Necessary Tears

“Jesus wept.”  John 11:35

Jesus wept.  It’s dubbed as the shortest verse in all of Scripture and despite its size has a way of packing a wallop to the crowds that are gathered at that moment.  It comes as the story builds around the death of Lazarus, his friend, and the questioning of the crowds as to whether Jesus is who he says he is now that he has finally met his match in death.  Sure he could heal the blind man but death has a hold that stands as much greater than blindness or so it would seem.  In that gatherings of jeers, anger, and spite, Jesus weeps.  He weeps.

Of course, though, that is what is seen with the eyes, tears falling down his face.  But tears are never just tears.  Frequently they come from a much deeper place within, a place of our own pain and loneliness.  Once again, he is misunderstood by the crowds and followers.  Once again, he is doubted.  Once again, he sees the lack of faith.  Once again, they can’t seem to get past their own judgment of what they have seen with their own eyes and move to greater depths within themselves.  When we do, we weep with Jesus for many of the same reasons.

More than once this past week I have been told to be angry.  At times, screamed at by people telling me to be outraged.  I’ve had it told to me on Facebook.  I’ve had it told to me through the news.  Heck, I’ve pretty much had it shown to me by the President and other political figures, be angry, and be angry for a reason.  After some time I began to think maybe I should be angry.  Maybe I should start screaming like so many on television are these days, at one another and with one another, with no path to understanding or even an inkling of listening to each other.  Yet, all I feel is sadness and tears, like weeping.  For everyone.

To this day I am most struck by the image of the young men in Charlottesville on Friday evening who had surrounded a gathering of ministers, practically holding them hostage, carrying flames with the looks of rage on their faces.  In symbolic fashion, holding hostage their own hearts from being moved and changed.  The last thing this situation needed was more anger, I thought.  I began to wonder how men of such a young age could be harboring such strong feelings of anger and fear in their lives, knowing full well that that is what I was witnessing with my eyes.  Deep down, though, anger and fear are merely masks, symptoms, of a much deeper hurt and wound that is often not visible with our eyes, including the hurt in my own life that I’m being invited into to seeking healing and reconciliation.  If I’m not careful and aware, it’s quite easy to react to it when it arises and lash out at the closest target, often the one who has embodied that deeper hurt of mine and where I continue to hold onto it in which I don’t want to look or see within myself.  It’s the human dilemma that we all need to face and confront at different points in our lives, individually and collectively.

As the week wore on, I listened to all the noise less and less and found myself wrestling with this reality in which we find ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t agree that the level of hate and the realities of racism continue to cast a shadow upon us because I do.  As long as there are humans we’ll face all of it.  Often people are simply looking for validation of their experience since so much of what we do and how we act happens on the subconscious level without us even thinking.  Raising awareness means the shifting to the conscious level, which is the only place we can deal with them, otherwise the wounds once again become buried within ourselves and the cycle of violence continues not only in the world but in our own lives, many times without us even being aware of it because it becomes are natural fallback, peeling back the scab over and over again.

If there is one thing I have learned through my own struggles and in facing my own violence toward others and myself is that there is no easy way around it.  My natural inclination is to shut down in the face of it until I can reckon with the reality, a reality which never disappears by not confronting it head on.  Dealing with our past is so often minimalized with, the past is already over, move on, as if I can just will my pain be gone.  I wish it were that easy.  However, the pain has a way of manifesting itself in the same ways, again and again, in our lives.  Rather than trying to tear it down and rid ourselves of it, we are often invited to understand it, allow it to surface, and reverence it with the healing it needs, almost always through tears, weeping for what it was and even for what it was not.

The great risk in life as a part of the human race is to become what it is we hate, when in reality, we often already are exactly that.  We live in this world filled with should have’s and could have’s, living with the disappointment that we’re not more than how we appear before others.  We live with the disappointments often because we deal with the same problems the same way and expect different results each time, casting amnesia upon us in the face of perpetual violence towards our brothers and sisters.  Through the use of our judgments, our own misunderstandings, our labels that denigrate fellow human beings to being monsters of sorts, in the end, gets us nowhere, often only validating the monster within ourselves that we haven’t learned to love.  In some ways, I’d rather live with the moments of loneliness that comes with being misunderstood, as it was for Jesus, rather than use him against another.  I’d rather live with the tears that come with not quickly reacting but first trying to understand the deeper hurt that is being aroused.  I’d much rather weep than fan the flames of anger knowing that there is a deeper pain in the others life than I may never understand.  I’d rather sit in silence and wrestle with it, knowing the expectations then placed upon me to react.  Jesus weeps, sure for the death of his friend Lazarus, as most do when they visit a grave.  But what we see never fully defines the depth of the pain and where it comes from within the other in those moments.  All we see is what we want to see most often despite it just being the tip of the iceberg of one’s life, including for the Christ as he weeps for and with humanity.

