Hung Up

Anyone familiar with my history knows that water is central. As much as I have a great love of the ocean and find the water extremely healing, spending hours at a time in Maine near the ocean edge, it’s also been a source of great pain. Over the course of my life I have learned just how powerful water can be and how quickly life can change when you encounter water in a violent way, leaving its mark in ways that run currents deep within my very being that will flow through me for life.

Yet, there I was finding myself kayaking nine miles down the James River, not allowing that deeper fear of water to stop me from enjoying what I love most, just being outdoors and breathing in the air breathing through the surrounding forest, coupled with a refreshing splash of water with each dip of the oar pushing me forward. There are elements, though, that still arise that sense of fear and anxiety within me as I venture down the river. There’s something about keeping your eyes forward when you enter into an area of more rapid flow over the rocks, fearing getting caught up in the shallowness of the water and the rocky ground below.

It wasn’t far down the river when I found myself hitting one such area and getting hung up on a rock, unable to turn the kayak forward. The automatic response is one of fear and anxiety, as if going to tip over and falling into the water. I’m not sure why that would be such a fear knowing that it’s late summer and the water has a refreshing feel to the skin’s touch. Rather quickly, in trying to break myself free, the kayak tipped just enough to allow the water to begin to enter it; the flow coming directly into its opening. There was not much I could do to stop it, but without fear or any anxiety, I simply sat there and allowed things to happen as it was. The safest bet on the water is to not grow anxious in an anxious situation, even though it feels most natural.

It was then that I realized that I couldn’t do it alone. There was no “pull myself up by my bootstraps” in this situation, but rather the help of another was going to be required to dislodge me from the situation and set me free to further the journey down the river. All seems so simple after being dislodged but the experience of becoming hung up, the anxiety leading into that rapid, the letting go and allowing yourself to drift as you enter the experience, and knowing that the water has a mind of its own, allows you to recognize that much is out of our control and the help of others on the journey is a necessity.

There was a day when I would not have even considered going onto the river in that way. It became much easier to engage the river from the sidelines and simply “remember” what it was like during the days when I wouldn’t think twice about doing it. Sure some of it comes with age and wisdom, but for me it was that deeper sense of fear of what would happen to me and being turned upside down, out of my control, knowing that the river has a mind of its own, just as life often does. It’s easier to engage life from the sidelines and to simply be a judge of what’s going on. It is though a less fulfilling experience of kayaking and even life. Allowing ourselves to engage the fears and anxiety, even when it seems like the kayak is filling quickly around us, will always open us to being hurt but it’s the only way to experience life and love. The two accompany one another and even complement one another more than we can even begin to imagine.

As I’ve taken the time to reflect, and even laugh at, the experience on the James River, I think about how far I had come from that day back in October 2003 when I thought my life was coming to an end on the Youghiogheny River. The sense of panic at that time, along with tremendous fear of being trapped, had led me not only to great regrets in my life but has also opened the door to greater understanding of the human condition and how easily it is to no longer jump into the river and simply sit on the side wondering and regretting a life that could have been. It’s only in picking up the oar, jumping in the kayak, and even becoming lodged in the rocks, that reminds you that pain accompanies life and yet nowhere near the pain of loneliness that comes with disengaging from life and all it throws at us. With the help of others and a simple awareness of the real reality around us allows us to flow humbly down a river, enjoying every minute of it, and yet never becoming swallowed up by its great power.

A Permeable Life

Life doesn’t get much better than when you feel invincible. I can climb any mountain. Tackle any issue that arises and resolve it. A life that seems indestructible, to say the least. Always an answer and always a way to correct, fix, or do whatever we need to do in order to make it feel unbreakable and intact. That is, until it isn’t, and eventually, it really isn’t and we’re often left wondering how to make sense out of a life that seemed, at times, larger than life on this earth, when questions always accompanied with the right answers and at least on the surface, all seemed right. Again, until it isn’t. It becomes the surest test of our lives when we are finally confronted with questions that no longer have answers and life no longer seems neatly packaged the way we expected.

For the past several days, and I suppose weeks at this point, I have found myself, along with my family, sitting in an Intensive Care Unit at Geisinger Medical Center, not only staring at my father but staring at machine after machine and test after test without any answers. It seemed that I knew more about the people around my father than I did about his own situation, often reflecting on the past several months of my own life where it seemed as if there were no answers, once again hearing the words to trust the unknown and answers do not easily come. Within the layers of unknown, of course, comes the inability to trust as our minds wander to the worst of situations, even the possibility of never having an answer and all any of us can do is sit there, stare, laugh, of course, and wonder how everything would unfold.

