By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 27 April 2013 in The Madera Tribune
I went to a woman's funeral in Fresno less than two weeks ago. I did not know her well. But some of those dear to me loved her much. So I mourned with those pained by her absence.
Love shows itself in such seemingly opposite ways, from laughter to tears. But despite its many expressions it always, if true, draws us out of ourselves. Love is a kind of gravity that pulls us.
But it isn't fate.
A joke tells of a 7-year-old girl who shocked her parents by telling them a boy in her class had kissed her after school.
The father asked, "How did that happen?"
"It wasn't easy," she said, "but three girls helped me catch him."
In another joke, a kindergarten teacher at a Christian school explained the 10 Commandments. After explaining the command to "honor thy father and mother," she asked, "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"
One boy quickly raised his hand and answered, "Thou shall not kill."
Love cannot be forced. It must be a free choice or it is not love. We all know this, yet this freedom can frighten us. All of us fear rejection at times.
Professor Brene Brown, Ph.D., of the University of Houston has written three New York Times best-sellers based on her decade of research on shame and vulnerability. Yet her study came about unexpectedly. She had intended to study personal connection, but when she asked people about it they kept sharing about heartbreak and exclusion.
After six weeks of this, she decided to follow this common thread in people's stories. She wanted to decipher what it was that seemed to undermine relationships again and again in people's lives, and discovered it was shame -- a fear of being unworthy of connection.
So she spent the following decade trying to define and find the solution for shame.
She found that shame prevents people from being vulnerable with others, because we don't wish to be fully exposed as we are. However prudent vulnerability is necessary to connect with others.
Those who suffered least from shame were those who believed deeply in their worthiness to connect with others -- their lovableness. Because of this, they had the courage to be exposed as imperfect and had compassion, first for themselves and then likewise for others. They accepted emotional risk and vulnerability as necessary to connect with others.
There's more Brown concluded from her research, but you can pursue her words yourself if interested (www.brenebrown.com). Instead let us consider a comment left under an online video of a 2010 TEDxHouston talk of hers, "The power of vulnerability" (http://goo.gl/opQRQ).
"The problem with believing that one is unconditionally worthy of connection is the fact that people seem to like you and connect with you based on many conditions…," wrote sn3192 on Wednesday. "Believing that you're worthy of connection for simply breathing oxygen may be wonderful, but delusional."
That question returns to the uncomfortable root of the problem I think. Where does our worth and lovableness lie? If who we are is defined by what we think, say and do, then how can we be lovely despite the ugliness in some of that?
After all, shame is comfortable with partial exposure. It is only unpleasing parts of ourselves that it wishes to conceal. Yet such "invulnerability" is enough to unravel love, because it prevents us from being wholehearted with others.
Christians, I think, have an answer to this puzzle. We humans are lovable because God first loved us and loves us still. Even if we were the worst of terrorists, God would love us no less. We could be the greatest in every possible way, and God would love us no more than now. Because God loves us utterly and completely in any case.
We have worth not because we breathe oxygen, but because we humans were made in the "image" of God.
Like God, we have a higher understanding and a free will. This freedom that can unnerve us with fear of potential rejection by others is the same freedom that God reverences and respects in us. God loves us wholeheartedly while knowing we can reject him.
So what now?
"A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)
Spring lambs graze and nurse with their mothers on the farm of the columnist's father a little beyond the city of Madera. (Photo by John Rieping)
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 20 April 2013 in The Madera Tribune
On several mornings of this ongoing Easter season I've had the joy of watching 16 little lambs, all born on various days since Good Friday. Fragile, hungry, occasionally bouncy, precocious, close to family yet daring, and more, they seem apt symbols of life.
Though my fleece is not white as snow, I can readily identify with them. But unlike me, they are new and fresh in this world, like innocents.
My father is their shepherd, I suppose, although "farmer" is a more accurate title. He checks on them several times a day, and cares for their wellbeing and that of the flock. He saved the lives of several lambs that needed help during or after birth. One less well-timed arrival suffocated before he could tend to it.
On Sunday I heard someone preach that the depiction of God in Jewish scriptures seemed angry and punishing, but Jesus came and straightened people out, letting them know his Father in heaven was, instead, loving and compassionate. Recent and past conversations with others on Facebook have hinted of the same view.
Yet in solitude I read in Jewish scripture: "Behold the Lord God shall come with strength, and his arm shall rule: behold his reward is with him and his work is before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather together the lambs with his arm, and hold them close to his heart, and he himself shall carry them that are with young." (Isaiah 40:10-11; cf. Tehillim/Psalm 95:7; 100:3)
I wonder if perhaps we wrongly see power as contrary to gentleness, and justice as an enemy of mercy? In my own earthly father's work and judgments regarding his flock, I see no such contradiction.
