Playground’s Parable

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Hazleton News 1 Parks have been closed throughout the pandemic but have been in disrepair long before

As a child, there’s nothing like time at the playground.  It’s a place for imagination to flow as you fly free on the swings, daringly climb to the top of the monkey bars, and see who can get the other to fall first on the teeter totter by abruptly jumping ship, followed up with belly laughs!  I still walk near that park practically daily and am simply mindful of the memories, laughs, and even tears from falling atop the bars only to climb back up, renewed and ready to go, a sense of resiliency learned at a young age.

In our day, parents never knew much of what we were doing on the playground, or so we thought.  We went unsupervised, not because we had bad parents, there just wasn’t a need for supervision.  It was ingrained in us, growing up in a small town, there was always someone watching, someone who would take care or relay the message if need be.  There was a lived reality and belief where we looked out for one another and we weren’t the center of the world; there were others sharing this space with us.  Of course, there are negative connotations as we can assess it from an adult perspective, as if someone was ready to pounce on us if there was an issue, but I suppose as a child it’s a healthy fear to have, always knowing there was a line not to cross.

At times it still feels like I live on this proverbial playground.  It appears, at times, like we’ve gone amuck and the adults have left us to ourselves, not even wanting to supervise, as if orphans in an unknown world.  Now, though, we don’t know where the lines are and no one seems to care whether we’re hurting ourselves or each other, it’s practically each man and woman for him or her-self.  It’s as we like to say, the “inmates are running the asylum.”  It’s no longer about flying free, without a care in the world, swinging back and forth, but rather pushing each other off, mid-air, to see who we can hurt the most.  It isn’t about the fun of climbing the bars, but rather stepping on one another to assume the place of power to lord it over others, all while the park begins to fade and turn into shambles, as if the memories of a war had faded but the scars remain and are always reminding us what we have lost without a sense of moving forward.

The silence, as you walk through, may be the one redeeming quality.  As the children in charge continue to fight with one another, competing, lording, and most especially, simply surviving, it’s in the silence where you begin to cry at the reality, letting go of a world which once was and yet with some fear of what unfolds before the eyes.  Is it me who’s crazy?  Why do I want to remain disengaged from it all?  Why don’t I see the point in what they’re fighting over and trying too hard to hold onto?  It seems rather pointless.  All this while the world around seemingly speeds up its deterioration.  Is it our own inability to accept reality?  Is it our desire to hold onto memories with the fear of losing all that mattered?  I don’t know.

It seems, the one place where as kids we were able to escape, the playground, has been all but shattered.  Rust covers the bars, swings empty, police tape closing it off as if criminal to play and imagine in a time when kids need it the most, overgrown grass, dilapidated basketball courts, often used as a roller-skating rink back in the day.  Now, the wonder seems all but lost.  There seems to be a lost sense of the other, the looking out for one another, while the world burns around us.  Will there ever be a day when we recognize the other as ourselves?  Will there ever be a day, again, when it’s not all about me, my wants, my rights, and to recognize we’re given one chance at this life and there’s more than just me, a day when we help the other climb rather than step on them to get ahead of them in order to get my way?

Everything and everyone has become so transactional.  If someone doesn’t support my view or vision, we toss them.  Heck, there’s always someone else out there who’s willing to sell their soul to get ahead!  Isn’t that the way it works if you want to play the game?  We’ve lost the sense of just playing the game to play with an addiction to winning.  We’ve sacrificed what’s good and right for a gold star and a win to try to feed my own emptiness, only leaving me more depleted.  Heck, we’ve even tried to soften the blow of a sliding board as we can somehow avoid getting hurt.  We’ll go to the furthest ends to avoid the pain of loss and hurt.  The irony and paradox, it only hurts more.

It’s good to imagine in the face of reality.  It’s good to imagine not what the playground used to be but what it can be.  Heck, just a little care and concern would go a long way, a recognition there are still children who need a place to play and use their own imaginations!  Like us, as kids, they too need a place to escape into the world of imagination and dreams, not the seemingly, and all-too-real games, of a pad or gaming device!  If anything, this deadens the imagination.  A place, rather, which is illumined in the evening, where we don’t have to fear our own darkness but even play with our shadows.  How about a place which screams with excitement for their arrival, de-stimulating their minds in order to explore the vastness of their own inner life?  Better yet, a place where they can run free, risk the sting of a bee, falling flat in the mud, and get back up, a true lesson in resiliency.  Resiliency will get them further in life than winning anyway.

We need, now more than ever, a world which dreams for tomorrow.  We’ve settled for rusty monkey bars, overgrown grass, buckled courts, all while being distracted by the supposed adults and elders of society bickering with one another, consumed in their own pain, and failing to see the helpless child, screaming out, just wanting to feel safe and secure to dream and imagine a life as doctor, pilot, president, firefighter, dancer, teacher, etc.  Who wants any of that when all you see being mirrored back is anger, resentment, and a lack of care and concern for your own well-being and caring more about themselves, some unwilling to let go of failed expectations.

I don’t know, maybe we’d all be a little better off if we spent time in a park, feeling free, giving perspective, and using our imaginations for a better world for our children and ourselves.  Don’t they deserve better than we’re offering, and for that matter, modeling?  There’s nothing like the sense of freedom and flying, swinging back and forth, wind in the hair, without a care in the world knowing, all will be well.  I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but we can offer so much more.  Simply stepping into the shoes of a child for a time will enliven the spirit, not to command them to be “mini-me’s” but to be who they are, children, and us, young at heart.

Softening Gorge

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“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”     Norman Maclean

I have spent a great deal of time sitting, walking, and hiking along the Lehigh River and the endless paths of the Lehigh Gorge these two months of distancing. I’ve watched it from a variety of angles, different times of the day, even in differing weather conditions. There’s something quite captivating about listening to the running water as it washes over the rocks. During this time, I could only imagine the chill of it as it rushes along, always seeming like it has somewhere to be and yet nowhere to go all at the same time. The rocks, although we know otherwise, are rather ill-phased by the rush of the water, as if they stand as a stabilizing force against the youthful nature of the water. Maybe it is part of the attraction of the water, knowing there were days earlier in life when I felt invincible against it and now relate more to the grounding rocks than the rage of the water, as if I have learned there’s more to life.

The draw to the water, though, is something internal. It’s the youthfulness of the heart that draws back. I suppose over our lives we fight this spirit, thinking the rocks know better and are going to outdo the waters. We become jaded, hard-hearted, and bitter before life, fighting this youthfulness. However, in these days and weeks sitting there listening to the waters flow, it’s as if my heart leaps for joy, as if it has returned to its home and natural state. Isn’t it always the heart which takes the brunt of our rigidness, fighting off its natural capacity to soften our edges, as if we know better than the heart? We don’t. I don’t. The heart, like the waters, are relentless in their pursuit of our attention.

