Then Come, Follow Me

These words have been with me the past few days in this journey of faith and understanding. Whenever they appear in the Gospels, they are typically preceded by some form of surrender and “letting go” which often does not mean a hill of beans to the disciples until it means everything. The most obvious is always what they can see with their eyes, of giving up possessions, wealth, and all the rest that is demanded of them, but it isn’t until they encounter utter darkness that it begins to mean something all-together different. It changes not only how they see themselves but the very God that calls them. Maybe it’s why we so often avoid the biggest leaps in our lives, knowing that what is demanded of us may be the very life we have grown to embrace over our lifespan, that has given us some form of secure identity in which to cling.

Let’s be real. It’s never easy to give up anything. We can easily convince ourselves in some kind of rational fashion that we can’t live without certain things or people because of some form of attachment that has grown over our way of relating to them. We create for ourselves, a form of dependence, rather than the interdependence that is demanded of us through our way of relating to God and mystery. Once it moves to a point of clinging or dependence, we begin to lose sight of the gift that lies before us, within us, and even beyond us. We create for ourselves our own gods that bring us comfort, certainty, and some form of security that we as humans look for, especially when it feels as if everything else around us is falling away and the world that we had once known ceases to exist.

For the disciples, and I’d say for most of us, it’s our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, and the very illusions, all of which are too small for us, that become our greatest obstacles and even leads to a deep loneliness with and within ourselves because we live our lives separate from our truest selves, the self in which God created us to be. In an act of rebellion and violence against our truest selves, we choose paths and make choices in life rather than allowing the path to be revealed to and within us which demands way too much trust, faith, and patience that we often just don’t have time for in our lives and in the fast-paced world in which we live. This rebellion, violence, and fighting often manifests itself in the world, but at its core, it’s a fight against ourselves, against the darkness which we avoid within ourselves but see quite clearly in the systems, structures, institutions, and world in which we live. It’s not until we begin to become aware of the fight against when we realize we’re often fighting the wrong battle. It’s not that anything of the world need not change; our systems have become dysfunctional and self-serving. It by no way means, though, that the change first must begin with me, with us.

This is where the rubber meets the road for the disciples and us, when we become aware of what needs to change in our lives, what it is we have been fighting within ourselves, and to learn to love in a more radical way, even the areas in which we most fight and cling. When the disciples finally face that utter darkness, the novelty of what it is they see with their eyes, in which they need to surrender, becomes practically inconsequential to the greater battle which lies within and before them. The layers of life which must be shed, often rooted in fear, becomes the stumbling stone of their lives and our lives if we are to live from that truest place. Rather than identifying with the lifestyle in which they want to fit and what will define them, they choose, in freedom, to step out into the darkness of a life unknown, identified with the deepest sense of mystery. Then come, follow me.

It would be great if the gospel ended for the disciples and us when it is mere possessions that they are asked to give up. It would also be great if it ended, as it appears with our eyes to end, as simply gazing at the Cross and awaiting a day of resurrection. Following me, though, if we follow through with the message, isn’t simply about Jesus doing something for us. It’s only a half-truth. The other half is the demand we avoid and seemingly fail to see out of fear of what is being asked. Unfortunately, it’s what creates the co-dependent systems we find ourselves all too often operating within. The other half demands something of us and yet it feels like everything in those very moments. God can surely lead us to the cross just as Jesus does his disciples. But following doesn’t end at a gaze. Rather, following demands a humiliation we’d rather not encounter, a humiliation that leads straight through the Cross, hanging naked and exposed just as it does for Jesus.

The Mystery that culminates in Holy Week and the continuous call to follow is not a play in which we stand as bystanders, looking on and giving praise for a job well done come the Resurrection. If it is, we’ve missed the point of being true to ourselves and to the very God that has created. This is the violence and rebellion we do against ourselves. The journey of Jesus is our journey as well, not only the truth and the life, but also the way. When we allow ourselves to enter into the drama and the utter darkness, the humiliation of coming out of a life, a thinking, an illusion once lived and clung to only then can the mystery we celebrate and live begin to make sense in a deeper way. Like the disciples, all else become inconsequential to the great surrender that is being asked and demanded in order to live the deeper truth of who we are, rather than settling for a gaze or the role of bystander or victim of a world thrust upon us. Instead, we learn to live from the inside out, and for that matter, upside down.

