Finding Peace in a New York State of Mind

nativity

Although never a chart-topping hit for Billy Joel, New York State of Mind remains one of his most popular as he travels the world performing.  The basic premise of the song is that while others travel to different locations to get away, he still finds something life-giving about returning to the city, in particular, a city that never sleeps.  There really is, something, about the hustle and bustle that seems to crescendo in this city like none other that I have visited over the years.  None seem to come close in comparison of what unfolds, never a dull moment, in a city that seems to take chaos to a whole new level and meaning, as it continues to stand as a cross-section of a global world all within an area of just over three hundred square miles.  How on earth does anyone find some semblance of peace in any of that?

I’d be naïve to think that peace can never be found in such chaos but it certainly comes with challenges that are unlike other places.  Yet, that’s the challenge, finding peace in the midst of the chaos of our own lives.  From honking horns, people glued to their phones as the walk, pushing and shoving in trying to cross streets, glittering lights that entrance, skyscrapers that tower over all of us, it all seems to be, at times, the lived reality in my own head, always running and never quite finding the time to simply slow down and center myself in a way that allows the peace to surface in the midst of it all, quieting the noise of my own life and only exasperated while descending upon this city.  Maybe it’s not the right place to find peace.

In the process of getting from one place to another, all you can really do is keep pushing through the noise, because even the noise has something to teach, even if it is how easily we are distracted by it all.  The first inclination is to try to get rid of it, eliminate it, and then somehow I’ll have peace of mind.  It seems like a rather narcissistic idea of peace, where I become the center of it all, isolating myself from the rest of the world all for what I want.  Yet, if a walk through the city teaches us anything, it’s just how much it’s not about me, but rather points out my own smallness of a much larger world, an oft necessary perspective for any of us.  It all seems to flow much more smoothly when I move with traffic than always trying to go against.  I suppose it’s a dance we all do over the course of our lives, and every moment in crossing streets, sometimes needing to move with the flow, but at others going against the grain and pushing back in order to grow in different ways, despite the looks and the frustration that often arises within myself and others.  We’re all just trying to get to that place, wherever it may be, simply because I haven’t found that peace where I am, standing in the middle of 46th and Broadway, as the world seems to be passing me by in an instant.  It’s not where I maybe want to be, but it’s where I find myself and I can only be there at the moment.

Yet, somewhere, despite that New York state of mind that seems to encapsulate my life, there must be peace.  There must be a way to silence it all, to stop it, in order to find what I’m looking for in the midst of it.  It takes me to the most obvious and least obvious place in this journey, to the apex of the city at Christmas, Rockefeller Center and its surrounding area.  There’s nothing much like it and I continue to return to that same place, taking a break and sipping on coffee as I watch the world pass by my very eyes, people without a care in the world and lost in the moment.  It still, though, wasn’t enough.  I went further, to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where I was sure to find some semblance of peace.  As I waited in line, just to enter the place, being pushed by hundreds of other visitors trying to get somewhere, it seemed all but lost.  Finally, though, I entered the doors, bag cleared by security, and headed to the creche and sat down for a few moments.  That New York state of mind seemed to follow through the cathedral doors, people chatting in a quieter tone, snapping photos, gawking at the enormity of it all, gazing at a scene that means so much, a baby born in a stable.  Peace.

In the moments that followed, the most obvious was the least obvious.  There is no baby in that crib for another two weeks, until Christmas.  Today that crib stood vacant, empty, as if just waiting for something.  The animals all seemed to know.  The other characters seemed to understand something that the rest of us didn’t know in that moment.  The peace we seek will never come in my New York state of mind but rather somewhere deep within, in the emptiness of my own heart.  It isn’t about going anywhere to find that peace.  As a matter of fact, the harder I seem to go looking for it the further I seem to end up away from experiencing it.  All I could do is sit in those moments and stare at the emptiness of that crib, following the eyes of all the characters that already seemed to know and that I had once again forgotten, needing to be reminded over and over again.  It was everything I could do to hold back tears looking at that space, sleep in heavenly peace.

