Masked Marvels

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I haven’t gotten used to it. I haven’t met anyone who has. It is somewhat of an obstruction like none other as we now find ourselves masked in public. I have struggled with why it seems so unusual, beyond the obvious reality of it being new for most of us. When I think of masked people, my mind, first and foremost, goes directly to superheroes, Marvel Comics, and even wrestling commercials which flash by while watching television. It is, more often than not, primarily men who are trying to hide something about their identity. The mask is a way of entering into character, releasing their invincibility against their human opponent, making them, in one sense, like “gods”.

There are many reasons why it feels uncomfortable to us but, quite pointedly, it has become a barrier to our own humanity. From the time we are kids we learn to react to the facial and body expression of other people, from parents, siblings, teachers, and the rest. We come to rely on others to express how we should feel or how to react in different situations based on the other person. We know when someone is happy, sad, excited, angry, and downright outraged and we react to their human expression. It becomes so habitual for most people we aren’t even aware it’s happening. When people are happy, we react by being happy for them. When people are angry, especially at us, we do what it takes to eliminate and diffuse the situation. As kids, it tends to be a great way because they haven’t quite fully grasped the wide array of feelings and emotions within us. Most have not been taught how to handle the feelings and emotions or at least their varying nuances.

However, as adults, things change. It wasn’t until I started going out wearing a mask to stores and such which something just didn’t seem right. A friend had pointed out to me, then, how the mask has taken away the facial expression to which we learn to react. Quite frankly, sometimes this is a good thing, especially when you find yourself around grumpy people in stores! However, I couldn’t help but notice the sense of shame and guilt I had been experiencing when I went to stores, as if I had done something wrong, and I had no one to affirm otherwise through smiles or nods. It felt almost criminal. It was like confronting a void, of sorts, something which had been stripped of us for which I, like many, come to rely upon. For some it feels like a stripping of their humanity and freedom, whatever that means. But there’s more to it.

For some this may be the first time in life reckoning with their own life. It may be the first time where we have no one else to tell us how to react, now finding ourselves as masked marvels. We become so reliant on “outside authority” to tell us how to think, feel, react, we become void of our own humanity, literally separating ourselves from our interior life. Not many can argue we lack depth as a culture and society. We can see it just in how our leaders act and react to one another. We’ve become so dependent upon others we’re left not knowing how to feel or think on our own. Is it any wonder why so many would protest placing something over their face? How will they know how to feel and what emotions emerge? How will I know how to react to varying situations? It’s revealing just how bound we are by our own darkness and why we want to fight for “freedom”.

Here’s the gift to the mask. The mask has simply turned the mirror inward. We know longer have the external “mirrors” allowing us to react and so we’re being given a lesson in self-discovery. It’s why I was so conscious of the feeling of guilt and shame when I entered the store. There was no one there wronging me in any way. It was my shame and guilt I was confronting. When I encountered others in the store not wearing masks, it was my anger staring at me. When I had run into a teacher from my childhood it was both my joy to see her but at the same time my own sadness not being able to stand in the store and catch up in any way. The mask, whether we know it or not, is giving us a great gift but like some gifts we don’t always know what to do with them, or for that matter, don’t even want the gift in the first place, feeling no need for it.

Like the masked marvels from comic books and the big screen, they both disclose and conceal something about ourselves. They may, in some ways, conceal our own humanity from others, but they are inviting our own feelings and emotions to disclose themselves to us. All it takes is a little awareness on our part as to what’s arising as we find ourselves wandering and meandering with this new reality of masks. It’s an opportunity to be happy and joyful for ourselves, not just because it’s a reaction to someone else telling us how to feel. Most importantly, it’s a time to confront so many of the negative feeling we tend to push onto other people through blame and victimhood and surrounding ourselves with others in the same way. If you’re angry, mean-spirited, feeling shamed or malice, welcome them home as the poet Rumi writes in the Guest House. They are yours and acceptance moves you to being more fully human.