What precedes, then come, follow me, is consequential to the call of discipleship and the radical love in which God demands. What follows, though, is even more consequential. Giving up what we see with our eyes is often incomparable to what has been buried within our hearts, often avoided out of the very humiliation that now stands before us and the Cross. For the disciples, and us, to truly follow as Jesus demands, we must move beyond a gaze of the Cross to bearing it in our most challenging moments, knowing that He walks and carries it with us. It is the only path to the freedom our hearts desire and the only path to the radical love that the gospel demands for we are created in the very image to love and to be loved, finding our deepest value, worth, and truth, in love. Then, and only then, come, follow me.

A Puzzled Life

Despite having twice the number of pieces, a puzzle containing 1000 pieces is considered four times as difficult as one half the size. Anyone that has worked on puzzles knows that the greater number of pieces and the smaller they are in size, the harder the puzzle becomes, especially when they all start to look alike. Certainly after hours of work, the eyes can begin to deceive, thinking pieces go together before finally realizing that stepping away from it for awhile is probably best, in order to gain greater clarity and to see the larger picture before trying to return to try to complete the masterpiece that has begun.

It’s no wonder that when we have experiences in our lives, when it feels like we’ve been shattered into a thousand pieces or more, like a puzzle, that it is going to take serious time and a great deal of patience in order to see how all the pieces fit together. In life there’s even an added complication. Over time pieces don’t always necessarily fit the puzzle any more and it comes down to deciding, or better yet, discerning, what stays and what goes. It’s never an easy task. As a matter of fact, as time carries on it begins to seem like less and less of the pieces are even necessary to carry along for life’s journey and can become somewhat cumbersome to a fuller way of life or even an obstacle to joy because they just no longer fit into the narrative of your life, a story that has become too small.

Anyone who has risked the monumental task of being opened to a spiritual awakening in life, knows what it feels like to be shattered in such a way, where the pieces of life just no longer seem to fit the way they used to over the course of life. You’re left trying to make sense of pieces that, even at times, create illusions of fitting, as if, if I just keep pushing hard enough it’ll come together the way I want it to, rather than stepping back and accepting that it’s not real, that it just doesn’t fit, a piece no longer necessary to carry along. It seems, in such moments, that even the pieces that we work with don’t necessarily match the picture given on the box, that somehow the puzzle that is being assembled, or even disassembled for that matter, is much more a mystery than it is contained in the content of a box, spilled out on the table, and by the end of the day the picture is clear. It may work for a child’s puzzle and for a child’s way of thinking, what is seen on the box is definitively what is produced, but not in life, an adult life, or not in a life well lived, and fully.

So much of the spiritual journey has been examining so many different pieces and the comfort of always knowing, the fallback position, of creating a puzzle that is so clearly defined. Yet, over time becomes stifling, losing its edge and creativity, and wanting to break out of the box from which it originally came. More often than not we settle, right there, because of expectations of others or even the expectations that we place upon ourselves, wanting to please, not wanting to rock the boat, or not taking the riskiest step of all, of coming out of what has contained and to examine life from a different perspective. Our eyes can become weary over time, when none of the pieces seem to make much sense and begin to blend together rather than holding their own unique quality. In that moment, we rest the eyes, especially the eyes of the heart. We lose our sense of vision, blurred by our own hurt, only to be healed by a loving hand and embrace, not by trying to fix or produce a puzzle. It seemed so simple when that was the answer, the picture on the box. It was much simpler to return to the box in which you came, to be assembled and disassembled again, all for the sake of comfort and a sense of certainty and what was known, even finding some sense of stability in chaos rather than in peace.

The summons of a spiritual awakening, conversion, transformation, dark night, or whatever such changed is referred, is to recognize that much of pieces in which we’ve carried in our lives, thinking they define the puzzle of our lives, simply aren’t part of the puzzle of who we really are, the deeper mystery of the humanity in which God gives each of us. It’s quite difficult letting that puzzle, and all its clear definition, go, despite knowing that it no longer works and no longer defines who I am. The summons given is a radical one, to recognize that none of the pieces are necessary anymore, and the more we try to define it or have a box define our lives, the more likely they aren’t who we really are. The more we allow the box to define the puzzle, the less the puzzle is a puzzle, the less my life is life. That’s a hard pill to swallow for us who want to belong, to fit, to be accepted. None of which are bad in and of themselves, but nor do they define us in the way we’re so often pulled, by the proverbial box, in which others want to place us and for some reason, we happily choose to go rather than courageously saying no to something else in order to say to our truest self.

