Should We?

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For a couple months now I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Patrick Grach, pastor of Lifehouse Church in Hagerstown, preaching on a variety of topics. His current series, “Let’s Talk” may be one of the most intriguing and not sure I would have even thought of doing it when I was a preacher. Last week he spoke about politics and our citizenship of heaven and this week on Gender and Gender Identity. The whole series is on hot-button issues we face as a society and culture. You can find Lifehouse Church at http://www.lifehousechurch.org. His style, if you’re curious, is similar to what I had done, trying to make you think rather than, at least most of the time, spell things out. I call it a discerning and conversational style of preaching, rather than authoritative and “on high”. Something struck me as he spoke this weekend, pushing me to expand on a topic he mentioned when speaking about gender and related issues to roles, men and women play, in our society.

He spoke early on about the level of confusion and chaos we live with as cultural and society as a whole. On a side note, he spoke all of it while suffering with a kidney stone; yikes! The natural inclination when there is chaos and confusion is to try to control, to bring order, because none of us likes the feeling of being wrapped in the winds of a raging hurricane. We will do everything we can do avoid it in our lives, if at all possible. I dare say, and some would be critical of such a point, is the choice we have made to allow children to make choices for themselves, not wanting to box them. “I want them to decide.” Here’s the truth. Kids, no matter the time growing up, need to feel safe and secure, to know boundaries. It’s part of their development process, so when the time comes for them to begin to break away from parental thinking and beliefs, they actually have something to push and rebel against. It’s part of the natural stage of becoming a teenager and hopefully a mature adult.

Now, though, we are finding more and more young people living in that state of confusion and chaos and not knowing what to do with it, where anything goes. They don’t have the familiar pushbacks that most of us would have, such as values and religious beliefs, and so they simply keep pushing against a movable wall, making it increasingly difficult to establish themselves as individuals separate from the traditional family and societal role. Whether we want to believe it or not, teenagers are supposed to do stupid things. Everything about their neuro-wiring tells us they will, if they’ve been given a proper set of boundaries and something confining them in one way or another (safety and security) they will rebel. They literally can be neurotic at that age! We all know it; we were all there!

We mustn’t forget that we as a society have created this space of “where we used to be and this place of reckoning” in which we find ourselves, practically bouncing off and talking past one another. Rather than allowing ourselves to be in the uncomfortable space of unknown and confusion, we typically, as culture and society, have a way of sending the pendulum swinging hard right or left rather than trusting we will be moved to a place of legitimate change and growth. When it comes to the issue, I take a much more conservative approach, knowing full well the psychological world is inconclusive as to the attempts to changing pronouns, one’s gender, and identifying in ways other than male or female. Beyond that, I’m not even sure I could argue a point for or against knowing the other aspects, the nurturing side of development, young people have grown up in during this century. We’re still too close to it all and have not had the space to evaluate fully and with objectivity.

I would argue, though, the reading often cited, Genesis 1:27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NIV), can be interpreted in a variety of ways and for our own growth needs to be. There is the mainstream belief that God created two, male and female, of which there is great truth. We can see that with our own visible eyes. However, the creation stories are much more about creating a new world order out of chaos and confusion. There is a great separation taking place, between heavens and earth, and all the rest from the writer of the Genesis account, but then there’s the reconciliation of bringing what was separated, divided, and chaotic into one. It is, in the spiritual realm, the primary goal, two becoming one.

It’s short-sighted to limit it to marriage, although a legitimate interpretation. There are, though, many of us who are not married and do not enter into such union. Does it simply eliminate the rest of us and serve no purpose or value to our own lives? Does, somehow, the illusion of the other, complete us, resonate within us, even though it’s flawed thinking? In my experience, the healthiest of relationships are between two who have done their own hard work and sought that interior reconciliation within themselves. In other words, people who have learned to love themselves first. It certainly does not indicate perfection, though, since the work is never done and the other often does reveal blind spots as to what we need to confront about ourselves.

The marriage of male and female, on the surface is one thing. However, there is a deeper marriage we’re invited into, within our own spiritual journey, our own given gender of male and female and the masculine soul of the woman and the feminine soul of the man. It may be needed now more than ever! Patrick, the pastor, made a very necessary point and a reality we at times have witnessed in politics and religious life. Strong, authentic women who have done their work expose the insecure, boyish men who we have often settled for in many aspects of our life, boys in a man’s body, never having had to mature beyond teen years. It is one of the great crises of our time, and more often than not, we just accept it as normal simply because it is so predominant in our culture. It leads to immature and underdeveloped me in positions of leadership often leading to scandal and heartlessness. His simple point, men need to love and women need to honor. When both step up their game it creates a more whole person and society.

