Out of Many, One

No matter where I’ve traveled for mission work, the common denominator was often this:  rarely are problems resolved and truth revealed.  People agree to disagree or worse yet, sit on resentment and anger which, from time to time, finds its way to the surface and disrupts the equilibrium of a people.  Even worse, when it comes in contact with people who try to profit from the pain of others.  The most stricken, a conflicted Pilate in the Gospel of John after getting nowhere with the Word, uttering, “What is truth?” as voices of mobs stand on one side and the politically charged religious figures on the other demanding to get rid of the “problem”.  Even then, a resistance to truth and reality as it was and a settling for illusions, seeing things as they wish not as they are.

America is no different.  I’m not convinced we’re capable of really digging deep to get to the heart of our pain and hurt as a people.  It’s much more natural and ordinary to inflict it upon others.  We see it in our streets on a daily basis, in constant unrest, and of course, yesterday as, We the People, stormed the Capitol of the country.  We have no need for truth and the pain which comes with reality and when we don’t, we destroy anyone and anything in our path.

As I listened to the story unfold as I was driving from Baltimore, I didn’t know if I should be sad or angry or I suppose, both.  I was surprised and yet not at all.  It was coming and the pressure mounting as resentment and vengeance make their way to the surface and spill out into the population.  I couldn’t see anything as I drove; I just simply listened and wanted to weep for a weakened humanity.

When I began to see the images of men and women climbing the walls of the Capitol, both exteriorly and interiorly, all I could see were people clinging for their lives as if on the Titanic, still believing they will be rescued, that their savior would be there to pull them up.  I wondered why they were clinging so tightly, other than, one slip could mean the ending of their lives, falling to their fate with no one there to save.  I was left wondering, “Did they think this act would be martyrdom?”  “Did they believe they can save us from ourselves?”  “Did they really believe this would accomplish something?”  I’ll never know and the questions will fall into the category of unanswered which has only grown more at length the past several years.  In the end it looked more like entitlement and a last gasp of a people who feel powerless.

What we often miss, as people, is how much we’re willing to surrender our power to others.  It’s certainly easier to blame others when life doesn’t work out the way we want it to or give us permission to “grab” for power in any way we can.  No matter who sits in the Oval Office, stands in the halls of Congress, or on the cathedra of a cathedral, we are given a deep sense of power and we either choose to embrace it and use it for the common good and the good of the world or we forfeit it to people we believe have an authority beyond us.  They can tell us what to do and who to demonize.  They can tell us the choices we make so we can sleep better at night.  Little by little, though, we know ourselves less and less, resentment grows downward, hardening hearts, as what we thought our lives to be begin to become unrecognizable.

It’s not “their” fault, unfortunately.  It’s yours.

I’m so reminded of Thoreau’s quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  It’s what I see when I flip through images of men and women scurrying through the rotunda of the Capitol, desperate to cling to something.  I see a people who believe they are unleashing their freedom and power, when in reality, are revealing to the onlookers, their own powerlessness, castrated from their own being.  They go, grabbing whatever they could, smashing antiquity, and terrorizing those who believe have stolen their power.

It’s not their fault, alone, unfortunately.  It’s yours.

When we have to prove our power, show our strength, and destroy, we are still boys trapped in the body of men, surrendering our power to an authority who is just as impotent of power.  The only answer we can come up with, we need to rid ourselves of the “problem” while righteously wringing our bloody hands of having nothing to do with it.

So why can’t we, as Mitt Romney pointed out last night, tell the truth.  Better yet, why do we refuse to hear the truth?  There will always be “men”, and I use it loosely, who take advantage of the pain of others for their own aggrandizement.  They can spot pain miles away and attack like a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth and ready to pounce.  For them, they thrive in division while raising themselves up as saviors, chosen by the divine and speaking with such certainty.  Yet, with any sense of awareness and consciousness, can be seen for what it really is, shallowness and a hollowed-out soul.

We stand now at a precipice, an inflection, a threshold between one and the other.  We are, in some sense, Pilate ourselves, as noise tries to consume us from all corners.  The price, our own humanity and the integrity of our souls, mine and yours.  It has nothing to do with policy or culture wars.  It has everything to do with our humanity and its current weakened state in the face of such predators.

We may be just as conflicted as Pilate asking what is truth or one caught up in the drama of mobs and self-righteousness.  Who do we believe?  What is truth?  Why am I clinging so tightly?  Who can I blame?  Who am I, once again, going to surrender my power to rather than embracing it for the good?

It is, after all, the story of We the People, all of us.  We need redemption and salvation but the path and journey towards it is a downward one, to the depths of our own pain and hurt.  We the People have found ourselves violated and traumatized as we have at so many other points in our short history.  It is, though, the path of truth and what is real.  An avoidance and denial of pain only extends the drama all the more.  The path of truth and the real, in order to be freed from the bowels of hell, is downward in order to be raised up.  If it was good enough for Jesus, why not us?  Why on earth would we believe we’re above such a journey?

Without it we will remain powerless at our own accord.  There is great power in uncertainty and the unknown.  It’s where we find truth and what is real.  It is where we find the power we seek to grab as we cling to the walls of a failed belief.

It’s not their fault, alone, unfortunately.  It’s yours.

Now, what are YOU going to do to change?

When you take responsibility for that question, you no longer need to blame and the movement towards One is possible. 

There is our hope.

Beginning’s End

It began with an ending.

But I guess, as with many things in life, it’s true to form.

When one door closes, another opens.

And with it, maybe even more in 2020, with a twinge of sadness as I believe accompanies most New Year’s Eve’s.

As we rolled into the roaring 20’s, none of us, myself included, ever could have imagined what was going to unfold.  There may be some irony in the fact that I began the year sick, with something not called the flu but respiratory, feeling like I couldn’t breathe.  I suppose, a premonition of what was to come for me and millions of others as the year would progress.

The feeling of being unable to breathe, though, goes beyond a respiratory or asthmatic issue.  It’s a true sign of feeling overwhelmed by life.  I simply remember the early days of the pandemic, with the level of uncertainty and unknowns associated, the anxiety at times was feverish, wondering whether I had caught this mysterious virus.  Yet, still not enough.  There’s more to it for me.

