Leaning Into Life

Although not discussed in great detail, I was watching an interview this week from a representative from WebMD about trends on searches during this time of pandemic. It was interesting to note the shift taking place in what people feel they need during this time, first on how long the virus survives on surfaces, when it first began, to now loneliness and depression. It seems like a radical shift as a majority of us quickly approach the second month of quarantine and social distancing and what it’s doing to us psychologically and spiritually. It may be true this pandemic is making us somewhat “stir-crazy”, understandable knowing what it’s been like together and individually. However, what we fail to recognize is the pandemic, in many ways, is simply allowing what has been for some time to rise to the surface and making sure we have nowhere to run, giving us the opportunity to no longer run from our own shadow, scaring us half to death. It begins to rear itself in our dreams and other means demanding our attention.

I’ve been depressed and experienced a deep moral loneliness, as so many readers’ have experienced in their lives or may be for the first time during this pandemic. I have had to take medication along the way in order to assist me in the process, giving the necessary bump to deal with the shadow of my own life in which I was running. If we stop simply at meds, though, we never actually deal with the problem of loneliness and moments like we find ourselves begin to feel excruciating. It truly is an invisible enemy easily masked until we are forced to stop or tragedy strikes, no longer making logical sense of the lives we’ve learned to box up and wrap neatly. It leads, unfortunately, to living a double-life which deepens the loneliness. Now, though, we find ourselves no longer able to run.

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of it. However, most of us have had the experience of living double-lives, growing the gulf within us leading to this sense of darkness. Our identities have a tendency to be wrapped up in what we do, in our work, so when we find ourselves at home, week after week, our ability to run from the pain associated with this loneliness seems nearly impossible. It’s no wonder places selling alcohol become “essential” places because it so often is used as a numbing drug in order to take away the pain, when in reality, only deepens the pain to the point where it feels like there’s an abyss within our soul and we find ourselves freefalling into the darkness. There is a reason many need to go back to work. Certainly, there is the financial element for millions of people right now, but on a human side, so many do not know who they are without working, and working to the point of addiction. If we’re not producing then there must be something wrong with us.

I can recall days in my own life, when, upon finishing working, I dreaded going home. I dreaded the pain which would begin to surface within me because I was feeding an identity not my own. I can recall the level of pain I experienced at times in my life because of the gulf existing between work and home. Home became a place to fear and dread because I couldn’t outrun the pain. All I could ever do was numb it with whatever was available, often food for myself. I feel for the people who find themselves in this position today, after nearly decades of their lives working and being able to leave home to escape themselves. As ridiculous as it seems, I can even feel for people protesting. In the various images I have seen, you can literally see the pain in their faces as they arm themselves with guns and such, giving them a sense of power, in which has felt lost. They’ve lost their outlet and can no longer avoid themselves. Unfortunately, though, there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the pain of others. I remember needing to deal with the regrets in my life, the resentments I was holding onto, all aimed at myself, blaming myself, living out of my own victimhood. It was a feeling as if the world was consistently working against me and I allowed it. Anything to avoid the inevitable flip of the mirror of me staring back at myself, unable to run from my own hurt and pain. I will say, in my experience, men are much more susceptible to this type because they are driven by work.

We have a tendency to limit the pain of loneliness to elements of this pandemic, such as social distancing and the absence of physical touch. This may be true to a point and we can allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation in this way. However, I don’t believe it’s the deep loneliness and darkness some are experiencing these days. There is certainly a level of grief connected to the pandemic. I too am living in the same way, at the house I grew up in, but I by no means feel lonely. I don’t feel the sense of separation from myself. If, though, our identity isn’t wrapped up in our work and what we produce, it can also be tied to what others tell us we are, dependent upon what others think and believe about us. This too leads to a separation from ourselves. As shallow as our culture can be, generally speaking, we’ve lost the sense of transformation and even how to go about doing it and so we live in a perpetual state of anxiousness because of this gulf within ourselves.