There is, though, the issue of confusion and chaos and the challenge we now face with gender identity, gender politics, and gender roles. Like most realities, we focus on our own need and forget to evaluate the long-term implications for not establishing boundaries for young people. As I said, safety and security are key for kids. As adults we hopefully outgrow it and recognize there is no guarantee of tomorrow, all while maintaining healthy boundaries ourselves, modeling and mentoring for younger people. Young people aren’t in a position to handle such gray areas and yet it’s what we have created for them. Life is full of gray, but for kids, it’s this or that, like it or not. I was recently filling out an application asking me what pronouns I refer to myself as. I simply shook my head even though I understand why. I by no means have it all together and have questioned many things about myself and who I am, but I also know that there is a deeper identity that defines me more than a gender. It is the marriage of masculine and feminine in my own life. It’s not like we don’t get into bitter battles at time, of course, the battle within myself. It is, though a marriage requiring constant work and the only one leading to greater wholeness.

At a time when safety and security are necessary, it would behoove us to teach the many facets of ourselves before we go through drastic measures of change, a more methodical approach to development. I by no means claim to have all the answers on such difficult subjects, but I do have the foresight necessary to recognize and ask the question, “Does just because we can mean we should?” Is it any wonder why some demand we put the skids to progress, not simply because of a lack of desire for change, but at times, because it feels like too much is being undone. If we do anything, we’d benefit society’s well-being by asking how what we do and don’t do impacts future generations, despite our reactionary nature as Americans. Living split lives has simply become the custom. We see it in the way people are abused, revealing more about ourselves than anything. We see it in the disdain towards people who are different than ourselves. We see it in the degree of immaturity existing in this moment of time.

We have, after all, forgotten the larger narrative of our lives and the deeper identity we share, in the Creator. It may be spoken in different forms and languages, but at the heart of who we are is love. When we first learn to love ourselves and be in relationship with ourselves, we find the complementarity we desire with people of other genders and find the deeper sense of safety and security in the love we really are, neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile. Simply, at the heart, we are love. It’s this perspective, to love and be love, we need in days of chaos and confusion in order to allow a new created order to be formed, not rooted in the here and now but for the generations yet unborn. Just because we can, by no means, means we should. Let’s dialogue…

Welcome Home

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Welcome home! They were the first words that I heard as I walked through the doors of Bethlehem Farm some seven months ago for what I thought was going to be a month. “I can do anything for a month,” I told myself. I needed something to do in transition and they were willing to take me in on short notice. Talk about trust, here I was, a middle-aged man who had walked away from the life I was living, not married, and they were willing to take me in! So on a Monday in late April I arrived on the front steps to that greeting, welcome home, only to find that there was something more to it than I could have imagined, a place that has not only been home over the months but a place that has aided me in finding the home within myself that seemed all but lost and relationships that surpass that of time. Better yet, had helped me in finding a home never had found.

It was just a few short days prior to arriving there that I had received word that my dad was hospitalized. I wasn’t sure if I should actually come to such a remote part of West Virginia, nearly eight hours from Burton Street, where I had grown up as a child. However, at the time my own life was out of sorts and rocky at best and I needed, as I had told them, some sense of stability. Not only was the life I had known been allowed to shatter, but I hadn’t realized at the time that the passing of my dad was just about two months from the time I walked up the front steps of B Farm. I needed stability, though, and so I went without really knowing what I was about to get myself into in the coming months. Some three hours later, dozens of high school students also arrived and the stability I was looking for was going to need to be put on hold. I was going to need to jump fully in to learn what the farm was all about along with the high school students who were arriving from around the country.

It was the beginning of an experience that words still fall short to describe. There is absolutely a sense of home, and the men and women I have lived and worked with during this time are more than just colleagues or some other formality, they are family and friends. It falls short on words because words often don’t come close to describing the home that has been discovered within myself during this time, literally getting my hands into the grittiness of the lives of others, the earth, chicken poop, bread and food, but not necessarily in that order, has broken me wide open! For someone who has a strong connection to the Christmas stories you’d think that the grittiness would have already been well-known. However, life’s circumstances and states in life often prevent us from finding that home, even more ironic since I had devoted so much of my time and life to such an endeavor. It was literally, though, digging in dung and dirt where I found that grittiness, at times moved to tears by it.

The progression of my dad’s health seemed to deteriorate daily. There didn’t seem to be an answer to anything. There was still hope, but over time, even that began to wane. I would travel back and forth when I could, often running out as soon as we sent off another group from the farm. There were moments, though, where I found myself out in the field by myself or with Shannon, who too came to the farm looking for something. By the afternoon we’d often work in different parts of the garden, leaving m alone with my thoughts, a farm tool, and the earth. Even as I write these words, I find tears coming to my eyes because it seemed like yesterday there was so much unraveling going on within and beyond me. It was all an act of trust, from the very beginning, not knowing where any of it would lead. At times I could look back and wonder how on earth I was able to venture through such turbulent times in my life.

There was something about the digging, and digging deeper. There was also something about the process of baking bread and kneading it. Both actions have similar qualities of digging and kneading, pushing and feeling, breaking through the surface which seemed so thick. It all has a way of grounding you in the process. The results are not immediately experienced, just like farming, but over time there is a gradual change and life begins to poke through. There’s something about that physical push that often broke me open and brought to the surface all that seemed buried within. There was a deterioration going on in my own life. No, the consequences are not the same as my dad, who lost the battle with cancer, but death has come this year in my life, both in the passing of him as well as in my own life, both of which stand in stark contrast to the perennial. Everything seemed to be passing, slipping through the fingers, like the crumbling of dirt in the field.

