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.

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.

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.

However…

Deut 4: 1-2, 6-8; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you want a snapshot of one of the underlying currents shaping up not only in the Church but also in our political system, look no further than our readings this morning.  Whether we care to admit it or not, purity codes and rules are ingrained in all of us but when they’re heightened to the institutional level, it only magnifies the reality.  We certainly see it in our two political parties where it’s all about being cleansed of anyone that thinks, believes, lives, or anything else differently than what is prescribed, and both are at fault for this.  It leads to us deeming the other as evil.  But the same is true in the Church.  There are battle lines drawn that go much deeper than abuse and now it’s all playing out on the world stage.  Yet, we never heed the warning that is presented to us through that very same Scripture.

Moses lays it out for Israel today in our first reading.  There is a place for purity codes, rules, laws, ritual, however you want to describe it.  For Israel it gave them a way to worship this God that has blessed them and continues to provide for them.  Unfortunately our reading ends there today.  It ends with the advantages to their fidelity to this God that always remains faithful to them.  The next word, though, if the reading were to continue is “however…”.  As much as Moses saw the value it in, it doesn’t come without warning.  The reading goes on to warn them of creating idols of the codes, rules, rituals, that it becomes more about that than it does about God.  It’s ingrained in us that way because we like to hold onto things, feel certain, and to know and all of this does it for us.  However, the more we hold onto these human traditions, as Jesus says, the more burdensome they become and end up becoming an obstacle for moving forward.  Its Moses’ warning to them and yet they don’t learn from their own history.  They’d rather toss out history.

The result is that when we get to the time of Jesus centuries later, it becomes like our government and Church, bloated by what we’d call bureaucracy.  Despite the warning from Moses about adding onto these traditions and the burden it would place on often the most disadvantaged, they did it anyway, which is where Jesus enters today.  He’s not there to chastise the codes, the rituals, or anything else, but rather that they had done exactly what Moses warned them of.  They made the laws, codes, rituals, into their own gods and then it misses the point.  All they become are idols that allow them to cling and hold onto, creating a burden on others.  The poor and marginalized often did not have the means to uphold these traditions and so of course they’d be attacked by the ruling class.  Yet, as we’ve seen in these weeks, they too become exposed in their own hypocrisy as Jesus points out today.  They miss the point.  It becomes about something other than God and the change of heart and simply about all the externals.  It’s about making ourselves look good before God with the hope of his love and to pour his grace on thee.  Heck, some will go on and use Jesus against it all when that wasn’t his point in the first place.  Jesus tries to lead them to live their lives from the inside out.  The rituals and codes are to be lived inside out, rooted in love.  When that become absent, well, we end up with what we have in our political system and our Church.

James, though, may say it the best.  He tells us today that religion is most pure when it’s about caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  For James it’s about both, as it was for Jesus.  For James, and for Jesus for that matter, it’s about a change of heart, a conversion of heart.  If that’s missing from the equation, well, none of this really matters in the end anyway.  It becomes more about us.  More about holding on.  More about the gods we create for ourselves.  It becomes about certainty and knowing which only creates an unnecessary burden because we can’t live that way, none of us.  Those that do and think they can, hypocrites as Jesus says today.  It’s not about eliminating others, but rather finding a way to reconcile and bring the two halves together to create one, to move forward rather than this continuous running into a brick wall.

We have a real problem on our hands and again, we’d be a lot better off if we’d learn from our history, both as a country and as a Church.  Yet, when all of this is so deeply ingrained, it only proves all the more that we’re missing the point.  It’s about our ideologies.  It’s about our team.  Heck, it’s about winning and when it’s about that we all lose.  All of us.  And maybe we need to.  It seemed to be the only way Israel learned despite the warning.  It seemed to be the only way the early communities learned despite the warning.  We too have been warned.  There is nothing wrong with purity codes, rules, laws, rituals.  It is but one half of the equation.  It’s the substance that we seek and will nourish.  It’s the substance that will change our hearts and open us up to greater depths of love.  It is only allowing ourselves to fall into mystery that will do it for us, into the great unknown, despite our desire to cling to what we see and know and think we can be certain of in life.  It’s our thinking more than anything and that’s all it is.  As Moses reminds, however, there’s something more important.

Will We Ever Learn?

I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church.  I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known.  At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being.  At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church.  Anything is possible when it comes to human beings.  I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.”  If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.

I suppose the other common question is, “Why?”  Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue.  There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer.  The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay?  Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?”  All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.

I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers.  It’s just a part of who I am as a person.  I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life.  I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live.  Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives.  All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices.  When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.

Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago.  Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years.  It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion.  It’s not real.  None of it is real.  You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position.  Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches.  The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems.  It won’t.  Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place.  Thank God that God is bigger than the Church.  Thank God.  Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever.  Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life.  It’s the only way.  When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise.  And they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate.  When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then.  I was still protected from it in some sense.  I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson.  It hasn’t entirely.  Sure, some, but there’s more to go.  That’s obvious now.  All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable.  That I believe now more than ever.  It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions.  It’s not that men should be banned and shunned.  Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life.  It’s the only way.  Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse.  You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal.  We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret.  We have all the proof we need on that one.

It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large.  It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better.  Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time.  Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light.  If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation.  The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”.  Business.  Yes, that’s often how it feels.  Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart.  The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.

I still hope, in God.  I still have faith, in Jesus Christ.  I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place.  It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important.  It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love.  As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial.  Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships.  Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that.  Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic.  Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that.  All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.

Walking With & By Faith

Ezekiel 17: 22-24; II Cor 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34

Well, it’s good to know that after some 2000 years of history Saint Paul still manages to find his way into public debate as we heard this past week when it comes to families being separated at the border.  He, probably more than anyone else in Scripture, is the most misinterpreted and abused writer in the Bible.  His writings have a way of being weaponized in order to defend things that aren’t intended, all in the name of God.

Paul, though, writes much more from a mystical point of view following his conversion, which makes him so misunderstood.  He, maybe only second to John, have the ability to do what many of the other writers cannot, that being able to stand in the tension.  Paul understands the reality of his own day and the many struggles that are faced, injustices and abuses, but he always keeps an eye on the prize.  He doesn’t see it as either or but rather sees both as long as we live on this earth and does everything try to stand in that place of tension because he understands the consequences when you don’t.

Here’s a guy, writing to Corinth today, who comes to a place where he understands the necessity of the law, body, ego, how every you want to describe it, but also love.  Paul lived a life separated from love and made the law into his own god.  It’s what made him so callous and just a ruthless leader, leading to the murder of early Christians and charging others with murdering them.  He was ruthless because there was no heart.  It’s not that Paul then miraculous abandons the law.  Again, he understand the value and it’s necessity while here but it must be held in tension with the heart, with love, otherwise the leaders to become ruthless.  In the end, he knows, that love wins out because that’s the prize he keeps his eye on and that all else will pass away.  We are, for Paul, all citizens in exile seeking shelter, seeking a home.  We, as a country, can learn something much deeper from Paul in the way we live our lives.  We want to say we’re a country of laws, and it is necessary; but when it becomes a god in and of itself, we too become ruthless towards people.  It’s part of our history and continues to be a part of our history to this day.  There are tremendous implications when we separate from the heart, from love, from God.  Paul stands in that tension and we must as well.  The same is true without the law.  We stand for nothing and have no principle.  Paul reminds his community that both are necessary.  He speaks to the elites of his own day and to ours.  They tried to exclude the poor and those deemed less worthy or a threat to their way of life.  We’re told so well today, walk by faith and not by sight.

It’s the underlying message of the gospel today as well as the farmer, in a nonsensical kind of way, tosses seeds everywhere, which to the naked eye seems wasteful.  However, that’s not necessarily the point.  The farmer knows better than anyone about what happens in places that cannot be seen with the eye.  Now I’m not talking about the corporate farmers of our day.  Rather, these guys knew the land better than anything.  They kept their ear to the ground and learned to have utter trust and faith.  Once the seeds fall into the darkened earth it’s beyond the control of the farmer.  As a matter of fact, if the farmer tries to control it we know the result.  There’s no produce in order for him and his family to live.  He does to the earth that which Paul did to the people.  We become even ruthless towards the earth, thinking it’s our and we can control it.  Yet, deep down lies the heart of God, beating in the depths of the darkness making something happen that just can’t be seen.  The farmer knows it takes trust, it takes a great deal of faith, and a great deal of patience when you walk through the darkness of the earth.  Yet, it’s where God does God’s best work.  To the eye it seems foolish what the farmer does.  To the eye it seems as if we should be able to control this the way we want.  To the eye we become disconnected from our heart and without the heart there is no love and certainly no God.

Paul probably consistently turns over in his grave.  It’s not only politicians, but also religious leaders, who take things out of context, use scripture as a weapon, and allow politics to define faith and God rather than allowing just the opposite.  That’s the brilliance of Paul.  He doesn’t avoid the realities of his own time.  He understands the injustices, the abuses, and everything else because that was his life!  He knows it and lived it.  Now, though, he stands in that tension of this life while waiting the unfolding of the kingdom, the tension of law and love, the tension of mind and heart because he knows the implications when not.  Paul sees as God sees and helps to redefine what is in that context all while trusting what cannot be seen.  For Paul, you have no other choice but to walk through the darkened earth and all that comes with it, the chaos, the fear, the anxiety, because it’s only in the unknown where the farmer learns to trust and to have faith, even the size of a mustard seed.

