Counterfeited Fantasy

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There’s not a more symbolic place in the United States than Disney World & Disneyland, standing as bookmarks on the far ends of the country. You know we’re in, as we all too often like to say, unprecedented times when they shut their doors to the public due to the coronavirus outbreak. If you’ve ever been you know it can be quite the magical place, as intended. It’s a place to escape the reality of daily life and enter into, in a sense, an Eden, where all seems right with the world. Of course, it’s not true. There are still overstimulated and screaming children who become overwhelmed by the choices they have and wanting to do it all, while running on fumes for lack of sleep and endless hours of walking!

It’s not, though, the point of this post. These theme parks are symbolic of more than America’s happy place or the place to escape. They are symbolic of a culture and a society, deeply rooted in our history, of avoiding suffering and a fraudulent belief we can always be happy if we just avoid the suffering and pain. If I can live Disney all will be well. After centuries of this deeply-held belief, we have been given opportunities the confront this illusion. Just within the 21st Century alone we’ve been given the chance, the events of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and now once again, the pandemic having spread across the globe.

Generally speaking, a delayed response shouldn’t be to hard to believe by any of us, knowing how we’d prefer illusions over reality. Knowing this, it should also not be hard to believe so many quickly believe “fake news”, conspiracy theories, or without a doubt, our incessant need to blame others for our problem. There is no doubt we now face a “war” against an “invisible enemy”. There’s also no doubt it’s a “virus” causing extreme hardship. Sure, it comes in the form of the corona virus, but there’s a deeper war we’re being called to combat. In time the coronavirus will be resolved in one way or another. However, the deeper war is one we oft refuse to confront and it is the illusion of our “happy place” where everything is “perfect” and we’re always “right” and often avoiding the good. As Disney closes its doors to the public, we once again find ourselves on the threshold of this same door, to claw our way back to this “happy place” where we can avoid all sense of suffering and pain or finally slam the door shut on a way of life that just is not working and is tearing us apart as people.

Our lack of preparedness for a crisis, as well, should not surprise any of us. When we do all we can to live the Disney-dream, there’s no reason to be prepared and to be pro-active. Everything becomes reactionary because we’re always trying to deflect pain and suffering. If this time offers us anything, it will hopefully be self-reflection because it’s not only ingrained in a society, it’s ingrained in everyone of us throughout our lives. It’s no one’s fault but our own and the more we project the “invisible enemy” beyond us, we will continue to avoid not only pain and suffering, but reality itself. It would be great if I can spend my life riding through the darkness of Space Mountain or dress my best in the fairytale of Cinderella’s castle, but at some point we’re all pushed to confront reality and to see it’s just that, a dream, an illusion, and unfortunately, a lie. Our eyes are opened to the regrets from chasing an illusion of culture, society, and even our own lives. There’s no “living the dream” just living reality, including the cruelty and heartlessness it can throw at us at times. Yet, all will be well.

Now I’m not here to knock Disney. I’ve been there myself. I enjoyed the experience, despite long line and outrageously expensive prices! Yet, even that is indicative of the illusion we consistently face. We believe we can buy the happiness we seek out in this fantasy world. If I just have one more item everything will be right and it will take that pain away. However, as we learn at Christmas, it may take the pain away for a day, but it seems as if the more we accumulate and feed into the illusion, the deeper the pain and anxiety. We are, after all, an anxious people. Spending years working with young men and women assures me that this won’t change any time soon. We have, after all, raised them in such an environment. If there’s any glimmer of hope, many of them choose not to feed into this illusion, seeking a simpler way of life. Sure, there is a downside to it, but it is an opening to change.

I mean, who wouldn’t want Disney if we can do it. We’re always winners, we’re always on top, we’re always the best, we never have pain and suffering. It sounds heavenly and anything else like hell. However, my own life’s experience reminds me that both are intricately intertwined within me and the more I try to avoid hell, pain, suffering, the deeper the hole and the more I need to feed the illusion of the “heaven” I’ve tried to create through Disney. Ironically, Walt Disney’s original intent was the create an experience affordable for a family. The price of “heaven” has become out of reach to many average families. All of these facets are woven into the fabric of our culture, society, and religion in America, the greatest fantasyland on Earth.

