When Luck Runs Out

One of the biggest stories coming out as the NFL kicks off its 2019 regular season is the “retirement” of Andrew Luck from the Indianapolis Colts. It’s strange to say retirement for someone as young as him, turning a rather young 30 years old this week, but it was enough to spark much debate. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the amount of money that hangs in the balance when a player chooses to step away, even at the most inopportune time. It goes beyond the Indianapolis Colts, jersey and ticket sales, but also in fantasy football that billions riding on the health and weekly play of the athletes. It is easy to understand why so many would feel rage against him, even if far from being justified, but it also says much about our priorities and values that we hold as a culture and people.

However, if you listen to him speak, or better yet, read the transcript of his press conference, we should be doing nothing but praising him for his decision to call it quits. After his initial statement of the endless cycle of pain and injury, Luck goes onto say, “I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live… I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I’d choose me, in a sense. It’s very difficult; I love this team, I love my teammates, the folks in our building, the folks in this building, the fans, the game of football, and as part of this team, as a member of this team, and because of how I feel, I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”

What takes some a lifetime to figure out, Luck managed to see after six seasons, with the help of pain and injury, coupled with a love for family, to see it just wasn’t working for him. He realized that his heart was no longer, if at all, in the game. When the heart is pulling in one direction but the lure of the ego, success, money, fame, stardom, having it all, pulls in the other, it is only a matter of time when our own pain awakens us to what is missing in our lives. What we do simply remains and the doing level leading to burnout with the desire for greater meaning and purpose constantly tugging at our hearts, trying to awaken us to something more in our lives, often right in front of our eyes.

For someone who recognized that football was all about team and the other, it almost seems selfish, in the end, that he’d call it quits. All the expectations of fans for another great season, receivers and others who have become comfortable with Luck’s methods, if not aware themselves, can see it simply as that, a selfish act; hence, all the hoopla around his retirement. It’s even difficult for him to say it in that statement knowing that it is all about the team and the other. However, Luck had to choose the deeper self that called out from within him reminding him that he’s more than football and stardom, which over time naturally wears off for someone not playing with heart and soul.

I’ve heard more than enough of my share of people who end their lives with regrets about their lives and the choices made as to how to live it. For so many, it is about getting by, work enough to get the kids through college, have a nice home, and simply being able to breathe. We’re often convinced that that’s what it’s all about; the pinnacle of one’s adult life. Hopefully, though, there should always be something tugging at us like it did for Andrew Luck. There should always be something in us reminding us of something bigger than ourselves that there’s something more for us out there that becomes flushed out with each choice we make every day not to settle or get by, but to live.

This is what makes Luck so hated by some and yet praised by others, like myself. He got to that point in his life long before I ever did. Sure, he had the help of physical pain and suffering that was taking a toll on his life. But for him, and me, for that matter, that’s what it often takes. It’s when we start to feel the pain that lies within of ignoring the deeper call for meaning and purpose that goes beyond a title or position. It never goes away. We simply live with the daily choice to ignore and regret or to feel more deeply into it and live. It’s the invitation that Luck has accepted for himself by stepping away from it all, no matter the circumstances, reaction, or anything else from anyone else. In the end, he knew in his heart of hearts that it was the right thing and would no longer live with regret.

Luck has a great deal to teach us if we allow ourselves to step back and ask ourselves what’s most important to us in life. We can continue to be “stuck in this process” and come to the “proverbial fork in the road”, choosing what leads to further pain and a sense of violence against our own hearts and souls, and at times it seems like all we can do. However, the “proverbial fork” does not always return. When the moment comes, and knocks us off our feet, we know at that point that we have no other choice but to walk away what has hurt us, whether work or relationship. It’s what Luck chose in that very moment, even if it seems to be the most inopportune time. We often don’t get to choose when that moment arrives. All we can do is choose in that moment, when all luck seems to have run out in our life, to allow ourselves to be pushed towards life and what first gives meaning and purpose.

Hung Up

Anyone familiar with my history knows that water is central. As much as I have a great love of the ocean and find the water extremely healing, spending hours at a time in Maine near the ocean edge, it’s also been a source of great pain. Over the course of my life I have learned just how powerful water can be and how quickly life can change when you encounter water in a violent way, leaving its mark in ways that run currents deep within my very being that will flow through me for life.

