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.

 

 

Called to More

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Do you know people who never quite recover from difficult situations? We can probably all name a few who were never “quite right” after a particular loss, illness, or some other sort of tragedy, practically nailing someone to their grave long before their physical death. Yet, there are others who tend to be resilient, who are not going to allow anything in life to stop them and bounce back, using it as a learning opportunity to become better. It by no means they don’t face challenges and loss, but there is something within them not allowing them to lose hope or give up in any fashion. There is always this drive for “more” which doesn’t go away when things aren’t right, and until they reach the point of peace, there will be no stopping them.

It’s where I have often found myself. As life was slipping from my fingers in late 2018, I did everything in my power to try to contain it and hold onto the pieces without allowing them to shatter despite the desire for more shouting louder and louder within me. It’s hard to contain the voice within and makes it understandable why so many give up, but even harder to be insistent on holding things together despite needing to fall apart. It sometimes feels easier to give up on life, dreams, desires, and the rest than it is to ultimately, change, to let go. We’d rather be stuck in the same place rather than muster up the courage the inner voice is offering to catapult us to changing the way we live our lives. I dare say, not only as individuals, but as society as a whole. Fear runs so deep within us and is often utilized against us making it feel insurmountable. It takes resilient people around us to consistently remind us there is hope and possibility in the face of uncertainty and change happening at warp speed.

You rarely hear anyone speak of what it all does not only to our mental health but physically as well. We create walls for ourselves trying to protect ourselves from hurt, meaning, vulnerability. Let alone how it effects the world around us, in choices and decisions we make, not out of freedom as we love to tout, but out of fear which we have come to believe to be freedom because it’s what we’ve convinced ourselves of in our lives. In our inability to be resilient and agile, we continue to contain ourselves, shove ourselves into closets, and trapped in whatever way works for us. You need not look far into the political sphere at the level of anger existing in our society, often disguising resentment and unfinished hurts as if, somehow, we have been wronged by the government, professionals, doctors, religion, or whomever, creating a culture of doubt, mistrust, and cynicism and politicians cashing in on it.

We claim a great deal as a culture and society. We love to be the best at everything in comparison to the rest of the world, most innovative, best military, best medicine, and so on. I dare say, though, not the most resilient, which makes you better. If we were resilient, we’d change as needed and be able to admit we have real problems being left to politicians of all sorts and sizes. It’s easier to blame than to accept responsibility for the world around us, as if it’s someone else’s problem. Look around us and see an infrastructure aging and failing, a landscape continuously being raped of its resources, people still enslaved in various ways, instability, and all we can do is clamp down, out of fear of change. We may not pay the price in the moment, but this too is our shortcoming, unable to see beyond the tip of our nose on decisions, lacking long-term solutions to problems only deepening around, and I dare say, deep within us.

By definition, resiliency is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”. A growing debt and a lack of care of this reality exposes our inability to make tough decisions. Our incessant need to demonize the other, whether from other countries, other political affiliations, career choices, and so on isn’t toughness in a resilient way, bouncing back. It’s a toughness rooted in fear, anger, and contempt, none of which are values able to sustain a people in a changing world. We continue to live in an alternate reality of wars among the peoples as problems only continue deepen and wounds unhealed. Who’s to blame? Well, all of us. None of us is free of blame but blame also gets us absolutely nowhere other than deeper into denial. It’s a denial that things will never be the same, as much as we’d like to hold onto the illusions of our lives, the glory days, we believe are long gone.

However, in our resilience the “glory days” always lie ahead. In our resilience we recognize at times things need to fall apart around us. You can look back through this blog where I have mentioned the mistake made in the financial crisis of 2008 was to band-aid the problem. How about after the 9-11 attacks to move too quickly out of the liminal space we were invited into because of the experience to attack mode. Even the church world, after revelations of abuse in the winter of 2002, it wasn’t to deal with lack of transparency, but rather, to clamp down, tighten things up, unable to recognize the strangling of people in the process. Institutions may very well be the least resilient and are lives are so intricately involved in all of them. It exposes the lack of faith and trust and most especially, our lack of resiliency. We’d rather be tough in less than stellar ways, allowing a cancer to grow within us, rather than to change and let go. Fear is deadly.

