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.

It Means Everything

Acts 10: 34, 37-43; I Cor 5:6-8; Luke 24: 1-12

So what? Why the heck is any of this important anyway? I mean, it doesn’t seem to have much impact on our lives and certainly not on our world. Maybe resurrection is just something of the past that doesn’t mean a hill of beans anyway. But you know what, I think God, Jesus, has the disciples exactly where God wants them. Think about it, the story today picks up where Friday left off. There facing chaos. They feel as if all is lost. There’s darkness, despair, grief. They’re totally disconnected from all their groups and are now in hiding. They’ve hit, as we call it, rock bottom and they have nowhere to turn. God has them right where they need to be, where they can accept death and then embrace the life that comes. But not yet, so it seems.

You know, they will quickly learn that there are serious implications to this event that unfolds in the gospel today as they encounter this empty tomb. It’s unfortunate because we’ve limited resurrection to some other life, this afterlife, that we can hope to anticipate, but for the disciples and us for that matter, it should be impacting us at this very moment. That’s why they become a threat now that Jesus has died and been raised from the dead. The implications are endless, in society, politically, and even religiously. We all know that they saw Jesus as a threat but the threat is about to grow. Paul uses the image of yeast in today’s second reading, which negatively, can grow like wildfire. But so can love and mercy and crazy enough, that becomes the great threat.

You see, God has them where they need to be. For the disciples, they have hit rock bottom and all that they know seems lost. It appears that they have no future. Everything they thought Jesus was supposed to be has been proven wrong. Everything that they wanted Jesus to be never happened. Everything that they thought they were because of their relationship with Jesus has been squashed. It’s all gone. This whole ego structure that they had created, which isn’t real in the first place, has now been diminished to rubble. And so have they. Quite frankly, it would have been much easier for them if the story just ended here. They could return to what they knew, their old way of life. Or could they? Had their hearts been changed. Yeah, at the moment they think it’s all nonsense and crazy and impossible, but very soon things are about to change. The threat of one man, Jesus, is about to grow and expand by leaps and bounds. The resurrection has implications for them and for us because they can no longer be touched by outside authorities, culturally, politically, and religiously, and anyone that thinks they have power in that way isn’t going to like it. It’s not because they fear giving up their lives; it’s because they have found true life and real power. If not, everything else tries to take it’s place and we’re back at the beginning, so what?

Throughout this season we will be hearing from Acts of the Apostles and Peter, Paul, and the rest will try to reconnect the people they encounter back to their roots. That’s what is often lost in faith communities today. You would think that the disciples of all people would have some connection with their own roots in the Exodus, the heart of any Jewish man and woman. But they still don’t see it that way, otherwise they would see such despair at the moment. That story, that root of their faith, should affirm that even in the darkest of times, the promised land is in sight. But they don’t see Jesus yet as the Passover Lamb or the Exodus before their very eyes. When they or we disconnect from our larger story, this great story of mystery, the Paschal Mystery, we begin to make ourselves the center of the world and everything pivots from us. Paul and Peter will remind these communities faithfully to connect with their larger story, the mystery being revealed and lived, otherwise, as Paul warns Corinth today, you’ll fall into the trap of spreading negativity and community will be built around ego and not the deeper mystery of who they are, in relation with Christ crucified, now risen from the dead. They have to get there and don’t even know it because they think what they are holding onto and what defines them is real, and to some degree it is, but it’s not the eternal present now. That’s where the implications come into play for them and us.

It’s no wonder that in the Easter Sunday gospels it’s about the women first pursuing this new reality. Think about it, if they must reach rock bottom and allow all else to die before they can seek the new life, who is it that lives on the bottom of the ladder in the time of Jesus? It’s the women, who’ve followed him from Galilee. They have no status. They have no institutional power. They have no success to pursue. In other words, they have nothing to lose because they’re already there while the men question, doubt, and think it’s utter nonsense. They will need to see with their own eyes this new reality before they can accept death and then embrace the new reality and become the true disciples of Christ crucified, now risen from the dead.