We pray not only for ourselves but for our country and world that like Paul, we reconnect with our heart, with love, with God, to soften where we have become callous and ruthless towards others while not losing what it is we believe and defines us.  Like Paul, we need to learn to live in that place of tension and to trust and have patience that so many that have gone before us, God will see us through and new life will grow from the darkness and the cedar will once again bloom.  The more we separate, exclude, fear, live in anxiety, and begin to believe that it’s about only what we see with our eyes, we literally lose sight of what is most important, what we cannot see and yet always at work deep within us for we are called, as Paul tells Corinth, to walk by faith and not by sight.  We are called to trust what we cannot see and like the farmer, keep our hearts and ears close to the ground for when the Lord has spoken, so will the Lord do.  We pray for the grace to walk by faith and not by sight, even if it means walking in the darkest of days.

Becoming

Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8

If you know anything about Paul’s conversion story from Acts, of which we catch the tail end today, it’s that he was the number one threat to the followers of the Way, which was the name used before Christian.  He was enemy number one and a threat to their way of life.  Not only that, but just prior to his conversion he was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved of the Way, Stephen, who was stoned to death and then on Paul’s travels has this radical transformation.

It should be no surprise then when he shows up in Jerusalem today they’re very skeptical and fearful of him.  He still looks like the Paul who was responsible for the death of many followers and early disciples and now wants to be one of the group after believed to have gone through this conversion experience.  Just think if we were in that situation, knowing all that Paul was capable of, we too would be fearful and skeptical.  He could have been trying to infiltrate the group in order to blow them up from within or to dismantle them at his own doing.  It will be, though, only as they lock arms with one another, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, will there finally be a public affirmation for who Paul had become as fellow follower and disciple.

Ironically, for the man who had become blind through this experience of radical transformation, Paul’s blindness in turn reveals the blindness of the followers of the Way and their own fearfulness and judgment.  This experience of Paul is not a one-time deal, but a call that the disciples will have to continually embrace, this call to conversion and radical transformation.  In some sense, Paul stands as the change of tide for this community for he was not an original and did not have the first-hand account of Jesus as people like Peter did and so it often created conflict as to how they understood the faith.  One thing, though, that linked them, despite their differences, was when there were difficulties, the community would pull them and draw them back into their source of life, to remain, abide, to stay with the Lord, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel.

This is not to say that they all lived happily ever after.  It is well known that Paul was somewhat of a hellion!  Again, his lived experience was very different from the original disciples and so there were often misunderstandings within the community.  It makes you wonder that when we hear at the end of the reading today that he’s shipped off to Tarsus as if it wasn’t intentional!  Paul, though, understood, as we know from his writings, of that necessity of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John about where it is he receives life.  He no longer has to look at the world through the eyes of fear, narrowness, violence, or even death, but through the eyes of his own lived experience of Christ crucified.  He has to keep returning to the vine for the true life and he knows that no matter how difficult it may become or the many obstacles they will face as a community, they will be seen through when the keep returning and abiding and being nurtured by what and who gives them life.

I don’t know the exact account but that message of return, abide, and stay with is quite dominant in these chapters of John’s Gospel.  It’s almost as if Jesus knew he’d have to say it in a thousand different ways and days in order for it to begin to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples that despite the hostility of the world that they are going to experience first-hand, there is still a greater life that you pursue in becoming his disciples.  Over and over again, like in Acts, they will be called to critique their own calling and what it is that is going to need to be surrendered and let go of, whether it’s fear creeping in or their judgments towards people like Paul or the world for that matter.  It’s so easy to become part of the problem by our own unease of the unknown and to give into fear, choosing fear over faith and love.  Over the course of their lives it will continue to be revealed to them what it means to be a disciple.  What it means today will be very different for them when that community begins to form but no matter what, they will return in order to be fed, nurtured, and to be given life.  They will become disciples and will be a presence of love to a hostile world.

Paul’s story as well as the disciples is very much our own story of becoming disciples.  It’s always changing, evolving, and being called to radical transformation ourselves.  However, at times we still cling to vines that no longer feed yet still disguise themselves as life.  We cling to our own fears, judgments, and even violence, rather than allowing our own blindness, like Paul, to be revealed to and through us in order to move us to a deeper sense of discipleship.  In a world that so often is torn by violence and division, driven by politics and individual agendas and ideologies, we must stand together with locked arms, like the followers of the Way, in order to bring about transformation to a hurting world.  We may never change the institutional structures in which we live and operate, but we can be witnesses to a changed heart, a free heart, that models not violence and fear but rather faith and love.  It is in that way that we continue to become his disciples.