I now stand on the cusp of the longest time I will have spent away from the farm all year. After seven months of farming, cooking, canning, growing, learning, and becoming, more sound and grounded myself, it’s time to take home on the road for a while. Sure, there is some hesitation, but none like I had when first venturing to southern West Virginia back in April. Looking back, it was a cancer of sorts, that was also killing me from within, but mine had a cure. In some ways it feels as if the year has become full circle for me, back where I began, but moving forward from a very different place than when it felt like it was falling apart around me. Bethlehem Farm and welcome home has a deeper meaning than simply returning to a place. It’s about returning to a center. It didn’t take long to realize why so many returned to the farm, year after year, to this special place. Surrounded by a rather chaotic world, whirling around, it stands at the center of authenticity and the quest for wholeness in life, to grow into the life that had been intended from the beginning. Everyone arrives on those steps for very different reasons. Some simply for the act of service it provides, as for countless high school and college students; yet, even they leave different than when they arrived.

Others, like myself, though, come looking for something else because of our stage in life. The countless conversations with the college students have been one of the best parts of the time at the farm. Sometimes it was just the silence of working in the field or even the quiet of the kitchen when no words were needed. There was, here, no longer this sense of hierarchy I have had to live with, but rather a level playing field and equal grounding. There was no special clothing, unless you count work clothes, that differentiate one from another. There was no special title or expectations or anything else. As a matter of fact, there’s simply a nakedness that comes from the experience, a vulnerability that reminds we are all human and life really is passing, none of which needs to be taken all that seriously. As much as I have been a part of their journey, they have been of mine as well. They walked the journey of my dad’s death with me and kept me grounded even through my own. They could sympathize and empathize but at the same time, their lives weren’t destroyed by what was happening in mine. That’s the grounding I was looking for within myself, summed up and found through those simple words first uttered as I, and countless others, walk up those steps at Bethlehem Farm, “Welcome Home.”

A Puzzled Life

Despite having twice the number of pieces, a puzzle containing 1000 pieces is considered four times as difficult as one half the size. Anyone that has worked on puzzles knows that the greater number of pieces and the smaller they are in size, the harder the puzzle becomes, especially when they all start to look alike. Certainly after hours of work, the eyes can begin to deceive, thinking pieces go together before finally realizing that stepping away from it for awhile is probably best, in order to gain greater clarity and to see the larger picture before trying to return to try to complete the masterpiece that has begun.

It’s no wonder that when we have experiences in our lives, when it feels like we’ve been shattered into a thousand pieces or more, like a puzzle, that it is going to take serious time and a great deal of patience in order to see how all the pieces fit together. In life there’s even an added complication. Over time pieces don’t always necessarily fit the puzzle any more and it comes down to deciding, or better yet, discerning, what stays and what goes. It’s never an easy task. As a matter of fact, as time carries on it begins to seem like less and less of the pieces are even necessary to carry along for life’s journey and can become somewhat cumbersome to a fuller way of life or even an obstacle to joy because they just no longer fit into the narrative of your life, a story that has become too small.

Anyone who has risked the monumental task of being opened to a spiritual awakening in life, knows what it feels like to be shattered in such a way, where the pieces of life just no longer seem to fit the way they used to over the course of life. You’re left trying to make sense of pieces that, even at times, create illusions of fitting, as if, if I just keep pushing hard enough it’ll come together the way I want it to, rather than stepping back and accepting that it’s not real, that it just doesn’t fit, a piece no longer necessary to carry along. It seems, in such moments, that even the pieces that we work with don’t necessarily match the picture given on the box, that somehow the puzzle that is being assembled, or even disassembled for that matter, is much more a mystery than it is contained in the content of a box, spilled out on the table, and by the end of the day the picture is clear. It may work for a child’s puzzle and for a child’s way of thinking, what is seen on the box is definitively what is produced, but not in life, an adult life, or not in a life well lived, and fully.

So much of the spiritual journey has been examining so many different pieces and the comfort of always knowing, the fallback position, of creating a puzzle that is so clearly defined. Yet, over time becomes stifling, losing its edge and creativity, and wanting to break out of the box from which it originally came. More often than not we settle, right there, because of expectations of others or even the expectations that we place upon ourselves, wanting to please, not wanting to rock the boat, or not taking the riskiest step of all, of coming out of what has contained and to examine life from a different perspective. Our eyes can become weary over time, when none of the pieces seem to make much sense and begin to blend together rather than holding their own unique quality. In that moment, we rest the eyes, especially the eyes of the heart. We lose our sense of vision, blurred by our own hurt, only to be healed by a loving hand and embrace, not by trying to fix or produce a puzzle. It seemed so simple when that was the answer, the picture on the box. It was much simpler to return to the box in which you came, to be assembled and disassembled again, all for the sake of comfort and a sense of certainty and what was known, even finding some sense of stability in chaos rather than in peace.

