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.

 

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.

Silence

For those who venture to enter into Silence, don’t be surprised if you find yourself leaving with more questions than answers about the struggle of faith of the lead, Father Rodrigues. Both him and Father Garupe, young priests with a sense of conviction, find themselves questioning where it is that God is leading them, firmly believing that they are being called to head to Japan, despite the known reality that they are to face of severe persecution, living in constant hiding, and the possibility of death as so many others had to face.

Father Rodrigues is a rather complex character throughout the story, especially in relation to the faith of the Japanese who are willing to go to their death because of their faith. Yet, throughout, on a deeper level, Father Rodrigues has this aching fear of death as he watches them, one by one, marching toward their own. Both Rodrigues and Garupe make this journey, despite the doubt of their superior, in order to seek out their once mentor who was believed to have renounced his faith. Garupe never makes it that far. From the beginning there seems to be an intersection of faith and lived reality for him, a disconnect that often follows Rodrigues throughout. Garupe’s blood will be spilled long before Rodrigues encounters their former mentor.

But for Rodrigues, it’s more than just seeking the mentor who, in his mind, could not have apostatized. For Rodrigues it was about seeking this truth that he becomes angered over many times in his questioning by the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor, who’s about as creepy as you can get, feels him to be arrogant. It may be the one quality of his that the Inquisitor is correct in identifying. That place of arrogance, which stands in the way of him finding the deeper faith, in the form of pride, becomes the place of rub for Rodrigues. He knows the truth, which for him, is a belief that he knows it all and is the bearer of it all, a gap between the intellectual faith and this faith he witnesses in the people, and in Garupe, for that matter, at times only seems to wane. He struggles greatly allowing this penetrating silence to enter into the depths of his heart and soul, to feel the pain and be one with the pain that the people experience.

The simplicity of the faith of the people only makes it a more stark contrast to what it is that Rodrigues seeks and believes. They seem to lack the fear that he has held onto about this God. It’s as if they know something that even he doesn’t know about the Christ, willingly accepting before renouncing. As the story progresses, Rodrigues questions time and again who it is that he’s praying to in the moment. He seems to simply pray to silence without any answers, despite knowing what he knows and questions who this God is. It is this God, or image, that seems to crumble with each persecution and death that Rodrigues witnesses but holds to so tightly. The Japanese believers, on the other hand, question who’s willing and able, living not from a strength that follows pride, but one that follows love.

In the end there seems to be no resolution nor reconciliation with Rodrigues. The look on his face mirrors a man who continues to angst up to the bitter end. In the end he too will have to confront his own demons of surrendering while beginning to know deep in his heart that he had done something wrong. He still hangs on to an image of who this God is supposed to be rather than opening himself to a bigger God, a God that can somehow even embrace a mentor who has disappointed and a friend who has betrayed, while he continued to allow perfection to stand in his way. The fear of the Japanese was that the spread of Christianity would begin to break down the world order that they had experienced and created, opening the door to questioning and revolt. Yet, they never much seemed to fear Rodriques, despite their persistence in persuasion. Maybe deep down they too knew of his own fear and didn’t see him as that same threat as it was for the people. It wasn’t the power of fear that threatened, rather, the power of love; and for Rodrigues, it was his deepest fear and struggled to accept.

Navigating Darkness

Matthew 2: 1-12

One of the movies I caught over the holidays was A Monster Calls. The story is about a young boy, Conor, who finds himself just overwhelmed by life and not able to take much more of it. His parents are divorced, he’s bullied at school because he’s become so isolated, and now the one consistency in his life, his mother, is dying of cancer. He has this ongoing nightmare where he feels as if life is slipping through his hands. There’s so much uncertainly that he lives in this constant state of fear, let along the anxiety and anger he’s experiencing because of this deep grief.

