Huddled Masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And They Remembered

We all have events in our lives that we’d rather forget. They’re typically moments of tragedy, heartbreak, loss of all kinds, events that have a way of puncturing our heart and soul to the point that it feels like there is no return. I suppose, at times, there are also moments we’d like to go on forever, as if we could simply stop the clock at one point and relive a moment over and over again. Either way leads to a point of getting stuck, simultaneously fearing the inevitable death and letting go that is necessary in order to step forward. Although our minds may have the ability to hold us hostage to such events, it’s the heart that continues to drag us forward, often unwillingly at times, to the greater depth and meaning that such events have in our lives in order to let go and experience life more fully, conscious of the present moment.

You have to believe that the disciples found themselves in a similar place in their lives, thinking of the many highs and lows that they had in walking the way of the Christ. If they could just somehow get back to the moments of healing and feeding that brought them to the place of humility in their own lives, in awe of a God of such wonder. Now, though, wanting to put behind them the events of the past days of the violence committed against the Christ. It wasn’t just an ending for Jesus, it was an ending for everyone involved with the unfolding of events and the trauma inflicted upon the Christ, all out of fear, power, hate, and illusions held of a God that could only be summed up in words and laws rather than a God, stripped of all dignity, a God who not only calls them to life but a God who understands the human complexity of dealing with death, a dying to self that becomes a necessity to living a life of love and fullness. Before there is any glimpse of dawn, the disciples too would venture where they’d rather not go, into the hallow halls of the hell they’d rather forget and yet become enslaved to before a new day arrives.

Much of the resurrection narratives, such as that of Luke, is accompanied by the words or something similar, “and they remembered”. We hear that when the women appear at the tomb in Luke’s account of the resurrection. As much as they’d like to forget, and in some ways, we do forget the pain that accompanies new life, there’s a remembering that takes place all at the same time. We begin to see the events that impacted us with new perspective, maybe not necessarily happening in the way we really remembered or now as adults don’t seem as traumatic as when we were children. The act of remembering in the resurrection accounts allows for the space within the heart to begin to widen so that the events of the past days of suffering can be put in greater perspective and in new light, slowing becoming free of the binding force of pain. They begin, and certainly by no means taking away the trauma and violence inflicted, to see meaning to the suffering and even their own participation in such violence towards the Christ, not as an act of bowing their heads in shame, but in moments of forgiveness towards one another, to the people they’ve hurt, and to the ones who had done harm towards them. They begin to retell the story through a new lens and with each step “along the way” the fear of their hearts begins to evaporate into the freedom of resurrection.

The School of Love (see previous post) doesn’t allow for the skipping of steps along the way and at times requires the disciples and ourselves to go back and pick up the pieces in our lives that were seemingly missed and forgotten for a variety of reasons. As much as we’d like to forget, our minds have a way of protecting us when we experience pain and trauma that only opens when we ourselves are ready to deal with the infliction. The process of death and resurrection is something that happens over the course of time, a remembering and a letting go that happens in order to have the courage to step forth from the oft self-inflicted tombs we create for ourselves, preventing us from life and love. Once there is movement and momentum towards life and love, though, the true power of the Christ becomes unstoppable and what we see is no longer death and decay, fear and loneliness, but rather hope in the face of adversity, love accompanying loneliness, life leading us through death.

In this continued commemoration, the events seem like utter “nonsense”. None of it makes any sense to the human mind. Faith, unfortunately, has become that all too often, as something I need to understand and comprehend, something certain and that I can cling to in the face of suffering and death. Easter, though, reminds us of just the opposite. When we cling, we cling to death more than anything. We begin to suffocate ourselves and others, as was seen in the chaos that ensues on Good Friday in the praetorium, unable to see, think, or hear as the weight of the Cross bears down on the world. Easter, however, reminds us that there is no need to cling because, more often than not, we cling to what is not real, a false hope, the illusions of pain that accompany past hurts, certainty, comfort, and all the rest that become second-nature in our lives, all of which pointing not to the empty tomb of Easter but rather the one sealed in the darkness of days past.