So, it began with an ending, peppered with some sadness.  It would begin with a closure to my time at Bethlehem Farm and the eventual, and what seemed like, imminent, search for what was next in life would begin to unfold.  In many ways, looking back, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise.  It forced the world to stop and gave me some time to catch my breath while recognizing I was beginning at ground zero.

I have often returned to the scene from The Shawshank Redemption when Brook’s is released from prison after decades of living his own “quarantine”.  The world had changed so much during that time he didn’t know how to function.  He felt like the fish out of water.  In some ways, my time at the farm gave me an incubation and transitional time to gain some confidence after feeling as if I fell flat on my face and to begin to prepare for this journey ahead.

After sixteen years as a preacher, and a pretty good one at that, it felt as if my words of transformation, community, oneness, and so many others were finally catching up with me.  Better yet, I was catching up with my own heart.

If I’m grateful for another experience this year, it’s the young people who have given me tools to move beyond the “fish out of water”.  Many have become friends in the process and colleagues in various ways.  As someone who spent more than a decade teaching them, it was my time to rely on them in trying to make sense of technology, networking, lingo, alignment, and so many other experiences which gradually became a part of the norm for me.

It doesn’t mean any of it came easily, like most things in life.  If you truly want something, you’re going to have to work for it and will most likely come with pain and obstacles along the way.

I was putting a consistent pressure upon myself to get a job and quickly.  Needless to say, with a pandemic, a wrench was thrown into the process beyond my control.  Every time I’d hear from the church, it was as if a flare was being shot, even after the fact at times.  It wasn’t easy and led me to speak to a psychologist along the way as well as begin with a coach who understood and understands me.

If I look back, I begin to realize we have very little experience when it comes to discernment and knowing the landscape of the heart, even by an institution which claims to have a leg up in the “business”.  Like most corporations, it’s about numbers, maintaining the masses, and very little to do with understanding the radicalness of listening to one’s heart and truly discerning one’s truest path in life.  If I were going to do anything for myself, it was to find people who understand this and enter into alignment with them.

I’m grateful for the handful of people who do.  I’m grateful for my friends who do.  I’m grateful for my family who have been more than patient with me and given me plenty of opportunities in some challenging days.

I am truly of the mindset that we mustn’t just toss aside 2020.  I give a mere snapshot of what has occurred in my life, but there is this experience of which we shared in our own ways.

As I was watching a recap of The Today Show this morning, I found myself somewhat emotional and an inching in of that sadness again.  It’s easy to forget what it was like in the early part of the year, and as they showed clips of them practically sitting on top of one another, riding rides at Universal Studios, and others, it was hard to ignore the laughter and joy of the moments, of what it was once like.  We all miss the moments, but there will come a time again when we can once again unite without worry.

Here we are now, standing on the threshold of endings and beginnings, closings and openings. 

Myself included, in more ways than the ending and beginning of a year.

Thresholds are the most important of times.  They are our liminal space of in between.

If I have learned anything or become humbled by experience, it’s the necessity of dealing with the pain and obstacles.  If this is the way 2020 was viewed, then deal with it and walk straight into the pain associated with it.  It’s not all bad, no matter who you are or what you have experienced.

Gratitude is key.

Interior space is key.

It becomes nearly impossible to face uncertainty and the unknown without the due space within ourselves.  If I continue to feel overwhelmed, confined, or drowning by reality, it’s unrealistic to step into the possibility of another year with a fresh set of eyes.

It doesn’t take away the sadness associated with the journey.  We are, after all, still human and live through experiences in our own way.

However, stepping into an unknown new can be both frightening and exciting at the same time.

I find myself there as I stand here on this threshold myself.

It’s been quite a ride, recognizing life isn’t defined by a job or career. 

As a matter of fact, there is simply life and what you choose to do with it is what will empower.

I had to move beyond a small world thinking.  Better yet, I had to walk through the small world thinking before I could move to the space to see myself as a life, not a job, career, or anything else.

It’s my life and how I choose to live it which will define me in the year ahead.

I’m convinced we do life wrong all too often.  It leads to overdosing, depression, suicide, midlife crises, and many health issues.

We live to survive rather than to live.  We live to get, giving up dreams and possibility.

I’m too old.  I don’t have the experience.  It’s not what others want for me.  Etc., etc., etc.

My goal for 2021 and stepping into the new year is quite simple. 

As I continue to be birthed into my truest self, my goal is to help people give birth to themselves.  Work through the pain, remove the obstructions while expanding the walls, and holding possibility in your arms like a newborn babe.

The question is asked, “How can a person once grown old be born again?”

With a simple change of mindset from impossible to possible, anything can happen.

We have lived through a shared pain.  At times we have clung to the walls of our beliefs and thoughts as they dissipate around us.  Together, we are being given the opportunity to give birth to possibility.

Our future depends on it.  Our children’s future depends on it.

Even as we bid adieu to 2020, there is a great deal to learn from the experience.

It’s our choice whether we choose to learn.

Of course, there’s sadness.  There always is.

But there’s a hell of a lot to be grateful for as well.

Therein lies the possibility for 2021.

Happy New Year!

Our Gift to the World

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – –Howard Thurman

I have always found a hint of sadness when it comes to Christmas.  Even sitting here writing this blog, I can feel it within me, as if it exposes a longing yet fulfilled.  I don’t know if anyone else experiences it, but I have found it nearly most years.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s great being around the kids on Christmas and the days leading up to it.  There is an excitement quite easy to tap into.  It’s contagious! 

There is, though, this sadness which accompanies such wonder and awe. 

There is a sense of profound connection and yet separation, all at the same time.   

There is a sense of anticipation and yet fear, seemingly bound together in a moment of time.

I don’t think we’ve experienced it quite like we have in 2020.  It’s hard to avoid the complexity of a human life as we continue the unanticipated drama of a global pandemic, touching all corners of the earth.  After a time of full gestation, it finally made it to Antarctica this week; one more notch in the belt for a rather unpredictable year.

However, maybe it’s a good reminder to us all we cannot outrun hurt and struggle.  Many believe themselves to be invincible and above the absurdity of a sickened human family, creating alternate realities for themselves in order to avoid pain.  How do you convince someone they need a doctor when they don’t even want to believe they are sick?  It’s not an easy undertaking.  Yet, it’s the reality in which we have dealt ourselves and one in need of transformation and redemption, even if it believes and doubts otherwise.