Yet, there I was finding myself kayaking nine miles down the James River, not allowing that deeper fear of water to stop me from enjoying what I love most, just being outdoors and breathing in the air breathing through the surrounding forest, coupled with a refreshing splash of water with each dip of the oar pushing me forward. There are elements, though, that still arise that sense of fear and anxiety within me as I venture down the river. There’s something about keeping your eyes forward when you enter into an area of more rapid flow over the rocks, fearing getting caught up in the shallowness of the water and the rocky ground below.

It wasn’t far down the river when I found myself hitting one such area and getting hung up on a rock, unable to turn the kayak forward. The automatic response is one of fear and anxiety, as if going to tip over and falling into the water. I’m not sure why that would be such a fear knowing that it’s late summer and the water has a refreshing feel to the skin’s touch. Rather quickly, in trying to break myself free, the kayak tipped just enough to allow the water to begin to enter it; the flow coming directly into its opening. There was not much I could do to stop it, but without fear or any anxiety, I simply sat there and allowed things to happen as it was. The safest bet on the water is to not grow anxious in an anxious situation, even though it feels most natural.

It was then that I realized that I couldn’t do it alone. There was no “pull myself up by my bootstraps” in this situation, but rather the help of another was going to be required to dislodge me from the situation and set me free to further the journey down the river. All seems so simple after being dislodged but the experience of becoming hung up, the anxiety leading into that rapid, the letting go and allowing yourself to drift as you enter the experience, and knowing that the water has a mind of its own, allows you to recognize that much is out of our control and the help of others on the journey is a necessity.

There was a day when I would not have even considered going onto the river in that way. It became much easier to engage the river from the sidelines and simply “remember” what it was like during the days when I wouldn’t think twice about doing it. Sure some of it comes with age and wisdom, but for me it was that deeper sense of fear of what would happen to me and being turned upside down, out of my control, knowing that the river has a mind of its own, just as life often does. It’s easier to engage life from the sidelines and to simply be a judge of what’s going on. It is though a less fulfilling experience of kayaking and even life. Allowing ourselves to engage the fears and anxiety, even when it seems like the kayak is filling quickly around us, will always open us to being hurt but it’s the only way to experience life and love. The two accompany one another and even complement one another more than we can even begin to imagine.

As I’ve taken the time to reflect, and even laugh at, the experience on the James River, I think about how far I had come from that day back in October 2003 when I thought my life was coming to an end on the Youghiogheny River. The sense of panic at that time, along with tremendous fear of being trapped, had led me not only to great regrets in my life but has also opened the door to greater understanding of the human condition and how easily it is to no longer jump into the river and simply sit on the side wondering and regretting a life that could have been. It’s only in picking up the oar, jumping in the kayak, and even becoming lodged in the rocks, that reminds you that pain accompanies life and yet nowhere near the pain of loneliness that comes with disengaging from life and all it throws at us. With the help of others and a simple awareness of the real reality around us allows us to flow humbly down a river, enjoying every minute of it, and yet never becoming swallowed up by its great power.

Passing Under

causeway

For years now, Acadia has been a place to not only vacation and separate, but a place to connect and reconnect with what is most real about myself and the known fragility of a life that finds itself twisting and turning in ways that are often difficult to comprehend with the given mind but only more clearly seen when lived into and experienced in an incarnate way. There’s one spot, with such value in Maine simply known as “the causeway”. The causeway, just as its name implicates, connects different areas of land, homes on one side and a golf course on the other, only separated by Norwood Cove, leading out to the endless blue of the Atlantic.

I can’t even begin to speak of the number of times I have stood on that causeway and wondered and prayed, often looking for answers and dreaming to life’s difficulties and my own dissatisfaction with life over the years, only to come up short, leaving it behind one more time to simply a dream of what stands on the other side. This year, though, was going to be different. I could just feel it upon arriving in Southwest Harbor that after a year of tremendous loss, professionally and personally, the trip to “the causeway” was going to be different. There was no more time for dreams and questions, getting lost in my own thoughts; rather, it was a time to experience the causeway in a new way that would spark images and thoughts that went beyond the head to the very heart and soul that stood, year after year, yearning and dreaming for something more out of life.

It wasn’t long after arriving that I changed course and rather than standing at the center of the causeway, I jumped in one of the kayak’s and began to experience the space from a different perspective. After so many run-ins with water over the years, I’ve hesitated kayaking there, always feeling fearful that I would get pulled into the undertow of the current. Something told me, though, that Sunday evening, that I was to brave it and pass through the causeway. I didn’t know when it would happen but I did know that I had to time it perfectly when the tide was just right, coming into Norwood, when, at least from the surface, it looked as if the water was perfectly still.