I’d imagine we’ll spend years if not decades ahead questioning and learning all of which this time is trying to teach us about our humanity, revealing our selfishness, our values, or even lack thereof, but maybe most importantly growing into the person we often seem to know the least, ourselves. It’s too easy to react to the seething anger, the belief of rights being trampled, and the backlash towards leaders, but all of it is revealing something about ourselves and who ever would have thought it would be mirrored through a mask? Rather than digging into being the “gods” we think we are, a simple piece of cloth is inviting us to lean into what has lied dormant and hidden, our own humanity, teaching us to love the other and empathize with all who are truly hurting in this time, including ourselves.

The Resistant Hero

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In my years teaching I often joked, but with a lot of truth, that it’s more important to understand the “dark arts” than it is anything else. They were the days of Harry Potter! To understand the workings of the shadow and the numerous blind spots of our lives is the true pathway to the wholeness we desire. An obsession with light tends to simply blind all the more, and, well, with darkness it will ultimately take you down in one way or another. The obsession with light often puts us on the run, from ourselves, and over time, darkness becomes comfortable and a life of consistent turmoil and angst becomes the norm. On the exterior is the display of a virtuous life, per se, but quite the opposite interiorly.

There are many scenes in the new box-office smash, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but one in particular personifies the difficulty we face as humans in seeking that life of wholeness. Both Rey and Ren find themselves in a heated battle with pounding waves crashing around them, in, of all places, a destroyed Death Star. It seems almost inevitable that one will lose their life in the process as all the rest flee. The two of them stand on the edge of the world, battling it out. Of all the scenes in the Star Wars saga, this scene, in many ways, is symbolic of the interior struggle of the two characters playing out in their external environment as one learns to act with great courage and the other, love. Rey, resisting her own lineage to the darkness and fighting it with every ounce of strength she has. While Ren, the great resister of love hides behind the machismo, but what lies behind the mask is a little boy, Ben, desiring to be loved and doubting the worth of the Jedi heritage in which he comes. The two grappling with darkness in their own way, resisting what it is that will bring them wholeness.

The battle between the two is really a battle with themselves, her with the masculine and he with the feminine. As in our own lives, and certainly an unhealthy masculinity, of which we settle for as a society, and I’m only capable of speaking of, we’re tempted to do all we can to abolish the feminine, somehow making us more of a man. Ren, a heartless slab consumed by his own pain and anger, must confront the love of the other in order to let go and reclaim his birthright as Ben, manifested in the healing touch of Rey, but only when pushed to the edge himself. In an intimate moment of touch, Ren can do nothing but cry and be driven to silence. In time he finds himself surrendering to that love, of which he feared most and considered a form of weakness, allowing the mask to fall on his own hero’s journey.

Rey, though, has her own battle. She must confront a history from which she runs, embodied by the darkness she witnesses in Kylo Ren and Emperor Palpatine. Her desire to live the courageous life of a Jedi, as is her birthright, appears to stand in conflict with her lineage and like most of us, finds herself on the run from the darkness. Her history, as part of the Palpatine lineage, points to her demise and to be reduced to the seat of darkness itself. Her history stands in conflict with her heart and spirit, as pointed out by Luke, that she is more than her darkness. She was, like us, going to go to the place she feared the most and confront the Emperor face to face. There is no other way in the hero’s journey. The journey always takes us downward to the places we fear the most and to encounter the demons of our own lives that narrow our thinking and move us to succumbing to a destiny not our own.

The saga that has played out over these past forty years in the Star Wars series is much more than light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong. It wouldn’t have pulled in generations as it has if it were that simple. Granted, some of the movies are better than others, but all the characters have some kind of work to do in their own lives that throws them into the “and” of all the scenarios. They often stand in conflict, and like us, belief life is about getting rid of and keeping hidden what we have deemed as being insufficient, what we see as insufficient or flawed about ourselves. Rey saw that in her lineage and Ren in his own hurt and anger, all of which drove them down into the depths of their being. It’s why the battle takes place on rough seas, on a deteriorating Death Star, and fought alone. It’s their battle to fight and not to win or to kill, as the world often seems all to ready to do, but to find peace with one another and to learn to love all the parts of themselves.