I believe, now more than ever, we “need a little Christmas; right this very minute”.  Christianity has all but put all of its eggs in its Easter basket.  One day we may find ourselves grateful Easter was essentially “cancelled” earlier this year and now we stand on the threshold of an incarnational moment, even given a clear reminder of the first through the alignment of the heavens this week leading up to Christmas as planets waltzed together in the darkened, night skies.

Isn’t it, after all, an incarnational moment we need more than anything?  The drama and saga of Easter is a natural conclusion to a story which begins with greater scandal, a God becoming flesh, acknowledging our value and worth.  Christianity has allowed itself to become overly dogmatic and corporate to the point it feels as if it’s been cut off from the body, from the very people which encompasses it.  It’s become “cut off” from its own incarnational moment of a God becoming flesh.  In other words, the head has decapitated itself from the body.

Some would argue, it always has been. 

It alone feeds the sadness and longing of a people, like shepherds who “quake at the sight”, for a God who’s “law is love and His Gospel is Peace”.  As much as there may be a place for dogma, theory, and creed, it can become a “stumbling stone” to an encounter and mystical moment with the God enfleshed.  It feeds the head, not a body of people who are hurting, a pandemic of anxiety constantly breathing down the neck as if the world sits atop us. 

God speaks.  Dwells among us.  We choose to reject it, and often in the name of religion.

My guess is God always is saddened by the events of our time.  No, not simply a pandemic plaguing the people, but the injustice, poverty, abuse of power, war and violence enfleshed more than love and peace.  Christmas, in all its wonder, manages to put all of it into perspective and pull us to the center of our humanity.  It is, undoubtably, our humanity we most wrestle with in this world.  It’s not only the humanity of the other; it’s our own we wrestle with and try to make sense of on a daily basis. 

It is, in most humble of fashion, all we really have.

This God who becomes flesh continues to desire to be embodied in and through us.  It is, the divine, our true self, soul, the Christ, no matter how you define it, a God who desires us to become fully human and recognize it is as lifelong journey.  This birthing and becoming is not a nine-month gestation, but one spanning from our first breath to our own natural conclusion.  We fight it, resist it, but ultimately, we’re invited to fall into it and embrace it for what it is, in all its wonder and sadness, fear and love, connection and separation.  It’s who we are in our fullness and when you “fall, on your knees” in humility, you once again unite the heavens and earth and Christmas becomes the present moment, once again incarnated in the world.

When we finally become grounded in our own humanity, so much more takes care of itself.  It allows us to see the value in all of humanity and no longer a held belief to “decrease the surplus population”, disposing of anyone who doesn’t contribute or produce in an economic way.  We begin to recognize the poverty of our own lives and the need for very little, an intentionality which leads to life and the fullness of this life.  Christmas didn’t just happen; it happens.  Some two centuries later, the courageous one who steps fully into their humanity continues to cause scandal, not conforming to the ways of the world, but rather, come into their own.

There truly is a sadness, mixed in with the wonder and awe of the moment.  It’s a sadness when we face reality as it is, a world easily distracted from the real, caught up in the head, cut off from the body, a world in need of hope. 

No, not a sense of optimism, but hope, coursing through the veins of our humanity, reminding us of what matters most.  As long as we find ourselves breathing, in a time when it can be quite difficult for many, we are being birthed and becoming the longing which pulls us into Christmas.

It’s not only about a child, but rather you and me.  The child simply points the way to what can be if we surrender ourselves to a life well lived and to love being born, when the “soul felt its worth” and a “weary world rejoices”!

Merry Christmas!

Your Last Hope

“You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

“Of course, we’re fickle stupid beings, with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although, who knows? Maybe this time, we’ll learn.”

                                                                                                     —The Hunger Games

If you look at these two photos, it would appear not much has changed in four years.  Sure, different people in each, but both with a look of despair and loss.  It looks as if their whole lives hinged on an election, someone who would save them from the other, or better yet, save them from themselves.

Mirror Images 2020—2016

Yet, despite different people on opposite sides of their religion’s spectrum, both end in this sense of despair and defeat, as if their own savior had been crucified.  Chants of “crucify her, crucify her!” followed the same, “crucify him, crucify him!”

If history teaches anything, though, crucifying is rarely the answer.  Even what we have hated the most finds a way to resurrect, the very thing which was a threat to our own power and belief system, finds a way to manifest itself over and over again.  “Maybe this time, we’ll learn.”

Probably not.  We rarely do.

You know why?  We’ve come to believe that the people in the two photos are different from one another.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be conditioned to believing they’re the “enemy” needing to be destroyed.  “They” are the obstruction to a vision, whether real or not, that we hold so tightly to of who we’re supposed to be and we fail to see our mutual despair, hurt, and pain. 

We inevitably become what we hate.  The cycle continues.

What I am most grateful for is travel.  The opportunity to travel to varying parts of the world, especially some of the poorest of the poor, have opened my eyes to another world.  There’s a stark difference, though, when you travel to such places. 

Despite the circumstances which we’d deem less than human, there is very little despair.  In the simplest of people and “you don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope”.

Here, though, pain and suffering continue to be passed from one generation to the next.  Despair tossed like a hot potato and whoever comes up short carries the burden for their time before the game once again begins.

The ball only seems to get heavier with time, piling on lost dreams, visions of a country which never were, resentments, failed expectations, grievances which may be grounded in reality or not, mistrust, the aged story of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s carries on, like two families who only know each other through their judgment, fear, and the unknown.

Better yet, what they’ve been told and taught about the other.  Often coming through voices manipulating our pain for their own personal gain.

There comes a time, though, when we must reckon with ourselves.  In a nation priding itself on possibility, despair mustn’t be a reality.

Reality is all we have but we prefer the illusions and even delusions, at times, rather than dealing with this pain and suffering which continues to drive our decisions.  When we fail to deal with the pain, we inevitably transmit it onto the other, the perceived enemy.

We blame.  We allow ourselves to be victims.  We abort our own lives.

We get caught up in a hope rooted in a past or a hope rooted solely in the future all to avoid the pain of today, the pain of this moment in time.

There should be no surprise, when we view this reality through the human condition, as to why one is elected and not the other, one accepted while the other rejected.  It’s merely the passing of the ball, the burden, onto the other.