But he encounters this “monster” which is the tree outside in the cemetery that comes to life. Even that distracts him from the nightmare he’s used to. He begins to call upon it. He begins to realize that the “monster” isn’t out there in the cemetery, it’s deep within him. The monster keeps assuring him that he’s leading him to healing, to this deeper truth that gets lost in the darkness of despair and this ongoing lie that he’s holding onto that everything will be alright and his mother will somehow survive. He begins to learn how to navigate through the darkness that has so often consumed his life and learns to let go. It’s not easy for us adults let along a young boy trying to navigate.

This whole season has been allowing ourselves to wander and navigate that same darkness in our lives. Christmas does not expel the darkness nor does it somehow destroy it. We seem to operate in the world that we can get rid of it which only leads to greater darkness. These Magi we encounter today are learning to do the same in their lives. Even their navigation is a bit off, leaning on their own expectations of a king being born. They find themselves a few miles outside Bethlehem in Jerusalem, in what seems to be their final challenge in learning how to navigate this great darkness, the Herod that lies within.

Fear rules Herod and the land and it’s what the Magi now must face within themselves. He was a tyrant and often believed to have been paranoid in the end of his days. He too finds himself in a position where life seems to be slipping through his fingers and losing control. However, he doesn’t let it go. Rather, he takes it out on the most vulnerable, on the children and has them killed. It’s fear, darkness, and despair when it comes to Herod but a valuable lesson for the Magi seeking life, the newborn King. it’s a struggle for many of us, the darkness within ourselves that is so often easier to cast upon the other rather than learning how to navigate it all. Jerusalem will become that same place for the disciples as the story goes on. They too won’t understand the Christ until they first encounter that same darkness. It won’t come in the form of Herod but in the form of a crucifixion by others who are plagued by darkness. Jerusalem becomes the doorway to Bethlehem.

And so they find their way to the Christ. They offer their own gifts, in someways symbolic of their own journey and the darkness that they too had to confront. The journey to the Christ took them where they’d rather not go, where we would rather not go, but like God, we are often led without even knowing, into the great unknown, into this deeper reality of mystery. For young Conor and for the disciples, it was about seeking truth and truth leads to darkness and to life. He had to let go of what he knew. It was no longer about the head knowledge that we want to cling to and how it’s supposed to be or how we want it to be, but rather a deeper knowledge. It’s deeper knowing and truth that so often is beyond words but lies deep within, ever so gently navigating us through that very darkness that we have feared.

As this season of Christmas draws to a close, the journey really just begins. We’ll hear the call of the disciples to go deeper. We’ll hear the call to enter into this journey and to begin to learn to trust something deeper within themselves as they too are led to uncharted territory, where all that they have known begins to slip through their fingers. They will be left with the same choice as the Magi as the encounter the Christ. Do they leave it all at that crib, with great humility, life and death, or do they cling to what they can see, what they know, what they are comfortable with in life? It is what is asked of us as well. With God’s grace, we can learn to navigate the darkest of times, but we can’t deal with the darkness of the country or the world until we first begin to master it within ourselves. When we do, like the Magi, we can no longer go home the same way. The seeking of and finding of the Christ changes the course of our lives where we too go home by another way. It’s no longer about going home to what we know but into the unknown, into this deeper mystery. No, and not that physical place we call home, but deep in the recesses of our hearts and souls, ever so gently teaching and guiding us, while casting light, to navigate the darkness of our lives.

Seeking the Lost

Luke 15: 1-32

A baseball player by the name of Cory Brand (from the movie Home Run) has the potential of being one of the greatest in the game.  His problem, though, is he’s become a liability to the team and in many ways, to himself.  He has a history, like all of us, and his has much darkness to it as well.  It follows him around like his shadow and results in living a life of rage, anger, and alcoholism.  It eventually costs him his dream and will force him to finally confront the darkness, the lost places within his own life; the ones that so often just need to be loved.  He will have to seek out the relationships, the hardships, the hurts, and all that comes with the dark history before he can truly begin to find his potential and purpose in life.