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Glistening waters along the Lehigh in Rockport

Sure, at times it seems to subside to nearly no movement and even stagnant, but never arid enough to quiet the possibility. The water always seems to make its presence known even when it slows to nearly nothing. Our anger, hurt, pain, seem as if it’s going to do everything to kill the spirit and, of course, at times it does. It often takes something radical or an abrupt change before it once again is awakened and movement becomes unstoppable. The amount of energy it takes to hold onto and to try to control the contours of the water is unbearable. I can try all I want. However, the force of the water far outweighs the grounded dams we construct for ourselves. We are surrounded by plenty of Wonders which remind us of the relentlessness of the spirit of water and its ability to change a landscape, even if over centuries. It is the tireless pursuit of the spirit of the waters keeping it so young and glittering against the spring sun. It is the same relentless spirit determined to change the landscape of my heart.

As Maclean writes, I am haunted by the waters. The waters, at times, have wreaked havoc in my life. The haunting isn’t as much a hallows eve scare as much as it is a deep respect for its nature and ability. However, now in retrospect, it was a fear of the spirit coursing itself through me. It was the edges of my own mind and ego which thought it always knew better than the spirit, and did all it could to suppress it and change its course in order to avoid spilling over the edges. Think about it, when water forces you to confront your own mortality, won’t you do anything you can to avoid such pain again? Little did I know, at such times, of how relentless it would be in vying for my attention, to the point of nearly feeling like I’m drowning on a daily basis, of fear, hurt, pain, and grief. The cleansing power it carries seemed all but a theory in those moments, but now, a recognition of my own self avoiding such a cleanse as if all which stood so firmly was my deepest identity, yet always coming up short. It is this spirit, after all, which defines me and you. It is the heart which claims our deepest self, where waters run freely and consistently.

So, I sit here, simply listening to the movement, as if it aligns itself with the movement of the heart. While here there is a oneness like none other, kids playing together without a care in the world and the rocks sit quietly and patiently no longer needing to control but allowing the waters to flow freely. It’s like the elders and icons of the natural world enjoying the moment for what it is. There’s something quite captivating about the glittering evoked, like the sparkle in the eye of child, a return to innocence. It’s not there to reminisce of who I once was but rather to remind me of who I always am and how easily it is to let the sparkle go. Rocks can be just as relentless, trying to tell us to be something or someone other than. Not these rocks, though. They simply allow the waters to flow where they will, reaching every crevice and crack to reignite an aging earth and for the first time capture the aged truth where all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

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Summoned Home

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Welcome Home! Anyone who has been to Bethlehem Farm will silently smile when they read those words. For anyone who has never been there before, it can be a bit unnerving. I still remember being greeted by Farmer Tim upon my arrival on a balmy April afternoon with a welcome home and a huge bear hug. Having never been before, it seemed rather odd but became a source of joy as I watched countless faces over the months give the same reaction, wondering, where the hell am I and what have I gotten myself into?!?

It was at one of the most turbulent times in my life. As my health had declined, I had stepped away from ministry. I had just resigned, packed up my belongings after dumping a lot of it, felt quasi-homeless, my dad was admitted to the hospital, and there I was venturing hours away to a place I had never been. It was so outside my comfort zone but at the time needed something to keep me engaged, even if it was for a month. It’s only in retrospect I can see just how much my foundation had, with each given choice, falling apart, at least what I believed to be my foundation as a person. It seemed as if everything I had known was slipping through my fingers and I was doing something absolutely ridiculous, heading to a farm in the middle of nowhere West Virginia. Just about the only thing Alderson, WV is known for is the prison which housed Martha Stewart, and well, The Big Wheel! You really have to go to truly appreciate the milk shakes there!

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After leaving the Farm (even though I’ve returned a few times since), Colleen asked me if I’d be willing to put a few thoughts down on paper describing my experience, as a man who had planned on staying a month and extended it to include the second half of 2019, as someone searching for meaning in a life seemed void of it, someone learning to trust on a much deeper level than ever before. I still believe the words to be true today as when I wrote them a few months back.

“I believe the novelty of the Farm, when it comes to faith and trust, is that it assists in revealing a deeper part of yourself that has always been in existence. As you well know, the act of simplicity, which so many speak about when they arrive, for me is central. As you begin to let go of the trappings of life, which are often reduced to phones and electronics, the deeper parts finally have space to surface. I believe, in my experience, the trappings include what others think, outside authorities, comforts of home, routine, etc. They are what I found myself trapped in when I arrived. If the Farm is truly of the Spirit, and I do believe it is, it simply begins to reveal the deeper truths and you begin to trust that instinct, that voice, that Spirit (whatever you call it) and your deepest identity (in God) is not only revealed but you learn to live by and through it. It would explain the change from restlessness to peace that I learned to live.”

If I had to sum it up, the extended time at the farm was about finding this sense of home in myself. It’s not just a cute little saying mentioned to pilgrims as they arrive for their experience. No, it’s an invitation into something much deeper than a mere welcome to a property. More often than not we are unfamiliar with the vast landscape of our interior home. We live in a world with so many distractions and ways to avoid the deeper crevices of ourselves where we seem like a foreigner, and even a fugitive, in some sense, from our own selves. We do everything to avoid and are often convinced of others they know what’s best for us and can define us in their way, we lose sense of ourselves.

It’s not until we can begin to silence the voices of the “authorities” around us when we can finally begin to hear our own voice, silently waiting for us to listen and consistently inviting us home. Whether we can admit it or not, we all wander beyond ourselves looking for answers to many of life’s complex questions. However, the answers to our deepest values and the meaning we thirst for have always existed deep within us. Like any of us who travel to the ocean for recreation, from the time we are kids we’re told to stay in the shallow waters. However, shallow waters will never fulfill this thirst. We eventually need to go out into the depths of the ocean, confronting our fears, or dig into the deepest part of the earth, in order to find what we’re looking for most in life. We eventually need to be called “home” to begin to accept and settle into our own skin for who we are, not who others want us or expect us to be.

The wayward path varies for all of us and some choose over and over to never engage it. We see the negative energy within many people who have been unwilling, and sometimes, unable, to enter into the journey “home”. We refuse and shut down rather than dealing with the necessary pain we confront along the way. We, as a society, have lost our larger story of this journey in order for personal gain and short-term success. However, this time of pandemic is inviting us into the deeper journey, the long-term journey, through the recesses of our hearts and souls beckoning us home, maybe for the first time in our lives. Beyond basic needs, if there is a push within you to return too quickly to a life which was, that restlessness is a summons you’re being invited into. You may ask the same questions, “Where the hell am I and what have I gotten myself into?”, but this is only natural arriving at an unknown place in yourself. Somewhere, deep within you, there is a voice saying “welcome home” wishing to embrace you with a bear hug reminding you of the value you are not by what you do but because of who you are.

 

Unknown Truth

It’s not wrong to go without, even if it means confronting some of our deepest demons of safety and security or even the “warm fuzzies” we often come to rely upon in our lives. It has become too easy for any of us to go and get what we need or want when we want or need it. I wouldn’t think twice about running to the store, the computer, Amazon, a church or place of worship, whatever it may be to satisfy often the unease I desperately try to avoid within myself, as if I’m somehow lacking. If there’s anything about this pandemic experience we can learn, it’s just how convenience has ruled our lives. It’s not until we’re forced to stop, shops close, churches lock doors, sports shut-down, where we begin to see just how easy our lives have been and how uncomfortable we are with unease. We begin to “see” how much we’ve been able to avoid the acute pain within ourselves by running and avoiding the darkness, the hell, which has loomed. Quite frankly, more often than not we don’t stop until we’re forced to and are left with nowhere to run, hit square on by our own darkness.