We still have the opportunity to do an about face and look at our problems square in the face. We no longer need to cling to illusions or delusions. We can speak our resentments of a life not as we had planned. We can empathize with the anger and hurt of the people around us. This is what makes us resilient people. Remember the days following 9/11 where everything simply shut down and quieted. We need more of them right now but not be so quick to run from the uncomfortableness it comes with deep inside us. If things need to fall apart, then we allow them to fall apart. It may feel like the end of the world, but it’s simply the end of the world as we once knew, a world no longer existent. We need resiliency more than ever, a toughness which comes from a people who don’t allow hurt and fear to control their life. We need to turn off the TV’s, politicians, and people who’d rather be politicians, and dialogue with one another about the hurt, the pain, anger, and resentment existing in our lives. If not, the world will continue to pass us by as we allow ourselves to be torn apart through blame, fear, and contempt. We like to tout our toughness, but there’s a toughness we can value, a better toughness, one coming from bouncing back, our resiliency.

 

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?

Love’s Acceptance

Acts 10: 34, 37-43; I Cor 5: 6-8; John 20: 1-9

If you spend any time surfing the internet, you know full well that you can find someone out there who’d have an argument for something you want to believe, even if it’s not true; actually most likely not true.  We call them conspiracy theories.  They’re nothing new but we have certainly lived through many of them.  It seemed as if the birther movement would never end.  How about George Bush being responsible for the events of 9/11?  Of course, every time there’s a school shooting there’s always some conspiracy out there that somehow there’s a mastermind behind all of this working the ropes.  It says something about our faith when we succumb to much of it and how fragile it can be at times.  So when we don’t agree with reality or prefer to think that reality isn’t reality, when we can’t accept it, then we’ll just create a new one that agrees with how we think things should be, avoiding reality itself.  What’s worse is that now we have virtual reality.  When we’re totally dissatisfied we can just create a new one through technology in order to avoid what is.  We avoid our own pain and suffering and then also avoid it in others.  It creates a false sense of life and almost instills a sense of paranoia.

They’re nothing new, though.  Even what we celebrate today had many conspiracy theories surrounding it and they come out in the characters we encounter through the Easter season.  One of them is uttered from the mouth of Mary of Magdala this morning that “they have stolen the body”.  Just as the political and religious authorities conspired for the death of Jesus that we marked on Good Friday, they will now conspire once again to cast doubt and fear into the heart of the followers that somehow what had taken place actually didn’t take place.  When they conspired towards his death they thought they had their problem under control.  They thought that if he can be contained in this way and then simply get rid of it, they can maintain their sense of control and the illusion of power.  They can continue to oppress the people in this way and suppress them at the hand of authority.  They knew, though, that if word continues to spread and takes on flesh that Christ had been raised, it would spread like wildfire and so conspiracy theories are born in order to control the fire.

We hear, though, throughout this season from Acts of the Apostles that it just can’t be contained.  That this gift of life and the Spirit was not going to be contained by fear.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer nor face great pains as a community.  We hear that throughout the early days.  But they learn to accept the eternal life now which dispels all fear.  Over time, and through this process of conversion of heart, the words of Jesus and the Word made flesh, becomes who they are; they make it their own and they become unstoppable.  They will certainly be tested and challenged by the authorities, but the embodiment of the love freely given will change them forever.  Whenever they find themselves doubting and questioning or even beginning to believe the conspiracies over their experience, they will once again be drawn into this mystery of life and death.  That’s what they ultimately learn in relationship with Christ.  You have to embrace it in its entirety.  You cannot have life without death.  They go hand in hand.  We want to separate and feel it can’t touch us, but surrender, sacrifice, and letting go needs to be a part of who we are if we are to become a community of love.  When we separate mystery in that way, we begin to create alternate realities and virtual realities in order to avoid what we most dislike, the fact that we can’t have it all and that we’re not immortal.  The more we avoid it, the more problems will continue to mount here and across the globe.

