot Weizmann, Yehuda Hanasi and Perach Tikva hoping to find a cheap motel for the night then take the bus to Hadera and the train to Binyamina. Then I realized I was in a wrong neighborhood.

I decided to seek help. It was Sunday, the first day of the week, businesses were still open and I spotted a real estate office. I walked into this rather small office with a couple of desks. There was only one person behind one of the desks, so I asked him if he knew of any cheap motels in the area.

He looked up at me and said, “There are many hotels on the beach”. I almost chuckled at the suggestion but I thought he misunderstood my query. “I know, but I cannot afford a hotel room on the beach”. I explained to him that I needed to catch a train on Monday from Hadera to Binyamina and to Kibbutz Regavim. He looked at me quizzically then repeated what he told me. “There are many hotels along the beach”.

I started to turn around to leave his office when he asked, “Do you really need help?” I told him I did. He told me to come back after an hour and he would see how he could help. I went back an hour later and found him closing his office.

He told me, his name is Avner, that he and his mother and a younger brother lived in a Moshav nearby and if I really needed help I was invited to stay the night with them. A stranger, from nowhere! Was this chance, or coincidence? You decide.
So he took me to their home. His mother was recently widowed, they had just finished the shiva, the seven day mourning period after burial. His younger brother, Moshe, was seriously wounded in combat, he still had a bullet lodged in his head. He was active, even drove a special car, but he was disabled.

This family took me to their home, a complete stranger, from a strange land, of a different nationality, religion, culture and while they were still mourning. They welcomed me like one of them. And that is the point of this story: differences are in the mind.

The following morning when I left to catch the bus to Hadera, Imma, (mother to Avner and Moshe, and now mine too), said to me, “remember you have a home in Israel; this is your home, come back any time”.

Why relationships are essential for the journey

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I witnessed City Gospel Mission transition into a relationship-based ministry with the goal of transformation. As expected it was not easy, but it had to be intentional as all transformative relationships need to be. I got similar experience from Crossroad Health Center where I was a volunteer chaplain. This is a Christian ministry that emphasizes relationship between the medical personnel and the community they served – low income individuals and families with limited resources.

These relationships, along with church and regular bible study groups, for example at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Mark on Capitol Hill, and Ascension and St. Agnes, have been fundamental for my own transformation.

But why is relationship important in transformation?

In the course of studying Paul’s epistle to Romans for the men in the recovery program we  sought application of chapter 12 and verse 2, where Paul writes: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Transformation calls for a change of mindset, renewing of mind; changing the way we look at things; changing the way we see the world. That, in turn, will lead to change of behavior. (What Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3: 3 is essentially the same thing, though Nicodemus tried to understand it literally, just as some Christians do, today).

Thus, recovery from addiction is a process of transformation from a flawed conformity, a process that requires a change of mindset and a change of heart.

Secondly, since environment has a lot to do with behavior, transitioning from one environment to a healthier one entails more than physical locale. Those seeking to transition need mentors and examples they can emulate. Change will not happen from sermons and admonitions, but through coaching and setting examples. I gave the example of my friend trying to help a young man through the Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington in my previous blog which you can access here: https://joelmlayblog.wordpress.com/book-project/connection-is-why-we-are-here/

Unfortunately, building relationships for transformation is not always easy; but, as I said, it must be intentional.

I’ll continue with that next time.

 

 

 

8 Pillars of joy

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The tagline of this blog is “how to find peace and joy everyday: with gratitude and humility”. Gratitude and humility are two of 8 pillars of joy pointed out by Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Southern Africa, in a 2016 book, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World”, authored by Douglas Abrams. They group the 8 pillars in 4 attributes of the mind – perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance ; and 4 of the heart – gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

In previous blogs we have touched on some of these pillars even before this book came out, even though we have not systematically enumerated or grouped them as these two titans of spirituality have done. What is most illuminating is how they have reaffirmed the principle that joy is consequential.  Joy comes from a combination of mind and heart attitudes. For example, the mind that has learned to view the world and its daily happenings with a wide viewpoint,  (perspective), contributes to a life of joy. Similarly, the heart that is tuned to respond (to everything) with gratitude adds a significant measure of joy to life.