There is nothing easy about loneliness, which can lead to depression for many. There is also no quick fix in dealing with it. The rush to normalcy calls to mind just how much we loathe the necessity to allow things to die, especially our thinking and mindset. The rush to normalcy is fed by the fear and anxiety we face in having no where to run from ourselves. Although I don’t know statistics, it would be interesting to see numbers on domestic abuse, alcoholism, increased addiction to pain meds, and all the other numbing elements occurring during this time. It comes down to this very basic principle of knowing ourselves and beginning to close the gap between the persona we present at work, in relationships, etc. and the person who lays his or her head on the pillow at night, the one time when we are truly alone. Our economy, our politics, religion, job, all want to define us in one way or another and slowly we take on their identity as consumer, party affiliate, winner, loser, sinner, hard-worker, and we begin to believe this is finally the identity which defines me.

However, none of them do. None of them. As all of these identities have slowly been stripped of us the past month, we are left with our own poverty, our own sense of abyss within ourselves which doesn’t need to be feared but rather which we surrender to the voice calling us to enter into our own darkness, our loneliness, not to be consumed by it, but to feel our way through the darkened corners of our hearts and souls and to claim it. We need not fear the terror of the night! I have written it in all these posts these weeks, we are all being given a golden opportunity! In an addictive and co-dependent culture within so many of our institutions and organizations, we have been set free from what has bound us most. It’s no wonder they rush to get us back! We help in feeding these masters, these ghouls, decorating us with lavish identities, hiding our poverty and making us feel rich!

My friends, and all who read this day, what is your relationship with the ghouls which have identified you? With your religion, your work, newsfeeds, your political affiliation, your whatever? Most especially, though, what is your relationship like with yourself? Welcome reality as it is and not the way any of them tell you. Recognize what you actually have control over, the choices and decisions you make for yourself and not much else. Become aware of how you feel the world has worked against you and begin to shift the mindset where it works for you. Don’t sit around and simply wait for this to pass, even though it will. Allow yourself to be empowered to change what you can in your life and begin to close the gap causing such deep loneliness. This ultimately leads to the freedom we truly desire in our lives, a freedom which doesn’t come through some official document nor from carrying a weapon.

Think about people like Saint Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anne Frank, and so many others who were imprisoned in their own right and still spoke from a place of freedom. They had the mindset of a world working for them and no need to blame. Trust me, there’s still a loneliness which accompanies such darkness when you feel you stand alone and being crucified. However, they were true to themselves, dealt with their darkness, and learned to be empowered through and with it rather than running away. The wisdom figures of ancient past all point to the same deeply held truth, what appears to be our greatest fear and obstacle, the thorn in our side, is often our greatest gift. Don’t run from the loneliness of these days. Rather, lean into it and allow it to teach by welcoming it in, allow it to be healed, and offer it back to a hurting and often lonely world.

Hopeful Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terror of the Dark Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracles on Earth

One of the most unsettling things for someone like me is arriving in an unknown place, containing unknown people, and not knowing quite what to expect when you allow yourself to be open to wherever the Spirit may be leading in life. If there is any attachment to any sense of comfort and consistency, it’s probably the easiest and quickest way to unbalance the equilibrium of life. For an added bonus, take away the comforts of a life once lived, showering regularly and the such, and watch any sense of stability slip through your hands while opening yourself to a whole new experience and a whole new way of life being revealed to and through you.

I suppose it’s the nature of the incarnational God moment in Bethlehem that invites us into such a reality, where the most vulnerable becomes enfleshed in the very human reality, one that has existed from before the beginning of time, when we enter into this world and leave behind the confines of what has nurtured us and fed us in ways that we’d now learn how to do on our own. It’s often a painful process that invites us into becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable of our lives, pushing us to the brink of change and the consistent edge of seeking the unknown ways that God still desires to reveal in and through us. It is at Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem of our own lives, where that process begins to unfold in our hearts and souls, where not only us, but God becomes equal with, bridging the divide that separates the authentic being that we are and are so often stands in the way of living a life more fully in the gift of Bethlehem, that somehow even manages to find a way to conquer even death itself.

