Dear God…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needed Endings

Daniel 12: 1-3; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18; Mark 13: 24-32

In some of his letters written from prison, German Lutheran theologian, spiritual writer, mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged his fellow co-conspirators to think and act of future generations.  Despite the fear and anxiety that will be thrust upon you of that age, and our age, the mindset must be forward and for future generations.  He himself had the opportunity to stay here in the States but felt for the sake of his own integrity and the integrity of the message that he must return to Germany during Nazi control and found himself imprisoned and eventual lead to not only his death but the death of several family members.  He knew how the message would be received by those in power, not as a message of hope, as anticipated, but rather feeding into their own fear of the threat of losing power.  When we become trapped in this moment and cannot see beyond or even trust the unknown, fear and anxiety rule the day.  His message was not only timely in the early 1940s as Germany and all of Europe reeled with a World War, but even to our own day.

His message, like that of Mark’s to his own community today, are meant to be messages of hope to people who find themselves waning on their commitment to the common good, future generations, and doing what is right.  There is an onslaught of pressure at this point of the story from not only political but religious authorities of their day who see not only Jesus but his very followers as a threat to the status quo, to what they are most comfortable with, to their way of life that they have deemed to be most fitting.  Fear and anxiety becomes the name of the game, but the message intended by Mark and Daniel, and even Bonhoeffer, was to persevere in the suffering and the darkness that you are experiencing at the moment.  For the sake of future generations, fear cannot move us to give up and become depleted in the mission that is given us by God. 

As Mark and Daniel tell us today, it will certainly feel as if the world is falling a part and feel like all we know is crumbling around us, but it has to.  It has to.  Many things need to die in order for the next generation, which may even have conflicting values, but for the betterment of society.  Instead, like in the time of Jesus, we have political and religious leaders looking more like bumbling fools at times, stumbling through, trying to avoid the pain, often all in order to cling to what was and what was is dying and has to die.  What was can no longer be.  The name of the game with God is surrender, trust, letting go, even learning to die, pushing through the pain, in order to learn to trust the unknown and the unfolding of mystery in our world today.  It’s a message of hope in the face of the many trials and tribulations that we have faced as generations of people.  Yet, every generation, as Jesus tells us today, clings, and all these things will come to pass before they learn to let go.  Do we really want to leave a mess for future generations in the church and country?

Whether we like it or not, things are going to change and many things will die, and need to.  People from other countries are going to come here, as they have for generations.  We need not fear as Bonhoeffer had written.  We need not fear people that are different and that we even perceive as a threat to our way of life.  Our way of life, for that matter, is also dying.  If you know anything about future generations, they live very differently.  They don’t necessarily value what older generations value, even in terms of economics.  At some point the trials and tribulations are only enhanced by our own need to control and to hold on to what was.  We become nostalgic of the past, as if everything was great.  Yet, all generations that have passed have lived through the same trials and tribulations and the same uncertainties that we face in our present day and age.  The more we learn to embrace the reality of life and death, that the two are so intertwined, the more we learn not to cling, but to let go, surrender, even the face of persecution and in the midst of the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by political and religious leaders, along with a great deal of our media that continues to feed into the narrative of the end times.

Well, guess what?  The end times are upon us.  They’re always upon us.  We’re always on the threshold being left with a choice to cling to what was, leading us further into despair, or we learn to trust the unknown, trust what is unfolding within and beyond us, the mystery of life and death.  All of creation, as the readings tell us today, knows that process better than any of us.  Despite the horrific loss of life and property in the wild fires of California, it’s all the forest knows.  Fires, despite the loss of life, are the only way forests recreate themselves and foster new growth.  As naturally as creation does it and allows it to be done unto it, here we are, the advanced ones of creation, clinging rather than embracing the freedom of the unknow, opening ourselves to future generations.

Bonhoeffer’s words continue to ring true to this day.  We too have a great deal of fear and anxiety thrust upon us from many different directions.  There is nothing easy about any of it.  His message, though, that in order to think and act in that way, we must learn to walk through the darkness, the pain, the suffering, that comes with letting go and surrendering ourselves over to the will of God.  If we find it as an ominous message rather than the message of hope that was intended, we probably find ourselves clinging in life, as if something is being taken away from us.  The message of hope delivered by these prophetic voices, Daniel, Jesus, Mark, Bonhoeffer, was one of trust in the face of adversity.  It may be painful in the immediate moment, but that more than ever is the time not to fall prey to fear and anxiety.  When we trust, despite the trials and tribulation, life is promised in death.  Sure, it’s hard and we’d rather hold on, but the message of hope is one of life, despite our fears.  Lean in and trust the unknown for the fullness of life awaits.