There are more examples than I can write of here how we have projected this darkness onto society and the world rather than confronting our own demons. We simply want life to return to “normal”, one for the sake of routine and ease, but also because of our uncomfortableness with the unspoken and the “virus” which has hovered below the surface of our own lives and society at large. This may very well be the first time for many having to confront the “stuff” lingering below the surface, unable to know where to turn or who is going to understand since it is so new and the natural inclination is to “stuff” it. I don’t know about anyone else, but there are moments, in particular around the sleeping hours, where I’ll awaken in the darkness of night feeling short of breath. It seems impossible to distance ourselves from stories of respiratory failure wondering when it’s going to be my turn. As someone who’s dealt with respiratory issues in the past, including pneumonia, it’s easy to say I’m not going to worry but another to actually believe. There are so many unknown factors at play since it really is, novel. It isn’t, though, a respiratory condition, but rather a deeper reality trying to emerge from the drowning waters of the subconscious.

It may be one of the greatest factors at play in all of this. Living with the sense of ease and convenience, we’ve become accustomed to certain degrees of certainty and now trying to navigate without. As litigious as we are, or were, as a society, we tend to thrive on certainty. The more knowledge, facts, knows we have, the more comfortable we are as people. As it is with avoiding pain, we avoid the uncertain and the unknown out of fear. Yet, much of this experience has been about the unknown. As a matter of fact, it seems as if the more we know by watching news and reading about the pandemic, the greater the degree of fear and anxiety becomes attached to us. If we can extrapolate anything from the experience, it should be the degree of trust we place on what we believe to be certain, what makes us feel safe and secure. We want answers! The level of blame going on, and not simply on the political level, points to how much trust we place in something which is merely an illusion in the first place and how much we lack in faith and the deeper sense of trust which defines it.

We tend to associate experiences of the “dark night” as moments of depression, and it can be, or bad days and weeks, also can true. There would certainly be many stories of such an experience going on in people’s lives at this moment. However, there is a deeper sense of the dark night unfolding within and beyond us at the moment and an invitation to a new way of living rooted in faith and trust. It doesn’t necessarily come in the form of depression or despair or the unsettlement of our lives. Rather, the invitation lies within the experience of the unknown and this sense of aloneness and lack of meaning we find ourselves in during these days and weeks. Even our faith traditions have fallen prey to the illusions of safety and security over the years and the certainty the illusions provide. “If I do all the right things and follow all the rules, I’ll ‘go to’ heaven.” Unfortunately, this isn’t faith. However, when it begins to fall apart, and I question, and life doesn’t seem so ‘black and white’, there is the beginning of what can be a dark night, something truly to be grateful for! Otherwise “faith” is simply a means of control, who’s in and who’s out, especially when the world around us feels out of control. When it begins to feel as if we’re drowning in our own pain and grief, we will find anything to give us this sense of certainty, as if something in our lives is controllable.

Yet, now we even find ourselves in the absence of this version of faith. Doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, places of worship have been closed and locked. It alone can be seen as a dark night, but I would add at this moment of history, a necessary one for the future relevance of religion on our lives and society. The codependent relationship of religion and politics has done nothing to further the rich traditions of the contemplative and meditative natures a dark night like we are experiencing demands. The relationship has clung to safety and security and the demand for certainty which only something like a pandemic can begin to unfurl. We can almost expect the thirst for power to exist in politics; it always has. However, more is to be demanded of our faith traditions than mere fabrications of certainty when the only truth we can cling to in moments of unknown is Trust and learning to accept it in the unknown, in the darkness.

I could understand wanting churches to be packed on Easter Sunday, even if it was a highly unlikely goal. However, in a time of pandemic and utter darkness for so many, maybe the best gift we can give is to delay Easter for a later day. I mean, there really is no reason why it can’t be delayed. If there is a greater need for us as a society, it’s to know what suffering is and learning to trust within these moments. Instead we’ll fabricate an Easter in the absence of people, who not unlike the disciples, found themselves hunkered down, isolated, questioning, fearful, within the upper room, trying to make sense and meaning out of the events of suffering and death. Even after resurrection Easter could not be fabricated for the followers. They had to come to the place in time and it often didn’t happen until they allowed themselves to get out of the way, enter deeply into the sense of “going without”, and learn to trust in their own very darkness, unseen by the naked eye throughout the unfolding story and not made visible until life and death intersected.

We’ve settled for so little and often because of our inability to go without, sacrifice, and to feel the “pinch” so many other previous generations learned to live. We’ve settled more often than not for fabricated Easter’s, saying we no longer need to live with the suffering and darkness. However, this is not faith and trust. It’s living with the illusion of truth and certainty all while closing a blind eye to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. We’ve settled for a fabricated Easter by throwing money at problems, always having heady and pious answers, clear definitions, blaming others for problems, weaponizing and polticizing scripture, and spiritualizing real problems. It’s all a fabrication of our collective ego in order to protect what we believe to be most important, but it’s not faith nor trusting. It’s believing a truth we can live with one and without the other. Faith, however, is learning to live with both and feeling the tension between life and death, light and darkness, suffering and joy.

What’s dying is the illusory ego. How do we know? We know because of the lack of certainty, no quick answers or fixes, no foreseeable return to “normal” (nor should we), confusion, darkness, death. It’s all there fixed on our screens not unlike the scenes of 9/11. We were given an invitation then and we let it pass us by, trying to consume our ways out of it. We are now given another invitation to understand our complexity as humans, the truth of life and death are all of us, when we have nothing to consume as doors remain locked, where all we can do is sit in the darkness of the moment and feel. It’s a painful feel, as if I can’t breathe, a sense of isolation, lacking purpose and meaning, trapped in the upper room, fearful of an unseen virus and maybe the unknown of my own life. We are given a dark night at a time when we need it the most. We are given time to “go without” so many ways of life we have become accustomed. I’m not saying it’s easy. As a matter of fact, it’s growing old quickly. However, there’s more to learn. Even as I write I can feel it within myself.

Are we going to continue to settle for mere fabrications of safety and security? Are we going to use this time to grow exponentially as humans, learning to see each other as ourselves, understanding the suffering of others? Are we going to continue to settle for a faith rooted in certainty rather than trust and truth? Are we, as a society, going to finally deal with a broken heart of a life which hasn’t been as expected and finally allowing ourselves to be led by a healed heart rather than an injured ego? Are we going to continue to allow ourselves to be victims and blame “the world” for all of our problems rather than take responsibility for our lives? These are questions we ask in the darkest of nights we are living in this pandemic.

It’s not a moment to sulk, even if I feel it at times, but rather to find glimmers of light within the confusion, chaos, darkness, fear, uncertainty for we are both and not one or the other. It’s a moment to accept our own mortality and commit to living life differently as we go forward, day by day and choice by choice, to live from a deeper level, a higher consciousness, filled with faith and trust. It’s a moment to learn to live without, without certainty, safety, security, knowns, facts, ins and outs, convenience, ease, and to leap into the unknown. The great promise and truth I can give is it’s the best thing you can do for yourself, we can all do for ourselves. It’s uncomfortable, there’s grieving, it’s dark, and all the rest, but it’s the hero’s journey, a faithful journey, and truthful journey, one leading to meaning and purpose and a faith rooted not in certainty but in the darkest night of the soul, wandering lost, where life no longer makes sense, only desiring and wanting nothing more than to feel the “presence of the Soul” once again.