As the week wore on, the passing through remained on the back of the mind. I climbed Acadia Mountain, grieved along Bass Harbor’s rocky coast, sat with the stillness of Long Pond, all before the time had come, early one morning as the vision quest was drawing to a close, I pulled out the kayak with a particular mission. I left shore with many unknowns, whether the time was right, was the tide high enough, questions and doubts whether I should put myself through the experience, knowing that the water had already broke and the passing through was all but necessary. The cove, over the years, had become to well-known and confining. I knew every inch of the area, where to look for sunsets, the name of each mountains, even a sense of the golf course on the other side. It was no longer about what was on the other side in terms of landmass, but what was on the other side of the cove that had become so comfortable over the years.

The Cove, though, was summoning me to go forward and so there I was early Friday morning, sun already over the horizon, water slowly coming to the necessary stillness, and as I stared down that causeway, what rushed over me were all the voices that have held me back over the years, telling me to settle for the fear I was trapped in, the comfort of the cove, and simply try to forget about what was lying beyond it. There all the voices stood on that causeway that morning sending up flares to stop, to turn around, to forget, to stay with what you know and what’s comfortable. All of it, though, standing against a heart and soul that knew and knows better. All of it standing against a heart and soul that knowns and understands its value and wanting more, pushing against the negativity and the mindfulness of a tortured soul for many years.

As hard as I could, I paddled. The rush of the incoming tide seemed insurmountable at times. It would have been much easier to allow myself to get pushed back into the all too familiar Cove, staying trapped in the unhappiness and dissatisfaction of life. In the end, though, the fire of a heart and soul, like a quiet thunder, beat with great life, to go and to push and to push hard. It would be a birth like none other, a new life with so many unknowns and great lessons in trust that all will be well. All I could remember was paddling as hard as I could, fighting the current, fighting all the thoughts, in order to experience what was lying beyond and ahead of me. I looked down, doubting, only to lift my eyes forward one more time knowing this time was different.

The push seemed almost like nothing when I finally arrived on the other side, now facing the endless water of the Atlantic that lies beyond the Sound. The most memorable part, as I sat in the kayak, simply taking in life from a different perspective, was that I could breathe, no longer tethered to what was and the familiar. Popping through the water, an unfamiliar guest, a seal that made its way in, sparked my interest. After a week reflecting on spirit animals, it was as if this one followed me for a few days, trying to bring something to the surface. The seal points toward creativity and imagination, a summons to listen to the inner self rather than all the voices that stood on that causeway, to allow a new way of living to come to land. As sea-bearing as seals are, they give birth on land, enfleshed, per se. It is only after that they learn to swim, rather than drown, through difficult situations. The seal, like the causeway, stood as strong metaphors for a life yet to be lived.

Without a doubt, the past months have been times of great trials and loss like never before. I knew that the one place I was to return was Acadia, and to once again seek the counsel of God’s first incarnation in the pristine creation of that area. It’s an area that has brought about great healing over the years but has also challenged me in ways like no other. From the start, that inner voice reminded me that this year was different, and different it has been. On one side of a cove stood the image of artificial means of life support, no longer giving the life that was needed for that deeper imagination. On the other stood a great unknown, waiting to be explored and to give the opportunity to breathe once again. There were tears and laughter, questions and difficulties, but the invitation to allow myself to be birthed drew me over and over again to that causeway. It was a causeway of wonder and fear over the years. For once, though, my eyes were opened to the heart and soul, no longer standing as an obstacle but rather an invitation to something new, and more importantly, someone new.

 

A Permeable Life

Life doesn’t get much better than when you feel invincible. I can climb any mountain. Tackle any issue that arises and resolve it. A life that seems indestructible, to say the least. Always an answer and always a way to correct, fix, or do whatever we need to do in order to make it feel unbreakable and intact. That is, until it isn’t, and eventually, it really isn’t and we’re often left wondering how to make sense out of a life that seemed, at times, larger than life on this earth, when questions always accompanied with the right answers and at least on the surface, all seemed right. Again, until it isn’t. It becomes the surest test of our lives when we are finally confronted with questions that no longer have answers and life no longer seems neatly packaged the way we expected.