More often than not, the path to love and peace, a peace which is a marriage of justice and mercy, will never arrive in our own hearts until we learn to sit, quiet ourselves, doubt, question, and learn to accept even our own selves, short comings and all, which closes the gap between myself and the other.  The war that rages on beyond us as we see it is often the war within that we are invited to confront.  The more we separate, divide, demonize, seek winners and losers, the greater that gap becomes, creating the tribal mentality that Jesus himself often confronts.  I not only separate myself from others but I separate myself from myself.  It deepens the blinders we wear, invoking fear and insecurity in our lives, leaving us wandering through the desert, often unbeknownst to us.  In time, even for Israel, the tears began to arrive, not only for what had been done to them but what they had done to the other through their own pain.  In those moments, glimpses of that promised land that they desired became visible.

As a country, and I’ve written this many times before, we will need to learn to weep and weep bitterly.  Not select people, but each of us, individually and collectively.  America has never been what it was supposed to be and never will.  It’s not the chosen one.  It’s not the city on a hill.  It’s by no means perfect or somehow the greatest, all of which only feeds the illusion that we know better than the rest, avoiding the pain that lies within the heart of a nation.  We are country among 195 or so others.  We are 323 million of approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  And it’s all ok.  When we finally give up the illusions, the blinders, what it is we simply see with our eyes, we begin to see that there is something even greater about us that is not always visible to the naked eye.  As much as our heart continues to beat, it is by no means without pain and hurt.  That is very visible not only in Charlottesville but outside my own window, day in and day out.  There is a story that is dying to be told, from deep within, a story that desires to be free, and will continue to kill if it’s not told.  A human desires to be free.  Lashing out and violence will never lead to what it is we want and desire.  Rather, only through our own ability to weep, for what was and wasn’t, for what is and isn’t.  Yes, it is the shortest verse in the bible but in doing so packs quite the wallop of bringing healing and reconciliation that is desperately needed in my life, your life, this city, and well beyond.  Jesus wept.  For everyone.

Turbulent Truth

I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 22-33

If there is one thing we know about Matthew’s community and the community in which he writes it’s that they faced grave persecution.  It may have been worst for them more than anyone and so with persecution comes great fear as these outside influences put pressure on this community and on the followers of the Christ. We’ve unfortunately even made persecution into something pithy as abiding by rules and teaching but for them it was a fear of their own lives and this constant chaos and turbulence. You know, long before there was anything that we call ISIS or even hate groups we are familiar with in our own society, as well as gangs here in the city, there was the Roman authority and the religious zealots of the time of Jesus.  There was nothing merciful about them and they took out anyone that they perceived as a threat to their power.  Just before this gospel today of Peter walking on the water and the feeding of the crowd, John the Baptist is beheaded.  It’s one of the most heart-breaking stories in the gospels and all done out of fear and insecurity of those in power towards the ones who had the true power, the followers who had found freedom in Christ.

This is the context and the reality of Matthew’s community and so all that we hear, including this little snippet today, is somehow a message of hope to that community not to give up and to persevere in the storm.  So he gives us this image of the disciples being sent out onto the Sea of Galilee in the darkest part of the night, by themselves, and now in the midst of a storm.  Remember, this is not some boat that we’d see down in Harbor.  This is a piecemeal that they’d be familiar with and for Matthew, that boat was symbolic of his own community and what they are facing, the constant onslaught of storminess and turbulence from these institutions to somehow conform to them, to give into the fear and to give up the freedom as followers of the Christ.  It’s not just happening on the sea but is happening within them.  Of course, the message of Matthew is not to give up but to keep growing into that freedom and test the waters as Peter does.  But too much can lead to drowning.  Peter gains a little confidence walking on the water and in doing so quickly falls.  Matthew reminds them that they must not only fall on each other for support in these times but first and foremost to trust in the Lord.  Matthew is aware that all this noise from the outside and all the pressure that the community finds itself facing leads to blocking out that voice of the Lord, the quiet whisper deep within.  In that moment of chaos, Peter cries out and the Lord reaches out.  There’s hope in the midst of the violence of their lives and ours in this city as well.

As much as Peter began to drown, Paul finds himself in anguish for similar reasons or at least for what he is witnessing in the Roman community.  He describes himself in today’s reading as someone in anguish.  He has a deep love for this community and now sees the lack of belief and trust in the Lord.  They are giving into the ways of the world as a community and are giving into that fear and that pressure to conform to the ways of the status quo.  Paul often anguishes over being misunderstood by these communities.  He models for them what it means to live into that freedom of living in Christ.  It is what he is bearing witness and it so often seems to go on deaf ears.  Of course, the more he grows into will also lead to his own impending death as a prophetic voice and follower of the Christ.  Paul reminds the community not to give into the fear.  The fear seems to lull us to sleep, leading us to believe that we’re helpless and that there is nothing we can do.  That’s what the Roman authority and the religious zealots thrive on.  We may never change them nor the systems, but that can’t stop us from weathering the storm and not giving into the fear.  Sure, we may be different, but like Paul, we then stand as a witness to true freedom in Christ.