The summons of a spiritual awakening, conversion, transformation, dark night, or whatever such changed is referred, is to recognize that much of pieces in which we’ve carried in our lives, thinking they define the puzzle of our lives, simply aren’t part of the puzzle of who we really are, the deeper mystery of the humanity in which God gives each of us. It’s quite difficult letting that puzzle, and all its clear definition, go, despite knowing that it no longer works and no longer defines who I am. The summons given is a radical one, to recognize that none of the pieces are necessary anymore, and the more we try to define it or have a box define our lives, the more likely they aren’t who we really are. The more we allow the box to define the puzzle, the less the puzzle is a puzzle, the less my life is life. That’s a hard pill to swallow for us who want to belong, to fit, to be accepted. None of which are bad in and of themselves, but nor do they define us in the way we’re so often pulled, by the proverbial box, in which others want to place us and for some reason, we happily choose to go rather than courageously saying no to something else in order to say to our truest self.

The great poet, Maya Angelou sums it up this way, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.” The summons that is granted and afforded each of us is to find that grounding first and foremost in ourselves and in God. The summons is to be defined from within, not by all the pieces that others have contributed to the puzzle, so often not even a suitable fit for your life and yet taken on rather than disappointing, while rejecting that deeper self in the process. The summons is to recognize that our sense of belonging comes from the beloved indwelling, always calling us forth to where everything belongs and where we are no thing at all!

In the end, the summons is to each of us and a summons only we, ourselves, can choose to accept, taking the risk of stepping forth in life, no longer child’s play, but recognizing I’m not a puzzle at all, to be sorted out and figured out, but rather one who is called and summoned to lead others in such a way in their lives to see in the same way, knowing what stays and what goes, knowing what belongs and what doesn’t, knowing when to step away and look at life from a bigger picture, when the boxes we create for ourselves and at times, are thrown into, picture on front clearly defined, no longer works and the true summons for more in and out of life is revealed. They’re the moments we most wait for and desire. They are the moments that will catapult us into the next stages of our lives, no longer simply about fulfilling roles and obligations, but living life to its fullest, free from what has contained, even if it is simply the picture on the box that we ourselves created yet now know just isn’t enough, a life worthy of mystery, love, and the risk of stepping into the unknown, into the less clearly defined life in God.

Finding Peace in a New York State of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Community of Love

The Passion of Jesus Christ According to John

I can’t say I’m a fan of shows about lawyers.  It’s not that I have a thing against lawyers, but it often seems that there is some deal of manipulation that takes place in order to convince people of the truth, even if it’s not the truth, simply to make a case.  Of course, it’s not even about television programs like Law & Order or anything like that.  We even see it when we catch any news.  There’s always a “legal expert” who’s going to try to convince you of something, that they know the truth and to cast doubt into the other’s case.  We hear it from Russia probes to “porn stars” and everything in between. It creates this sense of chaos and confusion leaving us with the same question as Pilate in today’s passion, “What is truth?”  It’s hard to tell sometimes.

That is what John seems to create in his account of the passion and death of Jesus that we hear every Good Friday.  It’s hard to determine what really is the truth and there seems to be utter confusion and chaos.  What only reinforces that is this enmeshing of politics and religion.  When the two align against Jesus he doesn’t stand much chance of making it out alive.  It comes down to at that point people’s power that they’re unwilling to surrender and over time, chipping away at any trust they may have of Jesus, invoking fear, confusion, and chaos on the scene.  For John, though, that’s where it all begins.  If you think back to the beginning of the bible as we know it, the creation accounts in Genesis, order is formed out of chaos.  Now, for John, this chaos that ensues towards Jesus’ death, is once again going to create a new order.  Not in the sense of control but in a new creation and new life that will flow from within.

When you think about it, even the charge brought against Jesus would not necessarily warrant death.  The crowd says that he claims to be Son of God.  However, again, from the very beginning, they too are sons and daughters of God but over time begin to sway from trusting that voice of the divine, giving into the fear, chaos, and confusion, and used by the people of power to bring down this guy Jesus.  This new created order that John says community is to become is a community that is once again rooted in that ancient of beliefs, that they are sons and daughters of God but from the beginning are lost from due to sin, due to thinking that they’re more than that, that they are God.  But when there is pressure from the authorities, who try to convince that they hold the truth and will manipulate into believing, it’s the voice of the divine that is crucified.  It is the community that now stands trial as to what and who it is they are going to become in the midst of a hostile world.  Will they follow the ruler of this world or of the Kingdom, as Jesus claims in the Passion account.