This week was my first week here at Bethlehem Farms in West Virginia. It’s rather appropriate knowing my own story these months that I’d find myself back at the beginning, in a place that takes pride in a name that recalls for us the gift given and continues to give in Bethlehem. There was and is nothing neat and fancy about Bethlehem, a child born in a stable, straw strewn with animal dung, odors that spill over into the creases of our bodies, reminding us of our humanity and the gift we share with all God’s creation, that there is nothing that separates and divides but we ourselves at times. It’s often in reconnecting with the most basic elements of who we are in the order of creation where we reconnect with Bethlehem in a more real and profound way, waking at the break of day, chores, daily routines, prayer, and of course, the sharing of meals that makes Bethlehem what it was and is, the heart and soul of who we are in God’s plan.

It’s all the discomforts of walking into those unfamiliar places, raising the awareness of our own shame and guilt for living lives disconnected from one another, from creation, and even from ourselves at times. Bethlehem, and the miracle of Bethlehem, like the celebration of birth in any of God’s creation, is it manages to pull us into the most present moment of our lives, where nothing else matters than what lies before us. The pain of such a journey begins to wane. The wonder and awe, dreams of a life given birth is all that lies before us when we allow ourselves to be open to the voice of God enfleshed in others, nature, the natural world, the animals, and all living creatures that when created were good, even very good.

There’s nothing quite as magical as watching life unfold, especially the lives of young people who have their eyes opened to something beyond the life they have lived. Even in their own experience of Bethlehem we have no idea when they enter the world how their lives will unfold, all we know is that it somehow happened in and through us along the way. It will be their own openness to a different way of life and allowing themselves to be connected in varying ways, where they too can find themselves questioning the ways of the world, seeds planted beyond the beds of a garden, but in the hearts and souls of all who pass through the ravines of Bethlehem, looking for a new way of life, a different way of life, recognizing that there must be something more for them in life beyond the phones, games, and fast-paced world of success that never quite satisfies. Rather, finding the treasure of life and birth in the community gathered in prayer, in work, in meal, all moving towards the common goal of making the world a better place, a more sustainable place, and never quite being satisfied with the comfort, but finding comfort in the discomfort of Bethlehem that is always calling and beckoning to come forth to a new life in and through God. It’s the true miracle of Bethlehem.

Many walked through the bowels of Bethlehem searching for the “king” and a new way of life, somehow believing what it is they’d search for all their life would be found in a far distant land only to find that it lies within, that the gift of Bethlehem is in the birth of joy, compassion, and love in our own hearts. More often than not we will search in similar ways, believing that what it is we seek lies somehow and somewhere beyond us, taking us on a journey, at times, seemingly, thousands of miles away. It’s the nature of who we are as humans to seek what it is we desire beyond ourselves. More than anything we seek love and to be loved, only coming with our own oneness with others, with God, with all of creation, when we finally begin to accept that there is nothing, as Paul writes to the Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

The journey to Bethlehem is a long one, arduous at times, wanting even to turn around and go home to what was, questioning whether the journey is really worth the time and effort. In the end, as with any birth but certainly the vulnerability that God takes on in becoming flesh, it is only in that journey where we find our deepest purpose and truly what it means to love and to accept that love in return. Love stands as the only bridge to what separates, heart to heart, flesh to flesh, man, woman, and all creation standing together, hand in hand, reminding the world that great things happen in Bethlehem and because of Bethlehem. It’s nothing that any power structure or any powers that be will ever understand, for they live with divided hearts. It’s only in the great humility of Bethlehem where it begins to make sense, that there is more to life, more to a life once lived but now being summoned in different ways, more life-giving ways, that opens to door to a journey to yet another miracle. By the guidance of a night sky and illumined stars, it once again comes to Bethlehem, surrounded by the most obvious and yet most inconspicuous places, in the comfort of the uncomfortable, God once again gives birth.

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.