Joseph Campbell, a Jedi in his own right when it comes to mythology writes, “Perhaps some of us have to go through dark and devious ways before we can find the river of peace or the highroad to the soul’s destination.” Rey would never become the Jedi she desired and believed to be in her heart and soul unless she did such a journey. It’s why so few choose such a journey of faith in their lives because it’s what we fear the most. He goes onto say that the tomb and womb are all but one. Something must die, such as Ren’s egoic persona, before the true self, the birthright, is revealed, Ben. Rey too carries that burden and must allow her own persona and expectation of Jedi and darkness, that she is somehow less than, in order to accept her true self.

It is the journey we are all invited into in our lives. We live in a world where all too many settle for something less or simply see it as a movie and irrelevant to our lives. It’s not Lucas’ intent. It’s his journey as much as it is ours. It’s what makes the series more than a series of movies but the unfolding of a story, a life, lives, who have accepted the call to the resistance of “that’s just the way it is” and sees not only themselves as more but the world as well. When the characters, and ourselves, tap into that reality within ourselves, now grounded in more than all the external authorities, there’s no stopping us. It’s why the world, political, and religious leaders fear it the most. It exposes the shallowness of their own authority, an authority that comes not from the deepest recesses of the soul, of one who has done their work. Rather, it comes from position and power.

To experience the wholeness of our lives, light and dark, right and wrong, and all the rest, then the invitation to the Star Wars saga is for us, a journey unique to each but universal in the nature of the timeless hero. In the end they are no longer naïve; it explains the change in facial expression. The hero, rather, learns to embrace and live the tension between what is and what can be, head and heart, and recognize the joy that comes even in the sadness of a life once lived. They are the people we need, now more than ever, to be the Jedi masters to future generations who seek more.

A Servant’s Heart

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A stare into the camera, not for him to be noticed and seen, but to be aware of who’s on the other side watching, and better, feeling something within them that may be beyond words. Keenly aware of the negative feelings, as children, that tie in with self-worth; anger, sadness, hurt, pain, all of it there staring back into his eyes. They are the eyes of Mister Rogers, trying to understand all while carrying the burden of others on a daily basis. A man, a leader in his own right, who never forgot what it was like to be child, evident with the eclectic gathering of characters that engaged him, King Friday, Lady Aberlin, Daniel Striped Tiger, or the countless others that visited the land-of-make-believe, all a portion of the complex self of Mister Rogers that fascinated children and adults for decades.

The newest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, gives us a glimpse into a man who seems almost unbelievable. How could a man exhibit such kindness and authenticity without becoming jaded like often projected by the world around him? How could such a man survive in a “business” that loves to chew people up and spit them out? As is well known, the man that we all saw with our own eyes through a screen in some far-off neighborhood was no different than Fred off camera. He found a way to transcend the expectations of so much media and technology just by being himself, even while holding a disdain for television. This freed others to do the same, in particular, children, and even parents who had to sit through what, for an adult, can seem, today, like a rather mundane experience of television.

Now decades after the program first appeared, Mister Rogers still has a great deal to teach the world about the human condition and a cultural shift needed, certainly in positions of power, business, school, and so many other facets of life. What Rogers has to bring us back to is not a day gone by, but rather a reminder of who we are as human beings. He knew, undoubtedly from his own experience, that people tended to self-identify. We identify by our negative feelings, which he so often spoke of, but also by the countless labels that are thrust upon us that box us in. We’re classified as consumers and customers, we’re clients, even liabilities at times. All of which sells ourselves short from, as he pointed out, that we are special and unique.

When we think of great leaders my guess is Mister Rogers wouldn’t be the first to come to mind, even for those of us who grew up in his neighborhood. Some would write him off as silly or unrealistic, maybe too religious and living with expectations that are impossible, someone who represents the past. Nonetheless, Rogers points us to what matters most in leaders and what is needed now more than ever. More often than not, leaders are reduced to authority figures or someone who has all the answers, the money, even if a mere perception. If leadership is simply reduced to an authority figure there automatically sets up a hierarchy which in turn leads to a separation and gap that becomes difficult to overcome. We begin to believe more in our position being our identity and seeing others as such, sacrificing our deeper selves and the human connection that binds us. We begin to see customers, clients, consumers, competitors, affiliates of political parties and religions, the countless other ways we try to stroke one’s ego, and ourselves as something other than the “special” that Rogers speaks of, losing our greatest gift, as he points out, our humanity. We begin to believe and are often led to believe that it is that label that makes us special, and worse yet, right.