Paul reminds us in his letter to Corinth today that if we are to become this community of love then we need to leave things behind.  We need to leave behind bitterness and malice.  We need to leave behind our fear and our confusion.  We need to leave behind our paranoia and conspiracies that we cling to and learn to accept reality for what it is and only then can we begin to change.  It’s the encounter with the divine love and our participation in that divine love that changes us and allows us to move from simple lip service to a changed heart.  It’s easy to say I believe in God or I believe Jesus is risen from the dead.  It’s a whole other reality when we embody it.  For John, it comes down to that, back to the beginning of the gospel when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

That’s what it’s all about.  Problems continue to mount.  Poverty continues to spread.  Homelessness is everywhere.  Injustice happens here and abroad.  Yet, the fragility of our faith often prevents us from falling into the pain and suffering of the world and to bring about its transformation through love.  Only love can do that.  Fear won’t do it.  Conspiracies won’t do it.  Virtual reality won’t do it.  Paranoia won’t do it.  Only love and it’s a love that is freely given.  When the disciples head to the tomb and find it empty on Easter, it doesn’t move them from a place of darkness right away.  But something begins to stir within them, deep within them, and they know they can never go back.  They can no longer live in an alternate reality and they’ll know deep down that the conspiracies are simply words rooted in fear, fear of change fear of the authentic power of Christ crucified now raised from the dead.

As we enter into these 50 days of Easter, we pray for the grace to have that same movement in our own lives.  Like them, we often want proof with our own eyes.  We want to see it.  Well, none of us can prove anything like that and that’s certainly not the message John conveys in his gospel.  For John, it’s a deeper sense of knowing that we truly long for in life, a knowing that can only be embodied and not simply words that can sound shallow.  John wants us to move towards a deeper faith, embodied within a changed heart.  That’s the community of love that is being offered and the only way to live more deeply in the reality of our own pain and suffering, offering us hope of not an alternate reality or a virtual reality, but a reality rooted in hope and love, a reality rooted in Easter.  We pray this day that we may become that community of love in order to cast out all fear and darkness from our lives, the community, and the world.

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.

‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.

 