Hopeful Grief

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There are times where I just can’t work. I feel like I don’t have the energy to do much of anything and push myself to go outside for a walk, get fresh air, escape the confines of “stay at home” orders. It can be quite depressing and with very little purpose. The saving grace is some arts and crafts time with the kids which focuses me on their youthful energy, despite the feeling of wanting to go right back into hibernation when they leave. These are hard days, even for an introvert. Sure, it may be my natural inclination to find time for self-reflection, but I’m also a person who loves making connections, not only with others, but within myself and even assisting others to do the same. There is, if I could ever admit it, a grief unlike any other I find myself going through right now, after a year of tremendous moments of grief, all seemingly to be different than the one before.

As I stand on the proverbial threshold of another year of life, my 48th birthday and the beginning of my 49th year, I am mindful of this grief. Although there’s often a grief on such thresholds, this one seems very different, one coupled with hope. It was a year ago at this moment in which I officially resigned my position of pastor and found myself, what I like to call quasi-homeless, and searching for a place to land and land quickly. I think back to such moments now and wonder how I had the muster within me to do what I was doing, stepping away from a life I knew well and yet was killing me on another. There I was, on the threshold not quite knowing what was lying ahead but willing to take a step, and it is just one step at a time, to a healthier life. It is a threshold, as I didn’t know then, leading me to the “home” within myself and not necessarily needing to know a street address I could call my own because somehow this home would give me all I needed.

Thresholds and transitions are always staged within grief. It always marks the end of one chapter or book and the beginning of another. I didn’t know when I stepped through how it would look, and at times, still do not. We can never fully know what we are getting ourselves into at any given moment. The threshold we find ourselves standing at these days seems only to vastly grow wider. It seems as if there’s no end in sight to the confinement of our homes and lives. It explains the lack of energy at times of simply wanting to lie on the couch, slide the screen of my computer, and every other distraction I manage to find during the day, all because I know there’s no crossing this threshold at the moment. All any of us really can do is stand and dream of what lies on the other side and begin to tap into the creative energy which seems to have laid dormant in our society for all too long.

We can’t seem to run from the “stuckness” we’ve found ourselves and the lack of creativity associated with it. It feels all the more visible these days, unable to outrun. When we’ve allowed ourselves to create and recreate reality television programming, sequels to endless movies, is it any wonder we’d be somewhat drawn to movies like Groundhog Day when it’s the life we’ve often settle for before we’ve reached this threshold. It has been about doing the same thing over and over again, insanely believing it will somehow be better the next time around. It never is and yet we try. I’m reminded of the words of a therapist who had told me the trick with eating a delicious slice of cake. There is nothing like the first bite when we can taste all the succulent flavors hitting the various parts of our tongue. However, we’re never satisfied with the first bite. I know I’m not. We immediately live with this false sense of hope each bite following the first will not only compare but outdo the first. It never does. Yet we try, over and over and over again, believing if I try just one more time somehow this will work and be the best. Take it from me who loved to jump around, it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with the cake in the first place. It was the lack of satisfaction and creativity in my own life, numbing the grief rather than confronting my own pride, filled with arrogance and ignorance as if I knew what was best. I didn’t. It wasn’t about the cake. It was about me. It’s hard, packing up, nowhere to go, quasi-homeless, looking to land, standing at thresholds, wondering what’s next, a new year beginning, confined to home. Who wouldn’t be grieving? It appears we are now unable to avoid it.

Grieving, though, can easily turn into depression. We see it everywhere around us. Whenever the cruel parts of this world catch up with us and force us to slow down and even stop, we’re simply left with ourselves. Sure, there have been other moments but not in my life do I remember being confined in such a way. I’m not who likes this feeling to begin with, knowing my own anxiety as I wrote in the previous post. It has led to restless nights, questioning in ways I haven’t before, and lots and lots of writing, trying to make sense out of things beyond the rational mind. It’s hard to listen to reports knowing there’s nothing I can do. I suppose some of the grief comes from feeling helpless in these moments, when we know there is greater risk in venturing out than there is staying home.

There is, though, hope. We see it in the world around us as pollution decreases in these days, crime has fallen, people are finding ways to connect and assist, it is a moment when we can all empathize with one another. The place we call is getting a much-needed rest from our utter destruction out of our own selfishness. I was struck on Friday watching Pope Francis walking alone in the darkened square facing out to a quieted and rainy city of Rome. There was simply a light in the midst of it all, guiding him along his way. We have been blinded not by light but by our darkness, our grief. We have believed what has led to darkness to be the light. We seek something and someone beyond ourselves to give us the answers to our difficult questions. It’s not to say we can’t find answers through our relationships and connections, but it is only deep within ourselves, our home, where we find what it is we seek for in life. We can’t help ourselves to be mesmerized by the darkness and its lure of artificial light. We’ve settled for superficial, less than, the loudest voices, glitz and lights, an impossible dream, and so on. We have not sought the light; we’ve wandered in the darkness, and whether we can admit it or not, we’ve liked it despite its ability to fulfill us.

This is the threshold in which we now stand. It feels even more relevant for me as I embark on another year of life following a year of tremendous upheaval and yet great peace and fulfillment. I’m not sure I’d even be in the place I am today, standing on such a profound threshold, if it wasn’t for the year which has passed, resigning, months living and working at Bethlehem Farm, countless miles traveling back and forth as my father was dying and his inevitable death, questioning what’s next, quasi-homeless, do I start my own business, and so forth. Is it any wonder there’s grief? Is it any wonder the threshold carries such magnitude? I know, though, I don’t stand there alone right now. A year ago, I felt it was a crossing I had to do on my own. Little did I know a pandemic would close out an already unusual year for me, and for that matter, welcome a new year. Yet, it’s what is reality at the moment, the one thing we try most to bypass. It’s a time for creativity, questioning, grieving, self-reflection, wandering in a darkness and seeking what really matters, our deepest values. We mustn’t fear the darkness of our own lives; it carries many of the answers in which we seek.

The grief we experience right now is real and profound. It contains all we have become and all we can be. It contains all our regrets and our dreams. It contains all our fears and hopes. We need not pass up the moment being given to us. We are given the time to do, individually and as a society, an examen of who we have become and question what we take beyond the threshold. As vast and wide as the threshold appears, it’s as narrow as the “eye of a needle” and so we only take what really matters now. It feels like tremendous loss, as if we can’t live without so much, and yet it’s the path towards the freedom we love to tout and the meaning and purpose we really desire. If moments like this don’t lead to deeper questions, we may never move to a place of deeper consciousness and continue to settle for our selfish ways, feeding a pain shared by one another and a tired earth. It doesn’t undermine the loss of life, the great suffering, and the utter darkness some experience in these days, but it is only hope and courage allowing us to take the next step for ourselves into the next year of our lives. For myself it comes in the form of a birthday, but for all of us it comes in the form of a new birth and a new world in a post-pandemic world, but first we grieve a world we can’t and mustn’t take with us beyond this threshold.