So once again we are given the opportunity to allow the illusion to finally die. Will we? Quite frankly, the rest of the world already knows it’s not real. It’s only us who choose to ignore it while others around the world use it against us to feed their own. No, it’s not a pessimistic view of the world. It’s the real reality. We can only see such reality when we enter into the reality of our own lives then we begin to see how we have fallen for it as well. We want the real Eden and we settle for Disney. We want truth and yet we settle for fake news. We want honesty, yet we settle for believing only the people who tell us what we want to hear. It’s time, not only to wake up, it’s time for us to grow up into a culture and society which can serve in the 21st Century before the world continues to quickly leap ahead of us.

So much is being revealed to us in this moment of pandemic and pandemonium. It’s revealing how little our fantasy serves us when the cruelty of reality awakens. It’s revealing how selfish we can be with a sense of immortality rooted not in faith but in fantasy. It’s revealing how easily we can succumb to fear not by a virus but at the thought of a shattering illusion we believe defines us as a people, and one in which we have allowed to define us. As long as all is “perfect” in my own little world who cares about the rest. The earth is groaning along with the people right now calling us to change and to confront our own “invisible virus” as a society and culture. Will we embrace it or do what we have done in the past, feed it, eating us away not from foreign lands but right within. Quite frankly, they may be the most foreign of all lands to us as Americans. It’s a call to go within and confront our own fantasies and finally seek healing for the “invisible enemy” eating at us for centuries, since first placing foot on Plymouth Rock and from that point forward trying to destroy anything getting in our way.

 

 

Called to More

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Do you know people who never quite recover from difficult situations? We can probably all name a few who were never “quite right” after a particular loss, illness, or some other sort of tragedy, practically nailing someone to their grave long before their physical death. Yet, there are others who tend to be resilient, who are not going to allow anything in life to stop them and bounce back, using it as a learning opportunity to become better. It by no means they don’t face challenges and loss, but there is something within them not allowing them to lose hope or give up in any fashion. There is always this drive for “more” which doesn’t go away when things aren’t right, and until they reach the point of peace, there will be no stopping them.

It’s where I have often found myself. As life was slipping from my fingers in late 2018, I did everything in my power to try to contain it and hold onto the pieces without allowing them to shatter despite the desire for more shouting louder and louder within me. It’s hard to contain the voice within and makes it understandable why so many give up, but even harder to be insistent on holding things together despite needing to fall apart. It sometimes feels easier to give up on life, dreams, desires, and the rest than it is to ultimately, change, to let go. We’d rather be stuck in the same place rather than muster up the courage the inner voice is offering to catapult us to changing the way we live our lives. I dare say, not only as individuals, but as society as a whole. Fear runs so deep within us and is often utilized against us making it feel insurmountable. It takes resilient people around us to consistently remind us there is hope and possibility in the face of uncertainty and change happening at warp speed.

You rarely hear anyone speak of what it all does not only to our mental health but physically as well. We create walls for ourselves trying to protect ourselves from hurt, meaning, vulnerability. Let alone how it effects the world around us, in choices and decisions we make, not out of freedom as we love to tout, but out of fear which we have come to believe to be freedom because it’s what we’ve convinced ourselves of in our lives. In our inability to be resilient and agile, we continue to contain ourselves, shove ourselves into closets, and trapped in whatever way works for us. You need not look far into the political sphere at the level of anger existing in our society, often disguising resentment and unfinished hurts as if, somehow, we have been wronged by the government, professionals, doctors, religion, or whomever, creating a culture of doubt, mistrust, and cynicism and politicians cashing in on it.

We claim a great deal as a culture and society. We love to be the best at everything in comparison to the rest of the world, most innovative, best military, best medicine, and so on. I dare say, though, not the most resilient, which makes you better. If we were resilient, we’d change as needed and be able to admit we have real problems being left to politicians of all sorts and sizes. It’s easier to blame than to accept responsibility for the world around us, as if it’s someone else’s problem. Look around us and see an infrastructure aging and failing, a landscape continuously being raped of its resources, people still enslaved in various ways, instability, and all we can do is clamp down, out of fear of change. We may not pay the price in the moment, but this too is our shortcoming, unable to see beyond the tip of our nose on decisions, lacking long-term solutions to problems only deepening around, and I dare say, deep within us.