Seeking out the lost is what this gospel today is all about.  Taken in its totality, it is often referred to as the “lost and found” gospel with the lost sheep, the crazy story of the lost coin, and of course, the parable of the two lost sons, both lost in their own way.  In hearing this gospel and these parables that are being told to the scribes and pharisees who are complaining that Jesus is “eating with sinners”, you could imagine that with each passing parable, their blood is boiling, reaching a climax with the older son, which in many ways is the pharisee in each of us…quick to judge, holding grudges, jealous, thinking we know better, resentful, thinking others don’t “deserve” the father’s love.  We really are all these characters, not only the older, but the younger as well who runs from his problems and wishes his father dead, like he’s not even there.  Can’t we see ourselves in these two sons and their lostness?  What is often lost in us is what we don’t want to see about ourselves, the fleeting younger son and the resentful elder are both there.

The main point of the stories though, of all three, are how the main characters go out seeking those lost parts to try to reconcile and bring wholeness back into the “fold”.  The shepherd seeks the sheep, the woman, in probably the most absurd of the stories in our day and age when none of us would look for a lost coin, and the father who literally goes out to try to bring back the lost sons, successful in at least one.  The father doesn’t do it by trying to coerce or convince these brothers that they need to come home, but rather confronts the lost parts of his life with love to where they want to come home.  Rather than running from our lostness or growing more and more resentful, the father in us must go out seeking those lost parts with love.  It is often love that has been missing in those lost parts and only love that can bring about that healing and reconciliation that can bring about the wholeness and holiness in our lives.

Like Cory, and these sons, we often have to hit rock bottom.  Our painful history will follow us wherever we go until we are willing to confront it with love.  The more we hate on it and run from it, the more bitter and resentful, and disconnected we become in life.  We desire that wholeness and holiness, but it can only come by seeking out the lost within our own lives and to love it.  When we can confront our own lostness with love, the call in seeking out the lost in the community will bring about new meaning and purpose.  Today we pray that we may have the courage to tackle our own history and the lostness of it.  That’s the thing, it’s exactly in those places in our lives that God is leading us and where grace is most abundant.  We can run or avoid, but like Cory, it will follow us like our own shadow.  To reach our fullest potential and to become what God has created us to be, we must seek that wholeness and holiness that comes from the abundant love and grace of a father seeking out his lost children, for that is who we are.

A Story for the Ages

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One of the greatest baseball films ever made is Field of Dreams.  One of the scenes calls on Doc Graham to cross over from the field of play to save the life of Ray’s daughter who had fallen and is choking.  The problem for Doc, though, is once he crosses that threshold in this life, there will be no turning or looking back.  He has to give it all up, all that he wants out of life and in playing baseball, to serve a greater purpose, his greater purpose; and not even his own desires and passions could stand in his way.

Much of our lives is about crossing those thresholds, even though we are not always aware of it because we’re in such a hurry to get to the other side; more to get away from one thing in order to get to something else, something that we perceive is better, without ever reflecting on what we’re doing, where we’re going, or better yet, who we are called to become, to find the greater purpose in our lives and then serve God by doing it!

Both readings today give some outline on that purpose and the need in life to cross the threshold.  We hear it to the community of Philippi, to whom Paul writes, and to the disciples that Jesus continues to prepare for the great threshold they too will soon embark on in their lives.  Like Field of Dreams, and us for that matter, the disciples will be called to build something–for Ray it is a baseball field in the middle of a corn field in Iowa, but with a greater purpose in mind, not his own self-interest.  The disciples will be called to build the Kingdom of God here on earth, as are we, and we see how that unfolds in Acts of the Apostles.  It was the same purpose that Paul was called to in his life, but he too had to cross a significant threshold, from one who was responsible for the death of the early Christians to becoming one of the most beloved leaders, attributed much to his ability to surrender to that higher purpose and painfully cross over.

He writes the letter today to the Philippians from prison, but because of this transformation and greater calling in life, not even the circumstances in which he finds himself will prevent him from living out that call.  Even in prison, he continues to live with purpose, and even goes on to tell them not to live with any anxiety in life; only someone with deep trust can live with such freedom!  He challenges us to seek out our own purpose and who and what gives us meaning, and our lives and hearts will attain the peace that is desired.