We convince ourselves that if I had peace of mind it would somehow correct it all for me.  Yet, I have yet to find a way to totally silence the mind in that way.  It all too often feels like a New York state of mind, with sirens blaring, horns blowing, voices yelling, all trying to vie for my attention, assuring me that they have the silver bullet to my life and what I truly desire.  It’s so tempting and at times fall for their lie, only to be left least satisfied and lost in the chaos of my own mind.  It is, though, only in the places deeper within my own being where the creative act of God continues to work, priming me for another opportunity to be found in the silence lost in the noisiness of the world, since it’s the only world in which I have found.  When finally found, my eyes become fixed as well, and then finally, a deep breath can be had and I can take that peace with me out into the world, finding myself more patient with myself and others along the way who are simply looking for the same thing in the busyness of their own New York state of mind.

Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart.  It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels.  That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate.  Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens.  He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time.  The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean.  But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.

The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place.  There’s chaos.  It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down.  It appears that what they thought was right no longer is.  It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos.  This is the real point of John.  The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks.  So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order.  It’s not a one-time deal.  There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.

So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa.  Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over.  He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power.  Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows.  He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out.  The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene.  He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe.  It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak.  Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus.  There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter.  Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?

Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him.  He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really?  He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?”  It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him.  Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time.  When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises.  Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”.  Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within.  If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears.  It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.

As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking.  More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts.  That’s the point, though.  If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify!  We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.

If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos.  If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world.  The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos.  We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit.  It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world.  It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.

Needed Endings

Daniel 12: 1-3; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18; Mark 13: 24-32

In some of his letters written from prison, German Lutheran theologian, spiritual writer, mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged his fellow co-conspirators to think and act of future generations.  Despite the fear and anxiety that will be thrust upon you of that age, and our age, the mindset must be forward and for future generations.  He himself had the opportunity to stay here in the States but felt for the sake of his own integrity and the integrity of the message that he must return to Germany during Nazi control and found himself imprisoned and eventual lead to not only his death but the death of several family members.  He knew how the message would be received by those in power, not as a message of hope, as anticipated, but rather feeding into their own fear of the threat of losing power.  When we become trapped in this moment and cannot see beyond or even trust the unknown, fear and anxiety rule the day.  His message was not only timely in the early 1940s as Germany and all of Europe reeled with a World War, but even to our own day.

His message, like that of Mark’s to his own community today, are meant to be messages of hope to people who find themselves waning on their commitment to the common good, future generations, and doing what is right.  There is an onslaught of pressure at this point of the story from not only political but religious authorities of their day who see not only Jesus but his very followers as a threat to the status quo, to what they are most comfortable with, to their way of life that they have deemed to be most fitting.  Fear and anxiety becomes the name of the game, but the message intended by Mark and Daniel, and even Bonhoeffer, was to persevere in the suffering and the darkness that you are experiencing at the moment.  For the sake of future generations, fear cannot move us to give up and become depleted in the mission that is given us by God. 

As Mark and Daniel tell us today, it will certainly feel as if the world is falling a part and feel like all we know is crumbling around us, but it has to.  It has to.  Many things need to die in order for the next generation, which may even have conflicting values, but for the betterment of society.  Instead, like in the time of Jesus, we have political and religious leaders looking more like bumbling fools at times, stumbling through, trying to avoid the pain, often all in order to cling to what was and what was is dying and has to die.  What was can no longer be.  The name of the game with God is surrender, trust, letting go, even learning to die, pushing through the pain, in order to learn to trust the unknown and the unfolding of mystery in our world today.  It’s a message of hope in the face of the many trials and tribulations that we have faced as generations of people.  Yet, every generation, as Jesus tells us today, clings, and all these things will come to pass before they learn to let go.  Do we really want to leave a mess for future generations in the church and country?

Whether we like it or not, things are going to change and many things will die, and need to.  People from other countries are going to come here, as they have for generations.  We need not fear as Bonhoeffer had written.  We need not fear people that are different and that we even perceive as a threat to our way of life.  Our way of life, for that matter, is also dying.  If you know anything about future generations, they live very differently.  They don’t necessarily value what older generations value, even in terms of economics.  At some point the trials and tribulations are only enhanced by our own need to control and to hold on to what was.  We become nostalgic of the past, as if everything was great.  Yet, all generations that have passed have lived through the same trials and tribulations and the same uncertainties that we face in our present day and age.  The more we learn to embrace the reality of life and death, that the two are so intertwined, the more we learn not to cling, but to let go, surrender, even the face of persecution and in the midst of the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by political and religious leaders, along with a great deal of our media that continues to feed into the narrative of the end times.