The great poet, Maya Angelou sums it up this way, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.” The summons that is granted and afforded each of us is to find that grounding first and foremost in ourselves and in God. The summons is to be defined from within, not by all the pieces that others have contributed to the puzzle, so often not even a suitable fit for your life and yet taken on rather than disappointing, while rejecting that deeper self in the process. The summons is to recognize that our sense of belonging comes from the beloved indwelling, always calling us forth to where everything belongs and where we are no thing at all!

In the end, the summons is to each of us and a summons only we, ourselves, can choose to accept, taking the risk of stepping forth in life, no longer child’s play, but recognizing I’m not a puzzle at all, to be sorted out and figured out, but rather one who is called and summoned to lead others in such a way in their lives to see in the same way, knowing what stays and what goes, knowing what belongs and what doesn’t, knowing when to step away and look at life from a bigger picture, when the boxes we create for ourselves and at times, are thrown into, picture on front clearly defined, no longer works and the true summons for more in and out of life is revealed. They’re the moments we most wait for and desire. They are the moments that will catapult us into the next stages of our lives, no longer simply about fulfilling roles and obligations, but living life to its fullest, free from what has contained, even if it is simply the picture on the box that we ourselves created yet now know just isn’t enough, a life worthy of mystery, love, and the risk of stepping into the unknown, into the less clearly defined life in God.

Conforming to Silence

“Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.”  –Rumi

For a few weeks now, I’ve had the perspective of not being front and center at the celebration of Eucharist (not that I ever am).  I haven’t had to be the presider, nor the preacher for that matter.  It seems that after fifteen years, though, you lose some perspective when you’re expected to be the orchestrator, as to what goes on, down off the steps that ascend into the sanctuary of the church, where the community gathers in prayer.

The one striking reality that hit me this past weekend was just how “busy” Mass is on Sunday morning.  After spending more than a week in predominately silence by that point, I was so struck by just how much we have learned to fill in all the space and gaps in the liturgy.  There’s very little sense, nor openness, to silence, even an uncomfortable silence if that’s what’s necessary.  In the words of a friend, church has very much become a microcosm of the larger world, and in these weeks I believe more and more that truth lies in that statement.  I felt, while I had the time, that it was the perfect opportunity and invitation to try to capture what all the hullabaloo is about with people abandoning religion, and in particular, Sunday morning.

There are certainly many reasons that people can give as to why they abandon Sunday, especially if it is simply “more of the same” like the other six days of the week.  It becomes one more thing I have to do.  However, we’ve managed to fill the uncomfortable silence with music and words, none of which are bad, in and of themselves, but as I’ve sat and listened, painfully at times, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of it is really necessary, and again, that comes from a guy who has spent fifteen years standing atop the sanctuary steps, trying to preach his heart out.

As Rumi states, silence is the language of God.  Yet, it’s the one thing we never seem to have time for or the one thing we fear the most.  I’ve always found one of the most profound moments in any liturgy is the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.  It’s one of the few moments in the entire liturgical year that we are pushed into a point of uncomfortableness.  In that one moment, we can no longer avoid the inevitable.  We are pushed to see mirrored back at us, the Cross that stands before us, in union with something very deep within us.  It is that one moment of silence when we stand before someone larger than ourselves, mindful of our deeper yearnings and longings that manage to become swallowed up and smothered when we fill our lives with noise.

With the absence of silence, comes great noise and confusion.  The microcosm that we are manages to lure us into making what is considered the “source and summit” yet another place for politics, for superficial thought, for wanting to “feel good”, all at the price of allowing space and silence for the true mystery that unfolds to penetrate our hearts.  If it truly is a microcosm, and I do believe it is in many ways, how then do we differentiate and for that matter, why bother?  Is that not the question your kids and grandkids ask at this very moment?

If the best we can do is “more of the same”, in our own little microcosm, filled with politics and chit chat and feeling good, then we’ve managed to find the best way to take the mystery out of what it is we celebrate, and for that matter, of who we are.  We’ve filled in what Parker Palmer calls, “the tragic gap”.  The only place where we can allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, where a dialogue between God and us, and the divine within, really happens.  The only place where reconciliation happens not only with ourselves, but with God and others.

