A Soul’s Opening

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet                                                                                      confinement of your aloneness to learn

anything or anyone that does not bring you alive                                     

is too small for you.”                          David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

There’s no doubt that the Western Frontier has always been associated with exploration and even facing the great unknowns.  Many left what had been known because of an aching in their own soul, looking for something more in their lives and headed West.  It’s a part of our history as a country but it is also closely associated with a deeper reality of who we are in trying to find our soul in a world that often lacks depth and meaning.  For myself, there has always been a radical opening that takes place within myself when I go West, as if I encounter, for the first time again, the wide and vast area that has yet to be explored or taken over by human innovation, still holding onto the natural that has a way of speaking, or even screaming at times, to places deep within ourselves when we confront in the lived reality what’s really going on within ourselves.  As much as I think I know myself, or God for that matter, I am once again knocked down to a world yet explored, a world unto myself and yet far greater at the same time.

As humans, there is probably nothing that scares us more than confronting those places within ourselves.  At times it seems as if it’s easier to see such vastness and emptiness projected on the frontier to make the task less daunting.  What scares us more than anything is that we may just be proven to be a fraud in our own lives, not living up to the expectations we have placed upon ourselves or others have done for us over time.  Whether they come from the roles we play in our family or in our daily lives, the more we separate ourselves from the last frontier and all it has to offer in exploration, our soul and its vastness, the more daunting it begins to feel to any of us and quite frankly, the less satisfied we become with our lives and the lack of depth and meaning that often becomes associated with it.  It has a way of reminding us of our own shared creation, grounding us in something much deeper than what the world has to offer.

When I spent last week visiting the West, in Colorado, I knew that I couldn’t leave without some time exploring some of the most beautiful spots this country continues to offer, places like Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Seven Falls, and simply the experience of driving through the high desert area that never ceases to catch you off guard by its unpredictability.  It’s probably the least we can do for ourselves, in our lives, especially when we become so conditioned and domesticated in what we do and when the mundane seems to become the norm of our lives, the loss of mystery, adventure, and unknown, to go out and explore.

So there I was, wandering the Garden of the Gods, at times simply being overwhelmed by the vastness and the intricacies of it all, driving through narrow cutouts, feeling lightheaded by the altitude, a mouth parched from the aridness of the air around, the feeling of being vulnerable as I wander alone in places yet explored.  Will I find my way back to my car?  Do I have enough battery life in my cell phone?  Would someone be able to find me?  Of course, all fear and anxiety I was placing upon myself!  As crazy as it seems, though, the deeper I moved into the area the further I wanted to go, to see, to experience, to understand, as if something within me became enlivened in those moments, knowing that I am no longer bound by the routine and the known, but being invited into the last frontier, the wild west, one more time in my life, and for that matter, my own soul.  For a few moments it seemed to be inviting me to escape it all and reconnect with a deeper reality just now being revealed.  It’s as if, once again, for the first time, you begin to look at life through a different lens that begins to expand and yet mirror how small we sometimes become in our daily lives.

The whole experience was somewhat overwhelming to the point of tears, as if love was revealed again in a different way, a more profound way, and yet questioning whether I could ever accept such a gift that was being revealed in those moments.  In the distance, the snowcapped mountains gleaned, mounds of stone perched, empty vastness that seemed to go on for miles, and there I stood so small before it all and merely an instrument trying to put into words that which could not be described but only experienced, a moment that could never be captured by camera or phone, but one that only speaks soul to soul, that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.  There it was, in a single moment, where all seemed and felt to be one, not wanting to end, not wanting to separate, not wanting to leave but try to absorb a beauty unlike any other.  There I was, not only witnessing what was lying before me but also within me.  It’s times like that when my own fraudulency is revealed and an invitation to go deeper, further, opens up to something more, a deeper understanding of me, God, and love, when what I had become accustomed to no longer was enough but called out for more.