In the age of reality television, 24-hour news cycles, ever-expanding technology, all with the original intent to keep us informed and connected has done just the opposite, Rogers greatest concern about television and technology. It has fragmented us beyond imagination and separated us to a point where we no longer see ourselves in the other or honestly, only within the people we agree. I don’t know how many times I myself have said in the past few years, “I don’t even know that person anymore”. It is a society and media world that has become heartless in many ways, ego-driven to the point of fanaticism. Everyone becomes a specialist and expert and we become lulled into believing, while at the same time becoming more bankrupt of our humanity at the expense of deep pockets for others. Rogers warned of such a reality, a warning that still rings true to this day.

Our financial, institutional, political, ecclesiastical, and consumer-driven worlds are starving for leaders and leaders in the sense that Rogers not only spoke of but mirrored back to us. No, it’s not a sense of perfection or utopia, but rather leaders who never forget their own humanity, have the ability to empathize, to understand, to see people not first as the customer or consumer or anything else, but rather a brother and sister of the human family. When we lose sight of that we too become ego-driven and at times heartless. It’s not only the world that becomes fragmented, it’s our own hearts and souls as well. We move towards acceptance of manipulation, retaliation, narcissism, revenge, heartlessness, and write it off as, “well, that’s just the way it is.” We live in an age and culture that has separated from the heart of who we are, in Rogers’ words, special and are in dire need of such leaders.

He never says it’s about the elimination of pain and suffering but rather recognizes it in the faces of the people he encounters and how we often inflict it upon one another. Great leaders know how to speak below the surface of all and recognize the greater good that we all bear, sometimes seemingly heavier than the pain at times. Rogers, in his modeling of servant leadership, never lost sight of our essence and how we all fit within the larger family, even when we are at odds or disagree. Servant leadership is needed in all facets of our lives. It is the model of leadership that can redirect companies and institutions that have lost sight of who they are and their original intent. Servant leadership has a way of pulling us back into the tension of our own humanity as to not to lose sight of who we are either. I may, over the course of my day, act as a consumer, client, employee, customer, and even liability, but must never lose sight of being special, connected with head and heart, joy and pain, hurt and care, just as the person next to me. A servant leader, in other words, isn’t quick to avoid pain, suffering, challenges, difficulties, impossibilities, but rather steps back, puts them in perspective, and then faces it head on. This type of leadership is not about quick fixes to problems to try to avoid pain. Rather, it’s about playing the long game and consistently connecting us to our very essence, our specialness.

The world could stand a few more leaders like Rogers, the one who goes under the radar and yet is making a difference in people’s lives and not just because of position, power, or money. A leader may have them all, but leaders today need to respond through acts of service, being authentic and genuine, actively listening with the heart, and always remaining connected to the essence of who we are, recognizing our own commitment to change and grow. Servant leaders remain connected to the grittiness of their own life and the lives of others. Servant leaders strive for the best and yet always remain grounded in reality. Servant leaders serve with an iron fist while draped in a velvet glove. The land-of-make-believe was a world of puppets, cardigan sweaters, cardboard sets, and ringing trollies, but for Rogers it was reality. It pointed the way to a neighborhood that was safe to be who you are, where you felt what you felt, a place to love and to seek truth, and ultimately a place of service. No matter who walked through that door they were met where they were. Undoubtedly, we all arise and descend into varying positions in life; all of which are often necessary for order. Such positions, though, do not define us, especially as servant leaders. Rather, as was taught and is needed, it is our true specialness, our essence, that forms us and makes us the leaders the world needs today. When we embrace that, we will then understand what made it such a beautiful day in Rogers’ neighborhood and why we strive to do the same.