The passing over from death to life doesn’t lead to death no longer being a part of our life. Rather, it becomes the way to life, the only way to life where the two become one. Easter isn’t simply about some future time that we bank everything on. God wants us to live today, not in fear but rather in love and in peace. Our inability to let go of the past and all that accompanies it will continue to create the very hell we try to avoid in times to come. We become what it is we fear the most. The utter nonsense of Easter invites us to step forth from our comfortable tombs and to see the world in a new way, through a new lens, where we no longer need to fear. Fear will inevitably always lead to control, certainty, dogmatic thinking, illusions, and to the greater suffering we fear the most. However, what we often fear the most is love and through love learn a new way of living. The power of love in resurrection and life transforms us to trust, to let go, to mystery, the stepping whole-heartedly into the unknown, to freedom. What we fear most isn’t really death. As a matter of fact, we become quite comfortable there, trying to forget rather than forgive. Rather, it’s love, because like the disciples, we totally lose control of our lives and finally learn to surrender ourselves and our hearts to something more, to something and someone bigger than ourselves, who’s always summoning us from darkness into the splendor of light. This paschal mystery is not simply about some future life we long for; rather, an invitation to live and to love today and finally remember the greater truth of the resurrected Christ we too are and participate!

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.

 

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.

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.

Prepare to be Amazed

Isaiah 49: 1-6; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80

It’s good to take a break from the ordinary cycle of readings to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.  Whether it’s his, Jesus’ or even in our own families, we know there’s something special about birth.  Babies, infants, kids, have a way of pulling us adults outside of ourselves and to free us, even if for a time, of our selfishness and self-centeredness.  They are utterly dependent upon us and totally defenseless.  They are a good reminder to us just how much we’re not in charge and, despite their size, how many bigger things there are that often get missed.  Yet, as a human family we still find ways to abuse, separate, take advantage of, and use children for our own gain because of who they are rather than being a message of hope, as it is with John the Baptist and Jesus, both of which are intertwined in this beginning of Luke’s Gospel.

Of course, though, on his birth we hear nothing from him, not even a whimper.  He is the one, though, that prepares the way as we hear in Advent, for literally the advent of something new.  There is a message of hope.  Quite possibly, though, he learns how to be the one that prepares the way through his parents who are a part of today’s Gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, they are advanced in years, beyond child-bearing, and literally defined by Luke as being barren.  There’s no chance of life.  Yet, in their own way as Luke tells us, they have prepared for this moment.  There was still a sense of receptivity that God can still do great things in their lives, so both Elizabeth and Mary stand as model in that sense.

It’s Zechariah, though that has his own way of preparing for this moment of hope.  His story mirrors that of Mary in some ways when the message is delivered that they are about to give birth.  Mary, as we know, responds with a great sense of openness, freedom, and yet a sense of wonder as to how something like this is possible.  Zechariah, on the other hand, still comes with a sense of wonder, but like a good man, his wonder has more to do with how he’s going to do this.  His wonder is much more rooted in fear.  He has yet to be pulled out of himself and remains somewhat closed to the gift being given and so is silenced for nine months.  That, quite possibly, was God’s real gift to Elizabeth.  However, like any baby, when that child enters the world and Zechariah looks at him for the first time, things begin to change.  The one who prepares with fear and is silenced, now comes with a sense of freedom in dismantling his own lineage in naming the child John.  John will not be bound by that same history and inaugurates the new day.  In the end, Elizabeth and Zechariah teach their own son how to prepare by how they prepared for that same message of God breaking into their lives.  All John can do as his life proceeds is to point the way.

With the birth of a child our hearts expand.  They give us a sense of hope and wonder.  They allow us to be free to receive and to give this unconditional love.  Of course, it’s Israel’s own struggle and the great prophets that come before John try to lead Israel to that same promise, reminding them too that there are bigger things than themselves.  Israel makes the same mistake we continue to make to this day by getting caught up in ourselves, getting stuck in our own selfishness and self-centeredness.  The largeness of one’s heart can pretty much be determined by how they respond to children.  The smaller our hearts, the more prone to using them for our own advantage.  We have certainly seen that in the history of the world and continue to do so and certainly in our own country.  It’s the message that is conveyed in the gospels over and over again, about children, women, the vulnerable, the poor, all of which, for Jesus and John, pulled people out of themselves and gave the freedom to be receptive to the working of God, to mystery, to the newness of life.  It’s how Isaiah can proclaim today that the message goes to the ends of the earth.  When the heart begins to expand and we move outside ourselves, the message becomes universal.  That’s the working of God in the life of Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, but also in our lives to this day.