We find ourselves at a time in which pausing and reflecting are a necessary pursuit.  If you were the one four years ago or feeling the sting right now, we need to ask ourselves, “Why?”

Why is there so much despair?

Why do we cling so tightly and to what?

What is it we believe we need to be saved from?

Who are you, and even more so, who am I through you?

The voices of crucifixion are intentional.  They’re placed there by those craving power.  It is the timeless voice which works the best to divide the people, to shame people, and yet a people who have more in common than not.

Your religion, a hard pill to swallow, has failed you, over and over again.

The path forward is an interior one.  The superficialities of issues and culture wars only cause war with ourselves out of threat of a future damnation.  The path is one of dialogue, especially with the unknown.

The path to healing and wholeness will always take you where you most fear to go, the hell of your own pain and suffering.

For many, you’re already there.  It feels like despair.

Your choice?

What you decide to do with it.

Transmit or transform.

“Maybe this time we’ll learn.”

Education’s Future, Now

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For many of us, March 13th is a day that will live in infamy.  It’s a day when life jolted us, at least on the East Coast, awakening us to a new way of life, a life now immersed in a pandemic.

Shortly after, and moving back home as I job searched myself, I started connecting with both college students and recent graduates, including many who found themselves graduating now as their college experience was cut short along with a tanking job market.

I was not only listening to their experience, but also reflecting upon just how much it hasn’t changed since I graduated from Bloomsburg University 26 years ago.  Despite the advancement of technology, dwindling computer labs, and vast growth, the experience had not changed much at all.

This, more than anything, kept me researching for answers as to how this can be.  The brilliance of marketing allows anyone to rebrand something outdated, even if, in many ways, it’s exhausted its value.  The first real change was seeing The University of Notre Dame beginning classes in early August and finishing at Thanksgiving.  All of us who have lived through the “college experience” could appreciate the genius of ending then rather than returning for the rat race which follows!

Don’t get me wrong.  There are aspects of college I wouldn’t change.  I’m still a believer there is great value in young men and women having the opportunity to move away for the first time, into a new environment, which still allows room for mistakes and ill-advised choices.  It’s how many learn, for the first time, how to navigate adult life.  It could, though, be more.

Nearly thirty years later, though, it seems as if we still refuse to ask what students need.  It seems as if we still choose not to listen to the actual people we are serving, young men and women embarking on a lifelong journey, and give them what we had.  I heard many say they need to know how to network, learn about themselves (EI), how to navigate relationships, etc.

It often appears we fail to see the continuum of education and the development of young people.  It often appears as a “stop and start” and this reality being the only continuum of the process, rather than seeing one as building on the other.

One person in which I’ve had conversations had commented about general education classes we all took in college.  Most of us are left wondering are left wondering the same question.  He simply asked the question regarding the observation, “Why can’t high school be general education?”  I didn’t have an answer other than, you’re right.  Why not?  It generally is anyway.  However, we lack the cohesiveness when it comes to our thinking of education and development.  What’s needed is an integrative approach. 

It’s also not to say all gen eds are bad.  There is room for them if they’re teaching necessary life skills.  I wouldn’t have said it at the time, but I do believe there is a place for philosophy and learning the art of critical, deep thinking.

There is also the issue, and discouragement, of gap years.  It seems, for us adults, there is a rush to get young men and women somewhere, to the next step in life.  I have known many who just didn’t know what they wanted to do with themselves and yet felt continuous pressure to advance to college or work life immediately after completing one step.  Is there a way to modify the “first year” experience which encompasses both aspects, the freedom to explore while learning life skills?

This may not be entirely bad, quite frankly, if young men and women were given proper tools to truly self-reflect and become more conscious of the lifelong choices they are making, there is a greater chance of success and not merely surviving.  Over the years I have listened to countless young people, now professionals, who were going into a particular field for no reason at all other than this is what was expected of them.

Whether we care to admit it or not, we adults don’t always know what young men and women need.  We give them what we think they need or want, colleges and universities then find themselves catering to the parents of young men and women, and we consistently leave out of the conversation the one who were serving, as if they don’t exist and as if their voice doesn’t matter.  It’s not to say they always know what they need, but when we listen, we can begin to discover the deeper longings.

The current model will consistently leave us with generations who rely on others to tell them what they want and need, lacking the skills to think critically and self-reflect.  It leaves us with large portions of a population depressed, feeling disconnected and lonely, and outright miserable, feeling the pressure to continue to chase the American dream, a dream which isn’t there’s in the first place all while feeling like they don’t belong.

I may have been most troubled after speaking to a young man who just graduated two months ago from my alma mater.  I simply asked, as I asked most of them, “So what’s next?”  He simply said, “I don’t care.  I’ll worry about that then.”  Here he was on the brink of a college degree, graduating, and still hasn’t taken any time, as he told me, to really consider what he wanted to do with his life or what life was asking of him.  All I can think of is how we failed this young man in some way.  It’s ok to not know what you want to do, but when self-awareness is lacking, the step forward can seem insurmountable.  It would appear the university doesn’t care much either.  It appears it’s not about what’s best for the student at all.  Are we listening to the people we are to serve?  Once he’s gone it’s someone else’s problem.

Even for someone who has studied theology, the gap between the intellectual side of a study and its practical application is baffling.  I’ll be the first to admit, I loved the theology and the intellectual formation.  However, there was not even a desire to close the gap.  Many of whom I spoke with the past months speak of the same reality in their given fields and as newly minted young professionals.

I can only speak of my own experience when I say this, but it’s often because of the lack of practical experience the “experts”, “specialists”, and professors have in the given field.  I’ve been there.  The theoretical side of education was one thing but stepping into a classroom of human beings is another.  It’s not to say the gap won’t exist.  It will and needs to for growth.  It is, though, a disregard for the gap and pain point, in our fields of study.

It is also our attachment to binary thinking.  The classroom is one thing.  Your work is something different.  We see it happening now.  We either open or we stay closed.  Now I’m not purvey to internal conversations, but I would hope there are conversations happening as to how we grow and change this system to better serve in the 21st Century.  Is there a question beyond open and close?  How about, how do we do this differently?  We’re being given a golden opportunity to change antiquated systems which no longer serve nor listen to whom they serve.  How about, “What do the people we’re serving need?”