Made for TV

Numbers 11: 25-29; James 5: 1-6; Mark 9: 38-48

What a crazy week.  Just when you think things can’t get any crazier we find a new way as we continue this reality TV program that we’re all a part of.  The week started with the conviction of Bill Cosby.  I can’t imagine being in my 80s and now having to spend the rest of my life in prison, and for what.  Of course, as the week continued we found ourselves glued to the television again for the Supreme Court hearings.  I’m not convinced, though, just how much hearing and listening actually went on in that room.  I’m not sure you can say you’re open to hearing the other when your mind is made up and judgment has already been cast.  There was one thing that struck me, though, from the press conference following the conviction of Cosby that I believe transcends much of reality TV.  I believe it was the prosecutor who simply said, “This was a man who hid behind his character.”

All of know that character.  He was America’s dad.  He was funny and loving.  If you didn’t have the best family life he somehow showed the ideal parent and family through his character.  Yet, now we see how hard it is for us to reconcile the character from the real deal and the trauma that he was inflicting upon women.  All too often we prefer the character to the real deal because of what it so often offers us in return.  If you’ve listened to the reading from James the past few weeks, especially today, he has laid it on thick.  These characters become a source of two things for James, power and wealth.  The two most ardent of idols, jealous of all the rest and have a way of taking hold of our lives, and more often than not at the expense of those we have deemed less than ourselves, the powerless.  When they team up, watch out.  James warns that they will lead to the impending doom of humanity when the real God is abandoned and these idols take center stage.

Center stage is where they continue to take and the characters begin to believe that they are untouchable.  It certainly played itself out with Cosby but we were also witnesses to it in these hearings, again, where very little listening and hearing takes place because of power and wealth.  Once we begin to believe that our power is being stripped of us we start to lash out and react in order to hold on more tightly.  I’m not sure what kind of example we leave for future generations when we find elders lashing out and screaming at one another, supposed to be adults yet looking more like characters, clinging to a reality that no longer exists.  If that’s what it means to be a man, well, then I’m embarrassed to be a man.  If you think any of this is about justice, well, we’re sadly mistaken.  Power and wealth, as part of the American way are symbolic of strength and success.  But it’s not the gospel.  It’s not the good news.  It simply makes for good reality TV where division and conflict rule, separating ourselves from one another, making judgement, and no longer seeing the humanity of the other person.  There’s no room for faith nor for God because these gods consume the space.

They are hard readings.  It is, though, the reality of human nature to desire power and to think we can control and contain that power.  It’s certainly what Jesus and Moses both contend with in the first reading and Gospel.  In both situations the Spirit is given and yet, no sooner they witness people outside their “trip” and “group”, they immediately demand it to stop.  They hold the truth.  They have the power.  They believe they control God.  No sooner you believe that, there is no room for God, for Mystery.  It becomes about idols.  Last week the disciples argued about who’s the greatest and today it continues about power and holding onto that power.  It becomes about their place of prestige.  Somehow we believe that if we play the role and live into that character, dress the part, that’s all that matters.  All we do is sell ourselves short and sell our souls for something other than God.  We sell ourselves for power and wealth because we’re convinced and told to believe in the gospel of the Western World that life is about power, success, and wealth.  If we have done all three, we’ve done it well. 

Well, if you believe that, James has a warning for you.  He tells us this morning that that’s what eventually does in the righteous one on the Cross.  It will fatten your heart.  It will lead to condemnation.  It will lead to division and often unnecessary conflict.  Heck, for that matter, it leads to death threats to this day.  That’s what we become.  It shows just how much we have separated ourselves from the other and are being held hostage by our tribes, our camps, whether liberal or conservative or whatever you call yourself.  It’s amazing how we can believe that our group holds the total truth and the other is complete evil.  How have we gotten here?  Well, money and power certainly play a part in this reality TV program.