It seemed, at least at face value, that the people around him faced much worse. There was the gentleman in the next room whose family had to face the inevitable that death finds a way to penetrate through life at times. There was Grace, on the opposite side, who all we ever knew of was that she wanted out of bed but was confined. I’m sure for her it was an unlimited life at one point and now confined to a bed, seemingly beyond her will of wanting to leave, whatever that meant for her. There are others, of course, with no names, and all we can ever do was imagine their story. There may be no more sad, though, than the others sharing ICU who never seemed to have a visitor and walking an already lonely journey all by themselves. Maybe they had no family. However, there’s always the possibility, as it is with all of us at some point, when death seems to knock, even if it’s not the great finality, that some just can’t handle to look at it square in the face, often still living with the illusion that life is impenetrable.

How we handle death or even the thought of death determines a great deal of how we live our lives. It can be the ultimate loss in having to let a person go or the acute deaths we face in relationships, through sickness, through our loss of independence, an identity we clung to, or whatever the case may be for us. The harder we cling now is the greater the challenge we face when we are called to face the ultimate reality. It’s easy for me to say that life and death are inseparable. Death happens in the room next to my father but not in ours. Death happens to the one with incurable cancer and given weeks or days to live. Our minds have a way of playing tricks on us telling us that it will never happen to me, certainly not in this way or that way, but all we do is protect ourselves from what we know is inevitable and the only thing that we have absolutely no control over in and with our lives.

Yet, the two are intertwined and simply sitting with questions that don’t seem to have answers or answers that never seem to come quick enough is a confrontation with death itself, in our own way, and God knows we all have our own way of dealing with that reality. It’s when we try to separate the two that we allow fear and the doubt to consume our lives when death and suffering are simply teaching us lesson after lesson of letting go and opening doors to the new life that is promised beyond our fear and anxiety of what seems and feels like total separation. We do ourselves no favors when we abandon death, but rather, simply push off the inevitable to another time.

Don’t hear me wrong; none of it is meant to be morbid as we reflect on the greatest mystery of life and death. All I’m saying is the way it feels in the moment, as an absolute shattering of a relationship, is simply in the moment and the longer we cling to the pain of the situation and the unknowns that accompany it the longer we prevent ourselves from living more fully and learning the lessons that the mystery is summoning within us. I am by no means an expert. I sat there with my family this week wondering as well and awaiting answers. Time and time again, though, I felt the push from within to trust knowing full well that others accompanying my father in ICU were facing the ultimate test of letting go where as for others, like ourselves, it was a momentary pass and yet invitation to embrace the fullness of mystery, life and death, and to trust that there remains something and someone bigger than ourselves at work without getting caught up in our own helplessness and endless questions.

It isn’t easy, especially when it’s a parent or others we are close to, and yet it’s moments like these that remind us of what is most important, none of which are having all the answers nor having a neatly packaged life. If we live as people of faith we aren’t meant to have all the answers but rather allow ourselves to fall into the messiness of life, a life which is closely accompanied by death and everything in between. I’ve thought a great deal about the others whose stories remain a mystery, who lie in that unit without a visitor and who’s story may never be told. Maybe we can’t always embrace the totality of the mystery but there are signs everywhere that point us to this reality if we only allow ourselves to sit quietly and trust what still remains unknown.

School of Love

The Cross is the school of love. –Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe, a man and saint, who suffered and died under the hands of the Nazi regime at Auschwitz, recognized the reality that the greatest conflict one faces lies within our very heart and soul. He, more than most of us, saw the impact of such conflict in the suffering of all under the reign of evil, played out on the grandest scale during the Second World War. He, though, also saw such suffering and the Cross of Christ as a school of love, teaching lessons that can only come through an encounter with love in its deepest form, where the human and divine will intersect and one chooses God, chooses love over the interest of man. For some, seemingly foolish and selfish, but a school and a love that contains all creation, not fought on a battlefield but our “innermost personal selves.”

When we arrive at the climactic scenes of John’s gospel and his version of the passion narratives, we see this battle played out in the school of trial, flowing water and blood, a spirit given over, and with no one more central to the drama than Pilate himself, a man deemed responsible and yet utterly conflicted. Pilate stands as archetype of a darkened power and the ability for power to seduce one into believing that all is held in his very hands, a world dominated by such power. What Pilate doesn’t anticipate, though, is an encounter with love in the Christ in this moment of trial, a school in which Pilate will fail out of in his time, unable to pass the test of love and to triumph the inner self.