For the past several days, and I suppose weeks at this point, I have found myself, along with my family, sitting in an Intensive Care Unit at Geisinger Medical Center, not only staring at my father but staring at machine after machine and test after test without any answers. It seemed that I knew more about the people around my father than I did about his own situation, often reflecting on the past several months of my own life where it seemed as if there were no answers, once again hearing the words to trust the unknown and answers do not easily come. Within the layers of unknown, of course, comes the inability to trust as our minds wander to the worst of situations, even the possibility of never having an answer and all any of us can do is sit there, stare, laugh, of course, and wonder how everything would unfold.

It seemed, at least at face value, that the people around him faced much worse. There was the gentleman in the next room whose family had to face the inevitable that death finds a way to penetrate through life at times. There was Grace, on the opposite side, who all we ever knew of was that she wanted out of bed but was confined. I’m sure for her it was an unlimited life at one point and now confined to a bed, seemingly beyond her will of wanting to leave, whatever that meant for her. There are others, of course, with no names, and all we can ever do was imagine their story. There may be no more sad, though, than the others sharing ICU who never seemed to have a visitor and walking an already lonely journey all by themselves. Maybe they had no family. However, there’s always the possibility, as it is with all of us at some point, when death seems to knock, even if it’s not the great finality, that some just can’t handle to look at it square in the face, often still living with the illusion that life is impenetrable.

How we handle death or even the thought of death determines a great deal of how we live our lives. It can be the ultimate loss in having to let a person go or the acute deaths we face in relationships, through sickness, through our loss of independence, an identity we clung to, or whatever the case may be for us. The harder we cling now is the greater the challenge we face when we are called to face the ultimate reality. It’s easy for me to say that life and death are inseparable. Death happens in the room next to my father but not in ours. Death happens to the one with incurable cancer and given weeks or days to live. Our minds have a way of playing tricks on us telling us that it will never happen to me, certainly not in this way or that way, but all we do is protect ourselves from what we know is inevitable and the only thing that we have absolutely no control over in and with our lives.

Yet, the two are intertwined and simply sitting with questions that don’t seem to have answers or answers that never seem to come quick enough is a confrontation with death itself, in our own way, and God knows we all have our own way of dealing with that reality. It’s when we try to separate the two that we allow fear and the doubt to consume our lives when death and suffering are simply teaching us lesson after lesson of letting go and opening doors to the new life that is promised beyond our fear and anxiety of what seems and feels like total separation. We do ourselves no favors when we abandon death, but rather, simply push off the inevitable to another time.

Don’t hear me wrong; none of it is meant to be morbid as we reflect on the greatest mystery of life and death. All I’m saying is the way it feels in the moment, as an absolute shattering of a relationship, is simply in the moment and the longer we cling to the pain of the situation and the unknowns that accompany it the longer we prevent ourselves from living more fully and learning the lessons that the mystery is summoning within us. I am by no means an expert. I sat there with my family this week wondering as well and awaiting answers. Time and time again, though, I felt the push from within to trust knowing full well that others accompanying my father in ICU were facing the ultimate test of letting go where as for others, like ourselves, it was a momentary pass and yet invitation to embrace the fullness of mystery, life and death, and to trust that there remains something and someone bigger than ourselves at work without getting caught up in our own helplessness and endless questions.

It isn’t easy, especially when it’s a parent or others we are close to, and yet it’s moments like these that remind us of what is most important, none of which are having all the answers nor having a neatly packaged life. If we live as people of faith we aren’t meant to have all the answers but rather allow ourselves to fall into the messiness of life, a life which is closely accompanied by death and everything in between. I’ve thought a great deal about the others whose stories remain a mystery, who lie in that unit without a visitor and who’s story may never be told. Maybe we can’t always embrace the totality of the mystery but there are signs everywhere that point us to this reality if we only allow ourselves to sit quietly and trust what still remains unknown.

Digging In

Although I’ve only spent about a week and a half here at Bethlehem Farm, a majority of that time has been spent out in the fields, planting a variety of vegetables, starches, and such. I’ve learned that what it is that is being planted isn’t even all that important as much as the how and why of what it is that is being submerged in the ground for a not so distant future time. There’s a great deal of preparation that is necessary long before anything is even placed in the ground and it’s in that preparation where it’s easy to get lost in thought and prayer, maybe some of the most depth-filled that one could even experience.