I remember in years past when packs of household dogs -- allowed to roam freely by irresponsible owners -- attacked my father's flock. This happened more than once, and my dad grieved. He would keep an eye out after such bloody incidents and try to fend them off with rifle shot.
One time it was one of my dad's mules that protected the sheep. It used its powerful legs to stop the nearest dog, and whenever it tried to move afterwards the mule would stomp it again for good measure. The pack fled.
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep. But the hireling… whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming… and flees; and the wolf catches and scatters the sheep. The hireling flies, because he… cares not for the sheep. (Cf. John 10:11-13)
When I walk along the fence of my father's pasture, the sheep often run away from me. Not so much with my dad. Nor does his talking disturb them, for they know his loud voice. If expecting to be fed, they even bleat hungrily or come running at the sound of him speaking.
"When he has let out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. But a stranger they follow not, but fly from him, because they know not the voice of strangers… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep, and mine know me… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (Cf. John 10:4-5, 14, 27)
My dad has raised goats too in the past, but didn't care for them. For fun, they would climb, eat and damage most anything in reach, such as fences that kept them safe, a metal shelter he had built for their comfort, and a mature shade tree. During escapes, they stunted or killed thriving bushes to fill their stomachs. Though small, they left desolation and brokenness where they wandered. It is no surprise Jesus said that humanity would be separated into two groups, sheep and goats, at the end of human history (Matthew 25:31-46).
For Christians, the time of Easter celebrates God's care for we his sheep, though often enough we may fit into the goat category. Unlike the unleashed pet dogs who invaded my dad's fields to feast on his sheep, God became man for an entirely different reason: "I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly." (Cf. John 10:10)
Let us strive to behave more like sheep than goats that we "also may walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4) -- like my dad's lambs. Let us imitate the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29).
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 13 April 2013 in The Madera Tribune
After visiting the empty tomb, Simon "Kepha" (Aramaic for "rock" or Peter) Bar-Jonah and fellow disciple Johanan (John) returned to the upper room. Mirriam (Mary) of Magdala did not immediately follow, but when she did so she claimed to have seen Yeshua (Jesus) alive.
Hearing such news, Kepha went again to the burial place. He came back to the upper room similarly overwhelmed with joy and reported that he too had seen the rabbi among the living (Cf. Luke 24:34).
At this, the other 11 disciples made visits of their own to the garden of the tomb but saw nothing of their teacher. This especially upset Tomas (Thomas), who retreated from the others to sort matters out for himself. He would find lodgings of his own that night.
In the evening, Cleophas (Cleopas) and his companion unexpectedly returned and claimed to have met Yeshua walking along the road, though they did not recognize him.
The rabbi had joined them as they journeyed slowly toward the village of Emmaus. He set their hearts aflame with his explanation of how the suffering and death of the messiah fulfilled the promises of scripture. Late in the afternoon, they stopped to eat, and when the rabbi blessed and broke the bread they finally knew his identity. At this, he vanished. So they rushed to Jerusalem to tell the others.
Competing voices filled the room with stories, questions and opinions on all that had been shared. Yet a familiar voice cut softly through the clamor with a traditional Jewish greeting: "Shalom aleikhem" ("peace be with you," cf. Luke 24:36; John 20:19; Bereishit/Genesis 43:23).
All were startled to hear the voice of the man who only days before had been crucified. Though grown men, many became pale and trembled with fear. The door had been locked after all, and tales of ghosts were not unknown.
Displaying the nail wounds in his hands and feet, Yeshua said, "Why are you troubled? And why do such thoughts arise in your hearts? See by my hands and my feet that it is I myself; touch me, and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see me to have." (Cf. Luke 24:38-39)
Dazed smiles spread across the room like uncertain flames. So the rabbi asked, "Have you anything to eat?" One of the disciples offered him a bit of baked fish, leftovers from their recent meal, which he ate with appreciation as they stared. Fish was a pricey treat this far inland.
Truly he had risen from the dead, they realized.
"Peace be with you," he said again. "As my Father has sent me, I also send you." (John 20:21) He breathed on each of the 10 men present, a symbolic gesture that played upon the words that followed: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." (John 20:22-23)
The Hebrew word used for "spirit" ("ruach") can also mean "breath" or "wind." That same "ruach" swept over the waters on the first day of creation (Bereishit/Genesis 1:2), according to scripture, and it came upon King David (1 Sefer Shmuel/Samuel 16:13) and others. Now, Yeshua claimed, it came upon those who would eventually be called "apostolos" (Greek for one sent out "from the fleet").