Pilate suffers at the same hands as all of us, that with knowledge comes power. It’s not simply knowledge in the way we understand, but the power that comes with knowing and making that knowing into eternal truth. Pilate becomes blinded by such power and knowing, fearing its loss if he were to succumb to the power of love in that encounter. For Pilate, a quick fix to a problem, to rid himself of such problem, is all he can see. He knows of a growing crowd outside the praetorium, a crowd that has grown dissatisfied with truth and the unknown. The movement towards uncertainty rises a sense of anxiety among the people and Pilate for fear of the change that comes with the school of love. In the end, Pilate, in his own conflicted state, chooses fear over love, giving into a growing threat to his identity and power, not wanting to be seen as weak in the face of the people, both political and religious, who stand to swoop in and scoop up the very power that brings down a weak leader, a leader who chooses fear over love. Class failed and the intersection of the human and divine driven to Gabbatha and the ultimate undoing of human power and the revealing of the incomprehensible power of love.

The commemoration of the Lord’s passion and death pushes us to the point of choice in our own lives, choosing the ways of the world which find us confined by our own doing or choosing love, freeing us but at great price. When one encounters love, though, the illusions of power and self are all but destroyed, testified by an “eyewitness” that what first appears the greatest atrocity now stands as the only way to love. The school of love in which Kolbe speaks and witnesses to in his own life didn’t come by crawling cowardly away from the threat of death but rather courageously standing before the crossroads of life and death and choosing life through death, not for his own sake but for that of others. What appears with the eye as a self-serving sacrifice points the way to how we are to live our own lives. We may never encounter such circumstances as that of Kolbe, but the choice to choose love over fear and death is where we are invited every moment of our lives as we to stand between the cut rock of death and the unwavering outpouring of water and blood in new birth.

As the world turns in our own conflicted hearts, choosing fear and love continues to invite us to the intersection of the human and divine through the wood of the Cross. The world stands are our greatest classroom desperately in need of not more fear but a greater sense of love and the depths of love that come through our own suffering in daily choosing to follow love, listen to love, become love in the way we live our lives. It is not hate that stands in opposition to love but fear. It is our own fear of the unknown, something beyond comprehension, fear of the other who threatens my way of life, fear of not knowing, and the ever-increasing anxiety that is brought about by a world that remains repulsed and indifferent towards suffering.

“The Cross is the school of love.” It’s a school where we continue to gather as students to a deeper understanding of this unfolding mystery of suffering and death and the transformational power of love. The cross is not merely an event of centuries ago, seemingly won for us all, but rather the comprehensive exam of a life of faith that thrusts us into the center of the drama of our own lives, lives desiring the heart of the other, lives desiring love. Like Pilate, fear always stands in our way. We cling to what we know and limit this school’s lessons to what we know, to dogmatic certainties, rather than the unfolding and being unfolded ourselves of the layers of our own lives and fear that have kept us from love. An encounter with love changes everything, presumably even for someone like Pilate, even if unbeknownst to him. The school of this Cross and the love poured out shatters all that we have known, opening us to a new way of life, the pouring forth of water and blood and the growing intimacy of standing naked before love itself. The Cross stands as the school of love. What appears as fear, death, power, hatred, and threat can only be overturned by the unfathomable power of love. The school of love always stands ready not to reveal greater light but to cast light upon our own darkness and sin that hinders our own self, a self created for love and to be loved. In the drama of our own lives, the Cross stands ready as our own school, pointing us to the very love our hearts desire. The choice remains, love over fear.

 

Dear God…

For many years now I have spent a great deal of time writing Letters to God.  I believe it all started after seeing the movie under the same name, of a young boy struggling with cancer who thought God was the only one who would understand, despite the unending doubts and dissatisfaction of everyone around him.  It all began in similar fashion for me as well.  They began rather briefly without much depth, often with a question that burdened me or something that just didn’t make sense.  It was a way of getting out of me what so often seemed to become internalized, and being freed from the burden that often became associated with the question, the thought, the experience, or whatever it may have been in that time and space.  Needless to say, the way we have internalized experiences is not always the way it really happened.

Since then, I have written literally hundreds of pages, binders full of these letters that I would not want to share with anyone.  There’s only one person I have, but that’s a story for another day.  It wasn’t simply, at one point, being accountable to someone larger than myself, like God, but to another person who could mirror back, free of judgment, shame, and fear, my deepest thoughts and experiences.  It’s funny, if you would have asked me when I was young what I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer would never even have crossed my lips.  Always, a teacher, but also meteorology a close second.  The natural world still fascinates me and feel at home there, but it has also given me much to write about, and more importantly, a path to redemption over and over again, seeing creation as God’s first and greatest act, and myself intimately connected.