There are implications, or at least there should be, and if there are not, we too must consider our own relationship with the Lord. Unfortunately, we do a much better job of trying to enter into a relationship with the churchy Jesus, which too is often an illusion and something we must let go of, just like the disciples before we get to that place. It’s hard because it’s all we know and it feels like we have everything to lose. We do, but it’s our own and not the true power of the Risen Lord. They are a threat and we can be a threat as people, when we learn to accept death and embrace the power of the Risen Lord already given to us, right now. Right now! All of us! It’s what institutions fear the most because now the disciples have nothing to lose. The death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Everything. The power of love and mercy changes everything and spreads quickly.

Throughout these fifty days of Easter we’re invited to go deeper into this mystery that is are larger story. It’s what binds all of us, as we will soon do by renewing our baptismal promises. It’s not about membership. Rather, that even, these events, are about changing our lives and binding us in a way that is beyond our imagination, into the deepest recesses of our being, where we enter into this sustaining love affair with Christ crucified, now risen from the dead. I can finally come to a place where I realize and accept that it’s not merely a historical event that I come here to remember, but rather, the lived reality and the lived mystery of my life. There are real implications to saying we believe. It’s not what the disciples eventually do in Acts; it’s about who they are. They have let the scales of death and of their own ego, fall from their eyes and allow a new recreated order through the great gift and now lifelong relationship, with Christ crucified, now risen from the dead. So what? Well, because it changes everything, even our hearts and souls and the very way we live our lives.

No Going Back

Ezekiel 2: 2-5; IICor 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6

There’s one thing that the prophets quickly learn, as Jesus does in today’s gospel, you pretty much cannot return home. Most of us can understand it on some level like when we leave home and start to break away, it’s hard to return. It’s hard for others to see us beyond the lens of who we were in their image and who we have become. Jesus meets immediate resistance when he returns, questioning his authority and the wisdom he shares. Like any of the prophets, home has changed for them. Home is no longer defined by the outside relationships of family and friends, but is rather found within. It’s that home that gives the authority and wisdom to say and do has they do to the people.

But it doesn’t come without a fight. That is the consistent theme of the call of the prophets of the Hebrew Scripture. From Ezekiel whom we hear from today to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest we hear from throughout the year, there is this ensuing tension with God and the call that is being given. It gets to the point where they almost can’t not do it because it becomes agonizing for them until they can finally surrender to that voice. Like any of us, there is always that desire to conform, go along with the crowd, fit it, be accepted, but to be authentic and live out that call, Ezekiel must move beyond that and grow to accept the call that is being given in going out to Israel. However, despite their hardened hearts and Ezekiel knowing the difficult task that is being placed within and on him, he’s freed up by God reminding him that whether they heed or resist, a prophet has arisen. Their acceptance or denial of his call has no bearing on the fact that he’s being called in this way, to a new way of life and to be this prophetic voice to the people. It’s not that he’s being called to be the doomsday guy or to tell them how to live their lives, but given the gift of the spirit, he sees and hears on a different level. He becomes the voice and eyes of a God who is always present, even in the hardness of their hearts and the messiness of their lives. This is what Ezekiel sees and hears and can’t not be that voice to the people.

Jesus, as I said meets that resistance when he finds that home within himself, just as Ezekiel does. He returns to his native place where you’d think they’d welcome him with open arms and yet is quite the opposite. What do they see? They see a carpenter. They see the son of Mary. They see what and who he used to be, from their own lens, and yet can’t see him for who and what he is now. Even Jesus sees he’s going to get nowhere here in his native place. Their own hardness of heart prevents them from seeing the face of God in their midst. They are probably the ones that needed the miracles the most; yet, their prevented from seeing and experiencing the gift. They question his wisdom and his words. Of course, finding that home within leads us where we don’t want to go, in the face of persecution and hardship, suffering and to the cross. It’s what leads to his impending death on the cross. He too can’t not do what he’s been called to and to be that prophetic voice. But we are all called to that life of mature faith. When we come to this baptismal font we are all anointed priest, prophet, and king. We are all called on this journey in where we too are no longer defined by our exterior relationship and circumstances, our past, but rather find that voice within. That’s how we become the person God has created us to be and to be God’s gift to the world, His instrument.