By definition, resiliency is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”. A growing debt and a lack of care of this reality exposes our inability to make tough decisions. Our incessant need to demonize the other, whether from other countries, other political affiliations, career choices, and so on isn’t toughness in a resilient way, bouncing back. It’s a toughness rooted in fear, anger, and contempt, none of which are values able to sustain a people in a changing world. We continue to live in an alternate reality of wars among the peoples as problems only continue deepen and wounds unhealed. Who’s to blame? Well, all of us. None of us is free of blame but blame also gets us absolutely nowhere other than deeper into denial. It’s a denial that things will never be the same, as much as we’d like to hold onto the illusions of our lives, the glory days, we believe are long gone.

However, in our resilience the “glory days” always lie ahead. In our resilience we recognize at times things need to fall apart around us. You can look back through this blog where I have mentioned the mistake made in the financial crisis of 2008 was to band-aid the problem. How about after the 9-11 attacks to move too quickly out of the liminal space we were invited into because of the experience to attack mode. Even the church world, after revelations of abuse in the winter of 2002, it wasn’t to deal with lack of transparency, but rather, to clamp down, tighten things up, unable to recognize the strangling of people in the process. Institutions may very well be the least resilient and are lives are so intricately involved in all of them. It exposes the lack of faith and trust and most especially, our lack of resiliency. We’d rather be tough in less than stellar ways, allowing a cancer to grow within us, rather than to change and let go. Fear is deadly.

We still have the opportunity to do an about face and look at our problems square in the face. We no longer need to cling to illusions or delusions. We can speak our resentments of a life not as we had planned. We can empathize with the anger and hurt of the people around us. This is what makes us resilient people. Remember the days following 9/11 where everything simply shut down and quieted. We need more of them right now but not be so quick to run from the uncomfortableness it comes with deep inside us. If things need to fall apart, then we allow them to fall apart. It may feel like the end of the world, but it’s simply the end of the world as we once knew, a world no longer existent. We need resiliency more than ever, a toughness which comes from a people who don’t allow hurt and fear to control their life. We need to turn off the TV’s, politicians, and people who’d rather be politicians, and dialogue with one another about the hurt, the pain, anger, and resentment existing in our lives. If not, the world will continue to pass us by as we allow ourselves to be torn apart through blame, fear, and contempt. We like to tout our toughness, but there’s a toughness we can value, a better toughness, one coming from bouncing back, our resiliency.

 

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…

Undeliverable —>

Smack in the middle of Dante’s Circles of Hell is the sin of greed accompanied by the punishment of knocking rocks together for all eternity. It’s a spot often reserved for clergy (a blog for a different day), but one we certainly all participate in, a culture and society fully immersed in consumerism and the need to have, whether for a sense of security or even a sense of identity. Without a doubt, companies will do “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers,” without looking at the consequences of the employees and their own well-being, creating a hostile work environment. It is certainly something to reflect on during this time of gift buying and shipping as we go about the norm of accumulating more “stuff” this holiday season.

If you have read this blog regularly you know that I spent the better part of the past year living and working at Bethlehem Farm. To say that it has changed me profoundly would be an understatement. During the holiday season, though, I opted for a break to intentionally look at what’s next in life. Having a little time, I thought I’d do a side hustle to pass some time and so opted for a temp job with a worldwide shipping company which I began last week and quickly ended a few short days later. As I sit and write this, it was that image of Dante’s circles that came to mind about my experience of what it actually means to “satisfy our customers” at whatever cost.

When I told the supervisor that this was it for me, I explained to him that I have been a boss, a supervisor, worked in retail, delivered pizzas, and a whole other plethora of jobs over the years but none has been more inhumane than this one. There were two reasons I stopped myself from walking off the floor that morning. One, I feel for the people who rely on this for their survival. Second, because I felt for the people who were there, already short in number, who’d be left filling the hole I had left. As much as I often felt pain working on the farm, it was a pain that had meaning and purpose. The pain my body and soul has endured the past few days was empty. It was, as Dante describes, a living hell, and how quickly it left my body as I walked out of FedEx for the last time.

I couldn’t imagine, why, on the first day I had worked, people were cursing while they waited in line for a security check as they leaving the prison-like compound, and once through, running to their cars or to the bus. It didn’t take long to begin to understand the pain that went much deeper than the physical pain of moving boxes from a never-ending line along the conveyer. It was a pain of emptiness, a pain that lacked meaning and purpose. It’s a pain you can’t escape by simply taking a day off because it’s one that plagues the human condition. When it comes to doing anything to satisfy customers, bear in mind it comes at a great price, creating an environment of constant transaction, even when it comes to employees. As the driver approaches your house or business, remember there is a line of people out there somewhere moving all the packages, thousands upon thousands, to try to meet the “demands” and “expectations” of customers who await the perfect Christmas gift, the tree, dog food, heated toilet seats, an endless line of televisions, and anything else you could imagine.