It seems to me, listening is key, along with the ability to think critically.  It would appear the only one being listened to often is the dollar.  It seems to drive most today, but money isn’t going to tell us the real needs of who we’re serving.  Institutions tend to get it backwards, money driving mission rather than the mission driving the money.

How do we do that?  Well, we start by listening to people, to the one’s we’re serving.  The fact the system has not changed dramatically in the past thirty years is still hard to imagine.  The one place where we’d expect creativity and innovation seems to lack it.  This time should cause pause for any institution to ask, “What’s our purpose?”  “Have we moved away from our mission?”  “Are we really listening to the people we serve?”  For in the end, it’s about service.

If the response is simply to return to what we know, I’d suggest you begin to look for a new avenue to learn and be trained.  Institutions need to do the hard work necessary today in order to remain relevant into the future.  It doesn’t mean the message or mission changes, but the means of getting there are beyond ready for change.  There are plenty of avenues popping up to fill these gaps and why?  Because of a refusal to change.  There are people who understand what the people they serve, need.

If education is to continue through the 21st Century, it’s time to listen, change, and over and over again, ask, are we meeting the needs of the young men and women we serve? It’s time to see it as the continuum it is, even beyond our college years.  It’s not hard unless we make it hard.  At this point, though, there’s no looking back but rather discovering a new path forward.

An American Lament

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Vincent Castiglia – “Lament”

When life began shuttering for all of us back in March, I found myself once again on the run and beginning to feel as if I couldn’t breathe.  If you read back to the blogs I posted back in March, the sense of darkness was surfacing, tossing and turning at night, overwhelmed by once again the feeling of drowning.  It was the sense of loss, feeling homeless, a looming pandemic, and admittedly, the humility it takes to move home, even if temporarily, after more than twenty years away.  I could literally feel it on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.

If you’re a regular reader, you know it’s nothing new for me, the sense of having my breath taken away.  One of the most pivotal moments in my life was nearly drowning while whitewater rafting on the Ohiopyle River in Western Pennsylvania.  It was not only the weight of a raft atop me, but the weight of the handful of men in the raft, and even the weight of a life flashing before my eyes, my life as it seemed to be coming to an abrupt end in a matter of seconds although feeling like minutes.  I couldn’t breathe.

If we can ever admit, or take the time to become aware, most of us at one time or another know that feeling of drowning or being unable to breathe.  We’ve witnessed the story of George Floyd this past week, a man pinned to the ground for what we now know to be nearly 9 minutes with a knee to his throat.  I’ll never admit to understanding I know what it feels like, but I do know the feeling of oppression and the weight of the world and all powers plopped down on top of me, unable to move, breathe, or even live life fully.  It’s the point which often goes unspoken, but believe it has more to do with the fact most don’t know their drowning because it’s often in their own grief.

It takes a great deal of humility to admit something is wrong and needing help, especially for men.  It’s not a surprise to anyone, men are more prone to suppress and repress how they feel and takes a lot of pushing before it begins to spill over.  We’re much better at taking it out on others than we are on allowing the pain to be transformed within us.  If we compound years of anger, hurt, and resentment, with now nearly three months of quarantine and lock-downs, it shouldn’t shock us when it begins to reach a boil and no one willing to turn back the heat.  It becomes, sadly, a political game with each of us as pawns, pushed to stand against so-called beliefs rather than with a hurting people.

We have before us many failing institutions.  It doesn’t mean their surmise; however, it does mean change is necessary, now more than ever.  We find ourselves surrounded by institutions which have become self-serving, which naturally take an oppressive approach because they become about power, and inevitably, an abuse of power.  We certainly see it in our political system, crumbling infrastructures, waffling cities, irrelevant religious institutions driven more by politics, money, and keeping the natives intact.  Is it any wonder we find ourselves now at a boiling point with the fear of only getting worse as this political season heats up?

I, of course, can only speak of my own experience.  There is even a part of me lamenting the rush of churches reopening.  As someone who’s been on the inside, there is great value and still have a resounding faith, but like most institutions, we refuse to look at the whole.  Now more than ever, churches need to move beyond the walls and out into the streets.  The thought of closing church into the confines of a wall gives the sense of suffocation, unable to breathe.  Over time we gradually are lulled into believing the world is bad, dark, evil, or any word you choose to describe.  However, it’s no different than an individual closing in on him or her-self. 

Over time, we become isolated, self-consumed, and breakdown communication.  It doesn’t mean we can’t function in the world; we still work, gather around people, and do what we need to do, but all in anticipation of locking ourselves back up again, feeling like we can once again breathe as we “leave” the world.  Before we quickly return to get our “fix” of comfort, we need to take a look at the world and what’s happening.  Again, I must say, I’m not against any of it; however, more needs to be expected of such an institution claiming transformation at its heart.  It’s also not simply my own faith background; it’s religion in America which fears the world and change and yet paradoxically choosing death over life by not changing systemically.

There is much to lament these days.  There are the countless people killed, hundreds of thousands dying of disease and viruses, at times looking like we don’t care, inequalities we prefer to make judgment of than deal with, failing institutions, increasing debt, anxiety through the roof, thousands upon thousands on prescription drugs for depression and other mental health issues, people yelling at one another unable to listen, pain boiling over, lack of care or concern for the other, selfishness, survival over living, transactional mindsets, empty words and speeches, generational trauma, and the list goes on an on.  Who are the people benefiting from this “normal”?  Is it “normal”?  Why is there a rush to return to “normal”?  Do you see why we shouldn’t rush to once again close off from the world?  It’s understandable why we make it “normal”; who wants to confront the pain of others when we can’t deal with our own!

When we break it down, we’ve lost our ability to dialogue as humans.  We’ve disconnected from our heart and try to understand through an ego which will always try to defend and protect.  Our greatest lament is the loss of our humanity in our institutions and beyond.  People are suffering on levels requiring self-aware leaders, free of the confines of institutional boundaries of cufflinks, dress and three-piece suits, a willingness, as Pope Francis says, “to smell like the sheep”.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed in the pain and suffering of the world, we find ourselves unable to breathe by our own hypocrisy as a fellow human on the journey.  I know; I’ve been there.  Even writing about it brings up the feeling within me, reminding me of a life once lived not my own.  We lament the institutional freedom for true freedom.