Well, guess what?  The end times are upon us.  They’re always upon us.  We’re always on the threshold being left with a choice to cling to what was, leading us further into despair, or we learn to trust the unknown, trust what is unfolding within and beyond us, the mystery of life and death.  All of creation, as the readings tell us today, knows that process better than any of us.  Despite the horrific loss of life and property in the wild fires of California, it’s all the forest knows.  Fires, despite the loss of life, are the only way forests recreate themselves and foster new growth.  As naturally as creation does it and allows it to be done unto it, here we are, the advanced ones of creation, clinging rather than embracing the freedom of the unknow, opening ourselves to future generations.

Bonhoeffer’s words continue to ring true to this day.  We too have a great deal of fear and anxiety thrust upon us from many different directions.  There is nothing easy about any of it.  His message, though, that in order to think and act in that way, we must learn to walk through the darkness, the pain, the suffering, that comes with letting go and surrendering ourselves over to the will of God.  If we find it as an ominous message rather than the message of hope that was intended, we probably find ourselves clinging in life, as if something is being taken away from us.  The message of hope delivered by these prophetic voices, Daniel, Jesus, Mark, Bonhoeffer, was one of trust in the face of adversity.  It may be painful in the immediate moment, but that more than ever is the time not to fall prey to fear and anxiety.  When we trust, despite the trials and tribulation, life is promised in death.  Sure, it’s hard and we’d rather hold on, but the message of hope is one of life, despite our fears.  Lean in and trust the unknown for the fullness of life awaits.

Paying The Price

I Kings 17: 10-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

As Jesus and the disciples now make their final march towards the ultimate battle and war, at the Cross, which we’ll hear in two weeks on the Feast of Christ the King, the gap between what Jesus calls them to as disciples and how they see things seems all but insurmountable.  Like us, the disciples too are a product of their own experience and their experience tells them that life has more to do with what the scribes, along with the other religious and political leaders, do than it does with Jesus.  All Jesus can do, as he does today, is keep moving them to look at things from a different perspective so that when they do finally face the Cross and the scales begin to fall from their eyes, things will begin to make sense and they will see what Jesus was about all along.  It’s hard to change when our own experience tells us something different than what we’re being invited into.  There’s feeling attached to it, emotion, and all the rest, that as we’ve seen in our own political and even religious institutions, we can overlook facts and truth all for the sake of holding onto what we think.

Yet, when they make that final march to the Cross, things begin to change and the disciples, like ourselves, are given a choice.  They’ve been given a choice all along and consistently reject the way of the Lord, but when their eyes are opened, the choice will become more obvious, do we follow the ways of the Lord, that have been pointed out to us along this journey, or do we continue to consume the ways of the world, often blindly following the political and religious leaders of the day who often feed into that lived experience rather than inviting us into something new, a new way of seeing and a new way of living that isn’t so much about consuming as it is sacrifice.

Jesus, once again today, tries to offer a different perspective by sitting off at a distance with the disciples and simply observe people, people watching as we call it.  He knows he can’t force the disciples to see as he sees, but as we’ve heard throughout Mark’s gospel, tell no one.  He just doesn’t want it to be some secret.  Jesus is aware that they don’t yet understand nor do they see what really matters.  They quickly, as we’ve heard these weeks, become enthralled with power, with honor, with wealth, and once again, the scribes prove it to them.  The temptation is so strong as they watch.  They see how people fall over them and how they manipulate and take advantage of the lesser of their society.  So, as only Jesus can do, he observes and contrasts the scribes with a widow, as we also heard in today’s first reading.  It’s not just because there was something so special about this particular widow.  It’s the fact that any widow of that time has nothing.  It’s not even simply about money.  She has no status and no voice, no nothing.  Yet, she gives the most.  As the scribes consume the honor, the power, the wealth, a particular attraction, this woman finds it all in sacrifice, in the nothing that she has.  That’s the point to the disciples as they look on.  You can have all the given power, honor, and wealth, but it’s not necessarily the way of the Lord.  As much as we love to consume, the way of the Lord is often just the opposite, letting go and sacrificing.