Mending What Divides

Well, it’s over. It’s the day we have waited for, seemingly for years now. If there’s one thing we can agree on, the election cycle of 2016 was taxing emotionally and physically at times. There were days when I just couldn’t look at Facebook because I knew it would suck any life I had out of me. I’ve tried to stay out of the fray except with those I knew I could have meaningful conversations with about politics and this race between Trump and Clinton, or at times, just want to joke about it. What was once a nice forum to connect with friends became a living nightmare at times over the past months. Some of the struggle was I couldn’t quite understand how people could be so certain about so much that they would see and hear and then here I am struggling with who I would vote for, even up to the moment I picked up the pen in the polling place and felt the magnitude of it all. I used to be that person, certain about what to do. Maybe it’s my own lived experience, but things just seem more grey than black and white and I’ve been awakened to my own hypocrisy more often than I care to admit through the process.
Now here I sit reflecting on what I, since Brexit months ago, knew would always be possible, whether I liked it or not or whether anyone else did either. It’s a process that needed to unfold. There’s some reality in knowing that there’s going to be negativity in the days and months leading up to an election, just as their was in Britain, but what I have often found most disheartening is the amount of negativity that persists afterwards. Just look at it. Go to Facebook or Twitter and you won’t have to search far to find it. The irony, or the paradox in it all, is as much as Trump has been bashed for hurtful words, and don’t get me wrong, they are hurtful to many people and cannot be a part of such a position as President of the Free World, my negative reaction or your negative reaction, should only make you pause and say, you know what, I’m not much different than him. It might just weigh on my heart differently than his or others.
What we often fail to miss is that the more we move the charge towards inclusivity others can begin to feel excluded. The message of Trump was not simply about going after Clinton, as some may think, it was a resonation and capitalizing on a very human reality of feeling excluded, taken advantage of, lied to, and hurt by a system. She just happened to be the sacrificial, iconic figure of it all. Some may begin to feel as if thing are out of control and they no longer matter. At the same time, some will feel as if they know better and can make decisions for others, often failing to remember the forgotten and the outcast. Before you know it, suspicion begins to grow, uncertainty, and trust wanes like never before. I find a new way to judge and exclude.
I may not be a deplorable, as has been said, but there’s a chance I may be a part of the infamous 47% or I may have become part of the elite without even knowing it, while trying to include, through my judgment, ever so quietly often begin excluding others. It’s hard, in the midst of such intensity, to separate ourselves from our own ego that gets wrapped up in the need to win and to be right. But when only one wins others lose rather than recognizing that to truly win, we all most lose and give up something as we seek a common path together. More often than not, it is my need to win and be right. I know even for myself, the way I begin to separate is only listen to people that agree with me or say what I say, inflating an ego rather than expanding ones heart.
The only way we will find this path is to recognize and accept that the other is not much different than myself. They may have different struggles, think differently, act differently, vote differently, say things I might not, but really they could say the same thing about me. The more we separate ourselves from each other the more fear takes over and grows and the ego, both my own and the collective begins to take hold and I begin to think that somehow I am better than the other, above them. If you ask me, the two that lost last night were the political parties of this country, Republican and Democrat; and quite frankly, they needed to lose and they need to break down and once again connect with the common person. When a cry is ignored or written off, people will go to extreme to be heard. The Parties have become more about the salvation of the party than about the people that they have tried to sway into believing that they held the truth in its entirety, while at the same time demonizing the other and excluding them. That’s the craziness of it all because it happens on both sides, in their own unique ways. We just become blind to our own team’s weakness and shadow.
It’s hard to include everyone and remember everyone when we enter into these presidential elections these days. It’s easy to write-off all who were a part of the losing team. It’s easy to gloat when we win. It’s almost instinctual for us as human beings. But as a man who has really wrestled with this election, it’s time more for this, reflecting and delving a little deeper into my own self, and quite frankly, as a country, asking God to break through the ego at the moment and recognize our own hurt, just as we did in the days following 9/11. It’s the only way we move forward as a country and as humans. There is a deep hurt that runs through the blood of many at the moment, and if you don’t feel it now then you probably did just a few days ago. Redemption doesn’t come through winning. It comes through healing.
That is where we find common ground, in our own hurt and in our own need for healing and stop convincing ourselves that our truest power comes from winning and from beyond ourselves, but rather lies deep within. It’s the way we separate ourselves from the ego of these Institutions that have taken hold of our lives and convince us we are nothing without them. It’s a hard path and journey to manage because pain and suffering seems to stand in the way and we want to avoid it, when life calls us to go forth through it. When we give ourselves that space in our lives, to be as we are, we will also give it to the other and only then will the divide begin to decrease and a common path begin to show itself once again.

Is It Over Yet?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve about had my fill, plus some, on this election cycle. When I was watching some news this morning all I kept thinking was, “Is it over yet?” It’s a lot like that child in the backseat of a car who perpetually questions whether we’ve reached our destination as the car continues to fly down the highway at seventy miles an hour, seeming endless in sight. Over and over again the question lingers because it just seems to take forever to get there, without an end in sight.

I couldn’t help but to be mindful of the fact, also, that there seems to be no other news that happens during this cycle. All we ever hear about is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, every now and then Gary Johnson, and who’s going to try to win the duel of berating comments that does nothing more than divide and dredge up people’s most visceral reactions toward fellow human beings. How about the number of people killed in Africa by terrorists groups since the beginning of this year? There seems to be no mention of that in the news. How about the number of people around the globe and here in the States that die for not having adequate food, clothing, and shelter each year? There seems to never be a mention of that. That’s really not news and doesn’t sell to the consumers. No one seems to notice that what we are consuming is eventually going to kill us in some way, or at the least, numb us to the real problems that we face as a country and as a fellow human race. If we want to label anything deplorable, it’s the lack of empathy that we have lost towards our fellow brothers and sisters, so often numbed by screens that we can turn on and off and so often translating over into the way we relate to others.

The lack of empathy is typically the result of deep wounds that we allow to fester within us and typically avoid. This mess we call the presidential election is a good way to avoid that pain and numb it even deeper within ourselves. Now it is one thing to do that on an individual level, but when the collective psyche has been damaged and hurt, it, in many ways, leads to the reality in which we live and often scapegoating others, deflecting our own pain, onto others, often those that don’t have the ability to defend themselves, those without a voice. The people that often need that empathy the most become the villain in the story that unfolds. There’s no better way to avoid our own pain than to project it onto the one that can’t defend, can’t stand up for themselves, and in turn only deepens the wounds of others. The cycle continues. Is it over yet?