The disciples, too, will make that necessary leap as they move towards Jerusalem where God’s great threshold unfolds from death to life.  Jesus will go onto say to the disciples that they should rejoice that he will no longer be with them in the same way–not because he won’t be missed, but because when he leads them across that great threshold, they will begin to become aware that His presence is with them always because he too had fulfilled life’s purpose and now transcends it all.

Today you all take a courageous step, off into the unknown future of life, and quite frankly, one of the greatest times to spend finding yourself and what gives you meaning and purpose.  If you do it well and allow yourself to be open to the process, you will eventually, in time, become a story for the ages.  Which of us wouldn’t want such greatness?!?  It will come with many joys and great struggles, but by staying true to who you are, you will cross that threshold of life boldly in the years to come.  But like Jesus, you won’t be forgotten.  Your spirit as individuals and as a class will now live eternally in the walls and halls of Goretti; that is what we are assured of as people of faith.  You now become part of something that is even larger than Goretti; like Jesus, the spirit of this class ascends to the ranks of all who have gone before you off into the threshold of life.

Crossing these thresholds can be painful not only for you, but also for those who now have to let you go in order to do that.  So be patient with your parents and others; it will be a big adjustment and a big change because they know from their own experiences that once you leave, there is no coming back to this moment or to who you are at this moment, still their little sons and daughters.  You are forever changed because of them and all of us are forever changed for having you in our lives.

As you leave, and cross the threshold from where you can no longer return, we who are left behind assure you of our prayers that you will have the courage of the countless people of faith that have gone before you and have crossed over in seeking out a fulfilling way of life, a life of meaning and purpose, and to give back to God all that has been given.  If you continuously find the time to give thanks to God for all the gifts and even the burdens of life, meaning and purpose will follow.  I wish all the best to each of you as you take this leap into the great mystery of your life.

 

 

 

 

 

Desire for Greatness

“Nothing great happens when you hold back.”  This is the “tag line” for the movie Home Run about a young baseball player, Cory Brand, who finds himself suspended from his career because of a constant struggle with anger, shame, and guilt being covered up by the debilitating effects of alcoholism.  The story, of course, dates back long before the current time, as a child of an abusive father who never showed the acceptance and love that Cory needed.

Anyone that has experienced the bondage of addiction, regardless of what it is to, alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, food, or anything else, knows the power that all of those “externals” can have over a life.  It isn’t until Cory begins to realize that he is powerless to the alcohol and carries this heavy pain, that he can begin to experience the freedom that he truly desired, not the momentary, fleeting experience that alcohol had given him.  He has to come to the realization that nothing is going to fill the void that had been left from childhood until he can begin to experience and feel the love of God and others.

As he spends time away from his life’s dream of baseball, coaching his own son’s team, he reminds them over and over to confront their fear at the plate and not to hold back.  The only way that they will become great is to not hold back.  Of course, it would take time before he can begin to see that the same was true for him, not only at the plate, but in life as well.  Too much time was spent on being ashamed and living in fear, hiding from what was really holding him back.  All of life’s decisions were made in that bondage.  Alcohol was simply the external of something much deeper, and until he surrenders to it and realizes he doesn’t have the power to change it himself, conversion begins to happen, slowly but surely.

Living with such shame in one’s life can only lead to further death and powerlessness.  Yet, if you haven’t been there yourself, it is so often hard for others to understand.  We end up spending so much time standing at the plate in fear, hearing only the voices that hold us back from living, as it was for Cory, and never experiencing the greatness we want and desire.  His brother calls him out for constantly running away from it all, leading to further loneliness and isolation and never maturing beyond those childhood nightmares, but it is only in surrendering that he can finally live the life God has called and created him to be.

Home Run is just that, a home run; but it is also a challenge for all who suffer in this way, to step into the plate, into the pain, hurt and shame, and let God lead, not only into the pain but into the greatness it leads to as well.