Like most experiences, I go thinking it’s for one reason, to celebrate and vacation a bit, spend time with friends, but a change of place, time, landscape, the normal, has a way of breaking down our own defenses, our own walls we build, to open us up to something new that we could never have expected or even know we desired.  Yet, when the soul becomes dissatisfied and desiring more, it will awaken us to our own complacency and once again invites us to go West, to the great unknown, to open us again to life.  We can all become beat down by life and the challenges that we encounter, relationships that can deflate our souls, but we’ll never be satisfied with anything less than what it desires of and for us.  In those moments of exploration and the loud silence that ensues, we make that promise that we’ll never settle and never be satisfied with anything less for our lives as co-creators with Mystery, with God, with the great unknown that the West has to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Deepest Love

 

 Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17; John 14: 15-21

 

Near the end of Beauty and the Beast, there is a scene where all the characters, the candlestick, the clock, piano, and all the rest realize that time no longer seems to be on their side and that this spell that they had been put under, hardening all of them, may soon be an eternal reality.  They’re left wondering as to why, though, because they realize that the Beast has finally learned to love Belle and yet it hasn’t broken the spell.  One of them comments that it wasn’t just about the Beast learning to love after living a life of using people for his own self-interest while looking down on others that he has seen as less than himself.  However, it wasn’t just about the Beast learning to love Belle it was also about her loving in return.  In those moments when time seems all but lost, hardness seems to be their fate.

 

Love tends to be a word that we throw around quite easily.  As a matter of fact, in the world and culture we live it seems that we have grown much more accustomed to loving things and using people.  It seems as if we love things that we can’t seem to live without but people can often become dispensable.  In order for love to deepen, as couples that have been married for years can attest to, often comes from a great deal of sacrifice, letting go, and surrendering, in order to move beyond the superficialities that we often become attached to in relationship.  It was the problem of the Beast.  He loved what others had, how they looked, while growing more deeply hardened in his own heart that he was no longer open to this deeper love, until he finally has to let go of the one he had experienced love with in Belle.

 

This deeper love is where Jesus tries to move the disciples in their own call to discipleship as we move to some of the farewell discourse of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  This message of love seems to go on for chapters in John’s gospel but even they won’t necessarily understand what it’s all about until they walk through it themselves.  The experience of Jerusalem will do nothing but strip them of their own attachments and expectations of who this Jesus was and is.  They will learn first-hand the depths of his love for them and us as they witness that love poured out on the Cross, where water and blood flow. 

 

We know, first-hand ourselves, by our reading of Acts of the Apostles that they too move to this deeper place of love in their own lives, being freed of their own hardness and self-interest.  As a matter of fact, they become more attuned to it in others and aren’t so quick to give it away, this Spirit of Truth that Jesus speaks.  No, not even what we have made truth to be, facts and knowledge; but rather this deep knowing that love is all we need in our lives and it’s love that breaks that hardness, pursuing us until we surrender.  They face that reality as they enter Samaria today and encounter a young man who wants what they have.  His name is Simon the Magician.  His story is smack dab in the middle of what we hear today with Philip but they find themselves leery of Simon.  Like the Beast, he simply wants what they have for his own good, to make money and to use people, violating them in their own vulnerability.  He wants power on what he sees that they are capable of but really not love.  There is no mutuality in order for the love to grow, the give and take, and so they refuse.  They lay hands on the rest of the community.

 

For them and for this who process of forming disciples, it was about keeping them connected to their center.  In the everyday world it was about Jerusalem and the experience of love poured out on the cross, where their lives were transformed.  But even for us it’s about finding that center within ourselves as love moves us to this deeper reality, leading us to the sacrificial love of letting go and surrendering.  The more we allow love to move us to such deep places and to break through our own hardness, even if it doesn’t seem like time is on our sides, love still grows and frees.

 

As we move to these final weeks of the Easter season we live with the same challenge of recognizing and being aware of the places that remain hardened, entombed, in our own lives.  Where are we not being open to receiving that love.  We all know what it feels like when we’re rejected by people we have loved.  We know what it’s like to hold grudges and hate, simply as a way to hold power over others, or so we think.  We certainly live in a world and culture that thinks that’s the answer.  We settle for war.  We settle for violence, even in our own lives at times, all in the name of what we think is love.  Like Beast and Belle, there is a mutuality to this deeper love in which we are called to be.

 

The call to discipleship and missionary disciples, going out as the early disciples we hear of in Acts of the Apostles, challenges us to evaluate our own lives and our own ability to receive and give this love.  This season has been about conversion and transformation, to create space in our hearts to be open to such love and to begin to see people for who they are, fellow journeyers in this world, trying to make it work, and without a doubt, aware of their own deepest longing to love and to be loved in return.  It is the tale as old as time, not only for Beast and Belle, but for each of us.  Over time we have a tendency to become complacent and crusty, hardened as the characters were in that story.  But we do believe in a God that never stops pursuing us and never stops breaking through that hardness, realizing we are never but satisfied by anything but love.  It may not come in the ways we expect or even want at times, but without a doubt, no matter what remains unfinished in our own lives can be transformed by and into love.

