Hopeful Grief

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There are times where I just can’t work. I feel like I don’t have the energy to do much of anything and push myself to go outside for a walk, get fresh air, escape the confines of “stay at home” orders. It can be quite depressing and with very little purpose. The saving grace is some arts and crafts time with the kids which focuses me on their youthful energy, despite the feeling of wanting to go right back into hibernation when they leave. These are hard days, even for an introvert. Sure, it may be my natural inclination to find time for self-reflection, but I’m also a person who loves making connections, not only with others, but within myself and even assisting others to do the same. There is, if I could ever admit it, a grief unlike any other I find myself going through right now, after a year of tremendous moments of grief, all seemingly to be different than the one before.

As I stand on the proverbial threshold of another year of life, my 48th birthday and the beginning of my 49th year, I am mindful of this grief. Although there’s often a grief on such thresholds, this one seems very different, one coupled with hope. It was a year ago at this moment in which I officially resigned my position of pastor and found myself, what I like to call quasi-homeless, and searching for a place to land and land quickly. I think back to such moments now and wonder how I had the muster within me to do what I was doing, stepping away from a life I knew well and yet was killing me on another. There I was, on the threshold not quite knowing what was lying ahead but willing to take a step, and it is just one step at a time, to a healthier life. It is a threshold, as I didn’t know then, leading me to the “home” within myself and not necessarily needing to know a street address I could call my own because somehow this home would give me all I needed.

Thresholds and transitions are always staged within grief. It always marks the end of one chapter or book and the beginning of another. I didn’t know when I stepped through how it would look, and at times, still do not. We can never fully know what we are getting ourselves into at any given moment. The threshold we find ourselves standing at these days seems only to vastly grow wider. It seems as if there’s no end in sight to the confinement of our homes and lives. It explains the lack of energy at times of simply wanting to lie on the couch, slide the screen of my computer, and every other distraction I manage to find during the day, all because I know there’s no crossing this threshold at the moment. All any of us really can do is stand and dream of what lies on the other side and begin to tap into the creative energy which seems to have laid dormant in our society for all too long.

We can’t seem to run from the “stuckness” we’ve found ourselves and the lack of creativity associated with it. It feels all the more visible these days, unable to outrun. When we’ve allowed ourselves to create and recreate reality television programming, sequels to endless movies, is it any wonder we’d be somewhat drawn to movies like Groundhog Day when it’s the life we’ve often settle for before we’ve reached this threshold. It has been about doing the same thing over and over again, insanely believing it will somehow be better the next time around. It never is and yet we try. I’m reminded of the words of a therapist who had told me the trick with eating a delicious slice of cake. There is nothing like the first bite when we can taste all the succulent flavors hitting the various parts of our tongue. However, we’re never satisfied with the first bite. I know I’m not. We immediately live with this false sense of hope each bite following the first will not only compare but outdo the first. It never does. Yet we try, over and over and over again, believing if I try just one more time somehow this will work and be the best. Take it from me who loved to jump around, it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with the cake in the first place. It was the lack of satisfaction and creativity in my own life, numbing the grief rather than confronting my own pride, filled with arrogance and ignorance as if I knew what was best. I didn’t. It wasn’t about the cake. It was about me. It’s hard, packing up, nowhere to go, quasi-homeless, looking to land, standing at thresholds, wondering what’s next, a new year beginning, confined to home. Who wouldn’t be grieving? It appears we are now unable to avoid it.

Grieving, though, can easily turn into depression. We see it everywhere around us. Whenever the cruel parts of this world catch up with us and force us to slow down and even stop, we’re simply left with ourselves. Sure, there have been other moments but not in my life do I remember being confined in such a way. I’m not who likes this feeling to begin with, knowing my own anxiety as I wrote in the previous post. It has led to restless nights, questioning in ways I haven’t before, and lots and lots of writing, trying to make sense out of things beyond the rational mind. It’s hard to listen to reports knowing there’s nothing I can do. I suppose some of the grief comes from feeling helpless in these moments, when we know there is greater risk in venturing out than there is staying home.

There is, though, hope. We see it in the world around us as pollution decreases in these days, crime has fallen, people are finding ways to connect and assist, it is a moment when we can all empathize with one another. The place we call is getting a much-needed rest from our utter destruction out of our own selfishness. I was struck on Friday watching Pope Francis walking alone in the darkened square facing out to a quieted and rainy city of Rome. There was simply a light in the midst of it all, guiding him along his way. We have been blinded not by light but by our darkness, our grief. We have believed what has led to darkness to be the light. We seek something and someone beyond ourselves to give us the answers to our difficult questions. It’s not to say we can’t find answers through our relationships and connections, but it is only deep within ourselves, our home, where we find what it is we seek for in life. We can’t help ourselves to be mesmerized by the darkness and its lure of artificial light. We’ve settled for superficial, less than, the loudest voices, glitz and lights, an impossible dream, and so on. We have not sought the light; we’ve wandered in the darkness, and whether we can admit it or not, we’ve liked it despite its ability to fulfill us.