You never quite know the obstacles that you’ll face in the preparation. There are a variety of tools and such that help along the way in order to prepare the ground for the planting. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on what it is that you’re trying to extract, because more often than not something needs to be removed from the soil before planting is able. Sometimes the greatest obstacle are those you have no control over, like the weather. The heat of the sun and the unexpected rain that passes through allow you to step back and reassess the process as to how to proceed, knowing that it’s out of my control and yet isn’t an obstacle that necessarily forces you to end the work of the day.

It is, though, what lies beneath that becomes the most challenging in the process, and quite possibly where our own humanity runs straight into its natural counterpart. It’s always what lies beneath the surface that becomes our most challenging aspects of life as well. Let’s just say, I have witnessed a variety of different bugs, inspects, and other creepy crawly things in the ground and quite often running through my fingers in the earth. At times I have wondered what it’s like being them, considering I am intruding on a space that has been there home and now I find myself intruding and turning it upside down. Of course, we’re often participating in the same process, of excavating the earth for future times, for what lies ahead, in order to allow all of us to continue to sustain ourselves on this planet.

However, the creepy crawly things are also within us and often the very places we try to avoid, our most vulnerable or tender places that frighten us. It’s not until someone gets their hands on them where it becomes unsettled and unearthed, witnessing parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily want to show the world for fear of rejection or not being accepted by others, despite the fact that we all live with the understanding that these creepy crawly things exist in everyone else but somehow think no one knows of our own. It’s not until we find ourselves tilling soil one day when we begin to see more clearly what lies beneath, what we’ve tried to avoid in our lives, when we can no longer run from what it is that frightens us because there it is in our hands, and more importantly, in our very hearts and we find ourselves with tears in our eyes. Somehow the excavating of the earth allows our own heart and soul to be excavated in ways that we never thought possible. All of a sudden we realize that our head just isn’t in the job but our heart lies exposed in the earth in which our hands lie, pulling and tearing apart roots that run so deep and creating space for something new to grow, a new life, a new love, a deeper reality that now exposed in the earth in which we work. There no longer exists a separation.

It’s not easy, but I guess no one ever said that it would be. One day we just show up in a very different place in life, trying to sort out what’s next and never realizing what would become unearthed in these ways, whether it’s a call to simplicity or a more radical way in which to live life, at the heart of all of it is the preparation, the work, the at times, back-breaking grind that never seems to end, only in the end to look out at the end of the day to see what was accomplished and hyper-aware of what it took just to get to the point of dropping a seedling or plant only to wait with great patience for a harvest that is assured. It won’t, though, without the preparation, the time, the effort, and quite possibly most importantly, the love necessary for anything to grow, including ourselves.

Without love nothing grows and the preparation becomes shallow, only breaking the surface without ever getting your hands dirty in the deeper reality of what lies within each of us, a field that desires to be planted with love, nurture, community, hope, trust, faith, and so much more, but without love there is nothing. No one gives up everything for a cause that isn’t rooted in love, especially doing the hard work of reaching into the depths of our own lives and literally touching the creepy crawly things that often frighten us because they have no name, moving us to a new level of intimacy with ourselves, others, and God. Once they’re named and once we find ourselves one with them, we no longer need to fear who or what they are but simply meet them where they are, in their own place, and love them all the more knowing that we till and unearth together, allowing each other to grow. We do it as individuals but more importantly we do it with others that we love. We learn the dance with love and for love in order to confront what lies beneath the surface in our own lives. Only then can we truly look out and see love. Only then can we look out and know the hard work we’ve done, together and in love, in order to hear our Creator remind us, “and it is very good.”

Avenge Not

**Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything about the movie read no further!

There are threads of movies, in particular hero and heroine, as well as all the great comic book characters, that stand the test of time of what even this blog’s namesake, the hero’s journey. The latest Avengers: Endgame is no different, maybe even more tied to the threads than many others.

From the very beginning of the movie, characters are put in a position of making the choice of going back in time. Of course, they go for a specific reason, but once they find themselves traveling back, there’s more to the storyline than simply picking up a stone. The characters, like ourselves, are often faced with our own life in moments passed. They are put in a position where, even at times, they need to confront their own life in those moments before they can once again jump forward to the present moment.