As Americans we must lament.  We must grieve in these days.  We must learn to let go of our expectations, dreams unlived, our resentments and anger.  We must go out among the ones we deemed “profane” and listen to their story as well.  It’s not only our story which we find crumbling; it’s everyone’s story.  We need to write a new story for future generations, weaving together the great parts of our tradition with their own vision for tomorrow.  It’s not going to be the same.  It can’t be the same.  It mustn’t be the same.  We need to lament, most of all, a return to “normal”.  If one does not benefit from a return, then none of us do.  We must understand the one who’s been pushed from the top, being held underwater.  They have a perspective and a voice which must be heard, whether we agree or not.  For lamenting is not about agreeing or disagreeing.  It’s about grieving a heart which has hurt, a heart which will continue to scream out from underneath the raft until it’s given its voice to speak.  As Americans, it’s time to lament…

Playground’s Parable

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Hazleton News 1 Parks have been closed throughout the pandemic but have been in disrepair long before

As a child, there’s nothing like time at the playground.  It’s a place for imagination to flow as you fly free on the swings, daringly climb to the top of the monkey bars, and see who can get the other to fall first on the teeter totter by abruptly jumping ship, followed up with belly laughs!  I still walk near that park practically daily and am simply mindful of the memories, laughs, and even tears from falling atop the bars only to climb back up, renewed and ready to go, a sense of resiliency learned at a young age.

In our day, parents never knew much of what we were doing on the playground, or so we thought.  We went unsupervised, not because we had bad parents, there just wasn’t a need for supervision.  It was ingrained in us, growing up in a small town, there was always someone watching, someone who would take care or relay the message if need be.  There was a lived reality and belief where we looked out for one another and we weren’t the center of the world; there were others sharing this space with us.  Of course, there are negative connotations as we can assess it from an adult perspective, as if someone was ready to pounce on us if there was an issue, but I suppose as a child it’s a healthy fear to have, always knowing there was a line not to cross.

At times it still feels like I live on this proverbial playground.  It appears, at times, like we’ve gone amuck and the adults have left us to ourselves, not even wanting to supervise, as if orphans in an unknown world.  Now, though, we don’t know where the lines are and no one seems to care whether we’re hurting ourselves or each other, it’s practically each man and woman for him or her-self.  It’s as we like to say, the “inmates are running the asylum.”  It’s no longer about flying free, without a care in the world, swinging back and forth, but rather pushing each other off, mid-air, to see who we can hurt the most.  It isn’t about the fun of climbing the bars, but rather stepping on one another to assume the place of power to lord it over others, all while the park begins to fade and turn into shambles, as if the memories of a war had faded but the scars remain and are always reminding us what we have lost without a sense of moving forward.

The silence, as you walk through, may be the one redeeming quality.  As the children in charge continue to fight with one another, competing, lording, and most especially, simply surviving, it’s in the silence where you begin to cry at the reality, letting go of a world which once was and yet with some fear of what unfolds before the eyes.  Is it me who’s crazy?  Why do I want to remain disengaged from it all?  Why don’t I see the point in what they’re fighting over and trying too hard to hold onto?  It seems rather pointless.  All this while the world around seemingly speeds up its deterioration.  Is it our own inability to accept reality?  Is it our desire to hold onto memories with the fear of losing all that mattered?  I don’t know.

It seems, the one place where as kids we were able to escape, the playground, has been all but shattered.  Rust covers the bars, swings empty, police tape closing it off as if criminal to play and imagine in a time when kids need it the most, overgrown grass, dilapidated basketball courts, often used as a roller-skating rink back in the day.  Now, the wonder seems all but lost.  There seems to be a lost sense of the other, the looking out for one another, while the world burns around us.  Will there ever be a day when we recognize the other as ourselves?  Will there ever be a day, again, when it’s not all about me, my wants, my rights, and to recognize we’re given one chance at this life and there’s more than just me, a day when we help the other climb rather than step on them to get ahead of them in order to get my way?

Everything and everyone has become so transactional.  If someone doesn’t support my view or vision, we toss them.  Heck, there’s always someone else out there who’s willing to sell their soul to get ahead!  Isn’t that the way it works if you want to play the game?  We’ve lost the sense of just playing the game to play with an addiction to winning.  We’ve sacrificed what’s good and right for a gold star and a win to try to feed my own emptiness, only leaving me more depleted.  Heck, we’ve even tried to soften the blow of a sliding board as we can somehow avoid getting hurt.  We’ll go to the furthest ends to avoid the pain of loss and hurt.  The irony and paradox, it only hurts more.

It’s good to imagine in the face of reality.  It’s good to imagine not what the playground used to be but what it can be.  Heck, just a little care and concern would go a long way, a recognition there are still children who need a place to play and use their own imaginations!  Like us, as kids, they too need a place to escape into the world of imagination and dreams, not the seemingly, and all-too-real games, of a pad or gaming device!  If anything, this deadens the imagination.  A place, rather, which is illumined in the evening, where we don’t have to fear our own darkness but even play with our shadows.  How about a place which screams with excitement for their arrival, de-stimulating their minds in order to explore the vastness of their own inner life?  Better yet, a place where they can run free, risk the sting of a bee, falling flat in the mud, and get back up, a true lesson in resiliency.  Resiliency will get them further in life than winning anyway.

We need, now more than ever, a world which dreams for tomorrow.  We’ve settled for rusty monkey bars, overgrown grass, buckled courts, all while being distracted by the supposed adults and elders of society bickering with one another, consumed in their own pain, and failing to see the helpless child, screaming out, just wanting to feel safe and secure to dream and imagine a life as doctor, pilot, president, firefighter, dancer, teacher, etc.  Who wants any of that when all you see being mirrored back is anger, resentment, and a lack of care and concern for your own well-being and caring more about themselves, some unwilling to let go of failed expectations.

I don’t know, maybe we’d all be a little better off if we spent time in a park, feeling free, giving perspective, and using our imaginations for a better world for our children and ourselves.  Don’t they deserve better than we’re offering, and for that matter, modeling?  There’s nothing like the sense of freedom and flying, swinging back and forth, wind in the hair, without a care in the world knowing, all will be well.  I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but we can offer so much more.  Simply stepping into the shoes of a child for a time will enliven the spirit, not to command them to be “mini-me’s” but to be who they are, children, and us, young at heart.