But we still have one more story today and that’s in today’s first reading from First Kings and the prophet Elijah.  We found Peter sinking, Paul in anguish, and now Elijah hiding in fear.  Elijah finds himself on the run.  His life is being threatened by Queen Jezebel after the slaying of the false prophets and now he’s beside himself.  Not only does he think he can hide from her he also tries to run from God and this prophetic call that has been given to him.  Much will also be demanded of him to remain true to himself and the eternal in the midst of much turbulence and violence, including violence against his own life.  But in the process of hiding, the great mount Horeb provides the space for perspective and context of it all.   Like Peter, when he finally begins to surrender his own fear and control, space opens within where he can once again hear the whispering voice of God speaking, assuring him of that presence in the midst of all this exterior noise.  He finds within himself, the eternal, to now go and confront and no longer fear the loss of his own life.

We aren’t much different than any of them in today’s stories.  We are often confronted with a barrage of noise that leads to continuous upheaval in our live, deeper fear of the unknown, and even in our own neighborhood, more violence.  I’ve had out on our front sign for more than a month now that in violence we forget who we are.  We not only forget who we are but we forget whose we are.  As I said, fear has a way of lulling us to sleep and into this deep amnesia.  We begin to believe that we do it on our own and before you know it the absence of mystery and this God becomes more evident.  We too easily give into this fear but as Matthew reminded his community, they are something more than that fear.  They have found that interior freedom needed to no longer be bound by the threat of the Roman authority and religious zealots.  In that sense, they will always be a threat and violence will continue to ensue.  As disciples and followers of the Christ, we are called to be that more and to not forget not only who we truly are but whose we are in Christ.  The call to conversion is for all of us, not to give into the helplessness and powerlessness in the midst of fear and violence, but to step up and be the voice not of fear but rather of love.

 

Pay Attention

Romans 8: 9, 11-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

From the time we are kids, we are taught to “pay attention” to certain things.  Of course, as kids it’s necessary because it often keeps us safe and secure even from perceived dangers.  However, as we age, it often grows into judgment, stereotype, even guilt and shame, that seems to dominate our lives where we begin to think what we have paid attention to is truth.  But over that time, despite some of its necessity early on, it begins to overshadow who we really are, hide our truest self from ourselves, often distorting our image of God, but also separating and dividing us not only from others but from ourselves as well.  It makes it nearly impossible to deal with problems because we try to fix what was caused by it in the first place.

It’s that place of hiddenness and what has been overshadowed where Jesus tries to lead the disciples in today’s gospel when he speaks of what has been hidden from the wise and learned but rather revealed to the little ones.  As is often the case, he’s speaking after an experience with the Pharisees where they once again found themselves in conflict with one another.  One way in which what we “pay attention” to rears its head is when things aren’t good enough or it’s never enough because the Pharisees continue to look through life through a rather narrow lens, which is what happens to all of us over time.  When it came to John the Baptist, they had problems.  When it comes to Jesus, it’s still not good enough for them.  More often than not they weren’t paying attention to the right things and got so caught up in the law that they become blinded.  It creates this tension and conflict and eventually to the violent act of the crucifixion.  He doesn’t necessarily react to their way but rather tries to expand the lens and understanding, which they often weren’t able to see but saw him as a threat to their way of life and thinking for that matter.

Whether you know it or not, it’s also what Paul speaks of in the second reading today to the Romans.  It’s probably one of the most misinterpreted passages in all his letters because we try to keep it only skin deep.  We probably have all heard it interpreted as “sins of the flesh”.  Like kids, that may work for a period in our lives, but that’s not the deeper meaning to what Paul is speaking of nor is it what he’s challenging them to pay attention to in their lives.  If we take out the word “flesh” from the passage and insert words like ego, what we pay attention to, or even that Pharisee within us, that’s more the point that Paul is trying to make.  Getting trapped in that place in our lives often leads to conflict and even hostility towards God and others.  It’s not a deeper life in the spirit as he speaks of, but one of conflict.  It ultimately is what Paul tries in his writings to lead people to learn to let go of; not their body, but their control tower, their ego, what they have been conditioned to pay attention to and yet now stands as an obstacle, which in other letters he also calls it.  This point where we don’t feel satisfied or things are never good enough, for Paul, is recognition that we aren’t living from the right place, from the divine, from the Christ within our very souls.  If we want to seek solutions to a world of problems, we must first be willing to make that journey ourselves and face our own violence and blindness.

It is the invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples and to us today as the gospel continues.  He says to come to him all who labor and are burdened.  Come to me all of you that are struggling in one way or another.  This invitation isn’t just about handing our problems over to God and somehow they disappear.  No, the invitation that Jesus gives is to move beyond the struggle, often defined by what we pay attention to, and move to the place of the Christ and learn to live from that place.  It is the place where the judgement and stereotype, division and separation, begins to disappear.  It is a journey inward and a journey downward, and quite frankly, a journey that takes great humility to finally begin to admit that maybe what I have paid attention to is not the fuller picture.  It’s learning to live our lives inward out rather than the outward appearance of things defining us, who we are, and what we do.  It is a path that is quite difficult but the only path to a fuller life and where we finally become agents of change in the world.