The letters, though, over time, have become more complicated and more nuanced.  I often have to return to them for my own reference, unsure where some of it even comes from, supposing a place deep within me.  It has become a place where I can freely be myself and allow my imagination to engage on levels I could not have imagined even existed, a place where I can often become lost, wander, and over time, be found while finding myself.  They are letters that are filled with quotes, movie scenes, and other images and metaphors that become attached as a means to going deeper and to discover with greater certainty, the One in which the letters are written.  Not only has it been a discovery of the complexity of mystery and the unknown, but how true it is of my own life and how easily any of us can allow ourselves to become imprisoned where and when we feel most comfortable, exiled from the very mystery we fall in love with, even when we feel as if we don’t belong.

I never knew if God was really listening, just as it is with people.  I often wondered if God understood what often felt like one misunderstanding after another.  It’s never been about the peripheries, the trappings that often capture our attention as humans, but rather a quest for the marrow of life, what makes it tick, what gives it meaning and purpose, what and who gives life.  I’m just as guilty as the next, believing there’s an easy answer or fix to what comes at us in life, but it often takes a blow to knock that type of illusion from our hearts and eyes, when we begin to experience that God has been listening all along; I just wasn’t aware of how much he was listening because of the illusions that crippled me and were used as a crutch to hold onto what was never real in the first place, but was a way to protect, to feel comfortable, to hide in fear from what it was I desired the most.  It was hidden all along and in plain sight.  It wasn’t God’s fault, revealing the path, step by step, but rather my own inability to let go, to surrender, to the very mystery that captivated me from the beginning.

So here I sit writing, in a similar format, with questions that in the past would have seemed insurmountable but now are a part of this ongoing quest for truth and love.  Dear God; they are sometimes the easiest words to put on the paper.  The doubt of God listening never seems to completely disappear, and maybe that’s the point.  It’s in that doubt where courage is found to write what comes next in that letter or any of them for that matter.  At first the words that followed came out with great trepidation, not always wanting to put into words what was really going on within me because somehow, once out, they become real, as if words being breathed become embodied in some way.  When I’m asked if I’ll ever share such writings, I hesitate.  My experiences, like any, are very personal.  They’re about difficulties with identity, love, heartbreak, struggles, questions, joys, and all the rest.  Of course, that’s what binds us all in the human family.  We all have a story to share and is important to share that story so hopefully one day the words that follow, Dear God, will lead me in that direction.

A friend shared with me a quote from a book this week (which has a lot of great quotes) entitled, Poverty of Spirit.  The author says this, “We are all beggars.  We are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself.  We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.  Our needs are always beyond our capacities, and we only find ourselves when we lose ourselves.”  He goes onto write, “Left to ourselves, we still remain the prisoner of our own Being…if we attempt this [hiding], the truth of our Being haunts us with its nameless emissary:  anxiety…in the final analysis we have one of two choices:  to obediently accept our innate poverty or to become the slave of anxiety.”  I’m convinced we are all beggars when we utter the words, Dear God, but I’m also nearly certain that we come begging for the wrong thing.  More often than not we come to God begging for answers, only leading to a greater anxiety when answers are not found.  The true invitation to losing ourselves is living into the unknown of the very question that leave us with doubt, restlessness, and unsatisfied hearts.  The answers may, and probably never will, come, but in time we begin to embody the question that God has placed in our hearts and begin to step into and out of our deepest selves, our truest selves, where we no longer need to cut off or shun who it is within us that remains prisoner.

What started as two simple words of imitation of a young boy in a movie, Dear God, has led me to many places within myself and beyond that I will never fully comprehend, but it also leads me to this point in my life right now.  Somewhere in the pages and pages of writing, God has led me to a choice and an invitation to enter into the unthinkable, of surrendering myself to that interior poverty that scares and yet is most enticing and seductive.  As I said, it’s never been about the peripheries, the pomp, the dress, the performance, but rather about this journey that binds us all, from our own sense of exile, crossing threshold after threshold, to a deeper understanding of the promised land that lies within and yet so far beyond my own comprehension.  Needless to say, it comes with a sense of fear, stepping beyond the walls that have held me tightly and have given great comfort, but that too is simply a passage, a threshold to cross, just as any new birth, into an unknown world.  The difference is trusting that journey and trusting that whatever follows, Dear God, will once again be yet another invitation to a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of learning to embody the deeper questions of life and living that revelation as, again, God’s first and greatest act of creation.