 

Rubber Hits the Road

Acts 6: 1-7; IPeter 2: 4-9; John 14: 1-12

For the first four weeks of Easter much of what we’ve heard from Acts of the Apostles were these great speeches of Peter on Pentecost, reminding the people of what they are about as followers of the Way.  It’s about Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and the descent of the Holy Spirit moving them forward.  He was a witness of these events and expresses that experience of this paschal mystery, as the Opening Prayer eluded to today.

But today the rubber hits the road.  We all know from our own lives and experiences that all the talk of Peter can be just talk when it rubs up against the realities of people’s lives.  Despite Peter reminding them of who they are in this deeper inherent dignity that they share in the Christ, today it appears that it’s about to all fall apart around them.  There are these two groups referenced to today in Acts.  There are the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking followers and the Hebrews, the Aramaic-speaking followers and those who we might refer to insiders.  Many were witnesses of the events and hold true to the letter of the law and it begins to push against this new-found freedom of the Hellenists who are taking the community in another direction.  It creates this tension and animosity between the two all hinged on this prejudice that the Hebrews have against the Hellenists.

All of this, over the fact that the Hebrews wanted nothing to do with the Hellenists and wouldn’t help to take care of those in need, in particular, the widows.  They were blinded by their own prejudice and couldn’t recognize the need of the other.  It puts the disciples in a difficult place and they feel overwhelmed by what’s happening and fear an early split in the community and so find a quick-fix.  They appoint and anoint Stephen and these other, now what we call, deacons, to care for the widows who are being neglected.  However, they too are Hellenists and so on a deeper level they never address the real issue.  They don’t address the issue of the prejudice and find a fix to the problem.  It won’t go away, though, and will eventually lead to the first council of the church, the Council of Jerusalem where this tension will come to fruition and will become the stumbling stone to so many of the folks who only saw things one way, creating their own letter of the law, their own blindness.

It is that stumbling stone and cornerstone that Peter speaks of in today’s second reading.  Paul uses that language in his own writings and quite honestly, the stumbling stone and the cornerstone are one in the same, Christ Jesus and what it’s going to be to be followers of the Way.  The resistance they face in that early community is often resistance we face in our own lives.  We become so attached to the way things are done and what we have deemed as the only path that one must follow that we become blinded by our own narrow-mindedness.  It becomes our stumbling stone without even knowing it half the time because it becomes so entrenched in our lives that it becomes our own prejudice that we fail to see.  Like even the early community, for many of us we’d rather die than face the change in our lives that would lead to a fuller life.

That has been the over-riding message of John throughout this season and will be the Way that the disciples will now have to face and decide if they’re willing to confront as the approach Jerusalem and the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus is well aware of the difficulty of choosing to follow the Way and so offers words hope to a make-shift community that is about to experience pain and that stumbling stone in the Cross.  Of course we know that they pass through and experience that same freedom as the Hellenists but doesn’t mean it gets easier.  They will quickly learn as a community that this paschal mystery that we speak of is not a one-time deal but a lifelong process of conversion.  The community will have to learn that it must die and recreate in order to become the new creation that the Gospel has spoken of these weeks and to bring to fruition the words of Peter the past few weeks, that deep down, despite this prejudice that has existed and this tension that has risen up in the community, there is this inherent dignity that lies at the heart of who they all are, Hellenist and Hebrew alike, that can only be realized in this process of conversion and transformation, this process of cycling through the paschal mystery of life and death and life again.

It’s not easy for any of us and quite frankly, we become our greatest stumbling stone to change.  Our blinders become so think that we often fail to see the more abundant life that we are created for and allow ourselves to die for the letter of the law.  We become trapped as individuals, community, even nation and world, when we don’t open ourselves up to these tensions and allow ourselves to fall into them.  It’s messy and it’s difficult but it is the path of the Way and it’s what the followers of the Way had been called to.  Sure, maybe there are different paths, but at the heart of it all, when the rubber meets the road, first and foremost it is about conversion and the transformation of our own hearts, creating space within for the Mystery to change us, free us, and lead us to a more abundant life as individuals and as community.

 

Life’s Narrow Gate

John 10: 1-10

One of the final scenes of the movie Up is of Carl, the old guy who is just besides himself, wallowing in his grief.  He lost his wife before they could ever make their way to their dream vacation, Paradise Falls.  It’s all they ever wanted.  Yet, over and over again something happens, life happens, and it never happens and then her life is cut short.  He’s a grieving man who’s lost so much and is now at wits end with the young boy and the bird that have led him down this path that he just doesn’t know what to do.  They have a big fight and go their separate ways, leaving Carl to return to his house.