The book is the culmination of a week that the two luminaries spent together in Dharamsala, India, for the Dalai Lama’s 80th. birthday. Both men know, from personal experience, a life of affliction and sorrow. But they have taught millions too, how to rise above that with joy. At a time when the ailing Desmond Tutu was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and the Dalai Lama spending half a century in exile, the two were able to demonstrate how humor and compassion lift life from anger and vengeance to peace and joy.

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As the author points out, it was a week where a Buddhist monk, a Christian cleric and a Jewish secularist experienced true joy in mutual companionship. The idea in the book is to demonstrate that everyone of us can contribute to our own joy, everyday, when we choose a life governed by the 8 pillars of joy.

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Stay tuned for more insights on these pillars.

 

If you,re not outraged you’re not listening

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“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.  Those are words of Martin Luther King Jr. We are afraid unless we can determine, with certainty, the ending of the ventures we are being called to. So, in the story of Peter stepping into the raging water, in the chaos and uncertainty of the sea, our thinking – at least mine – is that Peter should have stayed in the boat. It makes sense because it is safer in the boat.

But the real lesson in this story is taking that first step to meet Jesus who is in the storm.

Faith is active. In the action we cannot be certain of the outcome, we may not know the perils that lie ahead. Heather Heyer posted on her facebook page, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. And because she was outraged she took a step to participate in expressing that outrage and the growing hatred and intolerance in the country today. It cost her life.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Peter desired to erect dwellings in the glory of the mountain-top;  but the call is to go down into the chaos and uncertainty of Via Dolorosa. That is where Jesus is. He is in the storm, that’s where we meet him, and there is the possibility of sinking.

Audacious or reckless?

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In the last post I commended Peter for attempting to walk on water – meaning making a risky choice to go where Jesus was – rather than stay in the boat, in safety, with the assurance that Jesus is in control of the chaos and the perils. There is another view we hear so often from some circles, especially where spirituality is overemphasized at the expense of social justice.

I am talking about certain approaches when interacting with those in society who are marginalized or are casualties of systems and the status quo. You may have heard, for example, phrases like “all you need is Jesus”, “if you have Jesus, everything is fine”, “try Jesus, after all everything you have tried has failed”, “the problem is, you don’t have Jesus in your life…” and so on.

With this mindset, Peter is faulted for diverting his focus from Jesus to the storm, and that is why he was sinking. This is escapism. We have responsibility, as individuals, communities and as a society to take action; to do everything necessary to alleviate the burden on the vulnerable.

That is why I am sticking with my views in the previous post. It is necessary to take a risk and get into the chaos, in the storm, not knowing what that initial step may lead to. Take risk to meet new people, go to places never been to before, try what you have never tried before. Remember that Prayer for Courage?

  •     Lord God,
  • You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending;
  • by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown;
  • Give us faith to go out  with good courage, not knowing where we go,
  • but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us;
  • Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

Why would Jesus walk on water?

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While on tour of the Holy Land in 1867, Mark Twain enquired from a boat operator in Tiberias how much it would cost to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When he was told it would cost him $25 (because the boat operator mistook him for a wealthy tourist) Mark Twain is reported to have remarked to his wife, “No wonder Jesus decided to walk”.,

The story of Jesus walking on water is probably one of the most remarkable stories in the New Testament. Kids learn it in Sunday School. It is depicted in different forms of art and it affords illustration for different spiritual lessons.

Still, the story raises a number of questions. First, did Jesus need to walk on water and why? How about Peter; and that is the question of interest to me here. What was Peter’s motive in attempting to walk on the water like Jesus? Was it to test Jesus, or simply to show off?

Most people point to Peter’s faith – or lack ofhttps://joelmlayblog.wordpress.com/book-project/called-to-ventures-of-which-we-cannot-see-the-ending-by-paths-yet-untrodden/ – in this story. And many may wonder, why didn’t he simply stay in the boat, in faith that the situation was under control with Jesus? I think though, that the point is about stepping out into the unknown, into the chaos and the raging waters, and knowing that that is where  Jesus is .