All I Want for Christmas

Zeph 3: 14-18; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18

So, nine days left until Christmas.  I don’t feel ready, but that’s nothing new.  There have really been two words that sum up this Advent season.  The first is obviously “expectation”.  That’s what the season is all about.  We speak of the coming of Christ at the end times, in our lives, and of course at Christmas, so that word really is synonymous with Advent.  The other word that we’ve heard these weeks is from Saint Paul who again stresses the word anxiety.  That theme will carry through Christmas when we will hear about fear.  Whether we know it or not the two can be very much entangled with one another.

Expectation, or this sense of longing, has been hijacked by the cultural Christmas and even society in general.  The entire structure is built on an expectation that I’m going to find the right gift to make someone happy.  We all have seen with our own eyes the excitement of kids on Christmas but also how quickly the gift gets tossed aside, dashing our own expectation.  I’m no different.  I spent yesterday on my computer, even telling myself that this is crazy, but it’s so embedded in who we are that we start to feel guilty about not doing it or letting people down and all this stuff, none of which is going to ever satisfy that longing and expectation in our hearts.  More often than not we’re not even aware how we’re being manipulated by it because it’s the only thing we know.  That’s where anxiety then feeds into the unrealistic expectation.  This season, though, is not about happiness, which is fleeting.  Rather, as we hear today, is about joy.  It’s about being satisfied with what we have and even grateful for it, not needing something else “out there” to do the trick.  This false sense of expectation and its accompaniment with anxiety has brought down civilizations all for looking for a “quick fix” to the deepest longing of our hearts as individuals and as a human race.

That’s where Israel finds itself in the first reading today.  It’s the only time we hear from the Prophet Zephaniah.  As a matter of fact, we hear the only positive message that occurs in the book.  Jerusalem finds itself in a rather usual position, about to once again be destroyed.  It is a city that has fallen into disarray and extreme corruption and now stands on the brink of being destroyed by the Babylonians.  As is history of our people, they too look elsewhere to bring some sense of peace to the longing of the people.  It’s a pain that runs deep.  They, like us, convince ourselves that somehow if things were just this way or I had that thing, all would be right in the world.  Israel always wants to look beyond itself rather than journey inward.  It’s how they become corrupt and separated from their purpose as people.  The more they become separated the greater the fear and anxiety get fed and the more the longing deepens.  It’s a perpetual cycle that we all fall prey to as human beings.  It should be no surprise to any of us that there are so many people that suffer from anxiety disorders in one way or another because that’s all we know.  It’s ingrained in our culture but it’s ingrained in the pain that runs through that longing that we anticipate.  In the end, we find ourselves even with expectations of the expectations we hold and the Christmas culture loves it.  It feeds on our weakness as humans knowing we’re going to go looking.

It is expectation that the people have in seeking out John the Baptist as well.  They think maybe finally he’s the one that is going to satisfy that longing.  Yet, he will forever be misunderstood by them because of the expectation of that expectation that they had, that somehow he was the one that was going to undo the systems of his day in the way he preached and spoke.  Again, more often than not we do the same thing.  Who knows if these religious and political systems will ever be undone, knowing that the power associated with that longing is so appealing.  John knew he wasn’t that person and never could be.  All he could do is point the way.  He pointed the way in actions they could take, but it will only be in Christ where they will find that fulfillment.  They won’t find it simply by doing the right thing.  They do it by entering into relationship with the Christ, becoming aware of when they are falling prey otherwise, and once again accept that the longing and expectation lies only with God, with Christ. That’s a decision that John can’t make for them but one they have to make for themselves.  It me and you that have to decide whether we’re going to keep blaming rather than seeking that change of heart within ourselves. More often than not we’d prefer Santa Claus to God and when neither seem to give us what we want, we bail, only leaving us longing for more and seeking it elsewhere. 

We already have what we need and what will give us the peace we desire.  It’s easy for us to say that but much more to allow ourselves to trust it in those moments of longing and expectation.  We allow ourselves to be fed by the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by the unrealistic expectations of a culture.  The gift has already been given to each of us, yet it’s not going to stop us from looking, thinking that we need to or the guilt overtakes us.  If we want to pass on to future generations it should be a seeking of joy.  It may not be easy but it’s not so fleeting as happiness.  The whole season is moving us to the same place as Mary, a place of yes to the gift.  A yes to the longing and expectations of our heart, to a God that deeply desires us to be people of life and joy.  It’s right there and so close and yet at times seems so far away.  God has already wrapped it in the most beautiful of paper, awaiting us to say yes to pulling the ribbon and to be opened to the true meaning of the season and a recognition of what will truly fulfill our longings and expectations, all while freeing us of our fear and anxiety, our relationship with Christ and our falling into mystery.

Grounded in Love

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

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

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

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

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

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

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