The rabbi scolded them for their skepticism about his resurrection and helped them to understand the scriptures that had been fulfilled.
"Thus it is written," Yeshua continued, "and thus it was the responsibility of the messiah to suffer, and to rise again from the dead on the third day, and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, should be preached in his name, unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." (Cf. Luke 24:46-48)
So he spoke, as he consoled and prepared them for their mission, and it would not be their last hours together. He would appear repeatedly to them and others within the next 40 days.
During a later visit, Yeshua asked Kepha three times if he loved him, which distressed Kepha. Yet Kepha affirmed his love again and again, a love he had thrice denied on Good Friday. Each time, the rabbi told him to care for and feed his flock. (John 21:15-19)
This Kepha did, until -- after a time ministering to the Christians of Rome -- he too died by crucifixion.
May we Christians today be filled with such love. Peace be with you.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 6 April 2013 in The Madera Tribune
In the dream, Simon "Kepha" (Aramaic for "rock" or Peter) Bar-Jonah reclined on cushions around a low table with his rabbi, Yeshua (Jesus), and the other disciples during the Passover Seder meal. Yeshua promised he and the other disciples would be enthroned as judges of the 12 tribes of Israel.
But confusion replaced Kepha's pride as the teacher continued. "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and when you are converted, strengthen your brethren." (cf. Luke 22:31-32)
He protested his loyalty, and Yeshua replied that Kepha would deny him three times before the rooster crowed. Then Kepha remembered it had been so.
A tremor of the earth shook him in his dream and it faded. He would have rather it continued, regardless of the pain it evoked. For in it the rabbi lived.
He shifted his position on the straw-filled mattress he shared with the rest of the disciples on the floor of the upper room, the same place where the Seder had taken place. While entire families would sleep on the same mattress under blankets of goat hair, few consisted of 11 grown men. Yet they made do. They had known worse conditions during their three years of wandering and ministry across the Roman province of Judea.
Gathering all of them before the sabbath was both hindered and helped by the turmoil of Friday's events. Some had returned here on their own. The rest had to be found and brought. Kepha tried to live up to the name Yeshua had given him despite his weakness and guilt.
Other followers visited of course, such as Yohannah (Joanna), Mirriam (Mary) of Magdala, and Mirriam, the mother of the disciple Ya'aqov (James) the younger. They fed them news and refreshment while the men remained hidden from the authorities.
His mind recalled a time when Yeshua spoke to them, away from the crowds, of going to Jerusalem to suffer, die and be raised. Clearly by "raised" he must have meant the way he would be executed -- high upon a cross. But at the time it made no sense to him. Only now he understood.
Kepha took Yeshua aside and sharply said, "Be it far from you, rabbi! This shall not happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22)
Yeshua turned and said, "Get you behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me: for you savor not the things that are of God, but those that are of men." (Matthew 16:23)
Kepha thought: Is this what God wanted then? The death of the one who was to liberate us from our bondage? How could such an utter defeat bring about victory? If this is how God defines success, what is failure in his eyes? Tears rolled down his cheeks.
Insistent knocking at the locked door interrupted his thoughts. Perhaps it was Cleophas (Cleopas) and his companion returning for something forgotten when they left earlier. With the passing of the Sabbath, they wished to return to the village of Emmaus. Indeed, Kepha himself longed for his nets, boat, and the fickle Sea of Galilee, which he considered less treacherous than Jerusalem.
Kepha rose, as did Johanan, but it was Mirriam of Magdala they met at the door, breathless and pale. After a moment, she gasped, "They have taken away the rabbi out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him." (John 20:2)
She, Shelomit (Salome), and the mother of Ya'aqov had gone before sunrise to anoint the body of Yeshua with oil and spices. But when they arrived at the tomb, the large stone over its entrance had been rolled back, the Roman guards lay stricken with fear, the burial shelf stood empty, and a young man spoke nonsense that affirmed the absence of the rabbi.
At this news, Kepha and Johanan abandoned any concern for secrecy and ran. Mirriam followed. Through the busy streets of Jerusalem and beyond it, they raced to the garden near the house of the honorable Yosef (Joseph) of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret disciple of Yeshua.
Johanan, a young man, arrived first but waited for the others outside the garden's new tomb, which was as Mirriam said. When Kepha came he did not hesitate. Entering the tomb, he saw the burial linens there -- empty. The cloth that had bound Yeshua's head sat rolled up by itself. Anger gripped Kepha's heart, for the rabbi's body had obviously been stolen.
Having waited patiently, Johanan stepped into the tomb as well, and when he saw how the shroud had been neatly arranged, he believed. He did not understand, but this was no robbery. It was a miracle. Yeshua lived.