Terror of the Dark Night

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It comes in the form of feeling trapped. For anyone who knows my story, you know I nearly lost my life whitewater rafting more than fifteen years ago now. I will never forget the feeling, the feeling of being trapped. For me, it’s the experience of anxiety. Sure, there are many other manifestations of anxiety in people’s lives. I can simply speak of my own experience. It’s the feeling of drowning, for others, death, still others, trapped in a confined place, a closet, the sense of losing it all, things falling apart around me, the loss of control. The way it becomes embodied in our lives, because it does take shape in the body, are far too numerous to spell out here. Anyone who is at least somewhat self-aware knows and understands, to some degree, how it becomes manifest.

I still remember being called by a funeral director asking if I could come to a cemetery while a body is being transferred from underground into a mausoleum. As I began talking to the daughter of the one being exhumed, I began to understand its link to anxiety and an irrational fear. Here she was, making an expensive decision, based on her own fear. This was not the first, but now going to be the third burial place for her mother’s burial. To the rational mind we’d automatically deduce she’s crazy, and on some level, it is a madness or an insanity knowing we make decisions all the time out of irrational fears. She insisted to me her mother was claustrophobic and needed to be exhumed from the ground while never recognizing a mausoleum isn’t much different, going from one enclosed “resting” place to another. It was clear the daughter was not getting much rest herself.

It is a real problem for many, even on a societal level and begins to become all the more evident the further we embark on unchartered, or as we like to define everything, unprecedented, territory with the coronavirus pandemic. Very little is spoken of about mental health during this crisis but all seems to be surfacing the longer we find ourselves confined to a particular place. Again, there is the feeling of being trapped, cornered, confined, loss of control, aggressively moving itself to the surface. Unfortunately, we all find ways to keep it locked inside, but in some ways, now being confined to places, the external world has met up with the internal world we learned to avoid. We do it through overwork, eating, drinking, gluing ourselves to phones and pads, all to take “the edge” off in order to relax. It’s always been there but the pandemic is forcing us to slow ourselves and no longer run from our own pain and fear finding themselves bubbling to the surface.

Now I am not a mental health professional but I am a self-aware individual who’s done a lot of work on himself and understands the interior landscape. I, too, like many still run at times from my own pain. More often than not it’s because I’m just not ready to look at it but know it’s there. The easiest way we learn to deal with it is blame everyone else for our problems. It’s a good indicator of someone who has not done the hard, interior work. We even see this played out on a large scale when we blame, ridicule, put down, others because of our own inability to take responsibility for where are lives are at and an underlying resentment also feeding into our anxiousness. Most successful corporations are aware of the human condition and even hire psychologists to assist in their success. Steve Jobs never hid the fact of the inception of Apple coming from biblical reference and the unsettlement within human beings to want more.

Now we find ourselves at this crossroad, however, when we can begin to turn the system on its head because it has taken advantage of the weakness of our humanity. It’s one thing as an individual to tackle our own uneasiness, angst, or anxiety which remains the great “invisible enemy” in which we are at “war” with on a daily basis. It’s there and now is beginning to surface. We need to keep ourselves busy, it appears, get back to normal and work, so we can avoid the interior reality all the more. What we seem to fail to see is the energy required to blame, to remain victim, as if someone else is still responsible for our lives. Why on earth would we want to go to our grave miserable having never lived the life we wanted to live? There is a great freedom when we finally recognize the war we fight is against ourselves and no one else.

I think about all the energy I expended fighting everyone else. It’s not to say there aren’t times for it, but generally speaking the damage it does to my health and well-being, including my mental health, is a toll all too expensive. I understand it’s a painful process entering into your own anxiety and pain, but it is a necessary one as individuals and as a nation. If we don’t stop the blame game soon, the anxiety will only continue to deepen, the pain widens, and the feeling as if we are suffocating ourselves, as respiratory diseases do, will only begin to intensify. As a country we have shown our pride, but pride too has a dark side. It is the avoidance of our arrogance and ignorance as if we know better than the world and everyone else and our inability to say we need help. How many avoid the care of a mental health professional simply out of pride? The price, your own well-being. Is it worth it?  Ask for help.

Anxiety and pain are real and has an impact on our lives which goes unnoticed and unrecognized. If this time of quarantine and physical distancing should teach us anything, it’s the wake up call we should have anticipated for a long time. It’s not God smiting us for some bizarre reason, that too is blame. It’s not someone trying to do us in, that’s conspiracy. It’s not the world against me, that’s pride. It is, however, the world we have created and have bought into as being “The American Way”. If you still feel you’re not responsible, well, hopefully one day you’ll move beyond the stage of denial. It is after all a grieving process we find ourselves going through these days. Denial is everywhere around us and within us, avoiding the harsh reality that life isn’t always the way we dreamed or expected. It’s only when we move to the stage of acceptance where we can finally say, “you know what, that’s ok.” I no longer need to fight or blame but rather recognize and accept we are complicated people of both great joy and pain, victim and victor, winner and loser, and all the other paradoxes which make up the human condition.

Do yourself a favor. In this time of pandemic, look at it is opportunity, even our inability to gather as faith communities. We focus too much on the inconveniences of life. There are certainly economic and personal implications. We mustn’t deny it. However, there is also plenty of opportunity. We were designed for simplicity and not just from material things, but all we hold onto. Take the time to journal and write about your own pain, where life seemed to have treated you wrongly, the incessant uneasiness within yourself, the times you can’t breathe, all of it.  Go for a walk in nature and allow it to speak and allow yourself to listen. It’s the pain often making the decisions of holding you back from the life you had wanted and desired. In the end, we aren’t much different than the daughter unearthing her mother over and over again. We all just find different ways of doing it in order to avoid the most fragile part of what makes us human, our pain, hurt, and anxieties.

Use this time to go there and then you will find hope in the midst of pandemic and see just how much you’ve allowed yourself to be bamboozled by a ruthless world not because they’re out to get you and destroy you, but rather because it’s a world which hurts and acts out of the same place as your own pain, hurt, fears, and anxiety. There is already an anchor within you waiting to hold you down in the storm rather than being swept away in despair and depression. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” It is, after all, a matter of the heart we need to learn to deal with for it is the heart which holds the pain and our head, our ego, trying at all cost to avoid, blame, and make us victim. No one can make the decision for you, not even me, all I can do is act as a guide on this journey to self-awareness. If anything, it will change the way you see the world and yourself. In the end, it’s all we can really ask for ourselves, for we need to fear the “terror of the night”.

Counterfeited Fantasy

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There’s not a more symbolic place in the United States than Disney World & Disneyland, standing as bookmarks on the far ends of the country. You know we’re in, as we all too often like to say, unprecedented times when they shut their doors to the public due to the coronavirus outbreak. If you’ve ever been you know it can be quite the magical place, as intended. It’s a place to escape the reality of daily life and enter into, in a sense, an Eden, where all seems right with the world. Of course, it’s not true. There are still overstimulated and screaming children who become overwhelmed by the choices they have and wanting to do it all, while running on fumes for lack of sleep and endless hours of walking!