All leading to the climactic scene of Jesus on the cross, standing, as John tells us, literally in the middle of the tension and in the middle of all the hostility being cast upon him in these moments.  But unlike ourselves often, Jesus takes it in.  When vinegar and bitterness are placed upon his lips, unlike the other gospels, Jesus drinks.  He consumes the bitterness.  He consumes the anger.  He consumes the fear.  He consumes chaos and confusion.  He consumes all that is thrown at him, appearing that the world has finally won.  There is finally a verdict and the verdict stands with the status quo.  It stands with what we so often choose as well, to destroy the one who is perceived as the problem in order to make ourselves feel better.  It’s so much easier to spew hatred and bitterness upon the world, but Jesus consumes it.  He consumes the bitter herbs that are cast upon him but not to show violence towards the world.  Rather, to transform it.

Yet, it’s still not finished.  When that bitterness is consumed by Christ, and rather than casting judgment upon them and the world, a lance is cast into his side and blood and water flow out.  In that very moment of consumption of all that the world has thrown at Jesus, a new community is formed.  Just as blood and water flow from the womb of the mother, now blood and water flows from the side of Jesus and a community of love is formed.  All the bitterness, chaos, and confusion are transformed and recreated into new life and this community is birthed.  It’s no longer based simply on doctrine.  Even Jesus stands trial for that and nothing can be found against him.  It’s not a community based on ideology or anything else.  Rather, it’s a community of love that flows from the side of Jesus.

We come to this second prayer of Easter as we reflect upon the passion according to John.  John isn’t about a community but shows the path towards a community that is rooted in love.  From a God who humbles and comes down to the earth, to a God who humbles and gets on his knees and washes the feet of the disciples, including Judas, to now a God who points to yet a deeper love and an opportunity to participate in that deeper love by going into the depths of the earth, into the new tomb as John tells us in order to transform all that has died.  Blood and water flow from the womb, blood and water flow from the side, blood and water will flow from the tomb and this new community of love will form.  That’s what John believed to be true of any community that puts the Cross at its center.

As we come to venerate this Cross in a few moments, we come with grateful hearts.  Sure we recognize the sacrifice that has been made for us, redeemed for our sins, but it’s much more than that.  It’s not just about something being done for us.  It’s also about something being done to us and in us John would say.  We can’t stop short in being a community of love.  We must take those final steps, when we find ourselves on trial ourselves and juror at times.  Which voice is going to give us the eternal truth?  Do we form our lives and community around popular opinion and what’s most acceptable or will we take the often more difficult path of trusting the divine.  We too stand at the center of it all and are often left with choices ourselves.  It’s very easy to become consumed by chaos and confusion and to spew the bitterness of our own lives onto others and the world.  It’s easy.  It’s going with the crowd today, so easily convinced.  In that moment the divine is crucified again and again.  Yet, we come with gratitude because God continues to invite us back to this very place and in this moment, calling to mind to our own truest identity, as sons and daughters of God.  If it were only as easy to convince ourselves of that then blood and water would flow from us as well, co-creators in this world.

In the midst of hostility, bitterness, confusion, fear, and chaos, Jesus stands trial.  It’s the alignment of the feast and the hour as we heard last night and that time has finally arrived.  We pray for that grace, in these moments of our own lives, that we too will choose our own bitterness and hostility to be transformed by the divine in order that we may continue to become that community of love that John desired.  It takes a great deal of sacrifice and pain along the way, letting go, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by Love in order to be love.  On this Good Friday we pray for that grace for Love to touch our hearts in a deeper way, through our own chaos and hostility, touching the blood and water as they flow in order to make us a new creation, a community of love.

Turbulent Truth

I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 22-33

If there is one thing we know about Matthew’s community and the community in which he writes it’s that they faced grave persecution.  It may have been worst for them more than anyone and so with persecution comes great fear as these outside influences put pressure on this community and on the followers of the Christ. We’ve unfortunately even made persecution into something pithy as abiding by rules and teaching but for them it was a fear of their own lives and this constant chaos and turbulence. You know, long before there was anything that we call ISIS or even hate groups we are familiar with in our own society, as well as gangs here in the city, there was the Roman authority and the religious zealots of the time of Jesus.  There was nothing merciful about them and they took out anyone that they perceived as a threat to their power.  Just before this gospel today of Peter walking on the water and the feeding of the crowd, John the Baptist is beheaded.  It’s one of the most heart-breaking stories in the gospels and all done out of fear and insecurity of those in power towards the ones who had the true power, the followers who had found freedom in Christ.

This is the context and the reality of Matthew’s community and so all that we hear, including this little snippet today, is somehow a message of hope to that community not to give up and to persevere in the storm.  So he gives us this image of the disciples being sent out onto the Sea of Galilee in the darkest part of the night, by themselves, and now in the midst of a storm.  Remember, this is not some boat that we’d see down in Harbor.  This is a piecemeal that they’d be familiar with and for Matthew, that boat was symbolic of his own community and what they are facing, the constant onslaught of storminess and turbulence from these institutions to somehow conform to them, to give into the fear and to give up the freedom as followers of the Christ.  It’s not just happening on the sea but is happening within them.  Of course, the message of Matthew is not to give up but to keep growing into that freedom and test the waters as Peter does.  But too much can lead to drowning.  Peter gains a little confidence walking on the water and in doing so quickly falls.  Matthew reminds them that they must not only fall on each other for support in these times but first and foremost to trust in the Lord.  Matthew is aware that all this noise from the outside and all the pressure that the community finds itself facing leads to blocking out that voice of the Lord, the quiet whisper deep within.  In that moment of chaos, Peter cries out and the Lord reaches out.  There’s hope in the midst of the violence of their lives and ours in this city as well.