Foolish Wisdom

Wisdom 6: 12-16; I Thess 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I don’t need to convince anyone here that we live in rather hostile times. How else do you describe what we witnessed this past week in the church shooting in Texas when someone feels they can just walk in and obliterate people. Or even here in Baltimore. We’re not even at the end of the year and the death toll due to violence has exceeded 300. It’s hard to comprehend. There also seems to be an increase in stories of accusations of assault against people. That’s just the actions of people. It doesn’t take into account the hostility we experience with the vile that often comes out of mouths and plastered on social media and other outlets. How can any of us deny this surge in hostility. It seems and feels as if there is this great upheaval taking place in politics, Church, and other facets of our lives that it seems to feed into that hostility. As much as we want to seek this sense of permanence and cling to it, there just isn’t other than what we seem to fear the most, death.
Matthew’s community which we’ve heard from all year was not much different. The reasons for such hostility may or may not have been different but he consistently worried about the community and whether it would survive. There were strong divisions between Jews, the Messianic Jews, who would go on to become Christians, as well as pagan and more secular people, all of which felt that they held the mantle of truth and found ways to hold it over the others. Matthew consistently tries to move the community to this deeper reality of who they are and despite differences in beliefs, way of life, knowledge, or anything else, there is something that binds them all. But when they and we get caught up in our tribes, our way of thinking, thinking we hold this mantle of truth and complete knowledge, hostility arises and there is less and less space for others, and quite frankly, the Other.
In these final three weeks of the liturgical year Matthew will once again make this push to this deeper reality by the telling of parables. We hear the parable of the virgins this week, followed by the talents, and climaxing with the sheep and goats on the final Sunday. Today, though, is this parable that appears to be filled with contradictions. There are these so-called wise virgins who appear on the surface to be given some kind of reward for their presence. However, their actions don’t speak great volumes in terms of wisdom. No sooner it is announced that the bridegroom is arriving, the foolish virgins seek help from the wise virgins, and yet, they want nothing to do with them. They shut them off and only worry about themselves rather than help the one in need. Go buy your own stuff and worry about yourself they are told. They go about their business only to lock the door behind them as they enter the party only to shut themselves off as some form of protection from the outside elements. It doesn’t sound like great wisdom.
But remember, this is how they envisioned God and now Jesus plays on words and uses stories to point out what they miss. The only other image that sounds so stark in Scripture is the closing of the tomb, death, cutting off from everyone else. Yet, there they were. Like today, it’s about insiders outsiders, the better than and less than, who holds the mantle and who doesn’t, who’s wise and who’s a fool. Yet, in the process, the parable reveals something about them and their own understanding of God and themselves. In the seeking of wisdom, one must first learn to embrace death and a reality and a part of who we are. It is in letting go that we begin to realize that maybe the best any of us can do is accept the fact that I may have some wisdom but I could be a damn fool all at the same time, ready and yet not ready. Like the parable, we tend to be filled with such contradictions. But for the Pharisees and their understanding of God, it was all about how it appeared and if we don’t move to that deeper reality we never really see that I am both wise and foolish, living and dying with each passing breath.
We hear in that first reading today from Wisdom that our lives are about seeking that gift of wisdom and the eternal. As a matter of fact, seeking wisdom leads us to the eternal. When we feel we carry this mantle of truth and certainty, there’s not much room for wisdom and for that matter, the other. Wisdom, and our ability to let go, leads us from a life of hostility to a life of hospitality, where we have space for the other, and quite frankly, we’re free to be ourselves. There is great wisdom in accepting that I am not all-knowing and I don’t carry the mantle of truth because it frees me to be myself and unlike the Pharisees, don’t feel the need to try to be someone other than I really am, both wise and foolish all at the same time.
Quite frankly, there is some wisdom found even in the foolish virgins if we’re willing to look a little deeper. They come empty, with nothing holding them back. They ask for help when needed, even in despair. Yet, they find themselves rejected, but not rejected by God but by who they thought God was, the Pharisee who felt it was their duty to guard the door and judge who comes and who doesn’t. So they’re not rejected by God but rather by us. We will hear this now these next weeks in our own seeking of wisdom and learning to let go of these images of God that no longer work in our lives and hinder us from going deeper in our lives. The hostility that arises with Jesus isn’t because of lack of knowledge or wisdom. He certainly proves himself in that way. The hostility comes when he shows hospitality to the excluded, the outsiders, the foolish ones as they were known. Jesus shows us a God who has space for both the wise and the fool.
As we make this journey together, as Paul reminds us today, we seek that wisdom, the eternal, that frees us to be who we are, often contradictory in our own lives and yet still loved by God. When we can begin to accept that about ourselves we become less hostile towards others, learn to respond with love, and honestly, become even more dangerous in such a hostile world because we are set free to love as God loves, the wise and the fool. Quite frankly, it’s all we can really ask for in this life. We pray for the grace to accept and to be aware of this deeper reality in our own lives, that we are both wise and fool, ready and not ready, open and closed, all at the same time. And yet, infinitely still loved by God in our fullness.