It’s not, though, the point of this post. These theme parks are symbolic of more than America’s happy place or the place to escape. They are symbolic of a culture and a society, deeply rooted in our history, of avoiding suffering and a fraudulent belief we can always be happy if we just avoid the suffering and pain. If I can live Disney all will be well. After centuries of this deeply-held belief, we have been given opportunities the confront this illusion. Just within the 21st Century alone we’ve been given the chance, the events of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and now once again, the pandemic having spread across the globe.

Generally speaking, a delayed response shouldn’t be to hard to believe by any of us, knowing how we’d prefer illusions over reality. Knowing this, it should also not be hard to believe so many quickly believe “fake news”, conspiracy theories, or without a doubt, our incessant need to blame others for our problem. There is no doubt we now face a “war” against an “invisible enemy”. There’s also no doubt it’s a “virus” causing extreme hardship. Sure, it comes in the form of the corona virus, but there’s a deeper war we’re being called to combat. In time the coronavirus will be resolved in one way or another. However, the deeper war is one we oft refuse to confront and it is the illusion of our “happy place” where everything is “perfect” and we’re always “right” and often avoiding the good. As Disney closes its doors to the public, we once again find ourselves on the threshold of this same door, to claw our way back to this “happy place” where we can avoid all sense of suffering and pain or finally slam the door shut on a way of life that just is not working and is tearing us apart as people.

Our lack of preparedness for a crisis, as well, should not surprise any of us. When we do all we can to live the Disney-dream, there’s no reason to be prepared and to be pro-active. Everything becomes reactionary because we’re always trying to deflect pain and suffering. If this time offers us anything, it will hopefully be self-reflection because it’s not only ingrained in a society, it’s ingrained in everyone of us throughout our lives. It’s no one’s fault but our own and the more we project the “invisible enemy” beyond us, we will continue to avoid not only pain and suffering, but reality itself. It would be great if I can spend my life riding through the darkness of Space Mountain or dress my best in the fairytale of Cinderella’s castle, but at some point we’re all pushed to confront reality and to see it’s just that, a dream, an illusion, and unfortunately, a lie. Our eyes are opened to the regrets from chasing an illusion of culture, society, and even our own lives. There’s no “living the dream” just living reality, including the cruelty and heartlessness it can throw at us at times. Yet, all will be well.

Now I’m not here to knock Disney. I’ve been there myself. I enjoyed the experience, despite long line and outrageously expensive prices! Yet, even that is indicative of the illusion we consistently face. We believe we can buy the happiness we seek out in this fantasy world. If I just have one more item everything will be right and it will take that pain away. However, as we learn at Christmas, it may take the pain away for a day, but it seems as if the more we accumulate and feed into the illusion, the deeper the pain and anxiety. We are, after all, an anxious people. Spending years working with young men and women assures me that this won’t change any time soon. We have, after all, raised them in such an environment. If there’s any glimmer of hope, many of them choose not to feed into this illusion, seeking a simpler way of life. Sure, there is a downside to it, but it is an opening to change.

I mean, who wouldn’t want Disney if we can do it. We’re always winners, we’re always on top, we’re always the best, we never have pain and suffering. It sounds heavenly and anything else like hell. However, my own life’s experience reminds me that both are intricately intertwined within me and the more I try to avoid hell, pain, suffering, the deeper the hole and the more I need to feed the illusion of the “heaven” I’ve tried to create through Disney. Ironically, Walt Disney’s original intent was the create an experience affordable for a family. The price of “heaven” has become out of reach to many average families. All of these facets are woven into the fabric of our culture, society, and religion in America, the greatest fantasyland on Earth.

So once again we are given the opportunity to allow the illusion to finally die. Will we? Quite frankly, the rest of the world already knows it’s not real. It’s only us who choose to ignore it while others around the world use it against us to feed their own. No, it’s not a pessimistic view of the world. It’s the real reality. We can only see such reality when we enter into the reality of our own lives then we begin to see how we have fallen for it as well. We want the real Eden and we settle for Disney. We want truth and yet we settle for fake news. We want honesty, yet we settle for believing only the people who tell us what we want to hear. It’s time, not only to wake up, it’s time for us to grow up into a culture and society which can serve in the 21st Century before the world continues to quickly leap ahead of us.

So much is being revealed to us in this moment of pandemic and pandemonium. It’s revealing how little our fantasy serves us when the cruelty of reality awakens. It’s revealing how selfish we can be with a sense of immortality rooted not in faith but in fantasy. It’s revealing how easily we can succumb to fear not by a virus but at the thought of a shattering illusion we believe defines us as a people, and one in which we have allowed to define us. As long as all is “perfect” in my own little world who cares about the rest. The earth is groaning along with the people right now calling us to change and to confront our own “invisible virus” as a society and culture. Will we embrace it or do what we have done in the past, feed it, eating us away not from foreign lands but right within. Quite frankly, they may be the most foreign of all lands to us as Americans. It’s a call to go within and confront our own fantasies and finally seek healing for the “invisible enemy” eating at us for centuries, since first placing foot on Plymouth Rock and from that point forward trying to destroy anything getting in our way.

 

 

Courage to Wander

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Since its inception in 2002, the top-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide. It has also been translated into more than thirty different languages yet transcends all languages by the asking of the most basic of questions, “Why am I here?” Now I’m not writing to explain how this book has answered the deepest questions in my life. As a matter of fact, I have never even read the book! My point is this, for a book to sell so many copies worldwide is a clear indicator of how many people have felt lost in their lives. That sense of feeling lost has a way of unnerving us on our deepest levels, despite the great Tolkien truth, “Not all those who wander are lost.” I suppose for some the feeling is mutual, wandering and lost. It comes with a sense of a lost purpose and meaning, precisely why a book like The Purpose Driven Life sells. It’s part of our human nature to be connected and to have purpose and meaning.

It’s not, though, the way many live their lives. Some feel as if the world, life, the government, whomever, is out to get them for one reason or another and have a sense of being trapped in life. It can be finances, relationships, or even a sense of duty that has a way of yanking freedom from our lives leaving us depressed and outright angry towards life. It comes in all walks of life, bitter men and women who have an axe to grind. I life less examined is a life unlived. It will certainly leave anyone feeling lost and alone, lonely despite the people that surround their lives day in and day out. In the end, we still lie down at night by ourselves and with the weight of a day and unexamined life, the darkness seems to hang just above the tip of the nose, weighing us down even in our moments of supposed rest. Rest becomes restlessness.

We have so access to so much at our fingertips. We have more information than our brains can even begin to process and understand. We look to win arguments rather than listen. We practically look for a fight simply to prove our rightness, a shadowed pride needing to be tamed. We resort to the lowest common denominator out of the shear fact that it’s the way we have lived our lives. The unexamined life has no other choice but to settle and to live in fear. We have convinced ourselves of being deserved nothing more out of life. Our sense of duty is incomparable to anyone else but the price leads us further consumed by our own pain that has left to often rot within our core. We have lost our sense of purpose and meaning and somehow it’s everyone else’s fault for the way I feel. The life of constant victimhood has no freedom because it has yet to take responsibility for the choices made. The life of victimhood and blame lacks meaning and purpose because it still chooses to trust the most ill-trusted voices, the voices of others who live an unexamined life.