As you know, today we mark the 100th Anniversary of the ending of World War I and also celebrate Veterans Day, others who have gone to the ultimate battle.  If you read about the world wars, you quickly learn that there was also a very different mindset as a country and people.  It wasn’t just the one’s who went off to war who had to sacrifice, and sometimes their entire lives, but there was a call for everyone to sacrifice.  Since the events of 9/11, though, our attitude has been quite different.  After that and beyond it has been consume, consume, consume.  It’s not just things we’ve been challenged to consume, we consume media and social media now that feeds into the lived experience and how we see the world that it becomes harder and harder to change, to let go, to sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the more we consume the more we think we need and the more we feel anxious when we don’t have it all.  It’s a consumer mindset that is eventually going to do us in and there will be a price.  Like the disciples and their experience of the Cross, it often takes something drastic to move us to change and for the scales to fall from our eyes.  At some point we just can’t consume anymore because it prevents us from dealing with the hurt and pain that resides below the surface.  The widow faced the cross.  Long before Jesus, the widow in the first reading faced the cross.  They knew what was most important, in particular when they were pushed to the point of losing it all.  The harder we cling, the harder it is to let go, especially of our way of thinking.

Over the past few weeks the writer of Hebrews has been pushing us to change our perspective as well, inviting us to step back and look at what really matters.  So often what we see with our eyes is what we think is most important.  Jesus himself will go on and speak about the destruction of the Temple, as it too consumes, becomes bloated, and becomes a source of corruption.  Hebrews keeps pointing us back to the Christ, that it is that relationship that offers salvation.  Don’t cling so hard to what you see because at some point the scales will fall and the questioning and the real choice will be revealed.  It appears, at least in plain sight, that Elijah is all about himself as he approaches the widow who’s at the point of death!  He simply wants food and drink for the journey as she watches her own son die.  Yet, she moves from her own lived experience as widow and still offers a hospitality that by sight seems senseless.  Yet, like Jesus, she finds strength and learns to trust even more deeply in those moments.  Elijah himself will continue to learn as his journey continues just what it means to be prophet.  Like the disciples his time wandering and in the desert will open him to new possibility and to find true power from his own emptiness and longing, sacrificing it all, including his way of thinking, rather than feeding the narrative that had been his lived experience.

At some point, we too are left with the same choice as the disciples as to how we will proceed in life, as individuals and even as community and country.  The more we consume what we think it’s all about, the more the gap grows as it did between Jesus and the disciples.  All Jesus or any of us can continue to do is invite us to look at life from a different perspective and set up the differences as to what’s most important and what we truly value.  Those who have nothing in the gospels point the way towards trust and faith in the God who often cannot be seen with the eyes, especially eyes clouded through our consumption of goods and media and whatever else we think we can’t live without.  Like the disciples, though, a day will come and it always comes, leaving us with the choice as we stand at the Cross and look on.  Do I choose the way of the Lord, which so often demands sacrifice and letting go to begin to see what really matters or will I continue to blindly follow the ways of the world, the political and religious leaders of our day?  It’s a hard choice but God has shown time and time again, there is but one way, the way of the Lord.  Today a rich widow simply points the way by giving of her whole livelihood.  Are we willing to do the same, even if it means sacrificing what we think is most important in our lives?

Shema Yisra’el

Deut 6: 2-6; Mark 12: 28-34

Even if we tried we couldn’t have chosen better readings than these, summing up the Jewish faith as the Tree of Life Synagogue continues to bury their dead and deal with the tragedy of last weekend.  For our Jewish brothers and sisters and for ourselves, it all comes down to the shema, the great commandment that Moses passes along to Israel today.  It’s a prayer recited three times a day, a consistent reminder to a people throughout the centuries, that, when faced with so many false gods and idols, even to our own day, there is but one God that sees us through this life.  Yet, like many of our own prayers, they tend to be words.  They can come easily off our lips and not have much meaning or while we continue to cling to our own gods that provide us comfort and safety.  It helps to know their meaning and why they stand as so important to people of faith, especially in the face of such tragedy.

Today we hear that context from the Book of Deuteronomy, in our first reading.  It’s Moses that passes the prayer along to his fellow Israelites.  If you can imagine yourself on the cusp of something new, that’s exactly where Israel finds itself in this reading.  After forty years of wandering in the desert they have finally arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land.  They can finally see it with the naked eye, lying just before them, and now there is this pause before passing through.  Of course, like us there is a sense of excitement and anticipation as they prepare to take that last step, but there’s also fear and resistance in facing the unknown, of what lies ahead for them after years of slavery and then wandering in the desert, Moses assures them that before the pass over, they can finally let go of all the other false gods and idols that they’ve had to confront about themselves in these forty years and finally enter into relationship with this one God that has seen them to this point.