Over The Rainbow

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She was 47. Maybe it’s out of the shear fact that it is the age I find myself at this point in life and knowing what the past year has been like for me, but I found myself deeply moved and connected with Judy Garland as I watched her life portrayed through Renee Zellweger in the stunning movie, Judy. No, I don’t have the experience of drug use or anything like that, but I certainly know what it’s like to not to be able to get out of bed in the morning, when it feels as if life had all but sucked everything out of you and immobilizes you. I would bet that most of us, at one time or another, have had such experiences when we face loss, life has us down, or the feeling of the weight of the world placed upon our shoulders. Yet, somehow, she digs deep and finds herself onstage, with a smile, as if all was right in the world. Until it wasn’t. Until the time arrived when the darkest shadows’ she carried made their way to centerstage with her, no longer being able to outrun her own self, where the feeling of blue is more deeply rooted than it is in the sky.

Without a doubt, Garland’s most iconic image is of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. As the story is told and how life devolves for her, though, it would seem that the most memorable song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, is emblematic to the tortured life that she lived offscreen. There was always a deeper longing, like the blue birds, to fly high and spur on to the other side of the rainbow. Yet life held her back, a life, at an early age, was chosen for her.   It is, after all, her offscreen life that always remained hidden, living two different lives by day and night. It is the offscreen life that is so intriguing and can teach us about our own longings for better days, where we too can fly high and witness to a promise of a better life beyond the rainbow where clouds are far behind.

Yet, in the moments of darkness and life can be seen as not having any purpose at all, often end up becoming some of the most teachable of all moments. They have a way, like none other, to stop us in our tracks and force us to finally face the stormy clouds and the demons that always find a way to lurk so closely to us. No matter how much we try to ignore, or in her case as it is for many, to medicate ourselves out of the darkness, nothing synthetic or mere substance is ever fully going to take away an experience of depression, grief, and longing. Rather, it is only by walking through the storm where blue skies begin to be seen and the shadows begin to dissipate that eventually catapult is into a more meaningful life, a whole life rather than trying to live two. It doesn’t mean that the demons ever fully leave us. We learn to befriend them and become aware of their presence so that they no longer have control over us.

All Dorothy ever wanted to do, in singing the lyrics, is to arrive home. We all desire to have the experience of “being home” in ourselves. Home was not home for Judy and the longing she sings of in that song, with such passion, was indicative of a mother who, for lack of better terms, sold her off into the slavery of stardom at such a young age. It lingered with her throughout her life. One of the final lines she articulates in the movie, to the audience of London, was not to forget her. A family and a system that had failed her, took advantage of her, and held her captive, practically assured her of a short-lived life but also left her with a longing, for dreams to come true, that had become too hard to overcome. Her time on stage was the only escape she had in life, where the troubles, by no means melting like lemon drops, could at least subside, once she found the energy to take that first step out. The heaviness, though, was too much to bear and yet the addiction to being accepted drove her into an endless cycle of interior poverty and eventually, literally homeless. A life that was out of her control, in that, all she could ever do was dream of a day when she could finally spur onto the other side of the rainbow.

It is unfortunate that she never had the chance to experience that in her life, cut way too short by an overdose. It is sometimes hard for us to imagine such a situation. Trying to manage two different lives, flying monkeys acting as demons, clouds of darkness lingering, have a way of damping the most spirited person. The layers of grief we live with, whether loss or regrets or a hoping our lives were something else, have great power over us if we simply try to medicate it away. It doesn’t go away. More often than not it requires the courage of a step in our own lives to step off stage ourselves and deal with what lies beyond the curtain. It’s the path to oneness and the yellow brick road that points us towards not the fictitious and fabricated world of Oz, but the home she desired and the one we desire as well. It may come in the form of a tornado, or it will often feel that way, but it eventually drops us where we need to be, grow roots, and from there live the life we were given to live. It’s not all rainbows and lemon drops, but the blue skies and birds are always there reminding us not to hold too tightly to the stage life, or better yet, the staged life we often live. It is the place where the dreams we dare to dream really do come true.