I am by no means saying we should “turn back the clock”, but at the same time, I understand why people believe that because they have a sense of what is missing, even if it is often shrouded in tradition.  The sense of mystery has been aborted from all means of life, especially the one place it should always exist, in religion.  I’d say the same for theological education as well.  Religion has forfeited its greatest gift for answers, certainty, for always knowing, for doing it right, for duty and obligation, all while often failing to bring in the fact that anyone that enters into relationship with God knows that there is so much that remains unknown. As a matter of fact, as soon as you think you know, you best be ready to be once again dropped off a cliff into the great unknown.  It’s called faith.  Faith is what allows you to take that first step, all while falling into silence.  A calculated risk to say the least, faith and reason intertwined.

Thomas Merton, great mystic, recognized that we are religious by nature, at our deepest core is an insatiable need to be in union, to bond, with the mystery of God.  He, though, was often most critical of religion because of the many masks it wore, hiding the true essence of who we are.  He certainly showed through his life that it can only come through silence and allowing ourselves to sit in the uncomfortable “tragic gap” of what is and what can be, to often just catch glimpse of this mystery.  That is the heart of the liturgy and celebration of Eucharist.  May I ask, is that your experience of liturgy?  Our little microcosms go searching for ways that make the liturgy appealing and attractive, which is often reduced to needing bodies to fill the seats.  If we truly want to allow ourselves to “fall into” this mystery of liturgy, Eucharist, God, our lives, then it mustn’t be about trying to give others what they want.  Rather, about giving others what we ourselves know deep down, in that most basic of religions, a great sense of mystery that can only be found in silence.

Sure, it may make us uncomfortable at first and there’s no way to measure success by numbers, but over time something begins to happen.  All the illusions begin to fall away and we begin to see the Eucharist, God, ourselves, others, for who we really are, as one with each other.  Everything we thought that defined us vanishes for it was never really the real in the first place. There’s a reason why God’s favorite language is silence and very good reasons why many want nothing to do with God and religion in the 21st Century, leaving us with “more of the same”.  Are we courageous enough to ease the pain of the “tragic gap” by filling it will less noise, on Sunday and in our lives?  If we really want to be bold, recognize that the steps up into the sanctuary should truly lead down, for that is the only path of ascent.  None of which makes sense without silence.

Dear God…

For many years now I have spent a great deal of time writing Letters to God.  I believe it all started after seeing the movie under the same name, of a young boy struggling with cancer who thought God was the only one who would understand, despite the unending doubts and dissatisfaction of everyone around him.  It all began in similar fashion for me as well.  They began rather briefly without much depth, often with a question that burdened me or something that just didn’t make sense.  It was a way of getting out of me what so often seemed to become internalized, and being freed from the burden that often became associated with the question, the thought, the experience, or whatever it may have been in that time and space.  Needless to say, the way we have internalized experiences is not always the way it really happened.

Since then, I have written literally hundreds of pages, binders full of these letters that I would not want to share with anyone.  There’s only one person I have, but that’s a story for another day.  It wasn’t simply, at one point, being accountable to someone larger than myself, like God, but to another person who could mirror back, free of judgment, shame, and fear, my deepest thoughts and experiences.  It’s funny, if you would have asked me when I was young what I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer would never even have crossed my lips.  Always, a teacher, but also meteorology a close second.  The natural world still fascinates me and feel at home there, but it has also given me much to write about, and more importantly, a path to redemption over and over again, seeing creation as God’s first and greatest act, and myself intimately connected.

The letters, though, over time, have become more complicated and more nuanced.  I often have to return to them for my own reference, unsure where some of it even comes from, supposing a place deep within me.  It has become a place where I can freely be myself and allow my imagination to engage on levels I could not have imagined even existed, a place where I can often become lost, wander, and over time, be found while finding myself.  They are letters that are filled with quotes, movie scenes, and other images and metaphors that become attached as a means to going deeper and to discover with greater certainty, the One in which the letters are written.  Not only has it been a discovery of the complexity of mystery and the unknown, but how true it is of my own life and how easily any of us can allow ourselves to become imprisoned where and when we feel most comfortable, exiled from the very mystery we fall in love with, even when we feel as if we don’t belong.

I never knew if God was really listening, just as it is with people.  I often wondered if God understood what often felt like one misunderstanding after another.  It’s never been about the peripheries, the trappings that often capture our attention as humans, but rather a quest for the marrow of life, what makes it tick, what gives it meaning and purpose, what and who gives life.  I’m just as guilty as the next, believing there’s an easy answer or fix to what comes at us in life, but it often takes a blow to knock that type of illusion from our hearts and eyes, when we begin to experience that God has been listening all along; I just wasn’t aware of how much he was listening because of the illusions that crippled me and were used as a crutch to hold onto what was never real in the first place, but was a way to protect, to feel comfortable, to hide in fear from what it was I desired the most.  It was hidden all along and in plain sight.  It wasn’t God’s fault, revealing the path, step by step, but rather my own inability to let go, to surrender, to the very mystery that captivated me from the beginning.