Paul, too, understands the challenge of that call. He calls it a “thorn in the flesh.” It’s something that is always there. He questions along the way as Ezekiel and the other prophets do. When standing in the face of pain and suffering will I be able to be true to that voice, even if it means confronting the thorn in the flesh in my own life, suffering at the hands of others who can’t accept this call that has been given? It’s not easy being that voice, which is why so many choose otherwise and would rather that voice be silenced within rather than to be true to it, to be authentic. In the end, though, we lose what is most important to us when we do. Paul, like many others, are not willing to give that up once it’s found and will face martyrdom if that’s what it takes to be true to the home that has been found within.

There are many that claim to be prophets in our world. There are many that think they are great defenders of what we believe. Yet, so often it’s empty words if it’s not grounded in something and someone deeper within ourselves. When we continue to try to please others or want acceptance more than authenticity, we will continue to surrender our greatest and most treasured gift, our authentic voice within. We all have one, but like the great prophets that have gone before us, when we settle for something less, God will continue to wrestle as long as we need to, but in the midst of our own suffering that we continuously bring upon ourselves, God’s presence will arise and win out; God always does. We pray that we may find that voice within and remain true to that voice, our own home. It may lead to rejection and other suffering, but we will remain true to ourselves and the true home within will become the home of the many who go without in our world.

An Encounter With Love

John 3: 14-21

Nicodemus is one of the more intriguing characters we encounter in John’s Gospel, partially because very little is known about him other than his encounters with the Lord, beginning with this one today. He will appear again in a few chapters when he begins to confront his own darkness in the light of day and then reappear at the end of Jesus’ life in preparing the body for burial in the new tomb. But like the other conversion stories we know of this gospel, such as the Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind, and the Raising of Lazarus, it still contains many of John’s themes of light and darkness, seeing and not seeing, and a gradual deepening of faith through an encounter with the Lord.

Now the one thing we do know of Nicodemus is that he’s a Pharisee and that this first encounter happens in the dead of night, complete darkness, both of which are important in understanding his conversion in John’s Gospel. Now we all know John is often criticized for what some would call lofty theology but at least when it comes to these conversion stories, he really writes more from a mystical union within himself, that’s why John and Jesus are often misunderstood, but conversion nonetheless. So Nicodemus comes in the dark of the night so that he isn’t seen in this encounter with the Lord by anyone, especially the Pharisees whom he is a part of; yet, he goes. There’s obviously something missing in his life that is pushing for this encounter, and in the darkness of the night he really begins to confront his own darkness, but not in the sense that we often associate it with sin and suffering. What Nicodemus begins to confront is the darkness of the persona he’s been trying to live up to. Again, in the literal sense that’s why he does this in the dark of night as to not be seen. He still is driven and identifies himself with the Pharisee. He still seeks acceptance and can fall into that trap, yet, at the same time, feels movement within and beyond that persona.

Jump ahead a few chapters when we encounter him again. At that point it is in the light of day. He begins to live from a different place within and is beginning to see the cracks in the persona that he has created. Remember, we’re no different. We create them for ourselves as well to protect ourselves from vulnerability often. We try to live up to the persona of the priest, of a doctor, lawyer, even mother or father or so on where our entire identity gets wrapped up in that role that we begin to lose sight of who we really are. This is where we’re encountering Nicodemus throughout the Gospel. It will only be near the end when he can finally begin to let that go, know it’s there, and yet choose to live from a different place and allowing Love to lead rather than the persona. It’s hard work but it’s the work of conversion that we speak of during the season of Lent, a conversion in its truest sense, in a biblical sense.