 

‘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.

 

Necessary Tears

“Jesus wept.”  John 11:35

Jesus wept.  It’s dubbed as the shortest verse in all of Scripture and despite its size has a way of packing a wallop to the crowds that are gathered at that moment.  It comes as the story builds around the death of Lazarus, his friend, and the questioning of the crowds as to whether Jesus is who he says he is now that he has finally met his match in death.  Sure he could heal the blind man but death has a hold that stands as much greater than blindness or so it would seem.  In that gatherings of jeers, anger, and spite, Jesus weeps.  He weeps.

Of course, though, that is what is seen with the eyes, tears falling down his face.  But tears are never just tears.  Frequently they come from a much deeper place within, a place of our own pain and loneliness.  Once again, he is misunderstood by the crowds and followers.  Once again, he is doubted.  Once again, he sees the lack of faith.  Once again, they can’t seem to get past their own judgment of what they have seen with their own eyes and move to greater depths within themselves.  When we do, we weep with Jesus for many of the same reasons.

More than once this past week I have been told to be angry.  At times, screamed at by people telling me to be outraged.  I’ve had it told to me on Facebook.  I’ve had it told to me through the news.  Heck, I’ve pretty much had it shown to me by the President and other political figures, be angry, and be angry for a reason.  After some time I began to think maybe I should be angry.  Maybe I should start screaming like so many on television are these days, at one another and with one another, with no path to understanding or even an inkling of listening to each other.  Yet, all I feel is sadness and tears, like weeping.  For everyone.

To this day I am most struck by the image of the young men in Charlottesville on Friday evening who had surrounded a gathering of ministers, practically holding them hostage, carrying flames with the looks of rage on their faces.  In symbolic fashion, holding hostage their own hearts from being moved and changed.  The last thing this situation needed was more anger, I thought.  I began to wonder how men of such a young age could be harboring such strong feelings of anger and fear in their lives, knowing full well that that is what I was witnessing with my eyes.  Deep down, though, anger and fear are merely masks, symptoms, of a much deeper hurt and wound that is often not visible with our eyes, including the hurt in my own life that I’m being invited into to seeking healing and reconciliation.  If I’m not careful and aware, it’s quite easy to react to it when it arises and lash out at the closest target, often the one who has embodied that deeper hurt of mine and where I continue to hold onto it in which I don’t want to look or see within myself.  It’s the human dilemma that we all need to face and confront at different points in our lives, individually and collectively.

As the week wore on, I listened to all the noise less and less and found myself wrestling with this reality in which we find ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t agree that the level of hate and the realities of racism continue to cast a shadow upon us because I do.  As long as there are humans we’ll face all of it.  Often people are simply looking for validation of their experience since so much of what we do and how we act happens on the subconscious level without us even thinking.  Raising awareness means the shifting to the conscious level, which is the only place we can deal with them, otherwise the wounds once again become buried within ourselves and the cycle of violence continues not only in the world but in our own lives, many times without us even being aware of it because it becomes are natural fallback, peeling back the scab over and over again.