If Dante was correct on anything, it was the placement of greed and gluttony next to one another in hell. They seem to feed off one another seen in the microcosm of that hub. The glutton experiences a personal degradation for overindulging. It comes blasted with selfishness and a coldness that runs deep, most certainly void of a humanity. In the deepest of human conditions there is a desire for more. It’s a “more” that we try to fill with countless possessions we “live to deliver”. We await with bated breath for the package arriving and overreact when it doesn’t, taking it out on another; our own form of transaction. However, what you may be unaware of is what happens prior to that package being delivered, hopefully with a smile, but without a doubt absent of meaning.

Behind all of our desires there are people who’s lives are impacted, lives that are treated more like animals or machines than they are humans, all to “satisfy our customers”. In these few days entering this compound and nearly unable to walk back to my car because of the pain, I’ve had the time to think and observe as boxes raced by me. I’ve had to think about the level of violence that is associated with our gift-giving and our incessant need to have more. Does any of it really satisfy? I have thought about my nieces and nephews a few times, giving me the incentive to work through the pain, especially for the ones that are still believers in the make-believe. I know their anticipation on Christmas morning. For the rest of us, though, there’s something wrong. There is something wrong with our values and priorities because this experience is a microcosm of the countless warehouses we pass driving along the highway, of the retail outlets with shelves bulging at the seams to satisfy our wants, jam-packed delivery trucks making deliveries with unrealistic expectations to satisfy customers but often at the price of an employees well-being. There’s a problem with the hell we have created.

The question I left with today as I limped to my car and sat gingerly behind the wheel, staring out the window as the rain fell was simply, when will it end? When will it change? If we maintain our own blinders as to how we participate in the madness, the price will continue to escalate as to what it does to our fellow human beings. Yet, if it doesn’t impact me directly and don’t see it with my own eyes, it must not exist and I can believe the blowhards that it’s all for the good. I’m not sure I could have believed any of it until I saw it with my own eyes and felt the pain myself.

I know the consistent response is that it offers people a job. That’s the conundrum that we face. It does provide a job, but it needn’t come at the price of violence against the dignity of the worker, where breaks are offered, free of grudge, putting the person along the line above “whatever it takes to satisfy”. I’ve been bullied, yelled at, not convinced I’ll actually receive my paycheck, given unrealistic expectations, witnessed the lack of fairness in the face of competition, lied to, and been the cog in the wheel of an eternal conveyer belt, watching package after package pass by and being sent to someone, somewhere to try to satisfy or maybe to try to take away the deeper longing for more in someone else’s life. You tell me if you’d ever work in such an environment? Will we ever get over our way of looking for more and trying to fill it with “stuff”? Will we ever value the worker, the human person, more than doing “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers”? Will we ever move beyond a simply transactional mentality to something more transformational?

All I know is, as much as I participate in it myself, I couldn’t, in good conscience, participate in this way. Almost every morning I wake up thinking about the other employees who are trapped, seemingly enslaved, in such a sick system. All I could do is feel for them, all who have worked next to me along the line, who stay, and hope for their sake that they too recognize they are worth more than “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers”. For all of us on the outside feeding this machine, just stop and at least remember how that package arrived and the people “on the bottom” who are responsible for getting it there. They, we, all deserve better than hell.

When Luck Runs Out

One of the biggest stories coming out as the NFL kicks off its 2019 regular season is the “retirement” of Andrew Luck from the Indianapolis Colts. It’s strange to say retirement for someone as young as him, turning a rather young 30 years old this week, but it was enough to spark much debate. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the amount of money that hangs in the balance when a player chooses to step away, even at the most inopportune time. It goes beyond the Indianapolis Colts, jersey and ticket sales, but also in fantasy football that billions riding on the health and weekly play of the athletes. It is easy to understand why so many would feel rage against him, even if far from being justified, but it also says much about our priorities and values that we hold as a culture and people.