Masked Marvels

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I haven’t gotten used to it. I haven’t met anyone who has. It is somewhat of an obstruction like none other as we now find ourselves masked in public. I have struggled with why it seems so unusual, beyond the obvious reality of it being new for most of us. When I think of masked people, my mind, first and foremost, goes directly to superheroes, Marvel Comics, and even wrestling commercials which flash by while watching television. It is, more often than not, primarily men who are trying to hide something about their identity. The mask is a way of entering into character, releasing their invincibility against their human opponent, making them, in one sense, like “gods”.

There are many reasons why it feels uncomfortable to us but, quite pointedly, it has become a barrier to our own humanity. From the time we are kids we learn to react to the facial and body expression of other people, from parents, siblings, teachers, and the rest. We come to rely on others to express how we should feel or how to react in different situations based on the other person. We know when someone is happy, sad, excited, angry, and downright outraged and we react to their human expression. It becomes so habitual for most people we aren’t even aware it’s happening. When people are happy, we react by being happy for them. When people are angry, especially at us, we do what it takes to eliminate and diffuse the situation. As kids, it tends to be a great way because they haven’t quite fully grasped the wide array of feelings and emotions within us. Most have not been taught how to handle the feelings and emotions or at least their varying nuances.

However, as adults, things change. It wasn’t until I started going out wearing a mask to stores and such which something just didn’t seem right. A friend had pointed out to me, then, how the mask has taken away the facial expression to which we learn to react. Quite frankly, sometimes this is a good thing, especially when you find yourself around grumpy people in stores! However, I couldn’t help but notice the sense of shame and guilt I had been experiencing when I went to stores, as if I had done something wrong, and I had no one to affirm otherwise through smiles or nods. It felt almost criminal. It was like confronting a void, of sorts, something which had been stripped of us for which I, like many, come to rely upon. For some it feels like a stripping of their humanity and freedom, whatever that means. But there’s more to it.

For some this may be the first time in life reckoning with their own life. It may be the first time where we have no one else to tell us how to react, now finding ourselves as masked marvels. We become so reliant on “outside authority” to tell us how to think, feel, react, we become void of our own humanity, literally separating ourselves from our interior life. Not many can argue we lack depth as a culture and society. We can see it just in how our leaders act and react to one another. We’ve become so dependent upon others we’re left not knowing how to feel or think on our own. Is it any wonder why so many would protest placing something over their face? How will they know how to feel and what emotions emerge? How will I know how to react to varying situations? It’s revealing just how bound we are by our own darkness and why we want to fight for “freedom”.

Here’s the gift to the mask. The mask has simply turned the mirror inward. We know longer have the external “mirrors” allowing us to react and so we’re being given a lesson in self-discovery. It’s why I was so conscious of the feeling of guilt and shame when I entered the store. There was no one there wronging me in any way. It was my shame and guilt I was confronting. When I encountered others in the store not wearing masks, it was my anger staring at me. When I had run into a teacher from my childhood it was both my joy to see her but at the same time my own sadness not being able to stand in the store and catch up in any way. The mask, whether we know it or not, is giving us a great gift but like some gifts we don’t always know what to do with them, or for that matter, don’t even want the gift in the first place, feeling no need for it.

Like the masked marvels from comic books and the big screen, they both disclose and conceal something about ourselves. They may, in some ways, conceal our own humanity from others, but they are inviting our own feelings and emotions to disclose themselves to us. All it takes is a little awareness on our part as to what’s arising as we find ourselves wandering and meandering with this new reality of masks. It’s an opportunity to be happy and joyful for ourselves, not just because it’s a reaction to someone else telling us how to feel. Most importantly, it’s a time to confront so many of the negative feeling we tend to push onto other people through blame and victimhood and surrounding ourselves with others in the same way. If you’re angry, mean-spirited, feeling shamed or malice, welcome them home as the poet Rumi writes in the Guest House. They are yours and acceptance moves you to being more fully human.

I’d imagine we’ll spend years if not decades ahead questioning and learning all of which this time is trying to teach us about our humanity, revealing our selfishness, our values, or even lack thereof, but maybe most importantly growing into the person we often seem to know the least, ourselves. It’s too easy to react to the seething anger, the belief of rights being trampled, and the backlash towards leaders, but all of it is revealing something about ourselves and who ever would have thought it would be mirrored through a mask? Rather than digging into being the “gods” we think we are, a simple piece of cloth is inviting us to lean into what has lied dormant and hidden, our own humanity, teaching us to love the other and empathize with all who are truly hurting in this time, including ourselves.

Softening Gorge


“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”     Norman Maclean

I have spent a great deal of time sitting, walking, and hiking along the Lehigh River and the endless paths of the Lehigh Gorge these two months of distancing. I’ve watched it from a variety of angles, different times of the day, even in differing weather conditions. There’s something quite captivating about listening to the running water as it washes over the rocks. During this time, I could only imagine the chill of it as it rushes along, always seeming like it has somewhere to be and yet nowhere to go all at the same time. The rocks, although we know otherwise, are rather ill-phased by the rush of the water, as if they stand as a stabilizing force against the youthful nature of the water. Maybe it is part of the attraction of the water, knowing there were days earlier in life when I felt invincible against it and now relate more to the grounding rocks than the rage of the water, as if I have learned there’s more to life.

The draw to the water, though, is something internal. It’s the youthfulness of the heart that draws back. I suppose over our lives we fight this spirit, thinking the rocks know better and are going to outdo the waters. We become jaded, hard-hearted, and bitter before life, fighting this youthfulness. However, in these days and weeks sitting there listening to the waters flow, it’s as if my heart leaps for joy, as if it has returned to its home and natural state. Isn’t it always the heart which takes the brunt of our rigidness, fighting off its natural capacity to soften our edges, as if we know better than the heart? We don’t. I don’t. The heart, like the waters, are relentless in their pursuit of our attention.


Glistening waters along the Lehigh in Rockport

Sure, at times it seems to subside to nearly no movement and even stagnant, but never arid enough to quiet the possibility. The water always seems to make its presence known even when it slows to nearly nothing. Our anger, hurt, pain, seem as if it’s going to do everything to kill the spirit and, of course, at times it does. It often takes something radical or an abrupt change before it once again is awakened and movement becomes unstoppable. The amount of energy it takes to hold onto and to try to control the contours of the water is unbearable. I can try all I want. However, the force of the water far outweighs the grounded dams we construct for ourselves. We are surrounded by plenty of Wonders which remind us of the relentlessness of the spirit of water and its ability to change a landscape, even if over centuries. It is the tireless pursuit of the spirit of the waters keeping it so young and glittering against the spring sun. It is the same relentless spirit determined to change the landscape of my heart.