If there is one thing I have learned through my own struggles and in facing my own violence toward others and myself is that there is no easy way around it.  My natural inclination is to shut down in the face of it until I can reckon with the reality, a reality which never disappears by not confronting it head on.  Dealing with our past is so often minimalized with, the past is already over, move on, as if I can just will my pain be gone.  I wish it were that easy.  However, the pain has a way of manifesting itself in the same ways, again and again, in our lives.  Rather than trying to tear it down and rid ourselves of it, we are often invited to understand it, allow it to surface, and reverence it with the healing it needs, almost always through tears, weeping for what it was and even for what it was not.

The great risk in life as a part of the human race is to become what it is we hate, when in reality, we often already are exactly that.  We live in this world filled with should have’s and could have’s, living with the disappointment that we’re not more than how we appear before others.  We live with the disappointments often because we deal with the same problems the same way and expect different results each time, casting amnesia upon us in the face of perpetual violence towards our brothers and sisters.  Through the use of our judgments, our own misunderstandings, our labels that denigrate fellow human beings to being monsters of sorts, in the end, gets us nowhere, often only validating the monster within ourselves that we haven’t learned to love.  In some ways, I’d rather live with the moments of loneliness that comes with being misunderstood, as it was for Jesus, rather than use him against another.  I’d rather live with the tears that come with not quickly reacting but first trying to understand the deeper hurt that is being aroused.  I’d much rather weep than fan the flames of anger knowing that there is a deeper pain in the others life than I may never understand.  I’d rather sit in silence and wrestle with it, knowing the expectations then placed upon me to react.  Jesus weeps, sure for the death of his friend Lazarus, as most do when they visit a grave.  But what we see never fully defines the depth of the pain and where it comes from within the other in those moments.  All we see is what we want to see most often despite it just being the tip of the iceberg of one’s life, including for the Christ as he weeps for and with humanity.

More often than not, the path to love and peace, a peace which is a marriage of justice and mercy, will never arrive in our own hearts until we learn to sit, quiet ourselves, doubt, question, and learn to accept even our own selves, short comings and all, which closes the gap between myself and the other.  The war that rages on beyond us as we see it is often the war within that we are invited to confront.  The more we separate, divide, demonize, seek winners and losers, the greater that gap becomes, creating the tribal mentality that Jesus himself often confronts.  I not only separate myself from others but I separate myself from myself.  It deepens the blinders we wear, invoking fear and insecurity in our lives, leaving us wandering through the desert, often unbeknownst to us.  In time, even for Israel, the tears began to arrive, not only for what had been done to them but what they had done to the other through their own pain.  In those moments, glimpses of that promised land that they desired became visible.

As a country, and I’ve written this many times before, we will need to learn to weep and weep bitterly.  Not select people, but each of us, individually and collectively.  America has never been what it was supposed to be and never will.  It’s not the chosen one.  It’s not the city on a hill.  It’s by no means perfect or somehow the greatest, all of which only feeds the illusion that we know better than the rest, avoiding the pain that lies within the heart of a nation.  We are country among 195 or so others.  We are 323 million of approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  And it’s all ok.  When we finally give up the illusions, the blinders, what it is we simply see with our eyes, we begin to see that there is something even greater about us that is not always visible to the naked eye.  As much as our heart continues to beat, it is by no means without pain and hurt.  That is very visible not only in Charlottesville but outside my own window, day in and day out.  There is a story that is dying to be told, from deep within, a story that desires to be free, and will continue to kill if it’s not told.  A human desires to be free.  Lashing out and violence will never lead to what it is we want and desire.  Rather, only through our own ability to weep, for what was and wasn’t, for what is and isn’t.  Yes, it is the shortest verse in the bible but in doing so packs quite the wallop of bringing healing and reconciliation that is desperately needed in my life, your life, this city, and well beyond.  Jesus wept.  For everyone.

Our Richest Soil

Matthew 13: 1-23

“Why do you speak to them in parables?” the disciples ask of Jesus today.  It was one of the few lines that struck me in today’s gospel reading for two reasons.  One, that in the midst of the crowd that has gathered to listen to Jesus at this point, the disciples seemingly separate themselves from this body, as if Jesus was somehow speaking to the crowd in parables but may not mean much to the disciples, in that they refer to “them” in posing the question.  The second is, even in the telling of parables, do the disciples understand?