If life has taught me anything, the same is true for us. We can all face moments, like Hulk does, where he’s simply embarrassed for his level of rage in his past. All he could do is shake his head and move on knowing that it’s no longer him. However, he has to see it for himself, that that’s who he was in those moments, pick up the pieces, and allow himself to be even more whole as a character. In his first appearance he admits to finally accepting who he really is, no longer the human character but the green man who no longer needs to be tied to his own rage against himself. We all miss pieces in our own lives growing up, often at no fault to ourselves, but are necessary for us to continue the hero journey as well. Until we confront our own self, even in past memories, it is often quite difficult for us to move forward as well. We continuously fall into the same traps in our lives, leading to more suffering, or as it is with Hulk, a raging against evil in the end is simply a rage against ourselves.

There is the unexpected turn, though, of Captain America, who appears to live with some regret in his own life as he goes back to pick up pieces. There’s the possibility that he stands before the woman of his dreams when he returns to earlier days and begins to question how his own life had panned out. It’s not until later in the movie when we find out that it was more than simply a regret, often at the hands of being a super hero, recognizing that there was more to his life than “saving the world” and it was an experience of love that he desired more than anything. Although there is no turning back in our own lives; we are to live with the choices that we make for good or for ill, he found himself in the conundrum that many find themselves, living with regret and how do we change course in life so that we are more aware and more conscious of the choices we’re making so as to not live with regret in the future. When in doubt, so it seems, choosing love never seems to be the one to doubt but rather the one to act upon in life.

All of it, though, eventually prepares us for the final battle, the journey that goes even further into the depths of our being when we finally have to face our own mortality. There never seems to be any doubt that someone in the end is going to have to pay the ultimate price. Certainly, the major religions of the world are often centered around the mystery of life and death and the journey towards the true hero is no different. There may be no more touching scenes in the entire film than those with Iron Man and even his ultimate reconciliation with Peter Parker. For too long he blamed himself for the death of the kid and yet is finally given the chance, before his own death, the reconcile. There was a necessary healing that needed to take place in his life before he could finally let go of his own, his past, present, and future. As much as there is joy in the characters in the end, following the untimely death, it is a joy that is rooted in that very mystery of life and death.

Like so many of the other movies before, there is a difference in the characters in the end of the movie. Something has changed that is not always seen or explained; you just know it has happened. You know everyone of them, in facing their own past and learning to reconcile with it, confronting their own mortality, looking the demons of their lives square in the face, even death itself, their lives are changed. They become the hero in a variety of different ways, learning to reconcile, despite their own superpower, that they too have a shadow side that is a part of who they are and helps to define the character.

All too often the characters stumble over that shadow and do everything to avoid that reality. No one ever wants to rush in and face evil’s stalwart characters because they appear and seem to be larger than life. That part of ourselves that we often choose to avoid, the parts of pain and hurt, have a way of dominating our lives until we make the timeless journey towards hero and heroine. It is the people that choose that journey who become our mentors, spiritual directors, lovers, guides, and many others who have done the hard work of facing life square on. Rather than avenging against our own lives, the hero journey invites us to face it square in the face, despite the overwhelming darkness that it seems to hover over us.

Much can be learned from movies like Avengers: Endgame. It teaches us that tears on life’s journey are necessary to letting go and learning to engage the dance between life and death. In the end, something changes within us as well. Something changes for the better when we enter into the journey. There’s a depth to the wisdom that we acquire when we pick up the pieces of our lives towards wholeness, knowing that it will prepare us for the further journey and the battle with darkness and our own shadow that can drag us down. Ultimately, though, it frees us, our hearts and souls, from fear, even fear of what appears as the greatest enemy, death itself. We may fight it along the way, but like Hulk, at some point we have to learn to accept even the parts of ourselves that we have found grotesque for one reason or another. They often become our greatest tool and our deepest sense of beauty because we no longer need to fight the fight, raging against ourselves. Rather, we embrace the tension that exists between life and death, knowing full-well that it’s the journey to what we most desire, to be the hero and heroine of our own life story.

Miracles on Earth

One of the most unsettling things for someone like me is arriving in an unknown place, containing unknown people, and not knowing quite what to expect when you allow yourself to be open to wherever the Spirit may be leading in life. If there is any attachment to any sense of comfort and consistency, it’s probably the easiest and quickest way to unbalance the equilibrium of life. For an added bonus, take away the comforts of a life once lived, showering regularly and the such, and watch any sense of stability slip through your hands while opening yourself to a whole new experience and a whole new way of life being revealed to and through you.