All too often we try to deal with problems in this city, community, country, and world, by doing the same thing.  It leads to people butting heads and as we have seen in this city, a great deal of violence.  We are trying to solve problems with what separates and divides rather than moving to this deeper place within ourselves that unites us with God, others, and even ourselves.  This city and our lives do not need more separation and division and certainly do not need more violence.  But it will continue if we try to fix things by an old mindset.  The healing begins with me and you.  The healing begins when I can finally begin to ask myself, “What am I paying attention to?” and is it leading to healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and a more loving posture towards God and people or does it simply dig in my heels and lead to further violence.  If our faith and our religion are going to have any impact on our lives, it’s going to require change on our part, change in what we pay attention to, and be led to the deeper places of our lives, people of spirit and soul.  That is how we begin to make a difference here and everywhere, including our own families, in becoming the agents of change, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, while learning to let go of what only continues to separate and divide.  There’s no more time for any of that.  It’s time for a new way, a deeper way of living where we bridge differences and live lives filled with love, healing, and forgiveness.  First and foremost, what is it you find yourself paying attention to in life?

Getting UnStuck

Exodus 34: 4-6, 8-9; II Cor 13: 11-13; John 3: 16-18

Despite the passage of centuries, I do believe that to this day Moses, people Israel, and the whole experience of the exodus and exile has something to teach us about our own lives.  Their story really is our story.  We know what it feels like to live in exile from others at times, even from God.  It so often seems, in such contentious times with Moses and the people, that they lose their ability to relate to one another and to God and move towards cutting themselves off, moving into this tribal mentality of winners and losers, where, in the end, everyone ends up losing.

The same is true for ourselves and the climate in which we live these days.  On many levels we’ve lost the ability to relate to anyone different than ourselves and have really exiled ourselves from one another or at least from people that we have deemed the losers, the ones that think differently, creating this divide, and like people Israel, we have become stuck.  We can’t relate to others and then for that matter, with God.

Think about their experience, though, in relation to ourselves.  Despite this newfound freedom that people Israel experiences following the exodus, they don’t know quite what to do with themselves.  It’s as if they had become accustomed to being slaves in Israel that they no longer know how to live.  They don’t understand what’s up with Moses and his seemingly strange experiences, but they also don’t understand God.  Keep in mind that this experience has impacted them on a very deep level.  They had gotten used to a God that seemed to abandon them.  They had gotten used to a God that seemed to reject them over and over again, and now as they move to this place of freedom, they don’t know how to act and they certainly don’t know how to relate.  They react to it all and create these false gods for themselves, grouping themselves and finding, at times, a common enemy in Moses for leading them to this place.  It’s simply their experience but so is being stuck as they seem to become in the throws of the desert for years to come.  As Moses tries to lead them to a deeper understanding of this God, a God of mercy and generosity, their hearts remain closed and they become, as he so often refers, the stiff-necked people.  As life changes so does the way we relate to others and especially to God.

This is what we encounter in this snippet we hear from John’s Gospel today.  In its larger context is an interaction with one of the more interesting characters in the gospel, Nicodemus who’s known for coming to Jesus at night.  At this point in John’s community, some fifty years after their formed, there is a great deal of contention and division.  We have certainly heard that during the Lenten and Easter seasons as Jesus often found himself in conflict with the leaders.  Well, Nicodemus was one of them.  He has his own way of relating in the life of the community as a Pharisee and is not yet willing to put that in jeopardy so he comes to Jesus at night.  As much as people Israel didn’t know what to make of a God that wanted to enter into relationship with them, even centuries later they still can’t quite grasp now this God who takes the form of one of them in Jesus.  It causes more tribal thinking, certainly among the Pharisees who had their own way and were stuck in that thinking.  For them there had to be winners and losers.  For Nicodemus, despite being one of them, he finds himself somewhat attracted to this Jesus guy and what he’s all about.  For John it is a process we go through, of letting go and reconciling, allowing ourselves to move forward in life with a fresh take on the way we relate to one another and to God, not in some distant universe, but right here in the midst of our own lives as they unfold.

In the end, it’s probably Paul that sums it up best for us in today’s second reading and provides us the tool to look at our own lives and the way we relate.  Just because we’ve related in one way all our lives doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or even the healthiest way.  Again, we see that on the large scale in our political system and the divides, people moving to the extremes.  Paul reminds us to mend our ways.  Reconcile with one another.  Love stands as the foundation of relationship and community.  Work towards peace.  Among other tidbits of ideas that he shares with us today.  If we continue to cling to a God that rejects, abandons, or shames us, it’s just probably not God.  There’s a better chance that we can relate to people Israel and find ourselves stuck in life, just as we find ourselves politically.  It impacts all of us and the way we relate.