It’s bittersweet, though, because as Moses passes on this message, Israel will now be left with a choice.  A choice that can no longer be made by him.  It’s now going to have to be their doing and from their own heart as to whether they trust this God so much that they’re willing to step into the unknown, into the life that has been promised for ages to come.  For Moses, though, it marks the end of the journey.  He never has the opportunity to walk into the Promised Land with them.  He’s taken them as far as he could and will die before they arrive.  It’s as if Moses himself becomes the final stumbling stone for Israel.  He had become their crutch in difficult times.  He’s led them through this, often with trepidation and his own sense of insecurity.  He’s gotten angry at God and at his people.  Despite not crossing over, Moses has already experienced the Promised Land.  He doesn’t need to go to this physical place because he’s already at home in himself and with God, within his very being.  It’s why the words mean so much coming from Moses at this time.  He’s done the journey with them and now they must cross over at their own doing, by affirming their own trust in this God.

Then there’s Jesus, who of course takes it to a new level.  He intertwines the two commandments, and as we’ve heard him say before, he’s well aware of how easy it is for everyone to recite this prayer and not really mean it.  Jesus, the one who manifests the shema now points the way that the same it true for us.  To come to an understanding, as his student does today, we have to make it our own and it is manifested by the way we live our lives, with a sense of integrity, that the prayer isn’t just something we say but rather prove by the way we love our neighbor.  The twist, though, is that we don’t get to choose who our neighbor is.  That doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t try.  It’s what often causes tension between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his time.  They want to decide who’s worthy of that love, a conditional love at best.  They want nothing to do with the Samaritans.  They want nothing to do with the Gentiles.  Of course, even when Israel finally passes into the Promised Land, even their immediate response is revenge and vengeance against their enemies.  It will lead them, time and again, into exile because of their own failure to embrace the fullness of love of God and neighbor.  Their false gods that Moses had told them they can finally let go of, find ways of creeping back in, wanting security, safety, fear, territory, and all the rest to rule the day and the prayer becomes words once again.  It’s not to say we don’t experience that tension between what God desires and demands of us through the gospels and our own frail humanity.  That’s a part of our human condition.  It’s when we abandon it and create gods for ourselves when the prayer becomes hallow and shallow, as we so often see in our own time and day.  As much as they desire the freedom that comes with loving in such an unconditional way, they’d prefer their own way and their own gods.

We can say the same of our own society and country.  We love to say how much we love God and how central God is to our lives and what we do.  But does it really?  Aren’t we just simply offering lip service as well?  We cling to false gods and idols in our day and age, reminding us that we find ourselves wandering through the desert as Israel had for forty years.  We want to decide it all rather than learning to trust the God of the unknown, of mystery, of the promise for all ages, the God who strips us of all of our own gods and teaches us what it truly means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and all the other ways we translate it, ultimately with our entire being.  Moses points the way.  Jesus points the way and is the way.  Yet, we still want to decide who’s worthy of our love.  We can’t say we’re anti-black, anti-brown, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, and all the rest, and still have the audacity to utter such words as the shema, of loving God with all our heart, soul, being.  That’s not the God of mystery and promise.  It’s our own god we’ve created for ourselves.  They’re words, and hallow words at best, at that point.  If we love any God, we love our own gods, as Israel did in those forty years, the gods of fear, safety, security, of what was known, of vengeance, and all the others they were forced to confront in those days in order to learn to love in the way God loves, unconditionally.

Like Israel, we’re given a choice as we stand at the cusp.  Our faith reminds us that we’re always on the cusp, the threshold of something new by this God of mystery and unknown.  Israel is given the choice to take that leap of faith, as we are this day and at this time, the leap of faith into the unknown.  Sure, with a sense of anticipation and excitement, but also with fear and trepidation grounding us in our humanity.  Are we going to take that leap of faith or do we run back, as Israel so often did, clinging to our gods and idols of fear, hate, resentment, certainty, safety, security, and all the rest.  All of those gods require so much energy on our part and only lead to a greater gap between each other and with God, trapped wandering in the desert, and without the freedom of love we desire.  The shema, and our own prayer, must be more than words.  Like Moses, it must become a very part of our being, a central part of who we are so that they are no longer simply words, but the very way we live our lives.  Words matter, especially when they’re prayer and a declaration of the one God over all other gods.  We stand at the cusp and are given a choice to love God with all our heart, soul, being, and only then our neighbor, all people, unconditionally, as ourselves.