The parables of Jesus are not always easy for any of us to understand, especially when it’s based on first century agriculture and others that seem to just leave us scratching our heads.  Yet, like the disciples, we too want to separate ourselves as well, as if this message is special for us and somehow we have a special understanding of what he’s talking about.  As humans, we also expect black and white thinking as if there’s one way to understand and live and if I follow that then I’ll somehow know God or have relationship with this Jesus guy.

However, that’s oversimplifying parables and by no means are we separate from the message, even if it may say something to me that’s different than all of you.  Only God knows where my heart is on this journey of faith and whether I like to admit it or not, whether it’s rocky ground, thorns, or the richest soil you can imagine, my heart and my life tends to be in all of those places at the same time, and like the disciples, I want to try to start separating it out, ignoring the rocky ground since it’s worthless, pull out the thorns as to not hurt myself or others, and simply focus on the rich soil.

When we do that to ourselves or others, we tend to miss the point of the parables as well and wind up cutting off parts of ourselves that we have somehow deemed unworthy or worthless by a standard I have set for myself and others.  It’s not so much that the disciples want to separate themselves from the others.  It just so happens to be the reality when the begin to ignore the rocky grounds and try to pull the thorns, even though deep down we know that all of it makes up who we are and somehow in order to experience the richest of soils, we have to do some heavy gardening in our own lives, not by destroying what we feel is useless, but allowing ourselves to view it through the life that comes forth from the richest of soils.

We all wish we can live our lives from that place but anyone that works at this type of gardening understands that we’re never quite there and it’s never quite enough for us until we learn to accept the landscape not as we believe it should be but as it is.  In those moments, we begin to experience the possibilities of the garden and of our very lives, not cut off from what we have conditioned ourselves to dislike, but rather to embrace it and love it with the richest of soils.

The people we encounter in our lives who we view simply as rocky ground or certainly thorns, and we can all name them, are often the ones that have the most to teach us about the parts of our own landscape that we have cut off and continue to cut off because we feel they have made us unworthy in some way.  Low and behold, they become those lost possibilities in our lives because we learn to love them in a new way, a deeper way, an unconditional way. 

If you have ears you ought to be able to hear.  If you have eyes you ought to be able to see.  If you have a heart you ought to be able to love.  It is the lifelong process we call faith and acceptance by allowing the rocky ground and thorns of our lives to be brought to the light, over and over again, to move to a place of wholeness and holiness.  It’s the only way the garden grows and reaches its potential in life.  Why does he speak in parables?  Well, quite frankly, because not one of us is alike and we enter this journey in varied ways, speaking to us at different points and in different ways, but always moving us to the same place, a deeper place, the garden of life that continues to show itself within so that we can recognize that potential in the world, especially among the rocky grounds and thorns that, more than anything, need rich soil, depth, and love.

Looking Without Seeing

I Sam 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13; Eph 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41

Helen Keller, who, of course, was not just blind but also deaf had to overcome the obstacle of thinking that she was somehow deficient because of her limitation in hearing and seeing. Many of us have to do the same thing in different capacities over the course of our lives. She goes onto become a great writer as well as activist and humanitarian, despite what she originally saw as a limitation. In the end, she had commented that there was something even worse than being blind and that was having sight and yet still unable to see. How many times has that function of sight really limited us as well, where we have sight and yet still unable to see.

It’s what Jesus is confronting in today’s gospel with the man born blind who sits on the side of the road, a beggar, as John tells us. Mixed up, though, in this story are all these other conflicts that are important to recognize because they will carry through now until Good Friday, and quite frankly, some even beyond that. Of course, there’s the Pharisees. We’re accustomed to that squabble after hearing it week in and week out. They are the legalists. They see everything through the lens of right and wrong, good and bad, sin and not, and in the end, judge and label everyone according to it. In many ways they end up dehumanizing people and strip them of their dignity because of some standard that they hold that pretty much no one else can match, certainly not a man born blind who is a beggar. Quite honestly, they wouldn’t have the time of day for such a person.