But I do believe that his story is much like ours. So often we encounter these characters and here their stories and it seems as if everything changes dramatically and quickly. But that’s typically not my experience and I’m sure not yours either. Conversion for us tends to be slow and steady as it is for Nicodemus. Gradually the darkness begins to be revealed in the light. Yet, John tells us that we prefer the darkness and that’s true. We know the darkness of the world and persona that we create for ourselves and as we grow it can often do more harm that good to us and beyond, it holds us back from living out of that Love and often leads to even greater darkness, leaving us questioning, fearful, and quite anxious about life when we find ourselves trying to be something we are not, and for that matter, someone we are not, at least not in the fullest.

As we continue these now final weeks of the Lenten season, we pray for a deeper awareness of our own darkness and the persona’s we identify ourselves with. Although it may be what we do at times, it’s not our true identity in Christ just as it wasn’t for Nicodemus. Imagine the love and the place in which Nicodemus lived within and from in the end in the care for the body of Jesus as it was prepared for his resting place. We are invited into that same encounter with the Crucified and Risen Lord, gradually and often, to confront and identify that darkness in our own lives, and like Nicodemus, the more that divine indwelling shines through and leads the way in our lives, the more we will become love, live in love, be led by love, often where we do not want to go, and to manifest that love into the world.

The Greatest of These

Exodus 22: 20-26; Matthew 22: 34-40

Which commandment in the law is the greatest? After weeks of contention between Jesus and the authorities, we finally settle down this weekend with a rather easy question posed by the Sadducees as to which law is the greatest. Love God and neighbor as yourself. Plain and simple…yet, I dare say, so often in our lives these two responses are read somewhat independent of one another rather than recognizing them in mutuality with one another. We shouldn’t dare utter the words of loving God if we hold contempt, hatred or judgment toward anyone; yes, anyone.

Rather ironic that this reading would come up on the weekend I returned from the Holy Land. One of our first experiences in Israel was fighting going on between the Muslims and Jews. I still have a hard time understanding how after all these years there could still be so much fighting over such a small piece of land! Although we weren’t in any danger, we found ourselves looking on from the Garden of Gethsemane, hearing the yelling and tear gas being shot. A simple commandment, so it seems, to love God and neighbor, not always a living reality in the holy land or in our own lives as well.

The first reading takes us back a few centuries and speaks of the people as being orphans and aliens and how God hears their cry when they are wronged. The Lord makes the point that the Israelites should know better than to allow hatred and contempt and judgment to grow and linger in their hearts because it is also their story and know what it’s like to be alienated and distanced. They know what it is like to be driven out into the desert, searching their way and trying to find the gift of the Promised Land, which seems so far from their reality. Yet, they are allowing it to grow in their hearts. The greatest commandment is on the brink of violation and they will once again find themselves wandering in their own darkness.

If we are honest with ourselves and can see the big picture on life, we are all aliens and orphans, so often lost and finding our way back to God. We become bogged down, so often, by the things of this world thinking they are so important and the end of the world if things don’t go our way, but everything of this world shall pass because we are aliens and orphans living our way to oneness with God for all eternity into the new Jerusalem, for all that will remain is faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love…love of God and neighbor.

Yet, the fighting continues beyond and within. We can’t see beyond differences. We can’t accept that we don’t hold the measuring stick for the rest of humanity. We get hung up on little things that bruise our ego and in the larger scheme of things, don’t really matter. We fear anything that is different than what we know. We allow contempt and hatred and judgment to grow within leading us out to the desert of our own lives, seeking a way back, seeking a love that deep down we once knew and have slowly forgotten. Yet, all I can do is work at it, push through the challenges, grow and so often painfully, and be faithful to loving God and neighbor. I certainly don’t always get it right and I certainly don’t do it like God does for me or you, but I am aware that they go hand-in-hand and is a mutual relationship of loving God and neighbor as myself.

Yes, simple words to recite but we know not as easy to live. All we can do is to pray for the grace to let go of what binds and holds us back from accepting that love that is already there for me and you and strive to live it faithfully day in and day out for faith, hope, and love shall remain, and truly, the greatest of these is love.