Our tendency is to become small and closed off.  We have no need for anything new, for wonder, for mystery, but that cuts us off from the Creator and Giver of life.  We don’t just celebrate the birth of the Baptist, we celebrate what God continues to do in our lives, despite our fear, our trepidation, our loss of wonder.  John reminds us that we too need to prepare for what great works God wants to do in and through us.  Maybe we’re just Zechariah and we just need to be silenced or find silence for some time, creating space and wonder.  Maybe we find ourselves like Elizabeth, barren in our own way.  They remind us that miracles still happen but we must be prepared and certainly receptive to the life being given.  As we celebrate this day with solemnity on the birth of John the Baptist, we pray with the family of Abraham for a greater sense of openness in our own lives and that like these characters, we may be used in similar ways to give birth to something new, something in our lives that, all we can do, is point the way to the One who continues to do great things.

 

Love On Trial

Acts 4: 8-12; 1John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Many of you have probably seen the video of Pope Francis from the past week or so when the young boy gets up to ask him a question and can’t get it out because he’s just sobbing.  His father had died and believed to be an atheist and he was concerned about his well-being.  It’s a lot of pressure on the young boy, not only losing his father which is traumatic enough but also worried about whether God is taking care of him.  Pope Francis calls him up and hugs him and speaks to him, showing him just a great depth of love.  First, it’s a good reminder of how we as adults influence young people by our words and actions and what it is they absorb from us.  Also, ironically, though, it’s that depth of love that has often got Pope Francis in trouble with the religious zealots.  Any zealot, religious or political does not leave much space for such love.  They often just can’t receive it.  In the end it’s not simply Pope Francis or anyone else who shows such love that is put on trial, but rather Love itself.  It’s love working in and through him that is put on trial and in doing so exposes the zealots for who they really are.

It’s no different for the early community that we hear of in today’s first reading from Acts.  They literally are on trial for the healing of this cripple.  Like most healing stories, though, including in the gospel, it’s more than just the healing that perturbs the zealots.  It’s the fact that as John tells us in the second reading today, the claim their place as children of God.  They can no longer be touched by the political and religious authorities because something has changed dramatically in their life.  The ones healed finds themselves no longer bound or defined by the temporal authorities of their time and that causes unrest.  But like Francis, their approach in life is very different than those who have closed themselves off in fear.  To regain that status as children of God it doesn’t mean that they become kids, like that little boy who simply sees the world through a black and white lens, but rather are moved to a place where the Love who had created them is now the love working through them.  That very love casts out all fear and in doing so exposes it for its shallowness and narrowness in thinking and understanding.  Not in their wildest dreams can they begin to imagine a God they can’t control of sorts.  The zealots no longer stand as the mediator but Love itself.

There is that same connection in today’s Gospel because in some ways Love is on trial in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  He too just found himself in this long interaction and conflict because of the healing of the blind man which comes just prior to today’s reading.  That man, too, has been reclaimed as a child of God as well and begins to live into this newfound freedom.  He’s no longer bound by any of the authorities, including his own family.  His healing not only exposes the fear of the zealots but also their blindness towards love and the person of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.  He then proceeds into this discourse of the Good Shepherd who then calls them out for being false prophets, hired workers who care more about themselves and their own narrow beliefs.  Like that young boy with Pope Francis, they have yet to move forward in life and continue to live in a very defined world which again leaves very little space for love.  When their narrow beliefs clash up against the human person they choose their belief and the law over the well-being of the person and unable to show them love.  This is the reason why they become such a threat to the zealots, including Jesus himself.

He pushes it though in today’s gospel.  He reminds them that there are still others beyond the gate who will hear his voice and he’s called to lead.  The one thing about insiders and even zealots is that they think they possess the truth.  It’s hard to love and to seek that truth when you think you already have it and possess it.  Love, on trial, again exposes their own fear for what it is, attached to the ruler of the world.  They are unable to love with such great depth until they allow themselves to fall into this mystery of our faith.  Right after the passage we hear today we are told that they begin to divide.  They want nothing to do with Jesus or Love.  They’d rather convict love than to open themselves up to change.  Jesus will lead the children through the narrow gate where there is a sense of seeking and wandering and a desire for love.  The insiders and zealots are left behind at their own doing, and yet, are blinded to that reality.

This is common language in much of our prayers this Easter Season.  We hear over and over again of being the children of God and it’s easy to reduce that to just another nice thought.  But for John it’s the stone rejected that becomes the cornerstone, to once again be moved to the place where we stand as children of God against a hostile world and a world that seeks knowledge, truth, and certainty while leaving very little room for Love.  All these years later we continue to put Love on trial and even convict love over our own narrow beliefs that hinder us from embracing the love that created us and tries to work through us.  It’s what makes the disciples untouchable.  They see as God sees, exposing the fear and hurt for what it really is and rather than rejecting the person, they do as the Good Shepherd has taught.  They love and with that the world is transformed not by them but through them and the love freely given!