Yet, true power is shown, over and over, to the disciples and throughout the gospel through the one who is powerless.  The great power arises when the righteous one is nailed to the Cross.  But that doesn’t make for great TV.  It makes us turn our heads in shame.  We don’t want to admit that that’s what we continue to do by clinging to our idols.  More often than not the prophetic voice never rises from within the insiders of a group or tribe.  Each one is too blind to see itself for who it is and its own shortcomings, whether politics or religion.  There needs to be a restoring of humanity, the real humanity, not some character.  We need the space in order to truly hear and listen to the other while being open to what is said, dialoging with one another and not through a screen.  We must first remember that we are brothers and sisters.  We must first remember that we are sons and daughters of God, not of power and wealth.  That may all work well for reality TV, but not so much for the real reality, our lives, which take the hits and the brunt of the pain that it’s causing.  We pray for the grace to have that space in our own hearts and souls to listen and to see the other for who they really are and not some character to be destroyed on a screen.  It’s so easy to hide behind all of these characters, for all of us, but it will never lead to the fullness of life we desire.  It will never bridge the gaps and gaping holes that exist in our politics, Church, and beyond.  It is an acceptance of our own power in our powerlessness where we will find the strength to “cut off” the characters that cause us to sin and inspire the idols of our lives, and rather be who we really are.  It is only there that we see each other as ourselves.

Napping for Answers

I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

I think Elijah has the right idea.  Go find yourself a tree and take a nap.  You can’t beat it.  Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey.  I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all.  He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment.  Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him.  Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away.  We all have our ways of running away.  Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape.  The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand.  It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life.  Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet.  A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.

Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel.  She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time.  Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves.  They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure.  They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God.  So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead.  Any one of us would run at that point.  Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though.  So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore.  That’s not what happens to Elijah.  He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel.  Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found.  He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found.  It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.

We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God.  God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart.  All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found.  We can all relate in those moments of our own lives.  We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.

The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John.  We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers.  Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all.  Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen.  They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God.  Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts.  The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen.  In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth.  Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it.  Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found.  There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.

If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days.  There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end.  We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith.  More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found.  It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith.  It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome.  We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander.  None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call.  Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters.  It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.

Community of Love

The Passion of Jesus Christ According to John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Imitation

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; I Cor 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

They make it sound so easy, don’t they?  The disciples that is.  They simply drop everything, the nets, fishing, their father, other others and go on their way.  We can only imagine what the hired workers and the father thought in this moment.  There had to be some anger and a bit of resentment.  Yet, what the disciples don’t know, and often what we don’t know, is that as much as they can come out of the boat and follow Jesus, you can’t take the boat out of them.  That sense of duty, responsibility, guilt, obligation, expectation, or whatever you may call it goes with them.  They simply go from imitating one person, in their father, to trying to imitate Jesus.  That’s why it’s simply the first call of the disciples.  They were primed for it.  There’s a sense of adventure, something new, facing the unknown, and probably thinking, it’s got to be better than fishing.

And so their journey begins.  And sadly, for many, that’s where it ends.  This call of discipleship, as it was for the first disciples, is just the beginning.  Quite frankly, we all grow up imitating adults around us, for good or for ill.  Imitating Jesus shouldn’t be all that hard.  Although, we have trouble even getting that part of the journey down well.  But they’re not Jesus and nor am I or any of you.  I’ve mentioned this the past few weeks now, beginning with the Magi, it’s simply the first call for a reason.  The real call comes later in the story when the rubber hits the road and they are finally left with a choice.  For the Magi, it happens in Jerusalem.  For Jonah, it comes in Ninevah.  For the disciples, like the Magi, it happens in Jerusalem.  Those places become the apex of their first call.  You can’t go much further than death, despair, fear, anxiety, and that’s everything those cities become to each of them and where do they go from there.  That’s the real call and the choice for each of us.

For Jonah, he’s appears a little further along the journey than the disciples.  He’s already been called and in this tiff with God, which, as we all know, leads him to the belly of the whale all because he resists the call to go to Ninevah. You see, that place was everything that was wrong in the eyes of Jonah and others.  They were the enemy.  They were the oppressors.  To him, there was nothing good about the place and low and behold, back to where he started, he ends up on the shore of Ninevah.  He could resist all he wants but God’s going to keep pushing him there until he responds to the second call, which is to pass through the enormously large city, three day journey, through Ninevah.  Now if you read it, it appears that all lived happily ever after.  They repent of their ways.  They actually listen to him.  But, he still resists and becomes angry.  It wasn’t them that needed the message as much as it was him.  He too had a choice.  Was he going to continue to hold onto his own judgments of them and himself and of God and what it meant to be a prophet or was he finally going to surrender to where it was that God was leading him and become the prophetic voice that he was.  Not in comparison to everyone else but he had to become his own person.  In that image of the disciples, he finally had to surrender the boat because it no longer gave life.  That way of thinking and living only led to a resistance to the deeper call, the second call of Jonah, and for that matter, the disciples.