So here I sit writing, in a similar format, with questions that in the past would have seemed insurmountable but now are a part of this ongoing quest for truth and love.  Dear God; they are sometimes the easiest words to put on the paper.  The doubt of God listening never seems to completely disappear, and maybe that’s the point.  It’s in that doubt where courage is found to write what comes next in that letter or any of them for that matter.  At first the words that followed came out with great trepidation, not always wanting to put into words what was really going on within me because somehow, once out, they become real, as if words being breathed become embodied in some way.  When I’m asked if I’ll ever share such writings, I hesitate.  My experiences, like any, are very personal.  They’re about difficulties with identity, love, heartbreak, struggles, questions, joys, and all the rest.  Of course, that’s what binds us all in the human family.  We all have a story to share and is important to share that story so hopefully one day the words that follow, Dear God, will lead me in that direction.

A friend shared with me a quote from a book this week (which has a lot of great quotes) entitled, Poverty of Spirit.  The author says this, “We are all beggars.  We are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself.  We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.  Our needs are always beyond our capacities, and we only find ourselves when we lose ourselves.”  He goes onto write, “Left to ourselves, we still remain the prisoner of our own Being…if we attempt this [hiding], the truth of our Being haunts us with its nameless emissary:  anxiety…in the final analysis we have one of two choices:  to obediently accept our innate poverty or to become the slave of anxiety.”  I’m convinced we are all beggars when we utter the words, Dear God, but I’m also nearly certain that we come begging for the wrong thing.  More often than not we come to God begging for answers, only leading to a greater anxiety when answers are not found.  The true invitation to losing ourselves is living into the unknown of the very question that leave us with doubt, restlessness, and unsatisfied hearts.  The answers may, and probably never will, come, but in time we begin to embody the question that God has placed in our hearts and begin to step into and out of our deepest selves, our truest selves, where we no longer need to cut off or shun who it is within us that remains prisoner.

What started as two simple words of imitation of a young boy in a movie, Dear God, has led me to many places within myself and beyond that I will never fully comprehend, but it also leads me to this point in my life right now.  Somewhere in the pages and pages of writing, God has led me to a choice and an invitation to enter into the unthinkable, of surrendering myself to that interior poverty that scares and yet is most enticing and seductive.  As I said, it’s never been about the peripheries, the pomp, the dress, the performance, but rather about this journey that binds us all, from our own sense of exile, crossing threshold after threshold, to a deeper understanding of the promised land that lies within and yet so far beyond my own comprehension.  Needless to say, it comes with a sense of fear, stepping beyond the walls that have held me tightly and have given great comfort, but that too is simply a passage, a threshold to cross, just as any new birth, into an unknown world.  The difference is trusting that journey and trusting that whatever follows, Dear God, will once again be yet another invitation to a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of learning to embody the deeper questions of life and living that revelation as, again, God’s first and greatest act of creation.

But Still There is More…

I Corinthians 12: 12-30

It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth.  Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community.  If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become.  There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ.  Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed.  It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.

Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen.  Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith.  They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community.  Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable.  If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value.  We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time. 

This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal.  They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community.  They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them.  In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”.  For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year.  Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”.  Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”.  That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.

It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community.  That would miss his point.  The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”.  All of this is important, but there’s still more.  He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught.  As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith.  Read on; it’s right there is writing!  When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity.  It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way.  The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.

Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago.  Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country.  We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life.  It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing.  He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity.  He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof.  For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”.  When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.

A Reimagined World

Isaiah 62: 1-5; I Cor 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11

We are all aware that companies and products often try to rebrand or rename themselves in order to put on a new front, typically because of loss of profits and things dying and somehow making it look new and flashy is going to sell it.  Sometimes it works but more often than not it doesn’t and often for good reason.  The Church can be no better at times.  We think making things flashy and attractive is once again going to fill pews.  Well, it hasn’t.  If anything, it drives more away.  Of course, political parties are notorious for spin and rebranding and yet often never change.  There is, as well, the government.  How many different ways do you think we’re going to try to rebrand a wall.  Yet, in the end, a wall is a wall is a wall. 