But something happens at that house that he’s tried to fly to Paradise Falls with balloons.  He begins to look at albums and realizes he didn’t know the whole story.  He was so trapped in his grief and in the way things used to be, his expectations of that dream vacation, that he had lost sight of the bigger picture and realized it was time to let go.  It’s one of the best scenes of the movie because you see him start to throw out the furniture, throw out anything hung on the walls, anything that was nailed down had to go out the door and gradually the house begins to fly once again, not to Paradise Falls as he thought, but a return to this makeshift community that he had grown to love.

It’s what we encounter in today’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd as well.  It’s not the cute, stained glass window good shepherd that we have become accustomed to over the years.  If you go back to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, this is the follow up to the story of the Man Born Blind which ends up in a fight between Jesus and the Pharisees and the staunch insiders that are wound so tight that they too lose sight of the bigger picture.  They think they know it all.  They have their eye on what they think is Paradise Falls, which more often than not was doing things as prescribed in their own way, and yet they grow angry and tired of this Jesus and today is really the continuation of his response to them after he tells them they are the ones that are blind.

Like Carl in Up, as time goes on and they allow things to become attached internally, their vision becomes more narrow.  They become blinded to the true paradise falls, or in John’s case, a return to the Garden of Eden, and the challenge it is to move to such freedom in life.  So once again, even though they still won’t get it, he uses this image of sheep, shepherd, gates, and all the rest which aren’t anything we’re accustomed to in our society.  They best I can come up with is if you’ve ever been to Ireland you can see rows of small stone walls that seem to go on for miles and then every now and then there is this narrow opening.  All the images used by Jesus, though, is taking what they see as derogatory and turning it upside down.  Early followers of the way or of the Christ were often known as sheep, similar to what in our own history we’d refer to people who might live differently or look differently than us might have been referred to as in life.  It appeared that they had blindly followed something that the rest couldn’t quite grasp because of the lack of depth in their own lives.  The followers, these sheep, had been led to the garden, the pasture, this place of freedom which only has one way through, and that’s through the narrow gate.  There’s no jumping over and knocking the wall down.  You can only through the narrow gate.

Like Carl, because of the narrowness of the gate it’s nearly impossible to take anything through with you.  The shepherd literally acts as the gate by lying on the ground and leading them across to this place of freedom.  We become weighed down by our own illusion of what this paradise is that we begin to lose sight like the Pharisees and the staunch insiders.  We begin to think that things can only be done in one way and no other way.  We begin to replace paradise with the American Dream and think it’s about accumulating, the white picket fence, and gathering things that begin to leave us weighed down rather than free to roam about in this life.  But the life and the life more abundantly that Jesus speaks of in this passage has nothing to do with any of it.  We keep trying to get to paradise falls with all our belongings and all we hold onto but end up stuck in life.  The path to a more abundant life that Jesus speaks of is often just the opposite of the American way of life, not about accumulating but about letting go.

One of John’s central themes is to move to this place of a more abundant life.  It’s not easy and it does come only with a passage through that narrow gate.  The path to that more abundant life is by living a life of conversion, of an ever-changing heart that doesn’t allow itself to become weighed down by fear, worry, anxiety, and all else that a life in this culture often leads us to each day.  The great thing about allowing ourselves to enter into this life of conversion is that on some level it gets easier.  The more we learn to let go of in life the less we try to carry through that narrow gate.  What makes the sheep so smart and how Jesus throws it all on its head is that more than anything, sheep trust that one voice, the true voice.  It’s where the Pharisees and the insiders get it wrong.  They worry about how it looks and all the externals of life, but the path John leads us on through the Christ in a dismantling of our interior life, just as it was for Carl.

As we continue this Easter journey on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we pray for the awareness in our lives as to what we still try to carry with us through life.  Where are we being weighed down and are hearts being weighed down by failed expectations, hurts, fears, and all the rest.  Like Carl, and the disciples, we often learn only by going through and not get comfortable with what we think is paradise falls because the Christ promises an even more abundant life when we learn to let go, cease control, and be led through the narrow gate.  We quickly learn, as did Carl, it’s no longer about getting to Paradise Falls.  Rather, it’s about living Paradise Falls in this very moment and quite often in the life of our own community.