On this feast of the Most Holy Trinity, maybe it’s time accept the invitation to be the fourth one at the table and being challenged to change the way we relate.  If we cling to tribal thinking, where we’re right and others are wrong, where truth becomes relative, where there needs to be winners and losers, well, guess what, we all lose and we are all losing because we’re being invited to move beyond our stuck-ness and grow into a deeper relationship that goes beyond ideology and politics, to the deeper reality of a God that continues to pursue a relationship with us from deep within our very being and through all creation we encounter.  Where are we stuck in our own thinking and understanding not only of others but of God?  That’s the place this God pursues us and desires greater and deeper intimacy with us, relating to us in a more profound and deeper way, with others, our community, and with the Mystery that continues to draw us to the place of mercy, generosity, healing, reconciliation, and certainly, love.

 

The Problem of God

Much has been written on the problem of Evil. It’s the ageless question of how to make sense of so much evil and destruction in the world and still believe in a loving and just God. One of the most famous of books was written by Jewish Rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writing of the process of trying to reconcile these seeming opposites in our lives. It’s a challenge for the most astute and keenly aware people, let alone those who have such sudden changes in their lives when it begins to feel as if everything is falling apart around us, when we feel as if we’re losing control over things, including our own lives and all that we have considered normal.

All of that is true, but I firmly believe that the struggle between God and Evil is so closely intertwined that it becomes not just a problem with evil as much as it is with God. It seems rather hard to believe that an issue in our lives is with God, but in my experience it’s so often more the reality, even in the face of evils and great suffering. Even in our political discourse in this country has a God problem, since politics and religion also have been so intertwined and institutionalized, parties often hijacking religious beliefs in order to support their own self-interest.

On the right, there is a very legalistic image of God that leaves very little wiggle room for encounter and the struggle with sin and human suffering, often leading to greater suffering but blinded by it. This view of God holds God tightly in a box, black-and-white, right and wrong, and so on and so forth. Sure, there are morals and boundaries that help us to function as society and are necessary in many ways, especially in raising future generations. However, that’s not an entirety of God. Quite honestly, whenever God is boxed in in that way there’s very little room for mystery and depth in life, God remains a distant reality that is always watching our every move. It often leads to a god of shame and judgement.

On the left, often quite the opposite. “Everything and anything goes” can rarely be sustained. There’s often more a pursuit of a utopia than of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches in the Gospel. It’s often a more acceptable means because at first it’s pursuit is good, equality for all and progress. However, it too has its shortfalls. In pursuing such a perfect place and institutionalizing it, we begin to lose the perfect and gradually no longer have a need for God, for the perfect is found here, in another ideology, but often at the expense of excluding others and thought that differs. We see this playing itself out in “safe spaces” and even the upheaval on college campuses of having opposing speakers come and voice opinion that differs. Again, if it’s of God, the factor of human limitation must be accounted for in our lives. It’s short-sighted in that it becomes yet another way to box God in but in a different way.

Both lack a desire for a seeking of truth and a deeper knowing, shallow in their approach when it becomes concrete and lived with such certainty. This problem exists in our politics but also in our churches around the globe, fearing a movement towards something deeper in our lives and using our own god to judge others and exclude. Sure, there is a problem with evil and we can name many of the atrocities that exist in our world, such as poverty, war, refugees, racism, and many others that have taught us to separate and to judge and to often believe in a God that isn’t even close to the deeper mystery that God truly is and can never be fully appreciated or experienced in our lives, managing to live patiently with the tension of these realities and learning to respond differently, not with ideology but with love.

What we’ve done over the past decades is to institutionalize these gods in one form or another rather than seeking the incarnate God in Christ Jesus. We have given them foundations that have become hard to break, but as time now presses on, we gradually see the collapse of the institutions on all levels, these internal structures that have defined us all for years now no longer serve the common good as gaps and divisions continue to widen. However, when it begins to happen, even in our own lives, and we are invited into something new, into deeper mystery, we fear the unknown and where it may be leading us because we have made them into gods for ourselves, giving us comfort and assuring us of some kind of known. All that we desire from religion becomes projected onto our institutions, which people no longer trust, which begin to make us feel boxed in, and become self-serving. Quite frankly, leads to an evil in and of itself. In other words, nothing to do with God but laced with godly language to cover-up. Both sides of the argument are just as guilty as the next for the death of God in this way.

If I’ve learned anything about God and myself over the years it’s that I am a hybrid of all of it. I am never, in this life, going to know and understand the fullness of this God in all God’s mystery nor myself or anyone else. There’s a lot I know from my own lived experience and suffering but there’s also a lot I don’t know. As a matter of fact, it’s that unknown that God seems to always be leading. At times I want to put up the gutter bumpers, somehow trying to maneuver a new territory and at other times desiring that utopia, where all is perfect, avoiding any type of suffering in my life but at the same time, rejecting the invitation to something more in my life. But we don’t live in a perfect world and somewhere in the middle this tension exists between the two which is mysterious in and of itself. It’s where my mind and heart are being invited to being opened to something new. But when I’ve institutionalized something that isn’t meant to be institutionalized, and quite frankly, is bigger than any institution, it becomes increasingly difficult to seek mystery, unknown, because as we hold on tight to what has been institutionalized and is in a dying form, we fear the unknown, and yet, the unknown is where God most often is and invites us.

