Huddled Masses

A few months back at the farm we had a woman that easily could have been referred to as “the chicken whisperer”. She seemed to know chickens better than anyone, and, at times, seemingly better than human beings. They were literally, “her girls”, and they followed her when she arrived. She knew when to feed, when to sleep, the snacks that they’d like from the farm, such as fruits and vegetables, and certainly what they shouldn’t eat. Joking aside, I learned a great deal from her and began, since then, observing “her girls” most afternoons when I delivered their afternoon snack. You learn who’s in charge, and they let you know it, who the weaker one’s are, making sure they have food as well, when they lay eggs, how they go to sleep, and basically, the intricate structure of community that the chickens share, just as we do as human beings. We can learn a great deal watching and observing.

Then there was today. This community of chickens encountered their darkest of days. A dog broke free and literally massacred all but about seventeen with a few of them probably hanging on with their last breath. It was one of the most difficult things I had witnessed here on the farm. You are always aware that there are predators close by. The hawks make themselves known on a daily basis as they fly overhead. You are fully aware, just from education and experience, that there is a brutality to the animal kingdom just as there is with humans as we know all too well. There’s an animal instinct in all of us, that, thankfully, as humans we learn to tame, at least for the most part. We know that if we too act on those instincts that there are consequences to our actions in order to be held accountable for preying on the weak and vulnerable.

It was obvious, in witnessing all of it today, that despite that brutality their sense of community remained intact. The lone survivors found themselves huddled around their dead comrades. We practically had to lure them out in order to give them assurance that they were ok. In some sense, it too was an instinctual reaction, in some sense “playing dead” in order not to be next, but in witnessing it, there appeared a reverence, of sorts, for those who lost their lives so tragically, as if “huddled masses yearning to be free” while we stood by helpless. As we cleaned up the dead, the others seemed to be simply frozen in place, not moving at all or at times huddled together, as if frozen with fear. There are reasons we call someone “chicken” when they refuse to face their own fears. Today, though, it wasn’t that skiddishness that you often witness from them when you walk into the yard. It was a different feel, and by simply watching and observing you can learn a great deal from them in our own dealings with hurt and suffering.

As I said, you know who’s in charge. There’s no doubt in this community as well. There is one rooster, reddish brown and tall in stature, who has a presence about him. He’s sure to make the hens aware when food has arrived but is also the one who warns them of predators. For a bird that cannot fly, he was found in the opposite yard. When I finally arrived, the dog had his eye on that rooster, alpha preying on alpha. What would it do to the eco-structure of that community? How does such a prominent figure in the community carry on if he survives? It was by no means his fault that others died, but at the same time, and I read into the rooster, how does he once again lead when his leadership seemingly appeared to fail? How does he once again walk with such prominence in the community that has literally been decimated before his very eyes?

There’s a certain even flow to the life of a community, even for chickens. There aren’t always warnings when something is going to change or when “predators” arrive, and often unbeknownst to us, changes the eco-system for months or years to come. The cycle of life and death is always working itself out. At times it’s like the changing of seasons where the change seems to happen so gradually to where one day we awake to bare trees, but at times it also comes in the form of traumatic experiences, like today, where we’re thrown off kilter much more quickly, bringing up within us all different kinds of feelings and emotions because the chickens weren’t just a part of their own community but also part of a larger community that feels the pinch in their absence. It’s too easy to simply write it off as “well, that’s just the way it is”; that doesn’t take away the felt loss in that absence and the silence that now looms over the scene.

I am a believer, now more than ever, that the world beyond humans has a great deal to teach us about ourselves. If you had asked me six or seven months ago about the same experience, I’d probably say just the same, well they’re just chickens. There obviously is truth to that and all that unfolds, whether we like it or not, but when you allow yourself to become a part of their world and they yours, something begins to change. Observing and watching them, at times just standing there for several minutes, begins to open something within yourself and who you are as a person. There begins to be a bridge between what appeared to be two worlds and see that it is but one. You begin to see that you are a part of their community just as much as they are of yours because there is just one.