Avenge Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaningful Wandering

Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7; Mark 13: 33-37

Although no expert other than what I’ve studied in Christian classics, I do know that one of the main themes in the writing of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of wandering. Tolkien saw wandering as a journey in and of itself and necessary, even if we don’t particularly care for it or if it feels lost. He is the one that coined the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” If you’ve read or watched any of the stories you know the characters are often on the move from one place to another, often facing obstacles, at times wanting to give up and questioning the purpose of it all. Yet, they remain persistent in the pursuit of what he’d consider the idyllic or archetypal king, just as we do during this season as we seek that idyllic king in the birth of the Christ at Christmas. Wandering, even as the Magi will do, is necessary in order to create the space necessary for something new to begin to take shape.
The same is true for people Israel. As a matter of fact, they have made an art out of it as part of their history and the same is true when we hear from Isaiah today and will through these weeks of Advent. They find themselves on the backend of the Babylonian Exile, a life of bondage and enslavement, and as they return home they return thinking they can pick up where they left off, that home would be the home they had always known, despite history telling them otherwise. More often than not they believe it is God that wanders from them, abandoning them in their hour of need, but Isaiah in his lament towards God, speaks of how they find themselves in this position that they have been all but familiar with of wandering from what they have known and still creating space for what is new.
However, they hold onto the expectations of returning to normalcy and they return with the expectation that the way they’ve experienced God before would once again be the same. They wanted to return to what was, but after years of exile and now wandering themselves they begin to see that that’s not true and they can’t return home in the way they left. Home was no longer home for Israel. They feel lost and alone. Isaiah, though, at the very end of his lament reminds them of who this God is, the one who has seen them through the Red Sea and the one that has once again brought them out of exile to return a changed people. He uses the image of a God who is like a potter and the people his clay. And like the potter and his clay, it’s always being reformed into something new, softening the edges, molding it into a new masterpiece. It is a finished product that is never finished but refined as they turn their faith and trust to the one that has remained steadfast and faithful, this God of mystery that leads them from what had been known into the great unknown. Like Tolkien, Israel searches for that idyllic king and not always recognizing that it is them that are being called to change and to become.
The same is true of Mark’s community as we now switch gears from Matthew’s Gospel. Mark is very bare bones compared to Matthew and very much focuses on his community in Rome and learning how to hope even in the midst of suffering, just as it often was with Israel. Mark’s community was in constant tension with Nero who was a tyrant and bully towards them. They were often to blame as a minority for all wrong-doing and so they consistently felt the wrath of him and his people. It was a city that lived in fear of what he was capable of at that time and Mark’s community was an easy target. Today we hear near the end of the Gospel as Jesus’ death is soon imminent. Much of this chapter is filled with this ominous language that seems more like doomsday. But that was the reality in which they lived. It wasn’t so much God that they feared coming in the dark of night or early morning, it was the political leaders of the time under Nero and so they had to be at watch and aware while resisting the fear that was imposed upon them. Needless to say, this often led the community to feel like they had no home, wandering aimlessly and suffering at the hands of others. The language we hear was a message of hope for Mark’s community, as Isaiah was today, for faithful followers of the way who had no home and needed to continue to trust this faithful God who has seen them through and is constantly molding them into something new. They find themselves wandering from what had been to a new life being formed even through their suffering.
As we begin this rather brief Advent season, we come mindful of our own wandering. In many ways, in the world we live, we seem to always find ourselves in transition from what has been known and yet wait with anticipation for what the newness is that God is inviting us into and to trust entering into the unknown. We too seek that idyllic king who is always molding and forming us, more often than not when we find ourselves wandering and waiting; not necessarily lost but often feeling that way. We pray for the grace to wander as a people, in our very hearts and souls that are being called to be cleansed of our old way of thinking in order for that space to be created for the embodiment of love at Christmas. It’s hard. It’s painful. And at times we want to go back to what was, clinging to our old gods. In moments of grace, though, we are invited to let go and surrender as we wander while opening ourselves to the gift of new life and the embodiment of God’s word in our lives, changing us forever and yet still being molded and formed into something new and unknown.

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.