The pursuit of truth and the ongoing call to conversion in our lives leads us to that place of tension and when we can no longer see or hear the other we’ve once again boxed not only God but ourselves in, closing ourselves off to that pursuit and a life of conversion, closed to finding not our way but a third way. I’ve seen it on both sides; we’ve all seen it on both sides. We have a problem with God because we’ve created gods we can hold onto and yet no longer trust. We have created gods that have been faithful to us to this point but now no longer serve us. Yet, rather than stepping back and allowing even a crack into our certainty, we hold on for dear life even though we know deep down that it’s not leading to life but further into darkness and death. It’s the ongoing struggle with the mystery of life and death that we all are, like it or not.

It’s not God, though, that’s dead or dying. Rather, it’s the gods, the golden calves, we’ve created and convinced ourselves of that are God, that are dying. They have been faithful to us but they’ve also helped create a sick codependency. They have brought us safety and security, in their own way, but have now stifled us from going anywhere. They have brought us certainty and total knowing, we like to think, but have closed us off to creativity and imagination. They have helped us pursue our agendas but at the same time forced us to settle form something less than we are as people. We convince ourselves that they have opened us up to freedoms and liberty, but in reality, have made us less free and bound, chained to our way of thinking. What they’ve done is closed us off to this deeper mystery we call God.

The death of something we cannot see and yet believe to be God is always a daunting reality. It’s almost easier to deal with the death of a loved one or a friend because of their finiteness. In order for us to get unstuck in our lives, as individuals and as country, then we must allow these gods to die and grieve their loss as faithful servants. Our faith, in its deepest liberating grace, moves us to that place in our lives, to let go of our addictions, not only to these tactile gods but also to our thoughts and our own institutionalized versions of these gods that have led to a deep mistrust. We are much more than it all because we are a part of this deeper mystery. We will always be limited and our ideologies will always be limited, but none of it should ever close us off to the pursuit of the limitless even in our finite world. That is not the pursuit of these institutionalized gods, but rather truth and this known and yet so unknown mystery we call God.

Jesus Christ, Public Enemy Number One

Lev 19: 1-2, 17-18; I Cor 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

What happens when the solution to our problems no longer works? Honestly, we have to prepare for it because the typical means of dealing with problems, these evils of the world, and so on, it is typically done through violence and fear. What happens when it doesn’t work anymore? Think about it, Jesus himself was public enemy number one. He was hated by the scribes and pharisees, as well as the political authorities of his day. He rattled their cages. He challenged the status quo. He preached this awful message of loving enemies, and yet, he was that person. For it, public enemy number one faces death, death on a cross. Why on earth would be we surprised that we would do the same thing? If we can do it to God, to Jesus, why not get rid of anyone and everything that stands in our way, our enemies. Yet, the message today is to love them.

So where do we begin. We first get rid of anyone with brown skin. We lock up black people. We bar Muslims. We can dump the President. We can get rid of Congress. There’s no need for the Church or any institution for that matter. Now, of course, we can throw in the press and the desire for truth and honesty. Let’s just get rid of everyone and everything that has become an enemy to our way of life. There is so much out there right now trying to open us to a place to look at ourselves and where we need to grow. But then what? When all else is gone, using the image that Jesus uses today, after I hand over my tunic and my cloak as well, I now stand naked, exposed, with no one else to blame for my problems, out of solutions, and after I use both my words and actions to take down the enemy, I’m left with myself and the greatest enemy of all, lying deep within myself, my own hurt and pain that I finally come to realize I can no longer outrun and no longer blame everyone else for in my life. If we’re willing to do it to Jesus, and none of us are innocent in this game, the only one left to destroy so often is myself.

Martin Luther King, Jr, in his sermon on this very passage said most of us live with “a persistent civil war that wages within”. It becomes the easiest of paths and the path of least resistance when we choose violence and hatred. It does make it easier, though, when we remove God from the scene. It’s the challenge that Leviticus faces in the first reading today. The writer speaks and writes of a God that is distant from the world. It’s so often easier to justify our wrongdoing and the bitterness that we hold onto in our hearts. It is so often that Christ within that tries to rattle all of our cages, moving us to a place of freedom in our lives where we can begin to deal with the injustices of the world and of our country. We mustn’t allow the oppressed and those who feel oppressed become the oppressor in return. If we are not living in that place of freedom ourselves, we so often resort to violence, and no, maybe not always physically, but with our gossip and talking about others behind their back. Violence doesn’t come just in the form of war, but often from our own mouths. That civil war becomes a persistent part of our lives when we desire to move to the place where we can love our enemies rather than destroy.