They will have their day.  The next weeks they’ll be living on a high.  They see all the good that Jesus is doing and they want a piece of that action.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something new and exciting.  But the sense of urgency and immediacy that Mark adds to the story, and which we’ll hear these weeks, is simply to get them to the real showdown and the real call that is being given to them.  As I said, imitating is easy but can they imitate all the way and surrender it all.  That’s where it becomes a rub for the disciples.  We know it takes them awhile as well, just as it does for us.  They’re immediate response is to go back to Galilee.  And eventually they will have to go back to Galilee but begin to see it in a different light.  They’ll go back to what they know, even if it hasn’t given them life.  They’ll go back to the boat because they think that’s good enough.  They’ll go back to being indentured to their father and the family business all because it got to hard.  Of course, they’ll eventually pass through the second call as the Magi did.  The Magi had to go through Jerusalem before they can reach the Christ in Bethlehem.  It’s one of the most humbling experiences because they learn it’s not about them but about this God who has called them forth not simply to imitate but to become and to be the fullness of who they were created to be.  It’s their greatest gift and it’s why they and Jesus were such a threat to the systems of their day.

Paul may sum it up best though when he speaks about all of this passing by.  We tend to worry about all the wrong things and get caught up the darkness of our day.  As much as this passing through is about us, it’s also about this city, this nation, and this world.  But like the cast of characters, we have to pass through dark times.  We have to pass through fear and anxiety.  We have to pass through our perceived enemies, as it was for Jonah, in order to experience the real call, the second call of discipleship, the choice of what we do in and with those times of our lives.  It’s crucial and life-altering but it’s the demand of the gospel and the fullness of the call of the disciples.

As we continue this journey through the weeks of ordinary time, we may find ourselves in very different places.  Some still trying to imitate, others in the thick of Jerusalem, discerning that call, and yet others on the edge trying to figure things out.  Wherever it may be, the call remains because the call is the eternal.  It will stay and will continue to see us through even the darkest times of our lives and the deepest of troubles all pushing to awaken us to the deeper call within, not just to imitate but rather to be our best selves, our fullest selves.  I know quite well that the boat is a comfortable place.  We all know that.  But it’s not where we’re meant to stay.  At this very moment God looks at us and with the gentlest of voices calls us forth to be the more we were created to be in this world.

Intimately Beyond

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

We come to the final Sunday of the Christmas season and it gets bookended with Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ with the visit of the Magi and the star guiding their way.  Of course, even here we lump them all together to create our very own Charlie Brown Christmas but certainly not the intention of either Matthew or Luke, each having their own reasons as to why the story is told.  I’ve said before that Matthew is very much about change and an interior change that is necessary to be a follower and so there’s very little need to historical evidence of these events but very much when it comes to our spiritual life.

It is the rising of the stars appearance that sets these Magi on this journey to Bethlehem.  Many over the years have tried to give historical evidence even of the star, whether it’s a comet or something, but again, not Matthew’s point.  If we want evidence, facts, or certainty we’ve come to the wrong place.  It was common belief that everyone was given a star by these astrologers upon their birth into this world.  Yet something had to be different about this one that would set the astrologers on such an arduous journey themselves.  It’s rising must have set off an unrest within them that would send them seeking and now stand as the archetypal images of seeking of the more.  Not the more the world tries to offer but the seeking of the Christ that forces us to our knees in homage.  So they set out in search of the rising star.  A star that stands as a guiding principle, a seat of wisdom, of sorts that lies deep within them and yet still unknown.