I can’t help but to think of the visceral reaction to Colin Kaepernick sitting and then choosing to kneel during the singing of the National Anthem. Whether any of us agree or not, it is the paradox of the freedom for which it stands, that one can make a conscious choice to reject it. There’s a fine line between reverence and turning something into a god. I was reminded of the great Martin Luther King, Jr who had addressed the reality regarding war that speaking is sometimes a “vocation of agony” as he would describe it. Even Scripture reminds us of the voice crying out in the desert. When we can no longer empathize with those who feel they have no voice and those who have often faced pain inflicted upon them, it’s not them that are at fault. It’s us who can no longer see beyond our own political lens that has been inflicted upon us, when demonizing the other is more the name of the game than not. It has nothing to do with money and rights. It has to do with understanding that maybe someone has a different experience that myself, whether because of color, religion, sexuality, or something else that, at times, has brought about suffering. The lack of empathy hinders us from taking a step back and saying to ourselves, maybe we have a problem that I don’t understand, and allow ourselves to reflect, have a change of heart, empathize, for the other, rather than be do quick to judge. Or as our politics likes to do, inflict it upon others.

These are sad days in the life of this country, a country that continues in many ways to reel in the pain of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. We often speak about those days that followed and how the nation had come together as one. It was a golden opportunity for us collectively to step back and begin to look at life differently and discern how we move forward in a positive way, rather than the great divide that has ensued. It was a golden opportunity to reevaluate what is most important to us as a people, hopefully one another and not political jargon that seems to dominate our lives these days. Is it any wonder why people are dissatisfied and disenfranchised by the whole process? When voices are crying out and we choose to ignore, we will undoubtably pay a price in the end, finding ourselves wandering aimlessly in life, looking for direction and purpose. Is it over yet? Maybe then I can finally move on in life and start caring about people as people again, rather than voters, skewed by politics, screens, social media, and talking heads telling me how I should think and feel.

With all that, again, my mantra is simply, “Is it over yet?” As I write this I believe there remains fifty-five days left before the 2016 presidential election. At the moment, neither candidate is appealing in any way. Neither candidate has won my vote. And it’s not even because I have a disdain for anyone, but rather, there’s no future in what is spoken and it seems to simply take you back to middle school playground antics of choosing sides with who might be the cooler kid to hang out with at this moment. There’s no prophetic message in bringing people together. There’s no sense of dream that our nation can move beyond such pain that we experience and allow ourselves to become something new. It’s not about turning back the clock to some other time. All days have passed. It’s about listening to our brothers and sisters, especially those who are hurting, and from the ground up begin to build something new as one people. Otherwise, we are simply left with the weight of another election upon us and people waiting to breathe a sigh of relief that it’s coming to an end.

Is it over yet? It’s all that comes to mind as I sometimes feel sad for what I see and hear, to the point where I need to turn it off and have my sense of humanity restored. There’s nothing like that encounter with the homeless that walk through the front yard. There’s nothing like watching the school kids playing outside during recess. They all remind me of the hope that we should all desire for our future as people and as country, and yet the constant reminder that there are greater needs that need to be addressed. Tearing people apart and destroying reputations sets the “winner” up for failure right from the beginning. If we’ve demonized the other for months on end, how do we ever see that person as leader, as someone who can help move us through the pain to the life that is desired for us rather than the destructive force we have made them into over the year. Quite frankly, there’s too much at stake right now to settle, and for any of us to be reduced to a vote and questioning whether it will ever end.

God’s Endless Pursuit

Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; I Tim 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32

For those of us who remember, the days of the old Baltimore Catechism, we remember the question and answers that were to be memorized. Some of us can probably still recite them today. I believe the second question simply asked, “Who is God?”. The answer was simply creator of heaven and earth and of all things. It was pretty easy but when we hear these readings this week, it doesn’t seem so easy and certainly portrays God in a very different way. We hear of a God that is in constant pursuit and we the object of that pursuit.