The Narrow Strait

The best any of us can do when it comes to understanding God more deeply is seek out metaphors and images that somehow give us a glimpse into the mystery in which we share.  We are surrounded by them each and every day if we allow ourselves even moments to be aware of the eternal presence shaping our own journey, breaking in, in one way or another.  It’s hard, at times, when you find yourself in paradise, not to miss the moments and signs that are pointing us to a deeper way of life.  It can be something as simple as walking along the beach or watching a sunrise or sunset to even some of the great obstacles we face in trying to pass through in this life.

As I was out walking along the beach yesterday there was one such sign that came in the form of an obstacle.  In parts, the beach is quite narrow right now and you have to practically walk over people in order to keep moving in some direction.  Yet, as you walk, there comes a natural obstacle that would make most pause, at the least, or simply turn around because of the difficulty in passing through.  There is a narrow path in which you can only pass through in single file.  If you’re on the other side it’s best to wait for others to pass.  It’s that narrow of a space, which added with rock formation and water breaking in through that formation, it can easily throw anyone off balance before passing through to the other side.

Yet, if you handle it carefully and with some awareness, you can pass through the narrow strait, which opens up into what appears to be the paradise desired of endless beach, few people, and a sense of stillness that all but makes the memory of the journey thus far all but forgotten.  Now I did happen to notice a woman that thought she’d outsmart it and walk around the narrow strait.  She was going to avoid it all together and somehow go around it to pass through but quickly realized that was nearly impossible, climbing over slippery and jagged rock, of course with phone and other items in hand, before turning back because it was too hard.

Is it not true of our spiritual lives as well?  We too are often left with such a choice as to how we are going to move forward.  It appears that the options are endless, and God knows, we’ll try every one of them before attempting the narrow straight.  We think and convince ourselves that somehow we can outsmart the process and avoid the seeming danger of passing through the most narrow of spots along the journey.  We turn around and settle for a life that we’ve outgrown, that feels crowded and yet lifeless all for the fact that we fear passing through.  We try to avoid that passing and attempt every other option, no matter how dangerous, all but to avoid the one, narrow straight that promises us an openness into what it is we’ve desired.  Maybe it’s why it appears, with the naked eye, to have so few people on the other side because so few of us are willing to take the risk in passing through.  Yet, what lies beyond transcends words and is simply something to be experienced for our own selves.  Otherwise, all we can do is listen in on a story and experience that our hearts long for and desire and yet we continue to allow ourselves to get in the way of possibility all because we convinced ourselves that there should be an easier way to all of it or if I wait long enough I’ll find the way to outsmart it all.  We’ll be waiting a long while if we live our lives that way, lacking the depth and meaning we desire.

Now, it’s not that we toss out that life once we pass through.  We still look behind at times to learn and heal the narrowest parts of our lives that at time continue to plague our hearts.  They remain; but when we allow ourselves the opportunity and invitation to pass through the narrowest of straits, time and again, we are afforded the opportunity to let go and to be healed of the memories that often stand as our greatest obstacle of passing through that space.  It is the fear that has become attached to our memories that hold us back.  More often than not, the fear of being hurt or rejected.  Sure, we may get hurt passing through, but it’s the only way that promises life and the paradise desired by our hearts and souls.

All any of us can do is seek out these metaphors and images.  We can study theology for years on end, and that’s a good thing.  But in the end, when it comes to deepening a relationship with God, it’s the images that find a way to transform our hearts or at minimum open us up toward greater possibility and to the impossible that we tend to avoid.  All too often we settle for being trapped, confined, and allowing our hearts to be overcrowded with a life that once was and setting up shop there thinking we have it all.  At some point, though, we start to get the nudge.  It may take months and years, but eventually cracks begin to break us open enough to realize that narrow strait is unlike the rest and what’s on the other side is something that we desire all the more.  It takes great courage to live now and not hung up in some past life or anxious about what’s next.  In the great moments of passing through that narrow strait, there’s no space for fear or worry, simply about being.  It isn’t until finally braving that space that we learn we need not fear it each time we encounter it because once we encounter the spaciousness of the paradise beyond there’s no turning back.  It’s images like this that speak to us but most importantly, transform our hearts into knowing and understanding the primal message of the sacred word, fear not.