As much as Peter began to drown, Paul finds himself in anguish for similar reasons or at least for what he is witnessing in the Roman community.  He describes himself in today’s reading as someone in anguish.  He has a deep love for this community and now sees the lack of belief and trust in the Lord.  They are giving into the ways of the world as a community and are giving into that fear and that pressure to conform to the ways of the status quo.  Paul often anguishes over being misunderstood by these communities.  He models for them what it means to live into that freedom of living in Christ.  It is what he is bearing witness and it so often seems to go on deaf ears.  Of course, the more he grows into will also lead to his own impending death as a prophetic voice and follower of the Christ.  Paul reminds the community not to give into the fear.  The fear seems to lull us to sleep, leading us to believe that we’re helpless and that there is nothing we can do.  That’s what the Roman authority and the religious zealots thrive on.  We may never change them nor the systems, but that can’t stop us from weathering the storm and not giving into the fear.  Sure, we may be different, but like Paul, we then stand as a witness to true freedom in Christ.

But we still have one more story today and that’s in today’s first reading from First Kings and the prophet Elijah.  We found Peter sinking, Paul in anguish, and now Elijah hiding in fear.  Elijah finds himself on the run.  His life is being threatened by Queen Jezebel after the slaying of the false prophets and now he’s beside himself.  Not only does he think he can hide from her he also tries to run from God and this prophetic call that has been given to him.  Much will also be demanded of him to remain true to himself and the eternal in the midst of much turbulence and violence, including violence against his own life.  But in the process of hiding, the great mount Horeb provides the space for perspective and context of it all.   Like Peter, when he finally begins to surrender his own fear and control, space opens within where he can once again hear the whispering voice of God speaking, assuring him of that presence in the midst of all this exterior noise.  He finds within himself, the eternal, to now go and confront and no longer fear the loss of his own life.

We aren’t much different than any of them in today’s stories.  We are often confronted with a barrage of noise that leads to continuous upheaval in our live, deeper fear of the unknown, and even in our own neighborhood, more violence.  I’ve had out on our front sign for more than a month now that in violence we forget who we are.  We not only forget who we are but we forget whose we are.  As I said, fear has a way of lulling us to sleep and into this deep amnesia.  We begin to believe that we do it on our own and before you know it the absence of mystery and this God becomes more evident.  We too easily give into this fear but as Matthew reminded his community, they are something more than that fear.  They have found that interior freedom needed to no longer be bound by the threat of the Roman authority and religious zealots.  In that sense, they will always be a threat and violence will continue to ensue.  As disciples and followers of the Christ, we are called to be that more and to not forget not only who we truly are but whose we are in Christ.  The call to conversion is for all of us, not to give into the helplessness and powerlessness in the midst of fear and violence, but to step up and be the voice not of fear but rather of love.

 

Love’s Eye

Acts 2: 1-11; I Cor 12: 3-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23

I was talking to some new pastors this week up at the seminary so of course part of the conversation was on prayer.  It is not only central to us priests but to all of us.  I was surprised when one of them had told me that he didn’t pray.  So, of course, I asked him why, and as surprised as I was to hear that he didn’t pray I wasn’t all surprised by the why because I had heard in many times before.  When I finally sit down to pray, to stop, to quiet down, it seems at that point my mind takes off, a million miles a minute along with all my fears and anxieties, unresolved conflict, and all the rest begin to surface.  That’s the reason why you have to pray in those moments.

I use the example often, now that we are into the summer and it is hurricane season, to imagine a satellite image of a hurricane.  Most have a well-defined eye.  Crazy enough, that’s where you want to be in the hurricane.  It’s the place where the sun shines.  There’s peace and tranquility.  That’s the place of center we take with us into the storm, into the million miles a minute, otherwise the wall collapses and the storm consumes our lives.  This feast we celebrate today at the end of the Easter Season defines our center, that place of peace and tranquility that is hopefully leading us and navigating us through the storms of our own lives, as individuals, community, country, and world.  We certainly know that that’s not always the case.

When the early community begins to form and that we heard of throughout this Easter season from Acts of the Apostles, they too found themselves often trying to find that center and allowing it to be their navigation tool through often tumultuous times.  It was not an easy go for them when community was beginning to form around this new identity in Christ.  Like any community, there is self-interest, there are people that are trying to satisfy their own needs, there are people that are trying to drag us into their own storms, into the chaos of their own lives that will often challenge that center, that navigation tool.