Yes, we do have it all at our fingertips, but the desire for meaning and purpose will never be found in a book and nor will it come from some authority dictating life for you. If it is, they too have yet to examine their own life and are negligent in the landscape of the heart. We have become, at least by appearance, a heartless people. We are clueless in the matters of the heart because of the pain we carry with us as individuals and as people. Vengeance and bitterness, yelling, needing to prove rightness, are all matters of the ego, and a wounded one at that! Allowing ourselves to be consumed by pain moves us to a heartlessness separating us from our own humanity.

We settle for religious leaders who themselves are wolves in sheep’s clothing. We settle for political agendas to dictate how I am to think and what I am to believe. We settle for political leaders to be a moral compass, despite their own desire for power. We settle for lies over truth because we no longer know what truth is, a marked indicator of that separation from our humanity and a broken heart. We settle for duty, often to things we hate, simply because we lack the heart and passion to catapult is to a more fulfilling lived life. We are a hurting people who are trying to navigate the heart’s landscape with damaged ego’s leading us further into lostness and no longer wandering.

It would seem as if this is all gloom and doom and have the desire to simply throw our hands up and giving up. However, it is that passivity that leads us to that sense of powerlessness. Our natural inclination is to react to it and abuse that power against others, positions, taking advantage of others we have deemed less than ourselves. However, to live a life with purpose and meaning requires us to take control of our lives while at the same time surrendering it to the unknown. Quite frankly, it is what scares us the most. The unknown feels like “out of control” and feels like “falling” and feels like “lostness” and even like “hell”. It is, though, our ego that desires control and status quo, stability, safety, despite the very fact that none of it is true. The landscape of the heart, in some ways, requires us to go against the grain of what we have been told and taught. It’s an act of unlearning so much of what has been learned, for good or for ill. It’s an unlearning of thought patterns and beliefs of self. It hurts and is painful but no less than the silent pain we live with daily when we refuse to look into the arid landscape of the heart, an unexamined heart and life.

We all desire meaning and purpose. It’s at the heart of who we are. We may not always know what it looks like, but we know it evolves over the course of our lives. The way we parent or are friend are different from when we are 25 and when we are 50 and 70 and beyond. It not much has changed and we live with bitterness and resentment, then we have work to do. It doesn’t matter the age. As long as we have been given breath for another day we have the opportunity to live an examined life. It may come in the form of working with a therapist, coach, counselor, psychiatrist, or simply a loved one who understands and has done the hard work of an examined life and heart. If you’re unsure, a good indicator is the way they empathize. It’s not about sympathizing, as if they don’t have the ability to walk in your shoes. Rather, about empathy, walking with the other. They come with wisdom and the ability to simply listen without judgment. Their heart breaks with you as you wrestle with your life and what has been clung to over the years.

More often than not it is our pain we hold onto. We are a people that hurts and have been convinced of the only way of dealing with that hurt is to run and literally get lost. We have been convinced of consuming when we hurt, buy up all we have and yet resulting in a pain that only runs deeper, as if seeping from our toes. Meaning and purpose is possible for everyone and doesn’t require anyone else to change but you. It begins to change the way we see the world around us and most importantly, our own self. A life and heart examined reconnects us in ways, moving us to wanting more out of life and finding ways to seek it, no longer lost but wandering. Yet, no longer wandering through a lost world, but through a heart that we have yet to know. As if wandering through our favorite place but now with a sight that sees.

Do yourself a favor if you find yourself looking for meaning and purpose, don’t buy a book telling you to follow certain steps, and all of a sudden, it’s found. Rather, buy yourself time. It’s the cheapest thing you can buy for yourself and yet the most beneficial. Make the time for silence. Make the choice to seek out wisdom figures who can accompany you on your journey, who can listen to your pain without judgment or condemnation. Choose to turn off the television, especially while listening to the people you simply agree with; it feeds the ego like a rabid wolf. Find the time for you even if it means disappointing others. Care for something or someone beyond yourself, even if it means digging your hands in the dirt. Digging in this way can do more for the heart and soul than any book! In time, the fear of losing control, surrendering, and falling will become swallowed up by courage, not to conquer the world, but simply take a step to a new way of life. It’s not only that you should demand such a life but the world needs you now to live that life, one of purpose and meaning.

Welcome Home

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Welcome home! They were the first words that I heard as I walked through the doors of Bethlehem Farm some seven months ago for what I thought was going to be a month. “I can do anything for a month,” I told myself. I needed something to do in transition and they were willing to take me in on short notice. Talk about trust, here I was, a middle-aged man who had walked away from the life I was living, not married, and they were willing to take me in! So on a Monday in late April I arrived on the front steps to that greeting, welcome home, only to find that there was something more to it than I could have imagined, a place that has not only been home over the months but a place that has aided me in finding the home within myself that seemed all but lost and relationships that surpass that of time. Better yet, had helped me in finding a home never had found.

It was just a few short days prior to arriving there that I had received word that my dad was hospitalized. I wasn’t sure if I should actually come to such a remote part of West Virginia, nearly eight hours from Burton Street, where I had grown up as a child. However, at the time my own life was out of sorts and rocky at best and I needed, as I had told them, some sense of stability. Not only was the life I had known been allowed to shatter, but I hadn’t realized at the time that the passing of my dad was just about two months from the time I walked up the front steps of B Farm. I needed stability, though, and so I went without really knowing what I was about to get myself into in the coming months. Some three hours later, dozens of high school students also arrived and the stability I was looking for was going to need to be put on hold. I was going to need to jump fully in to learn what the farm was all about along with the high school students who were arriving from around the country.

It was the beginning of an experience that words still fall short to describe. There is absolutely a sense of home, and the men and women I have lived and worked with during this time are more than just colleagues or some other formality, they are family and friends. It falls short on words because words often don’t come close to describing the home that has been discovered within myself during this time, literally getting my hands into the grittiness of the lives of others, the earth, chicken poop, bread and food, but not necessarily in that order, has broken me wide open! For someone who has a strong connection to the Christmas stories you’d think that the grittiness would have already been well-known. However, life’s circumstances and states in life often prevent us from finding that home, even more ironic since I had devoted so much of my time and life to such an endeavor. It was literally, though, digging in dung and dirt where I found that grittiness, at times moved to tears by it.

The progression of my dad’s health seemed to deteriorate daily. There didn’t seem to be an answer to anything. There was still hope, but over time, even that began to wane. I would travel back and forth when I could, often running out as soon as we sent off another group from the farm. There were moments, though, where I found myself out in the field by myself or with Shannon, who too came to the farm looking for something. By the afternoon we’d often work in different parts of the garden, leaving m alone with my thoughts, a farm tool, and the earth. Even as I write these words, I find tears coming to my eyes because it seemed like yesterday there was so much unraveling going on within and beyond me. It was all an act of trust, from the very beginning, not knowing where any of it would lead. At times I could look back and wonder how on earth I was able to venture through such turbulent times in my life.