Paul warns of destroying God’s temple, which I am and you are and the community is, with Christ as the head. Paul warns them about taking advantage of those who may feel oppressed in the community of Corinth and beginning to think that somehow it’s about me and what I want rather than recognizing that we become instruments of God’s grace, a God who works through and with and in us. When we keep God at a distance we can put ourselves in that place of power, a power that is so then often abused and so the war begins of trying to take out anyone that stands in my way. Jesus was public enemy number one and if we’ve done it to him, who’s next? What happens when this solution to our problems, the deep hurt and pain we so often want to hold onto, no longer works, when we find ourselves, as individuals and as country, standing naked before the true God and the world, with no one else to blame for our problems, but now exposed for our own pain. It’s a humbling place to stand when we no longer have to fight that civil war and we can learn to love our enemy.

Sure, there are plenty of enemies in our world and plenty of evil at play. But the journey of faith that Jesus invites us into these weeks, leads us to that place of pain and the place of humility when I can finally begin to see that that damn enemy that I have been fighting all along is right within me, looking for attention and to be loved. Jesus understood first-hand, knowing that he was that enemy to so many, or so they thought. If he teaches us anything, it’s that when we allow ourselves to go to that place of pain and ask ourselves why we do hate and why we even desire to have enemies and what it is about them, we can finally hold the mirror to ourselves, individually and collectively, and realize it’s not a solution that we desire, but rather healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. An alcoholic will always think that alcohol is the solution to his problems, but in the end, it’s a destructive end to himself and others. Hurting people will always think that violence and “getting rid of” is the solution to our problems, but in the end, it’s destructive to ourselves and others. Sure it may give an immediate gratification and stroke our ego, but it’s never a long-term reality of the Kingdom that Jesus preaches.

The civil war will only persist in our lives if we don’t first deal with the enemy within ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to project it onto the world, continuing to hate and to hurt. We must live a life of resistance that heals, a resistance that forgives, a resistance that leads to a deeper love. That is why this gospel stands as one of the most difficult and most challenging that we hear all year. It’s not easy to love people around us sometimes let along those whom we have deemed enemy. It’s a sad way to live our lives when we give into such hate and violence. When we resist the temptation, and it will always be a temptation, to retaliate and exact revenge, we finally move to that place of freedom, free of any oppression in our own lives, to then begin to tackle the real problems that exist. Hate leads to more hate. Violence leads to more violence. It’s time to accept the challenge for all of us to hold that mirror up, with public enemy number one looking back, leading us to a place of love, forgiveness, and healing, first in ourselves and then for the salvation of the world.

Living With Uncertainty When Certainty is Expected

I question almost everything in life. No, I wouldn’t and don’t consider myself a skeptic by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a seeker and someone who’s always looking for a deeper truth in almost any place I can look. There isn’t a stone unturned that isn’t examined from every different perspective imaginable, despite the fact that the stone will always be a stone. In moments of questioning, as I do, there is always a truth to hold onto; the stone remains a stone, even if smashed. Just the same that, who I really am, in the eyes of God, will always remain, no matter how much it feels like what I have known is also falling apart.

It’s easy to analyze a stone, but when it comes to our lives, we live with a much greater amount of uncertainty, despite our most basic of instincts wanting to grab onto something we can be certain of, bringing us some sense of peace, albeit momentarily, in moments when it feels as if everything is falling apart around us. I only know it because I’ve been there in my own life, my natural inclination to return to what I am most comfortable, not wanting to live with the uncertain and the uncomfortable. It’s as if, at times, where in my life I am playing a game of ping pong between the two, not always wanting to sit in the tension of the two, in finding another way of going forward. However, more often than not, even that feels like the unknown and uncertainty in my life because we have become so accustomed to our own way of thinking, tribal thinking, nonetheless.

We all want to belong. It might be the one thing we can be certain of in life. It begins with our desire to be a part of a family, and then peers, coworkers, church, political party, for it gives us some kind of definition in our lives and also provides us a platform to stand upon and something to stand up for in our lives, especially if we haven’t found our own voice. It gives us the certainty that we want in life, that helps to keep us feeling safe, despite its very rooting in fear. What we fail to see is that so much of it isn’t worth standing for and yet we’re willing to go to the stake for it, defending something that merely lies at the surface of who we are and never moves to the deeper understanding of our soul, of our identity in Christ and who we are as people.

I have found myself struggling greatly these days, in particular for a man that does question and seeks deeper meaning in life and in the world. I have found myself struggling with our inability to see ourselves in a different light, where we have gone wrong and where the Gospel demands us to look at our own fragility and shadow side that only seems to loom larger with each passing day and week. I struggle with how we can be so certain about where we go as a country, often locked in our tribal thinking that only seeks to destroy us as a people, when, even in my own life, I am almost never certain of direction. Something is dying and yet we fear it so greatly that we must clamp down on what we know and what we’re certain of, all the signage that has defined us as a tribe, digging our heels in all the more rather than allowing ourselves to sit without reacting and learning as to what it’s revealing about me and my life and what I’m holding onto and where I need to let go, a nonviolent resistance towards myself. Whether we like it or not, we don’t need to build walls as a nation because we’ve already done it with each other and our tribes. The mere desire of building walls rather than bridges should not surprise us, for that is what and who we have become and now we reflect it outwards. For all intensive purposes, the wall has already been built and each of us has helped to lay the bricks over these years.