This is the threshold in which we now stand. It feels even more relevant for me as I embark on another year of life following a year of tremendous upheaval and yet great peace and fulfillment. I’m not sure I’d even be in the place I am today, standing on such a profound threshold, if it wasn’t for the year which has passed, resigning, months living and working at Bethlehem Farm, countless miles traveling back and forth as my father was dying and his inevitable death, questioning what’s next, quasi-homeless, do I start my own business, and so forth. Is it any wonder there’s grief? Is it any wonder the threshold carries such magnitude? I know, though, I don’t stand there alone right now. A year ago, I felt it was a crossing I had to do on my own. Little did I know a pandemic would close out an already unusual year for me, and for that matter, welcome a new year. Yet, it’s what is reality at the moment, the one thing we try most to bypass. It’s a time for creativity, questioning, grieving, self-reflection, wandering in a darkness and seeking what really matters, our deepest values. We mustn’t fear the darkness of our own lives; it carries many of the answers in which we seek.

The grief we experience right now is real and profound. It contains all we have become and all we can be. It contains all our regrets and our dreams. It contains all our fears and hopes. We need not pass up the moment being given to us. We are given the time to do, individually and as a society, an examen of who we have become and question what we take beyond the threshold. As vast and wide as the threshold appears, it’s as narrow as the “eye of a needle” and so we only take what really matters now. It feels like tremendous loss, as if we can’t live without so much, and yet it’s the path towards the freedom we love to tout and the meaning and purpose we really desire. If moments like this don’t lead to deeper questions, we may never move to a place of deeper consciousness and continue to settle for our selfish ways, feeding a pain shared by one another and a tired earth. It doesn’t undermine the loss of life, the great suffering, and the utter darkness some experience in these days, but it is only hope and courage allowing us to take the next step for ourselves into the next year of our lives. For myself it comes in the form of a birthday, but for all of us it comes in the form of a new birth and a new world in a post-pandemic world, but first we grieve a world we can’t and mustn’t take with us beyond this threshold.

A Royal Love

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

I’m guessing by now everyone has had their fill of the Royal Family after the wedding yesterday.  It would have been interesting to hear what the Brits had to say about the American take-over yesterday, not only with the bride, but also the choice of music at times, and of course, the one who stole the show was the preacher.  I’m guessing they’re not all to used to having such a preacher in their midst.  I’m not sure what was more enjoyable, listening to him or watching the reaction of some of the guests who were squirming in their seats a bit.  It wasn’t your typical royal wedding.  It wasn’t that he even said anything that was so extreme, but it was certainly delivered with great passion and from the fire within him.  It was a message that has been delivered now for 50 days, the redemptive love of Easter.  It was an interesting approach at a wedding but a message definitely needed.

The reaction of some of the folks that had gathered at Windsor was not much different than what the disciples received at this gathering that we hear of from Acts today, when the time of Pentecost had been fulfilled.  If you keep reading a bit the reaction of onlookers was a question of whether they were drunk and drinking too much.  But that wasn’t the case at all.  Like that message at the Royal Wedding, they had experienced that redemptive love of Easter and it, they could no longer be contained.  We’ve overused the word in our own language and so the redemptive quality of love gets lost in translation, but in many ways it reveals their smallness as a people and all that holds them back from having this love set free.  It reveals the smallness of their judgment.  It reveals the smallness of thinking they’re somehow above others, which was probably some of the squirming yesterday at the wedding.  He knew the audience that he was speaking to, the royals, celebrities, and very few common folk like ourselves, which hammers the message home all the more.  It reveals the smallness, more than anything, of their fear.

That’s where we return now in today’s gospel.  This is the same gospel we heard back on the second Sunday of Easter and now we return with greater vigor after marching through these fifty days.  The disciples, as any sense of daylight begins to fade and darkness returns, are found in one of their smallest places, trapped and locked inside the upper room.  They’ve already heard the message of Mary Magdala as well as Peter and the Beloved Disciple, but the message has yet to resonate in their hearts.  Fear continued to plague their hearts and harden them from confronting their own smallness.  The Church doesn’t just take us back to the beginning of Easter, but John in turn takes us back to the beginning of salvation history when God breathes life into man prior to the fall.  This redemptive love that Jesus now breathes into the disciples redeems all of humanity.  The disciples will be moved from within to go forth.  Like the early community of Acts, this redemptive love and forgiveness will no longer be contained.  It’s not going to take away the hostility that awaits them beyond the locked, upper room.  Rather, it is only the gift of the redemptive love by that Spirit being breathed into them that can now renew the face of the Earth, as we sang in the psalm.

We gather like that early community asking for the gift of the Spirit and the redemptive love in our own hearts that still, at times, stand hardened by our own smallness.  We create our own gods that stand in the way.  We move from the self-sacrificial love that we first heard on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to the redemptive love of Easter, Jesus breathing new life into a community that had lost its way, had been contained by fear, and living in its own smallness.  Now, though, they will be pushed forth to share what can no longer be contained.  Where there is poverty, love redeems.  Where there is hatred and violence as we’ve seen here in the States and in the Middle East this week, love redeems.  Where there continues to be refugees and people fleeing tyrants, love redeems.  If there is no love there is no God.  That was the message of the preacher today and it’s the message that gathers us here today.  The love of God through the sending of the Spirit cannot be contained within this building otherwise it’s not of God.  It’s our own doing.  It’s us telling God who God is rather than allowing that redemptive love to define us as Paul tells us today.  It’s what binds us together as a community, despite fear, judgment, sin, hurt, grudges, resentments, and all the rest that we often prefer and make us comfortable.  They also are our smallest selves.  We settle for so much less by trying to domesticate this God that tries to liberate and set us free.