However, if you listen to him speak, or better yet, read the transcript of his press conference, we should be doing nothing but praising him for his decision to call it quits. After his initial statement of the endless cycle of pain and injury, Luck goes onto say, “I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live… I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I’d choose me, in a sense. It’s very difficult; I love this team, I love my teammates, the folks in our building, the folks in this building, the fans, the game of football, and as part of this team, as a member of this team, and because of how I feel, I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”

What takes some a lifetime to figure out, Luck managed to see after six seasons, with the help of pain and injury, coupled with a love for family, to see it just wasn’t working for him. He realized that his heart was no longer, if at all, in the game. When the heart is pulling in one direction but the lure of the ego, success, money, fame, stardom, having it all, pulls in the other, it is only a matter of time when our own pain awakens us to what is missing in our lives. What we do simply remains and the doing level leading to burnout with the desire for greater meaning and purpose constantly tugging at our hearts, trying to awaken us to something more in our lives, often right in front of our eyes.

For someone who recognized that football was all about team and the other, it almost seems selfish, in the end, that he’d call it quits. All the expectations of fans for another great season, receivers and others who have become comfortable with Luck’s methods, if not aware themselves, can see it simply as that, a selfish act; hence, all the hoopla around his retirement. It’s even difficult for him to say it in that statement knowing that it is all about the team and the other. However, Luck had to choose the deeper self that called out from within him reminding him that he’s more than football and stardom, which over time naturally wears off for someone not playing with heart and soul.

I’ve heard more than enough of my share of people who end their lives with regrets about their lives and the choices made as to how to live it. For so many, it is about getting by, work enough to get the kids through college, have a nice home, and simply being able to breathe. We’re often convinced that that’s what it’s all about; the pinnacle of one’s adult life. Hopefully, though, there should always be something tugging at us like it did for Andrew Luck. There should always be something in us reminding us of something bigger than ourselves that there’s something more for us out there that becomes flushed out with each choice we make every day not to settle or get by, but to live.

This is what makes Luck so hated by some and yet praised by others, like myself. He got to that point in his life long before I ever did. Sure, he had the help of physical pain and suffering that was taking a toll on his life. But for him, and me, for that matter, that’s what it often takes. It’s when we start to feel the pain that lies within of ignoring the deeper call for meaning and purpose that goes beyond a title or position. It never goes away. We simply live with the daily choice to ignore and regret or to feel more deeply into it and live. It’s the invitation that Luck has accepted for himself by stepping away from it all, no matter the circumstances, reaction, or anything else from anyone else. In the end, he knew in his heart of hearts that it was the right thing and would no longer live with regret.

Luck has a great deal to teach us if we allow ourselves to step back and ask ourselves what’s most important to us in life. We can continue to be “stuck in this process” and come to the “proverbial fork in the road”, choosing what leads to further pain and a sense of violence against our own hearts and souls, and at times it seems like all we can do. However, the “proverbial fork” does not always return. When the moment comes, and knocks us off our feet, we know at that point that we have no other choice but to walk away what has hurt us, whether work or relationship. It’s what Luck chose in that very moment, even if it seems to be the most inopportune time. We often don’t get to choose when that moment arrives. All we can do is choose in that moment, when all luck seems to have run out in our life, to allow ourselves to be pushed towards life and what first gives meaning and purpose.

Hopeful Longing

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

creche

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night.  On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes.  There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake.  There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast.  I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time.  There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one.  This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.

There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else.  It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are.  It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet.  Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy.  Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt.  That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.

It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading.  It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings.  But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war.  Poverty and famine have become a way of life.  A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game.  Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another.  The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition.  They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people.  Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well.  They are a people that knew pain and suffering.  They are a people that knew separation and longing.  But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness.  Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth.  Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.

The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake.  Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness.  Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this.  The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled.  Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey.  The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time.  Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter.  In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace.  As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day.  They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.

They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey.  There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted.  All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction.  What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it.  Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being.  We will never get rid of darkness.  We will never get rid of sin.  For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us.  It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are.  In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  It’s what Christmas is all about.  In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire.  Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago.  It’s God breaking in.  It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing.  Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope.  We are no different.  The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.

 

All I Want for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.

God’s Way

Isaiah 55: 6-9; Phil 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20: 1-16

This is a rather unusual gospel we hear today and some proof that God really does have a sense of humor as to what we think is important in life.  All of us have been indoctrinated into a capitalist system, everyone of us.  We know what the rules are and what to expect.  We often know how to take advantage of it and when it takes advantage of us, even at the expense of others.  We want what’s fair.  Whoever works the hardest gets the most in return.  Whoever works the least gets their share but not as much as others.  We know the system.  But the passage was never meant to be a critique of such a system.  It was more a critique of the culture.  However, in the age we live, that system of capitalism has creeped its way into religion as well and certainly a part of Christianity in this country.  It’s about winners and losers.  It’s about who’s deserving and not.  It’s about whoever works the hardest should get the most returns.  In other words, we think it’s about us.