Sure, maybe it’s not our tribe that wants to build walls, cutting ourselves off from foreign land. That doesn’t exclude me from my own fears and building of walls in our own ways. If it’s not our bricks we can almost be certain that it’s our cement that is helping to hold it together. We become name callers and step onto the world stage with a pride that dampens my ability to see the other as myself. We demonize and put down and think less of because of my own certainties rather than questioning and opening myself up to the possibility of doubt. In this quest for deeper meaning, it becomes unsettling and raises anxiety for our humanity, and maybe because of such tribal thinking, we must always view everything as winners and losers, and yet, when we do we all remain losers, giving into our own fears and continuously reacting, out of our own fear and often self-righteousness, while gradually cementing the walls of separation, each certain of the answers and direction yet neither seeking “a more perfect union” but rather a win for my America, not ours. A win for my tribe, not the common good.

Do I see walls as an obstruction, of course, but I also believe we live in a finite world, often plagued by sin. Do I believe that when the dignity of any human person is being violated we must, if anything, be open to providing out of our abundant resources, absolutely, but I am also aware of my own mortality and fragility in always getting it right. It’s what makes me question and seek deeper understanding and meaning and to examine that stone I’m ready to throw from all different perspectives before I cast judgment, knowing I may have missed a perspective different from my own. I also believe that we must also serve our own. I see them daily from the comforts of my office window, encountering them as they go and wait, often times in the biting cold, waiting for food. They’re not moochers and lazy, they’re my brothers and sisters to whom it’s often more comfortable to journey with in life. That I am certain of; so much else doesn’t matter much anyway, many times simply seeking the necessities of life.

It’s easy to talk and it’s easy to cast judgment from behind my computer screen; really easy. I hike myself upon my high horse and cast the stones that I have accumulated, building a wall around myself, a tribe of one at times. How easy it can be to start throwing, free of reason, free of reflection, free of understanding, free of love, and yet, not free at all. That’s the irony of so much of our circumstances and the way of thinking that has plagued us. We fight for freedom for all and yet we’re not even free ourselves. I’ve learned that so much is theory, even the Gospel, until we have that personal encounter with the other who hurts and who we have walled out over time. I think of the homeless I have ignored. I think of someone who looks different that I feared. I think of someone who spoke in derogatory ways when I didn’t speak out of fear or wanting to be liked. Then the encounter. Then the uncertainty. Then the breaking down of the walls and ego. Then the change of heart. Then the comfort with mystery and unknown. Then the discernment. Then the nonviolent resistance. Then the real change that is needed.

All too often we pick and choose what it is we think is most important and what we’ll speak out against, so often as it’s been defined and spun for us, but at the heart of all of it are fragile human beings, often used and abused as consumers to get what we want for our own gratification and to stroke our own ego. Over the years, in particular since 9/11, we have gradually laid bricks and cemented them into place tightly around the heart of this country that found itself deeply wounded, an innocence lost and taken away, trying so desperately to fill that void with something, with a certainty we think we once had, the city on a hill, the beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It’s time we “tear down that wall” and no longer band-aid what has ailed us as a country. My fear is we will only continue to build the walls higher and with stronger cement; but one day Troy will fall, as every empire eventually does in time, when it can no longer sustain it’s own perceptions and illusions that it thinks it is, an illusion of strength, an illusion of superiority, especially when everyone else knows otherwise.

You can only avoid your own pain and hurt for so long before it catches up with you. That I am certain of and have experienced. The greatest challenge is, that when that uncertainty and doubt begins to creep into our lives, as it always will, that we don’t quickly react to it, laying yet another brick and stone; rather, to respond to it with love, for it is only love that begins to crack walls and move us forward and inward to our deepest identity that promises life and death, always uncertain and yet seeking, discerning what is necessary to lead not to more certainty to hold onto, but rather, the wings needed to fly above and beyond while descending me to greater depths of meaning and understanding while encountering my own deeper humanity in the other.

It’s not about our tribes and this reptilian brain that wants to trap us into our way of thinking and this need for certainty. Rather, it’s about our consciousness of it happening within me and setting it free. Then, and only then, do I begin to find the space necessary in my life for certainty and uncertainty, known and unknown, fact and mystery, superficiality and deeper meaning, tribal and yes, our truest identity, all of us, that holds all things together in Christ. That is why I question. That is why I seek. And for me, that is what it means to live with faith, with uncertainty, when all too often people demand certainty. If I’m so certain, I then question where God is in my life.