There is another word we use often in our language that has star at its root.  The word we use is disaster, dis-star, meaning separated from one’s internal guide.  We even speak of our lives or such as a disaster when we feel out of sorts or feeling lost and confused.  Which leads us to the first stop of the Magi, Jerusalem, where they encounter disaster first hand in Herod.  Herod considers himself the center of the world and yet is filled with fear and paranoia when he hears of this rising star coming to the world stage.  Not only Herod, but all of Jerusalem with him, Matthew tells us.  Now certainly they knew what Herod was capable of and would see first hand his destruction and just how much of a disaster he was.  This rising star, not only a threat to Herod’s perceived power but very much to the status quo.  Even though this peace was rooted in fear it’s what they knew and what they could cling to.  They were certain of at least that.

The Magi quickly learn that Jerusalem in not the place of the Christ.  It’s going to be an opportunity for these journeymen to let go of their own perceived idea of the power they sought was not going to come from worldly position.  The most obvious place was the palace in Jerusalem and yet all they find there in the midst of wealth and status was fear, jealousy, secrets, and a guy who was most consumed by himself and the power he acquired through position than in seeking.  Herod himself stands as an archetype of the non-seeker, believing that authority comes from him and external authority.  He thinks it’s enough to send the Magi further to do the work for him.  Yet, as a writer who calls for interior change, Matthew understands that the work is done by ourselves.  We must make the journey ourselves while passing through the doors of death in Jerusalem, just as Jesus does as well.  Matthew mirrors Jesus’ own journey by passing through Jerusalem in order to experience the fullness of life that is promised. 

This all leads to the second journey, the journey into Bethlehem.  Notice that it appears in the writing of the gospel that the star seems to dissipate over Jerusalem and reappears as they begin the second journey.  Now having been stripped of their own expectations, the Magi open themselves and create the space within themselves to encounter the divine.  When they find their true home, not in some palace, but in the poverty of Bethlehem, everything begins to make sense.  They recognize that what they have sought they had all along and simply cast a shadow upon Herod and the status quo.  It was simply revealed to them who Herod really was and the emptiness of his supposed power, holding people hostage in fear and settling for the status quo. 

Mary and Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel are not exempt from making a similar journey.  They too will follow and be led by the rising star into Egypt.  They, and all of Israel, are invited to face their own history.  Egypt stood for everything Herod was, despite being a religious leader.  Egypt was the place of slavery, war, and fear for Israel.  Matthew calls them collectively to take this journey that the Magi do to shed light and to cast a shadow on where it is that they need to change and where they still cling to fear.  Like the infant passing through, the Magi passing through Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph passing through Egypt, and ultimately Jesus passing through Jerusalem, there’s no way around.  The journey to a fuller and free life is through our own Jerusalem.

The journey Matthew calls us to and the encounter with the Christ is a difficult one and arduous at best.  It’s long and it takes us to places we’d often rather not go.  No one wants to admit that we at times clamor for power, fear and are anxious, content with the status quo, want proof and certainty, and yet, everything about this feast and season tells us just the opposite of who we have been created to be.  Like Herod, no one else can do it for us.  Heck, we’re even content with living a disastrous life and settling for it in our Church, city, nation, and world.  It’s what we know and can be sure of, but lacks meaning and purpose and certainly shows how separated we’ve become from our own center.  Our faith and what we celebrate in this season points to freedom and liberation, more often than not, from ourselves.  Letting go of our own expectations, being led to the belly of the beast, and yet pushed even further to encounter what is real.  And in a moment, in a simple encounter, everything makes sense.  The Magi could not go home by the same route just as we cannot when we have this encounter with the Christ.  In that encounter the Magi see, for the first time, the real presence, and finally understand that the Christ has been with them all along this journey, when the divine of within encounters the divine beyond.

As we enter into the fullness of this season and begin to tell the story of how this gift is manifested, we pray for the grace to make the journey.  No one can do it for you and no one can tell you how to get there.  Everyone knows their Jerusalem and their Egypt that they need to encounter.  Slowly, the eternal Christ within begins to reveal what is real and the deeper truth of our own lives.  It takes courage and great grace.  But like the Magi, in our own unsettledness, we’re pushed forward and through so that we to can live the fullness of life.  Matthew desired something more from and for his community after witnessing the horrors of the world.  Our desire is the same.  The Magi point the way into our own Bethlehem, into the vulnerability of a heart that throbs and overflows with union.  When we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the journey we become transformed, liberated from a past that holds us back and clouds our vision in order to be led to a deeper understanding of this mystery that lead us to simply do as the Magi, to fall on our knees in homage recognizing that it was never about us but the Christ that calls us forth to new life.