The same was true for Corinth in whom Paul writes today.  It’s a section of that letter that we are all familiar with when he speaks of different gifts but the same spirit being manifested in the life of the community.  He’ll go onto to speak about the different parts yet one body and culminate in the next chapter with his message of love that we are familiar with from weddings.  There was dissension in the ranks of the community because they thought one person’s gift was better than the other, thinking that speaking in tongues was somehow better than the rest.  It created riffs.  Like the world we often find ourselves in today, there was selfish motivation, which of course, at that point, loses its purpose of being a gift in the first place!  One gift is not somehow better than the other, but rather, Paul will go onto say that no matter the gift and no matter the person, at the center of the community, the great navigation tool, will be that of love.  That becomes the eye of the storm and it becomes the navigation tool that the disciples will have to take into the storms that await them on that Easter day.

There seems to be no great Pentecost experience with them when we encounter them in today’s Gospel.  There they are, caught in the midst of a wild storm as the witnessed the death of Jesus, the one who had been their center up to this point.  For John, though, he’s going to want to take us back to the beginning and not to just the beginning of the gospel but back to the beginning of Genesis, when God breathes life into creation.  Here we are now, locked in the upper room, filled with fear and doubt, wondering and questioning, feeling like they’re being consumed by the storm and all that they had known falling down around them, and Jesus appears.  But not to just pick back up where they had left off on Good Friday but to give them a new center that goes deep within them and yet so far beyond them.  Jesus breathes on them, not just into their mouths, but into their very being the gift of the Spirit.  That will become their place of authority, their place of deep love, their own navigation tool as we see them go forward throughout Acts of the Apostles.

As we draw this Easter season to a close today, we pray for that same Spirit to be breathed into us, making us aware of where our center is in life.  Do we find ourselves much more comfortable in the storminess, chaos, fear and anxiety, that at times consumes our lives or are we being led to a place of peace that expands truth and makes space within us for all peoples?  Maybe we’re at a place where we need to quiet down, slow down, even if our minds want to go a million miles an hour.  That’s exactly where that navigation tool is leading us, to expand that place of peace and tranquility within us.  The last thing the world needs is more chaos, fear, and anxiety.  It leads us to reacting to everything that comes our way, sucking us into the storminess of lives and feeling overwhelmed by it all.  Like the disciples, on this day God desires to breathe that life, that Spirit into each of us so rather than being defined by the storminess we become the agents of change by brining that navigation tool, that eye, that deep source of love to an often hurting world to bring about the redemption that is freely given to each of us.

 

Easter’s Good Friday

The Passion According to John

For a moment I invite you to look at this Passion that we just heard from John and this day that we now celebrate, Good Friday, from a different perspective. Over the centuries as a Church we have often only looked from one direction and that’s where we have just come from, the Lenten Season. It was a time of sacrifice, a time of giving up, but when we do we gather today in sadness despite the fact that on the first day of the Lenten season we’re told not to do that, not to be gloomy. That’s not the point of Good Friday despite the fact that we often do it not just with this day but with our lives, and in particular, we become fixated on our hurts and live a life of victimhood. What I invite you into, though, is to look at it as John did some 70 years after the death of Jesus and from the lens of resurrection, from the lens of Easter.

I have said for the past few weeks as we looked at the stories coming from John that he’s a very different interpretation than what we just heard back on Palm Sunday and Matthew’s Gospel. In John’s, from beginning to end, Jesus is conscious of what he does and is aware of not only the choices he makes but also how others respond to him and react to what he does and doesn’t do. Today’s Passion is no different and so it’s not just Jesus but John who’s writing to his community that views from that same lens. In the other gospels, it’s Jesus who is interrogated by everyone as the chaos ensues around him. But not in John’s. It begins that way, but being aware and being conscious of it all, Jesus turns the tables as he does throughout the gospel. It goes from him being on trial to him putting everyone else on trial and interrogating them, without getting trapped into their own chaos and confusion and struggle for power.

With that understanding, even to his own death, there is a point to everything that John conveys through images and events in the passion. One of the images that we tend to just flash by is the one, nearing his death, where Jesus has this encounter with the beloved disciple and Mary. He says behold your son and behold your mother. For John, the message he conveys to his community in that moment that a new family, a new community forms out of this moment. They are no longer simply bound by blood or by tribe but by something more. It’s not to say that blood or tribe just suddenly goes away, but as his community forms and this new family takes shape, it’s now the eternal Christ that unites them as a people. For John, what dies on the cross are the bonds that often separate us recognizing from the beginning, as his gospel begins, that it is the Word, the eternal Christ, that lives forever. It’s why it’s a solemn day but not a sad day. From the ancient Church it’s been this passion that we have heard as a people, not to embrace a victim mentality or viewing life through the lens of what was, but rather the new life and the new community that forms.

It’s followed up, as the death of Jesus takes place, when a soldier then thrusts a lance in the side of Jesus and blood and water flow out. For John, it all comes together in this moment, life and death, and the birth of a new people, a new family, a new community, flows when blood and water break forth. In the beginning was the Word John tells us and now in this moment, it’s not a lance that thrusts forth but rather new life. It’s the perspective that John tries to convey to his community. This celebration was about coming together to retreat and to reflect upon where we have come from and where the Christ now tries to lead us.