As this season of Easter draws to a close now, we pray for that same Spirit to once again descend upon us and to move through us, breathing new life into where we have clung to death.  This redemptive love that liberates expands our hearts to have greater space for others who think different, live different, act different, pray different, and all the rest.  If it doesn’t, we are still trapped in that upper room, in fear, awaiting our own god rather than allowing ourselves to experience the wildness of a God who shatters our smallness in order to renew not only our own lives but the face of the earth.  Now more than ever redemptive love is needed in this world.  False versions of love seem to far outnumber in our world but it is only the liberating act of redemptive love, Christ breathing new life into our hardened hearts, where we are renewed and given the vigor to live with such passion as the first disciples.  They are us and we are them.  We pray for that Spirit now so we may be pushed through our own limits to the openness and vastness of God’s redeeming love!

Nature’s Groaning Call

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

Finally, some rain.  When I was out walking this week it felt more like walking through a desert it’s been so warm and extremely dry.  You know, more than anything, nature is used in the bible to often mirror to people what’s going on with us.  There’s been such a violent streak in weather the past month or so but also with us.  It’s as if nature is groaning within, letting us know we have a problem.  Now when I say it has something to mirror to us I don’t mean it in a televangelist kind of way, like Pat Robertson who again went off these weeks not only about weather but about the killings in Las Vegas.  It’s a distorted image of God to think that God somehow wants to smite us, which should make us question whether it’s God at all.  We do enough smiting ourselves. 

So if there’s anything that the tenants of the vineyard do wrong it’s that they cut themselves off, distance themselves from the land.  They begin to think that it’s theirs and they are somehow entitled to it, have the right to it, know better than the landowner, possess and control it.  They no longer need the landowner they can do it quite fine themselves, so they think.  They no longer even recognize the landowner in the slaves that are sent or for that matter, the son, who come in the landowner’s image and likeness.  They don’t see it necessary for themselves so they certainly won’t in the others.  Cutting themselves off from the land not only distances themselves in that way, they separate themselves from the landowner themselves.  It’s about them.  It’s about what they want.  And once the son is sent they believe the landowner is out of the picture all together and they finally have the power they want to possess.

Now they’d all be familiar with the story Jesus tells because it’s pretty much given word for word from the reading from Isaiah today.  Everything is going great for Israel, so they think, until it’s not.  They too separate themselves from the land, each other, and their God, the Creator, but they aren’t aware of it until it’s time for harvesting only to find wild grapes.  It would be no surprise to the audience Jesus has today that the story wasn’t going to turn out in their favor.  If you sow wild grapes, take advantage of the land and try to possess it, no longer seeing it as a gift, then expect wild grapes, expect violence, expect separation and war.  We reap what we sow and if we sow violence and hate, then like the Pharisees and elders of the people voice in today’s gospel, it will lead to a wretched death.  They abandon each other, the land, and well, quite honestly, if we go that far then most likely we’ll abandon the Creator, the landowner as well.  It’s inevitable.

Paul too finds himself separated from the community but not by choice.  He’s imprisoned but not even the walls of prison are going to cut him off from his source of life.  Paul speaks of a very different way of life, one rooted in peace and free of anxiety, a life free of violence.  Despite his own difficulties at this point, Paul continues to return to the source of life, the landowner per se, who allows him to persevere and model a different way of life.  For Paul, it’s all about gift.  It’s not about possessing or owning, nor about rights and entitlement.  For Paul all is gift and it shines through in this very poetic verse we hear today from him.  He sees not only his own life but the life of others, the land, and all he has been given as gift and he a mere steward.  It’s a life that doesn’t forget that he’s connected to someone bigger than himself and he keeps returning to be nourished by the Creator but even as he sees the violence that has ensued against him and humanity in his own time and from his own hands.

Nature has a great deal to teach us and for three weeks now we have found ourselves wandering through the vineyard with Jesus, often with some harsh words.  If we fail as tenants to the land and each other, forgetting our truest identity, it will all be taken away and it will feel like a horrific death and letting go, even feeling violent at times.  Violence just seems to be a part of who we are and what we’re capable of in this life.  We’ve seen that violent streak in nature, reminding us of hearts that hurt and that have become arid.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be separated not only from this Earth but from each other, often feeling no need for the landowner anymore.  We can do it ourselves, thank you.  But we also see what happens when we do.  Now more than ever we need the landowner and to remain closely to the Creator to soften our hurting hearts so that they no longer resort to violence, but rather to be filled with the heart of the Creator, one of love, peace, compassion, and reconciliation for all of God’s creation.