The tragic events of the day may have been avoidable, but it’s also the reality of the world in which we live. It’s always the most unexpected events that cause us the most pain but also have the most to teach us and in forming us for the future. We can be “huddled masses yearning to be free”, remaining attached to the dead and living our lives in fear but we also have the choice to take steps, one at a time, out of that fear and begin to live our lives again but now in a new way and a part of a different community. It will never look the same but what we carry with us is always there if it truly is of something beyond ourselves. Picking up the dead, while surrounded by life, reminds you just how fragile it is and the fact that you have but one chance at the life that is given. We can learn a great deal by observing and watching the world around us. We often become that world if we aren’t aware, simply conforming to it all because “that’s just the way it is.” In those most critical moments, though, standing over what has died, we are given choice and we are being given overwhelming freedom, to step out and encounter a new world, a world now less confined by fear but rather an overwhelming sense of love that transcends humans to a world and an earth and a universe that isn’t separate from me but one. We can learn a lot about community by observing and watching, even in the face of such trauma and tragedy.

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.

Miracles on Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conforming to Silence

“Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.”  –Rumi

For a few weeks now, I’ve had the perspective of not being front and center at the celebration of Eucharist (not that I ever am).  I haven’t had to be the presider, nor the preacher for that matter.  It seems that after fifteen years, though, you lose some perspective when you’re expected to be the orchestrator, as to what goes on, down off the steps that ascend into the sanctuary of the church, where the community gathers in prayer.

The one striking reality that hit me this past weekend was just how “busy” Mass is on Sunday morning.  After spending more than a week in predominately silence by that point, I was so struck by just how much we have learned to fill in all the space and gaps in the liturgy.  There’s very little sense, nor openness, to silence, even an uncomfortable silence if that’s what’s necessary.  In the words of a friend, church has very much become a microcosm of the larger world, and in these weeks I believe more and more that truth lies in that statement.  I felt, while I had the time, that it was the perfect opportunity and invitation to try to capture what all the hullabaloo is about with people abandoning religion, and in particular, Sunday morning.

There are certainly many reasons that people can give as to why they abandon Sunday, especially if it is simply “more of the same” like the other six days of the week.  It becomes one more thing I have to do.  However, we’ve managed to fill the uncomfortable silence with music and words, none of which are bad, in and of themselves, but as I’ve sat and listened, painfully at times, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of it is really necessary, and again, that comes from a guy who has spent fifteen years standing atop the sanctuary steps, trying to preach his heart out.

As Rumi states, silence is the language of God.  Yet, it’s the one thing we never seem to have time for or the one thing we fear the most.  I’ve always found one of the most profound moments in any liturgy is the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.  It’s one of the few moments in the entire liturgical year that we are pushed into a point of uncomfortableness.  In that one moment, we can no longer avoid the inevitable.  We are pushed to see mirrored back at us, the Cross that stands before us, in union with something very deep within us.  It is that one moment of silence when we stand before someone larger than ourselves, mindful of our deeper yearnings and longings that manage to become swallowed up and smothered when we fill our lives with noise.

With the absence of silence, comes great noise and confusion.  The microcosm that we are manages to lure us into making what is considered the “source and summit” yet another place for politics, for superficial thought, for wanting to “feel good”, all at the price of allowing space and silence for the true mystery that unfolds to penetrate our hearts.  If it truly is a microcosm, and I do believe it is in many ways, how then do we differentiate and for that matter, why bother?  Is that not the question your kids and grandkids ask at this very moment?

If the best we can do is “more of the same”, in our own little microcosm, filled with politics and chit chat and feeling good, then we’ve managed to find the best way to take the mystery out of what it is we celebrate, and for that matter, of who we are.  We’ve filled in what Parker Palmer calls, “the tragic gap”.  The only place where we can allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, where a dialogue between God and us, and the divine within, really happens.  The only place where reconciliation happens not only with ourselves, but with God and others.