As Maclean writes, I am haunted by the waters. The waters, at times, have wreaked havoc in my life. The haunting isn’t as much a hallows eve scare as much as it is a deep respect for its nature and ability. However, now in retrospect, it was a fear of the spirit coursing itself through me. It was the edges of my own mind and ego which thought it always knew better than the spirit, and did all it could to suppress it and change its course in order to avoid spilling over the edges. Think about it, when water forces you to confront your own mortality, won’t you do anything you can to avoid such pain again? Little did I know, at such times, of how relentless it would be in vying for my attention, to the point of nearly feeling like I’m drowning on a daily basis, of fear, hurt, pain, and grief. The cleansing power it carries seemed all but a theory in those moments, but now, a recognition of my own self avoiding such a cleanse as if all which stood so firmly was my deepest identity, yet always coming up short. It is this spirit, after all, which defines me and you. It is the heart which claims our deepest self, where waters run freely and consistently.

So, I sit here, simply listening to the movement, as if it aligns itself with the movement of the heart. While here there is a oneness like none other, kids playing together without a care in the world and the rocks sit quietly and patiently no longer needing to control but allowing the waters to flow freely. It’s like the elders and icons of the natural world enjoying the moment for what it is. There’s something quite captivating about the glittering evoked, like the sparkle in the eye of child, a return to innocence. It’s not there to reminisce of who I once was but rather to remind me of who I always am and how easily it is to let the sparkle go. Rocks can be just as relentless, trying to tell us to be something or someone other than. Not these rocks, though. They simply allow the waters to flow where they will, reaching every crevice and crack to reignite an aging earth and for the first time capture the aged truth where all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.


Summoned Home

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Welcome Home! Anyone who has been to Bethlehem Farm will silently smile when they read those words. For anyone who has never been there before, it can be a bit unnerving. I still remember being greeted by Farmer Tim upon my arrival on a balmy April afternoon with a welcome home and a huge bear hug. Having never been before, it seemed rather odd but became a source of joy as I watched countless faces over the months give the same reaction, wondering, where the hell am I and what have I gotten myself into?!?

It was at one of the most turbulent times in my life. As my health had declined, I had stepped away from ministry. I had just resigned, packed up my belongings after dumping a lot of it, felt quasi-homeless, my dad was admitted to the hospital, and there I was venturing hours away to a place I had never been. It was so outside my comfort zone but at the time needed something to keep me engaged, even if it was for a month. It’s only in retrospect I can see just how much my foundation had, with each given choice, falling apart, at least what I believed to be my foundation as a person. It seemed as if everything I had known was slipping through my fingers and I was doing something absolutely ridiculous, heading to a farm in the middle of nowhere West Virginia. Just about the only thing Alderson, WV is known for is the prison which housed Martha Stewart, and well, The Big Wheel! You really have to go to truly appreciate the milk shakes there!



After leaving the Farm (even though I’ve returned a few times since), Colleen asked me if I’d be willing to put a few thoughts down on paper describing my experience, as a man who had planned on staying a month and extended it to include the second half of 2019, as someone searching for meaning in a life seemed void of it, someone learning to trust on a much deeper level than ever before. I still believe the words to be true today as when I wrote them a few months back.

“I believe the novelty of the Farm, when it comes to faith and trust, is that it assists in revealing a deeper part of yourself that has always been in existence. As you well know, the act of simplicity, which so many speak about when they arrive, for me is central. As you begin to let go of the trappings of life, which are often reduced to phones and electronics, the deeper parts finally have space to surface. I believe, in my experience, the trappings include what others think, outside authorities, comforts of home, routine, etc. They are what I found myself trapped in when I arrived. If the Farm is truly of the Spirit, and I do believe it is, it simply begins to reveal the deeper truths and you begin to trust that instinct, that voice, that Spirit (whatever you call it) and your deepest identity (in God) is not only revealed but you learn to live by and through it. It would explain the change from restlessness to peace that I learned to live.”

If I had to sum it up, the extended time at the farm was about finding this sense of home in myself. It’s not just a cute little saying mentioned to pilgrims as they arrive for their experience. No, it’s an invitation into something much deeper than a mere welcome to a property. More often than not we are unfamiliar with the vast landscape of our interior home. We live in a world with so many distractions and ways to avoid the deeper crevices of ourselves where we seem like a foreigner, and even a fugitive, in some sense, from our own selves. We do everything to avoid and are often convinced of others they know what’s best for us and can define us in their way, we lose sense of ourselves.

It’s not until we can begin to silence the voices of the “authorities” around us when we can finally begin to hear our own voice, silently waiting for us to listen and consistently inviting us home. Whether we can admit it or not, we all wander beyond ourselves looking for answers to many of life’s complex questions. However, the answers to our deepest values and the meaning we thirst for have always existed deep within us. Like any of us who travel to the ocean for recreation, from the time we are kids we’re told to stay in the shallow waters. However, shallow waters will never fulfill this thirst. We eventually need to go out into the depths of the ocean, confronting our fears, or dig into the deepest part of the earth, in order to find what we’re looking for most in life. We eventually need to be called “home” to begin to accept and settle into our own skin for who we are, not who others want us or expect us to be.

The wayward path varies for all of us and some choose over and over to never engage it. We see the negative energy within many people who have been unwilling, and sometimes, unable, to enter into the journey “home”. We refuse and shut down rather than dealing with the necessary pain we confront along the way. We, as a society, have lost our larger story of this journey in order for personal gain and short-term success. However, this time of pandemic is inviting us into the deeper journey, the long-term journey, through the recesses of our hearts and souls beckoning us home, maybe for the first time in our lives. Beyond basic needs, if there is a push within you to return too quickly to a life which was, that restlessness is a summons you’re being invited into. You may ask the same questions, “Where the hell am I and what have I gotten myself into?”, but this is only natural arriving at an unknown place in yourself. Somewhere, deep within you, there is a voice saying “welcome home” wishing to embrace you with a bear hug reminding you of the value you are not by what you do but because of who you are.