There was something about the digging, and digging deeper. There was also something about the process of baking bread and kneading it. Both actions have similar qualities of digging and kneading, pushing and feeling, breaking through the surface which seemed so thick. It all has a way of grounding you in the process. The results are not immediately experienced, just like farming, but over time there is a gradual change and life begins to poke through. There’s something about that physical push that often broke me open and brought to the surface all that seemed buried within. There was a deterioration going on in my own life. No, the consequences are not the same as my dad, who lost the battle with cancer, but death has come this year in my life, both in the passing of him as well as in my own life, both of which stand in stark contrast to the perennial. Everything seemed to be passing, slipping through the fingers, like the crumbling of dirt in the field.

I now stand on the cusp of the longest time I will have spent away from the farm all year. After seven months of farming, cooking, canning, growing, learning, and becoming, more sound and grounded myself, it’s time to take home on the road for a while. Sure, there is some hesitation, but none like I had when first venturing to southern West Virginia back in April. Looking back, it was a cancer of sorts, that was also killing me from within, but mine had a cure. In some ways it feels as if the year has become full circle for me, back where I began, but moving forward from a very different place than when it felt like it was falling apart around me. Bethlehem Farm and welcome home has a deeper meaning than simply returning to a place. It’s about returning to a center. It didn’t take long to realize why so many returned to the farm, year after year, to this special place. Surrounded by a rather chaotic world, whirling around, it stands at the center of authenticity and the quest for wholeness in life, to grow into the life that had been intended from the beginning. Everyone arrives on those steps for very different reasons. Some simply for the act of service it provides, as for countless high school and college students; yet, even they leave different than when they arrived.

Others, like myself, though, come looking for something else because of our stage in life. The countless conversations with the college students have been one of the best parts of the time at the farm. Sometimes it was just the silence of working in the field or even the quiet of the kitchen when no words were needed. There was, here, no longer this sense of hierarchy I have had to live with, but rather a level playing field and equal grounding. There was no special clothing, unless you count work clothes, that differentiate one from another. There was no special title or expectations or anything else. As a matter of fact, there’s simply a nakedness that comes from the experience, a vulnerability that reminds we are all human and life really is passing, none of which needs to be taken all that seriously. As much as I have been a part of their journey, they have been of mine as well. They walked the journey of my dad’s death with me and kept me grounded even through my own. They could sympathize and empathize but at the same time, their lives weren’t destroyed by what was happening in mine. That’s the grounding I was looking for within myself, summed up and found through those simple words first uttered as I, and countless others, walk up those steps at Bethlehem Farm, “Welcome Home.”

Huddled Masses

A few months back at the farm we had a woman that easily could have been referred to as “the chicken whisperer”. She seemed to know chickens better than anyone, and, at times, seemingly better than human beings. They were literally, “her girls”, and they followed her when she arrived. She knew when to feed, when to sleep, the snacks that they’d like from the farm, such as fruits and vegetables, and certainly what they shouldn’t eat. Joking aside, I learned a great deal from her and began, since then, observing “her girls” most afternoons when I delivered their afternoon snack. You learn who’s in charge, and they let you know it, who the weaker one’s are, making sure they have food as well, when they lay eggs, how they go to sleep, and basically, the intricate structure of community that the chickens share, just as we do as human beings. We can learn a great deal watching and observing.

Then there was today. This community of chickens encountered their darkest of days. A dog broke free and literally massacred all but about seventeen with a few of them probably hanging on with their last breath. It was one of the most difficult things I had witnessed here on the farm. You are always aware that there are predators close by. The hawks make themselves known on a daily basis as they fly overhead. You are fully aware, just from education and experience, that there is a brutality to the animal kingdom just as there is with humans as we know all too well. There’s an animal instinct in all of us, that, thankfully, as humans we learn to tame, at least for the most part. We know that if we too act on those instincts that there are consequences to our actions in order to be held accountable for preying on the weak and vulnerable.

It was obvious, in witnessing all of it today, that despite that brutality their sense of community remained intact. The lone survivors found themselves huddled around their dead comrades. We practically had to lure them out in order to give them assurance that they were ok. In some sense, it too was an instinctual reaction, in some sense “playing dead” in order not to be next, but in witnessing it, there appeared a reverence, of sorts, for those who lost their lives so tragically, as if “huddled masses yearning to be free” while we stood by helpless. As we cleaned up the dead, the others seemed to be simply frozen in place, not moving at all or at times huddled together, as if frozen with fear. There are reasons we call someone “chicken” when they refuse to face their own fears. Today, though, it wasn’t that skiddishness that you often witness from them when you walk into the yard. It was a different feel, and by simply watching and observing you can learn a great deal from them in our own dealings with hurt and suffering.

As I said, you know who’s in charge. There’s no doubt in this community as well. There is one rooster, reddish brown and tall in stature, who has a presence about him. He’s sure to make the hens aware when food has arrived but is also the one who warns them of predators. For a bird that cannot fly, he was found in the opposite yard. When I finally arrived, the dog had his eye on that rooster, alpha preying on alpha. What would it do to the eco-structure of that community? How does such a prominent figure in the community carry on if he survives? It was by no means his fault that others died, but at the same time, and I read into the rooster, how does he once again lead when his leadership seemingly appeared to fail? How does he once again walk with such prominence in the community that has literally been decimated before his very eyes?

There’s a certain even flow to the life of a community, even for chickens. There aren’t always warnings when something is going to change or when “predators” arrive, and often unbeknownst to us, changes the eco-system for months or years to come. The cycle of life and death is always working itself out. At times it’s like the changing of seasons where the change seems to happen so gradually to where one day we awake to bare trees, but at times it also comes in the form of traumatic experiences, like today, where we’re thrown off kilter much more quickly, bringing up within us all different kinds of feelings and emotions because the chickens weren’t just a part of their own community but also part of a larger community that feels the pinch in their absence. It’s too easy to simply write it off as “well, that’s just the way it is”; that doesn’t take away the felt loss in that absence and the silence that now looms over the scene.

I am a believer, now more than ever, that the world beyond humans has a great deal to teach us about ourselves. If you had asked me six or seven months ago about the same experience, I’d probably say just the same, well they’re just chickens. There obviously is truth to that and all that unfolds, whether we like it or not, but when you allow yourself to become a part of their world and they yours, something begins to change. Observing and watching them, at times just standing there for several minutes, begins to open something within yourself and who you are as a person. There begins to be a bridge between what appeared to be two worlds and see that it is but one. You begin to see that you are a part of their community just as much as they are of yours because there is just one.

The tragic events of the day may have been avoidable, but it’s also the reality of the world in which we live. It’s always the most unexpected events that cause us the most pain but also have the most to teach us and in forming us for the future. We can be “huddled masses yearning to be free”, remaining attached to the dead and living our lives in fear but we also have the choice to take steps, one at a time, out of that fear and begin to live our lives again but now in a new way and a part of a different community. It will never look the same but what we carry with us is always there if it truly is of something beyond ourselves. Picking up the dead, while surrounded by life, reminds you just how fragile it is and the fact that you have but one chance at the life that is given. We can learn a great deal by observing and watching the world around us. We often become that world if we aren’t aware, simply conforming to it all because “that’s just the way it is.” In those most critical moments, though, standing over what has died, we are given choice and we are being given overwhelming freedom, to step out and encounter a new world, a world now less confined by fear but rather an overwhelming sense of love that transcends humans to a world and an earth and a universe that isn’t separate from me but one. We can learn a lot about community by observing and watching, even in the face of such trauma and tragedy.