I suppose it’s the nature of the incarnational God moment in Bethlehem that invites us into such a reality, where the most vulnerable becomes enfleshed in the very human reality, one that has existed from before the beginning of time, when we enter into this world and leave behind the confines of what has nurtured us and fed us in ways that we’d now learn how to do on our own. It’s often a painful process that invites us into becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable of our lives, pushing us to the brink of change and the consistent edge of seeking the unknown ways that God still desires to reveal in and through us. It is at Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem of our own lives, where that process begins to unfold in our hearts and souls, where not only us, but God becomes equal with, bridging the divide that separates the authentic being that we are and are so often stands in the way of living a life more fully in the gift of Bethlehem, that somehow even manages to find a way to conquer even death itself.

This week was my first week here at Bethlehem Farms in West Virginia. It’s rather appropriate knowing my own story these months that I’d find myself back at the beginning, in a place that takes pride in a name that recalls for us the gift given and continues to give in Bethlehem. There was and is nothing neat and fancy about Bethlehem, a child born in a stable, straw strewn with animal dung, odors that spill over into the creases of our bodies, reminding us of our humanity and the gift we share with all God’s creation, that there is nothing that separates and divides but we ourselves at times. It’s often in reconnecting with the most basic elements of who we are in the order of creation where we reconnect with Bethlehem in a more real and profound way, waking at the break of day, chores, daily routines, prayer, and of course, the sharing of meals that makes Bethlehem what it was and is, the heart and soul of who we are in God’s plan.

It’s all the discomforts of walking into those unfamiliar places, raising the awareness of our own shame and guilt for living lives disconnected from one another, from creation, and even from ourselves at times. Bethlehem, and the miracle of Bethlehem, like the celebration of birth in any of God’s creation, is it manages to pull us into the most present moment of our lives, where nothing else matters than what lies before us. The pain of such a journey begins to wane. The wonder and awe, dreams of a life given birth is all that lies before us when we allow ourselves to be open to the voice of God enfleshed in others, nature, the natural world, the animals, and all living creatures that when created were good, even very good.

There’s nothing quite as magical as watching life unfold, especially the lives of young people who have their eyes opened to something beyond the life they have lived. Even in their own experience of Bethlehem we have no idea when they enter the world how their lives will unfold, all we know is that it somehow happened in and through us along the way. It will be their own openness to a different way of life and allowing themselves to be connected in varying ways, where they too can find themselves questioning the ways of the world, seeds planted beyond the beds of a garden, but in the hearts and souls of all who pass through the ravines of Bethlehem, looking for a new way of life, a different way of life, recognizing that there must be something more for them in life beyond the phones, games, and fast-paced world of success that never quite satisfies. Rather, finding the treasure of life and birth in the community gathered in prayer, in work, in meal, all moving towards the common goal of making the world a better place, a more sustainable place, and never quite being satisfied with the comfort, but finding comfort in the discomfort of Bethlehem that is always calling and beckoning to come forth to a new life in and through God. It’s the true miracle of Bethlehem.

Many walked through the bowels of Bethlehem searching for the “king” and a new way of life, somehow believing what it is they’d search for all their life would be found in a far distant land only to find that it lies within, that the gift of Bethlehem is in the birth of joy, compassion, and love in our own hearts. More often than not we will search in similar ways, believing that what it is we seek lies somehow and somewhere beyond us, taking us on a journey, at times, seemingly, thousands of miles away. It’s the nature of who we are as humans to seek what it is we desire beyond ourselves. More than anything we seek love and to be loved, only coming with our own oneness with others, with God, with all of creation, when we finally begin to accept that there is nothing, as Paul writes to the Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

The journey to Bethlehem is a long one, arduous at times, wanting even to turn around and go home to what was, questioning whether the journey is really worth the time and effort. In the end, as with any birth but certainly the vulnerability that God takes on in becoming flesh, it is only in that journey where we find our deepest purpose and truly what it means to love and to accept that love in return. Love stands as the only bridge to what separates, heart to heart, flesh to flesh, man, woman, and all creation standing together, hand in hand, reminding the world that great things happen in Bethlehem and because of Bethlehem. It’s nothing that any power structure or any powers that be will ever understand, for they live with divided hearts. It’s only in the great humility of Bethlehem where it begins to make sense, that there is more to life, more to a life once lived but now being summoned in different ways, more life-giving ways, that opens to door to a journey to yet another miracle. By the guidance of a night sky and illumined stars, it once again comes to Bethlehem, surrounded by the most obvious and yet most inconspicuous places, in the comfort of the uncomfortable, God once again gives birth.