I can stand here and ask everyone of you in this church about the suffering of the world and our lives and I would bet that all of us would be able to identify the great sufferings that occur, from the smallest of children blown up by bombs to people killed on the streets, those suffering with great illnesses and so forth, but even that is about the perspective we have on life. It’s so easy to live the life of victim and that is one of the theories that has been drilled into us about Jesus and why this day happens. We could live in what was, embrace our hurts and how we have been wronged or somehow cheated out of something, but, quite honestly, then we might as well live our lives stuck on Palm Sunday and the lenten season and never move beyond. That’s not the grace of this day for John and nor should it be for us. That season of our lives has now ended and a new one is being given to us, a new beginning, as blood and water burst forth from the side of Jesus.

As we continue this journey and these days of retreat, we are once again invited to look at it from a new perspective, one that offers life rather than more resentment, loss, and victimhood. It serves us no good anyway. What are the symbols and images that seem to be touching our hearts at this very moment, where the Word now tries to break forth in our lives. We live our lives in hope and are called, as Jesus is in John’s Gospel, aware and conscious of who we are and what we do in the face of such suffering, often brought on by our own unawareness, and to be freed to embrace the new life. In the end, for John, it all comes down to this as Jesus breathes the spirit upon this new community as he takes his last breath. Yes, something dies but what remains is the eternal and it is the eternal Christ that stands as our truest bond as community and as family.

Freedom

Acts 2: 1-11; I Cor 12: 3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

This feast we celebrate today, Pentecost, whether known or not, ranks in the same category as Easter Sunday and yet it never quite has the same flare and excitement that Easter brings. It’s the bookend of the season, it seems that we’re winding down, and then it’s Pentecost. As hard as it is for us to begin to grasp what we celebrate on Easter and the mystery of life and death, Pentecost is probably at least a hundred times more difficult and misunderstood. We can’t see this Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit. Heck, most times we’re probably not even aware of this Spirit. The Spirit is something we just can’t seem to get our minds or hearts around. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t carry the same weight.

As human beings, possibly our greatest obstacle to the Spirit is our need or desire to control. We love to control our own destiny and our lives. We even at times love to control other people’s lives. We know the Institution of the Church is no different. We like to keep order and control. Yet, this Spirit we speak of seems like chaos and disorder. The Spirit makes we speak of seems out of control. And so we find ourselves so often in between. We have the desire to control and at the same time the desire for the Spirit to set us free, the freedom that we know deep-down is what we’re called to in life.

It’s where God invites, leads, and meets us in our lives and always has. The chances of always living in the Spirit is probably nil. There’s always that ego of ours that wants to control. It’s what Paul confronts with the people of Corinth in the second reading today. This, for some, would be the beginning of the culmination of this letter. He’ll go onto to write about the metaphor of the body and then the section we’re all familiar with on love. But here he is today speaking about the one Spirit that comes in many forms. Yet, as I said, it’s coupled with people in power who want to control and dictate. He criticizes them for thinking and identifying gifts by ranking them, as if some were better than the others. That’s not the case for Paul. Paul works on leveling the playing field, especially when he speaks of the metaphor of the body, that all are necessary for the life of the community. One is not more important than the other. When they work together rather than against one another, the community will flourish and grow.

But it doesn’t come easy and we’ve heard the challenges that the early communities faced in Acts of the Apostles all season. They seemed to be in this constant tension of control and the freedom offered by the Spirit. There is some need for the structure that they were creating until it begins to stifle. We’ve heard the conflict and confrontations that they faced, even between Peter and Paul, seeming to pull in different directions, and yet, in the middle of it all lies this tension. It’s where God continuously led them to struggle with their differences. In the end, they are set free even with the structure to create something new by learning to let go and trust in the ever-gentle call of the Spirit leading them to something new. The community grows and flourishes rather than getting stuck and dead to sin.

And so we end where we began, then, with the Easter Gospel from John. There they are, the disciples locked in the upper room as we had heard on Easter. Desiring to be free and yet controlled by their fear. What seemed like an enormous task ahead of them only became daunting because they thought they had to control it. Then there is the moment of freedom. Jesus breathes life into them, entrusting them with the Spirit and freeing them from sin. In this moment of intimate encounter, their hearts will begin to open and crack and life will begin to change.

As we celebrate this great feast, the feast of the birthday of the Church, we gather now looking back at this season and the moments of growth and change that have called us forth. In the tension of life and death, individually and as community, the Spirit is forever at work leading us to the eternal. Yeah, we will always want to control. But that gets old after awhile. We begin to get cranky with life. We become cynical and begin to feel as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders. So often, in a moment of weakness, our desire for control begins to break down and we are led to something new, a different place that we may not even know. The box we had put ourselves in, others in, and for that matter, put God in, begin to break down, and like a strong driving wind, life begins to change, the way we see begins to change. That’s the Spirit at work in our lives. We pray for that Spirit to not only come upon us but to break into our hearts and to free us from our need to control and be set free to live life more fully, a life filled with the Spirit.