I am by no means saying we should “turn back the clock”, but at the same time, I understand why people believe that because they have a sense of what is missing, even if it is often shrouded in tradition.  The sense of mystery has been aborted from all means of life, especially the one place it should always exist, in religion.  I’d say the same for theological education as well.  Religion has forfeited its greatest gift for answers, certainty, for always knowing, for doing it right, for duty and obligation, all while often failing to bring in the fact that anyone that enters into relationship with God knows that there is so much that remains unknown. As a matter of fact, as soon as you think you know, you best be ready to be once again dropped off a cliff into the great unknown.  It’s called faith.  Faith is what allows you to take that first step, all while falling into silence.  A calculated risk to say the least, faith and reason intertwined.

Thomas Merton, great mystic, recognized that we are religious by nature, at our deepest core is an insatiable need to be in union, to bond, with the mystery of God.  He, though, was often most critical of religion because of the many masks it wore, hiding the true essence of who we are.  He certainly showed through his life that it can only come through silence and allowing ourselves to sit in the uncomfortable “tragic gap” of what is and what can be, to often just catch glimpse of this mystery.  That is the heart of the liturgy and celebration of Eucharist.  May I ask, is that your experience of liturgy?  Our little microcosms go searching for ways that make the liturgy appealing and attractive, which is often reduced to needing bodies to fill the seats.  If we truly want to allow ourselves to “fall into” this mystery of liturgy, Eucharist, God, our lives, then it mustn’t be about trying to give others what they want.  Rather, about giving others what we ourselves know deep down, in that most basic of religions, a great sense of mystery that can only be found in silence.

Sure, it may make us uncomfortable at first and there’s no way to measure success by numbers, but over time something begins to happen.  All the illusions begin to fall away and we begin to see the Eucharist, God, ourselves, others, for who we really are, as one with each other.  Everything we thought that defined us vanishes for it was never really the real in the first place. There’s a reason why God’s favorite language is silence and very good reasons why many want nothing to do with God and religion in the 21st Century, leaving us with “more of the same”.  Are we courageous enough to ease the pain of the “tragic gap” by filling it will less noise, on Sunday and in our lives?  If we really want to be bold, recognize that the steps up into the sanctuary should truly lead down, for that is the only path of ascent.  None of which makes sense without silence.

But Still There is More…

I Corinthians 12: 12-30

It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth.  Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community.  If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become.  There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ.  Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed.  It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.

Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen.  Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith.  They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community.  Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable.  If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value.  We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time. 

This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal.  They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community.  They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them.  In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”.  For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year.  Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”.  Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”.  That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.

It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community.  That would miss his point.  The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”.  All of this is important, but there’s still more.  He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught.  As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith.  Read on; it’s right there is writing!  When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity.  It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way.  The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.

Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago.  Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country.  We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life.  It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing.  He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity.  He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof.  For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”.  When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.

A Reimagined World

Isaiah 62: 1-5; I Cor 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11

We are all aware that companies and products often try to rebrand or rename themselves in order to put on a new front, typically because of loss of profits and things dying and somehow making it look new and flashy is going to sell it.  Sometimes it works but more often than not it doesn’t and often for good reason.  The Church can be no better at times.  We think making things flashy and attractive is once again going to fill pews.  Well, it hasn’t.  If anything, it drives more away.  Of course, political parties are notorious for spin and rebranding and yet often never change.  There is, as well, the government.  How many different ways do you think we’re going to try to rebrand a wall.  Yet, in the end, a wall is a wall is a wall. 

What makes a company or product successful at it, though, isn’t about rebranding or renaming.  More often than not that is simply about changing the look to make it more appealing.  Companies that succeed change from the inside out.  Apple has certainly learned that over the decades.  They return to their essence, to who they are and what they’re really about, and reimagine themselves into the future, living into the questions of what they’re all about.  The problem, it’s hard work, not only individually but for companies but also as a nation and world, it’s the only way forward.  There is a third way, in some sense, the only way, and that’s to return to the essence, the Inner Beloved for us, and reimagine from that place of center.