What makes a company or product successful at it, though, isn’t about rebranding or renaming.  More often than not that is simply about changing the look to make it more appealing.  Companies that succeed change from the inside out.  Apple has certainly learned that over the decades.  They return to their essence, to who they are and what they’re really about, and reimagine themselves into the future, living into the questions of what they’re all about.  The problem, it’s hard work, not only individually but for companies but also as a nation and world, it’s the only way forward.  There is a third way, in some sense, the only way, and that’s to return to the essence, the Inner Beloved for us, and reimagine from that place of center.

It is the challenge that Scripture presents to us as we continue the epiphany readings today, as to how the incarnation manifests in our lives and world.  In some ways, it often appears that God and the prophets try to rebrand Israel.  We hear today that they are going to be given a new name.  They will no longer be known as victims of desolation and forsakenness, but will learn to live into this new reality, this eternal covenant, as delight and espoused.  The risk, as if often is for us, is that Israel, as soon as it returns from exile, is to go back to what they were used to, where they were comfortable.  Like us, they often become their own worst enemy.  It’s easier to go back to old ways than to fall into something new and to trust, to reimagine yourself in the way God sees.  For Israel and for us, that’s the invitation.  Isaiah is bursting at the seams to point them in this direction as to return not to their old ways but to the covenant that God made with them and us from the beginning, to return to love and to reimagine themselves as God’s people.  Their time of being victim and of blaming is over.  Their time of simply trying to change the way things look is done.  It’s time for a new era for Israel, a return to the Inner Beloved who will now expand them beyond the horizon. 

The same is true for Paul as he writes to the people of Corinth.  We’re dealing with a community that as well has slowly, over time, moved themselves into exile, separating themselves from their essence.  They begin to have this internal squabbles, today being that of who has the most important and most popular gift.  Paul, not necessarily caring about the gift, tries to point them to the source of those gifts, that it is of one Spirit that they are given wisdom and discernment and all the rest he recites today.  Throughout the letter he pushes this community, more than most, to remember who they are.  Over time they have forgotten and moved away, separated from their essence as community.  They begin to think it’s about them and they could do it on their own.  So they find themselves clinging to their gifts, which become distorted at that point, rather than continuously returning back, not to the way things were, but to their very essence, to change from within and to live from the inside out.  All of the readings these weeks in particular are about the interior change that is necessary to move beyond ourselves and to live into our essence, to mystery, to love.  That’s how reimaging happens rather than simply changing the front.

John, well, in his masterpiece it’s all about reimagination.  There is no new branding or naming in John’s Gospel, and from the very beginning is going to take the message of the Christ to a new level.  He’s going to deliver a punch that transcends time and space, even to the point of using people and places, like Cana, that don’t exist at the time.  None of that matters with John.  What matters is the journey in to a changed heart.  Maybe it is the fact that he’s writing with decades out from the time of Jesus, giving new perspective, but he delivers a message for the ages.  Even the fact that he doesn’t use the name Mary, like the other gospels, delivers a message to all humanity and not to become attached to what you think or the history of individuals.  Rather, imagine yourself there and hear the message, do as he says.  It is just the beginning of believing for the disciples, as we are told, because the hour has not yet come.  The disciples have not learned, yet, to let go of what was, their old way of thinking and doing, and be opened to new possibility.  John will take them on an imagination ride to a transformed life, a reimaging of what it means to be disciple, seeking first a changed heart and living from the inside out.

It’s a painful process and nothing easy about it.  Rebranding and Renaming may be the easy way out and a short-term fix, but in the end, it is only a life that is reimagined, that is allowed to fall into and to live into mystery, into the Inner Beloved, that we begin to see in a different way, through the lens of love.  That’s when we finally begin to recognize that there is no need for fear nor walls.  There is no need for war and violence.  There is no need to cling to anything in life because the source of life becomes the source of your life.  We can get the latest and greatest and continue to live with the illusion that all will be well, but like the companies that try it, we’ll find ourselves in the same position, still wanting more out of life.  The only path, the third way, is to reimagine ourselves as God’s people.  The gospel and the prophets demand it of us as individuals, as community, as nation, and as world.  It’s what these epiphany weeks are really about, the awakening to a new awareness where all we can do is fall into and live into mystery, the unknown, the Inner Beloved, and pray that it may be done to us in the same way.

Return to the Source

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.