The other squabble is with “the Jews”. We hear that language often in John’s gospel which seems rather odd being that they were all Jewish. Why would they need to be singled out when it encompassed the majority? In today’s language, in these passages they really are the insiders. They view everyone as either insider or outsider and have total disregard for everyone who isn’t part of the in crowd. They grow resentful with Jesus and understand that he’s a Jew like them on some level, but also see him as an outsider and look for every possible way as labeling him as such. They too would have no time for the one they label beggar because he’s not one of them. Ironically, Jesus spends much of his time with them and tries to restore them to their place in the community while restoring their dignity.

There is one other conflict though in this passage and that’s the parents of the blind man. It would seem rather odd, I’d think, for a parent to turn their back on their son, despite his circumstances in life. They deny having anything to do with him regaining his sight because, as John tells us, of fear. Fear holds them back from claiming their own faithfulness to Jesus. As Jews they too would have been with the in crowd and want that sense of belonging. Are they willing to risk it to step out and trust their son in the healing Jesus has brought to his life. It doesn’t seem so.

All that said, the blind man, who happens to be a beggar, has no bearing on the life of the community. He’s an outsider. He’s obviously done something grave that he’s been punished in this way. He’s a nobody and no one wants anything to do with him, except, of course, Jesus. He quickly goes from being a nobody into the one who has the spotlight shining upon him in the middle of all these conflicts that are ensuing. But it takes him time as well. He doesn’t quickly come to an understanding of what has taken place in his life or who this Jesus guy is either. The gospel writer reminds us that he first sees him as a man, then a prophet, then as Lord who has transformed his very life and existence. What he had seen as an obstacle becomes the source of grace in his life.

The same in true for Paul who we hear from in today’s second reading from Ephesians. He uses the image of light and darkness. He had to physically become blind in order to see, knowing his own conversion story. He was a Pharisee as well as an insider and so ingrained in that thinking that he couldn’t see anyone else beyond that limitation. For Paul, if you weren’t an insider, the way he had determined, then there was no place for you. God literally blinds him, even though spiritually he already was, and pushes him to sit in that blindness before he can gain sight and begin to see the other as not someone separate from but one with and not much different than himself. Using his language of today, Paul, and us, are often forced into the darkness of our own lives before God can somehow begin to do something with us. We all have blindspots and darkness as long as we are on this earth, but we also like to avoid them and deny they’re there. The blind man today, along with Jesus, begins to expose those blindspots and yet, they still cannot see as God sees.

It’s where young Samuel is led in today’s first reading. He has no intention on heading to Jesse to anoint a new king. He thought all along that it would be Saul and now fears for his life thinking Saul is going to take his life because of the turn of events. Yet, he goes to Jesse, but once there is still trapped in his own way of seeing. He looks for power, for strength, for someone who can overturn the enemies. This is who he thought should be the next king, but, of course, God has different plans. The writer tells us that Samuel, and for that matter, each of us, see by appearance but God sees the heart. There it is. God knows our story and sees the deepest longings of our hearts.

Our sight has so many limitations. We become blinded by what we see and in turn, label and judge. We see color. We see economic advantages. We see what we don’t have. We see lifestyles that we become envious of. We see people that bring things upon themselves. We see what we wish we had and don’t. We see biases. We see insiders and outsiders. We see, so often the sin of the other and ourselves. It’s hard, as Helen Keller pointed out, to have sight and yet see. The Gospel challenges us to be thrown into the story as the blind man and ask ourselves where we are on our own journey of faith. We all have these conflicts alive within us, the pharisee, the Jew, and even the parental voices that remain, that often hold us back from becoming who we really are in life. When we no longer see them as obstacle but as a source of grace, we’re changed forever. We make the journey of the blind man, of seeing Jesus as man, as prophet, and eventually, as our Lord. We pray for the awareness and acceptance of our own blindspots that prevent us from seeing, not by appearance, but as we heard today, of the heart, as God see us. Like Helen Keller, if we surrender ourselves to the change, transformation, conversation that we are being called to in life, what we have seen simply as limitation opens the door to possibility. I was blind but now I see.