It is the challenge that Scripture presents to us as we continue the epiphany readings today, as to how the incarnation manifests in our lives and world.  In some ways, it often appears that God and the prophets try to rebrand Israel.  We hear today that they are going to be given a new name.  They will no longer be known as victims of desolation and forsakenness, but will learn to live into this new reality, this eternal covenant, as delight and espoused.  The risk, as if often is for us, is that Israel, as soon as it returns from exile, is to go back to what they were used to, where they were comfortable.  Like us, they often become their own worst enemy.  It’s easier to go back to old ways than to fall into something new and to trust, to reimagine yourself in the way God sees.  For Israel and for us, that’s the invitation.  Isaiah is bursting at the seams to point them in this direction as to return not to their old ways but to the covenant that God made with them and us from the beginning, to return to love and to reimagine themselves as God’s people.  Their time of being victim and of blaming is over.  Their time of simply trying to change the way things look is done.  It’s time for a new era for Israel, a return to the Inner Beloved who will now expand them beyond the horizon. 

The same is true for Paul as he writes to the people of Corinth.  We’re dealing with a community that as well has slowly, over time, moved themselves into exile, separating themselves from their essence.  They begin to have this internal squabbles, today being that of who has the most important and most popular gift.  Paul, not necessarily caring about the gift, tries to point them to the source of those gifts, that it is of one Spirit that they are given wisdom and discernment and all the rest he recites today.  Throughout the letter he pushes this community, more than most, to remember who they are.  Over time they have forgotten and moved away, separated from their essence as community.  They begin to think it’s about them and they could do it on their own.  So they find themselves clinging to their gifts, which become distorted at that point, rather than continuously returning back, not to the way things were, but to their very essence, to change from within and to live from the inside out.  All of the readings these weeks in particular are about the interior change that is necessary to move beyond ourselves and to live into our essence, to mystery, to love.  That’s how reimaging happens rather than simply changing the front.

John, well, in his masterpiece it’s all about reimagination.  There is no new branding or naming in John’s Gospel, and from the very beginning is going to take the message of the Christ to a new level.  He’s going to deliver a punch that transcends time and space, even to the point of using people and places, like Cana, that don’t exist at the time.  None of that matters with John.  What matters is the journey in to a changed heart.  Maybe it is the fact that he’s writing with decades out from the time of Jesus, giving new perspective, but he delivers a message for the ages.  Even the fact that he doesn’t use the name Mary, like the other gospels, delivers a message to all humanity and not to become attached to what you think or the history of individuals.  Rather, imagine yourself there and hear the message, do as he says.  It is just the beginning of believing for the disciples, as we are told, because the hour has not yet come.  The disciples have not learned, yet, to let go of what was, their old way of thinking and doing, and be opened to new possibility.  John will take them on an imagination ride to a transformed life, a reimaging of what it means to be disciple, seeking first a changed heart and living from the inside out.

It’s a painful process and nothing easy about it.  Rebranding and Renaming may be the easy way out and a short-term fix, but in the end, it is only a life that is reimagined, that is allowed to fall into and to live into mystery, into the Inner Beloved, that we begin to see in a different way, through the lens of love.  That’s when we finally begin to recognize that there is no need for fear nor walls.  There is no need for war and violence.  There is no need to cling to anything in life because the source of life becomes the source of your life.  We can get the latest and greatest and continue to live with the illusion that all will be well, but like the companies that try it, we’ll find ourselves in the same position, still wanting more out of life.  The only path, the third way, is to reimagine ourselves as God’s people.  The gospel and the prophets demand it of us as individuals, as community, as nation, and as world.  It’s what these epiphany weeks are really about, the awakening to a new awareness where all we can do is fall into and live into mystery, the unknown, the Inner Beloved, and pray that it may be done to us in the same way.

Return to the Source

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.