However, many aren’t even aware of this God who is constantly revealing and in constant pursuit, desiring relationship with us because we often get hung up on the illusions of who we think God is. It’s tough to penetrate these illusions because they are so deeply rooted in who we are and often connected to deeply-seeded wounds that exist in the human race and so we cling to the simple illusions we’ve been taught and never quite experience a relationship with what seems to be a rather foolish God in these readings, constantly in pursuit desiring only to love. God pursues from so far beyond and yet in the depths of our being. Unfortunately, these illusions end up impacting our relationship not only with God but with the people around us and even collectively as a people, unable to experience this God in a new way.

These illusions create a distance between us and this God, despite His constant pursuit. We hear that in today’s first reading from Exodus. It appears that it is God that is distancing Himself from the people in the reading. We’re so used to God referring to Israel as my people, but today it’s different. He’s ticked off at people Israel and tells Moses, “go to your people.” It’s as if God wants nothing to do with them at the moment because of how lost they have become. Despite the constant pursuit of this God to His people, they wander again and again. Over time people Israel tries to make themselves god and creating gods in the molten calf today, that they lose sight of all this God has done and the mercy that He has brought upon them. It impacts all relationships. We’re not much different. This country as well has tried to put itself in the place of God and creates gods not only out of objects but out of ourselves as well. Yet, God still pursues Israel as Moses mediates on their behalf, leading them to a changed heart once again.

It is the story of the prodigal in today’s gospel as well. It’s somewhat easy for us to understand the younger son who goes off doing rather dumb things. We’ve all been there and over time eventually, hopefully, work our way back somehow. Even that, though, the father is in pursuit of that son before he ever returns. But there remains the issue of the elder son, the one we’d rather not deal with and face. Remember Jesus is addressing the scribes and pharisees and so the elder son is really a reflection on them. He too has an illusion of not only God but his father in the story. He holds tightly to this illusion of a father who demands perfection and so in turn a God, as it is with the Pharisees. Yet, he has so much animosity towards the other that he too wants a break and a distance with his younger brother. Notice how he refers to him in the say way that God does to Moses in today’s first reading. He doesn’t acknowledge his as his brother, but rather says, “your son”. He wants no association with him. His wound runs so deep that he can’t see beyond this illusion of perfection. However, the father, seeming rather foolish, still pursues him and loves him and desires life for him. But he can’t get beyond thinking seeing beyond the illusion that some how his father is out of his mind and has betrayed him. God doesn’t demand perfection. God desires relationship and whether we know it or not, we can’t have a relationship with an illusion.

Paul knows that better than anyone and he tells of his own journey today to Timothy. Remember that Paul was a chief pharisee and held tightly to that sense of a God that demanded perfection. It’s not until he finds himself blinded in some way that that illusion begins to break down and Paul encounters God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. He comes through a changed man with a changed heart. The good news is God never gives up. God continues the pursuit and we remain the object of that pursuit. There are the pharisees today, God in the flesh before their very eyes, and yet they can’t see beyond their own illusion and their own pride to encounter God in Christ. Jesus himself pursues them and yet there isn’t that openness to see and experience this God in a new way, in a seemingly foolish way, a God not demanding perfection, but freely offering love, forgiveness, and mercy. Why would we not want such a relationship?

We live in a time when we can almost sense that same distance in our country. Like the elder son, we want nothing to do with the other. We tend to rather enter into relationship with, demonize the other. Our pursuit is the destroy the other, take them down. There is deeply rooted pain and loss that we suffer that we continue to hold onto. But God doesn’t give up on us either. God continues to pursue. Like people Israel, though, we wander and wallow in our own pain, holding onto illusions of what was, of who we think God is, putting ourselves at times in the place of the god we create, creating further distance. What we need, though, is to allow ourselves to be found by the living God, the seeming foolish God that smashes all illusions and moves us to a place beyond separation and violence, to a place of reconciliation, love, and mercy. It’s what we need. Yet, if we can’t bring ourselves to enter into relationship with the other we will continue to suffer at the hands of ourselves and create our own gods, worshiping false idols. It will always seem foolish to the pharisee within us and yet a gift to all who can allow themselves to be open to something new, a God that always is and always will be so far beyond and yet so imminently in pursuit of our hearts that we will never desire anything less than love and mercy.