But it’s not.  This is where we get it wrong because as much as we feel we might have to prove all of that to our boss, God isn’t our boss.  As a matter of fact, God’s trying to work for us and through us more than anything.  Isaiah tells us today that our ways aren’t necessarily God’s ways and our way of thinking is not necessarily God’s way of thinking.  That we can be thankful for.  At the same time, we feel the plight of the workers who have slaved all day in the heat.  We’ve been there and we’ve seen people get treated better than us and it immediately begins to poke holes in the system.  For Matthew it was the early Jewish community that had been around all along and they were seeing the special treatment of the Gentiles who were converting.  Like most parables, they’re meant to turn things on our heads, to try to see our own lives, including our failings, through the lens as God sees not as we do.

As much as it’s not a critique of the system it is a critique of our lives that have become consumed by the system.  For Jesus, he was constantly butting up against a similar system that divided folks into greater and lesser.  It wasn’t just about the early community feeling this way.  For Jesus, it was the distaste of the Pharisees that he often had to confront.  They saw him hanging with people that they considered less than for one reason or another.  They saw themselves and deserving and entitled and if Jesus wanted to make a difference, he was going to have to hang with those who considered themselves the respectable members of the community, not sinners nor fishermen.  We’re better than that.  We’re deserving of better treatment.  Don’t you know all we do?  God’s not our boss and we have nothing to prove.  We may have to work like that in our lives, but really shouldn’t, but not with God.  Isn’t even funny how the generous landowner makes sure they’re all there to witness the generosity.  No hiding but in the process of this generosity to deeper truth is revealed, hearts that were closed off to seeing each other for who they are rather than what they did or didn’t do.

Even some of the prayers we use at Mass have language like that that just sends the wrong message.  We use words like merit and attain in our opening prayer.  In our language and in this capitalistic system, those words connote a way of thinking that isn’t of God.  As Matthew’s gospel reminds us, this God is an abundantly generous God who is constantly giving when we allow ourselves to be open to the grace, to the forgiveness and love.  Like they did with Jesus, we sometimes become jealous and envious because we think God has somehow blessed others better than ourselves, somehow someone less deserving than ourselves got something and we didn’t.  That’s where the system has infiltrated our faith.  We’ve associated the things we’ve accumulated as somehow a grace from God.  But you know what?  Eventually that’s all taken away when we begin to question what’s most important to us, what we value and we begin to see how little opening we have in our lives for God’s true grace that frees us from the systems that we often make into our own gods.

Paul sees it as a choice.  For Paul it was a matter of life and death and for him, when you choose God you always choose life even if it means martyrdom.  He finds himself in prison, and although we will be freed this time, he knows if the choice is to be martyred he will go with it rather than giving up what he values the most.  For Paul, the simple desire was to be open to the Gospel.  You know, even for Paul the greatest threat was calling to mind and making others aware of how they had become attached to something that was only benefiting a few.  More often than not Paul had to call out his own communities for falling into the traps of the world rather than being open to God’s thinking and God’s way.  For Paul, the choice was easy.  You choose the relationships, the values, love of God and neighbor, over using people for our own gain.  It’s what the system feeds on when be buy into the illusion that all benefit when we know full well it only benefits some and poverty continues to grow.

No, it wasn’t meant to be a critique of the system.  It was a critique on how they treated one another, especially the new folks that come later to the game.  It’s not about us but it is about us and how we become consumed by it in all aspects of our lives, even in the way we see God, the big boss in the sky, cracking the whip, working us to the bone, and so on.  But that’s not God’s way and that’s not God’s thinking.  Thank God.  We pray for the grace to be aware in our own lives of where we are feeding into and buying into the system as it tries to work us to death, somehow proving our worthiness and creating divisions.  My guess is we can never be totally free of it but we can be aware of it.  Once we’re aware, we can finally begin to let go of and be freed of all that our entitlements in life that prevent us from loving neighbor, caring about people, and being open to a generous God who’s always inviting us, as with Paul, a fuller way of life where we value what is most important to us.  Not an accumulation of things but rather a surrender of it all to an experience of life with greater depth and meaning.