The sea’s turbulence represents the chaos in society. Think of the “acceptable” economic system that produces casualties in poverty, homelessness, despair, violence, exploitation, and so on. Our society may accept and defend the status quo as divinely ordained. But true faith as exemplified in Peter’s risk in taking that first step into the chaos leads true followers of Jesus to meet him in the chaos of poverty, injustice and uncertainties of final outcomes.

This is how I find meaning in my favorite prayer:

  • Lord God,
  • You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
  • by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
  • Give us faith to go out with great courage, not knowing where we go,
  • but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us;
  • Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

How to stay on course and engaged

Take a moment to think about these words of the late Israeli intellectual, Yeshayahu Leibowitz:  “A religion which has a function, which serves as a means to some other end, is not religion. From the standpoint of Jewish faith, religion, that is to say, the service of God, is itself the ultimate end…If the service of God is not recognized as the human telos, religion is meaningless…If one may talk of the function of religion in the political sphere, it is precisely in terms of its power to check the influence of the political values and to restrain patriotism and nationalistic enthusiasm. Religion forbids regard for state and nation as absolute values. If religion has a function, it is to place human’s limited values in perspective. The state has no value; it is only an instrument serving humankind and its goals”.

Perhaps you are one of those who have written off anything to do with, or related to religion. Many prefer to be spiritual but not religious. And even contemporary society as a whole, is being urged fast away from the arts and even faster from the humanities.

Well, take a moment to think about Leibowitz’s words and tomorrow I’ll share with you why his words have aroused my curiosity.

 

How our hopes and fears shape our future

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This is a topic of discussion for a bible study session this coming Sunday, inspired by Matt Rawle’s book: The Redemption of Scrooge. It is a fascinating book that looks at Charles Dickens’ Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge (in A Christmas Carol) in our contemporary world. Ebenezer Scrooge finds a lot of relevance during any Christmas season today, as he did in the nineteenth century.

It is generally acknowledged that though this is a joyous season – or ought to be – sadly, for many, it is like Mr. Scrooge’s famous scoff: “Bah! Humbug!”. Nevertheless, in Charles Dickens’ novel Mr. Scrooge is ultimately redeemed. Everyone, therefore, like Ebenezer Scrooge, can find redemption in this season.

And, of course, the question is how.

I would suggest that instead of examining, “how our hopes and fears shape our future” make it personal: “how do my hopes and fears shape my future?”. For everyone of us lives in a world whose reality is, to a very large extent, the product of our individual mindset and worldview, especially when that worldview carries the values and traditions of our particular society.

Ask yourself, as we will ask ourselves in our bible study, how does your faith relate to your hopes and fears? Can you identify three hopes and three fears you have during this season? Again, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge did find redemption in the end. What does it mean for you to be redeemed? Especially, what are you being redeemed from and how?

The connection between the present mindset and the future is a topic I would like to continue to explore even after the Christmas season. It is important that we cultivate that mindset which gives joy and peace which are the purpose of our creation and at the heart of the Christmas story.

Why there is good in all things

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Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) was a famous Episcopal clergyman who became bishop of Massachusetts and is particularly known for his sermons and the lyrics of the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. In one of his prayers, he prays, “open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things”.

There is something very powerful here, that we often miss: We can find something good in every situation, every circumstance and every moment of life. Tragically, most of the time we are overwhelmed by what we see as wrong. We have become focused on things being bad. Some years ago, a co-worker remarked that he had trained himself to not expect anything good so that when the “bad” arrived he would not be disappointed. You probably know already that he never was disappointed because what we expect always arrives.

We don’t see the good in anything because we live focused on the five senses – we rely exclusively on the sense of sight – at least in the external world. That is why Bishop Brooks’ prayer is so powerful because it is only when we turn into the soul that we are able to see the “good in all things”.

We need that especially in this season which can often be a source of misery for many.