Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

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Our Separated Humanity

I found today extremely sad.  Yes, to the point of tears sad.  When I turned on the news this morning and heard of the shooting in Las Vegas and then saw some of the footage, I simply found myself in tears.  I was in disbelief, as if something like this just shouldn’t be happening.  And yet it was.  Again.  Not that I was the least bit surprised because I wasn’t.  Violence is the way of life here in Baltimore and other metropolitan areas but also around the globe, but for whatever reason it just struck me today, as if caught off guard.

I happened to catch a former FBI agent speaking on the broadcast, long before much was known about the shooter, other than the fact that he was a male, age 64.  My immediate thought was questioning how someone could reach that age and still harboring so much that he’s willing to take the lives of so many people so callously.  But the expert when on to speak about where he shot them from, the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, and the significance of the place of power, atop the people, paradoxically, though, magnifying the powerlessness.  I hadn’t thought of that as he tries to get into the mind of this guy.  More than 1200 feet separated himself from the crowd below, amplifying the casualty as bullets reigned down.

More times I can count I have written on this blog about the God problem we have, and I do still believe that to be true.  We find ourselves clinging to so many false gods that have taken the place of God, of mystery, that we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in a darkened world and country.  It’s all true if we could be aware enough in our lives to begin to see that we too are a part of the problem, not just the other that we have demonized.  Thinking about this guy, though, I began to think, as much as we have a God problem, possibly even more striking is the human problem that exists in this land.

There he was, some 32 floors off the ground and entirely separated from humanity below.  Unable to see the trauma being inflicted.  Unable to see the tears nor hear the screams that we’ve had to listen to repetitively through the media.  Now, granted, these are all signs of someone who was experiencing severe psychological problems in his life, seeming to be entirely separated from humanity.  However, the slow process of attaching ourselves to our gods has a similar impact on our own lives.

Think about it.  The more the demand for certainty in our lives and the attachment to the illusion of “being right”, the less capable we have become of empathizing and sympathizing with our fellow brothers and sisters and a whole lot less space for God.  It becomes entirely about having the winning argument, as I’m sure we will witness one again when it comes to the use of guns in our society, and less about the impact so much of what we are doing has upon humanity.  The problem is that we cling so tightly to our certainty that our own eyes become clouded from seeing the tears and pain of the other nor hearing the scream and cry for help as pain reigns down and is reigned down by my own inability to love and to walk this journey with the other.

I can never fully put myself in the place of another human being.  Their story is their story just as mine is mine.  I have suffered greatly in my own life, gradually learning to release the hold of certainty in my own life and through process, trust in faith, in the unseen, in the unknown, making space not only for God but for the other and their story and to hold it as treasure.  We have put ourselves in so many losing situations.  We cling to our symbols, to our institutions, our belongings, our own lives, as if that’s all that matters.  As if that’s all that matters and we can’t care about anything else.  We have a human problem and a God problem who ever so mightily is trying to break through our own lives and to free us from ourselves.  Ourselves.  We cling so tightly and before you know it, we too find ourselves separated from humanity, the humanity of the other and our own, unable to stand with, kneel beside, listen with love, see with care, all because of this distance we have put between ourselves, creating a tension, that, although painful, hopefully leads one day to a new day, a new beginning, a re-creation of our humanity.

It’s a sad day.  It’s been sad days, weeks, months, years, of being torn apart by so much that just doesn’t matter and yet we cling.  We cling to our ideology.  We cling to our certainty.  We cling to a flag.  We cling to a nation that was.  We cling to our guns.  We cling to our rights.  We cling.  It’s what we humans often do best, cling.  Somehow thinking we can’t live without any of it.  Somehow thinking that it’s eternal and never-changing.  We cling to our false gods that over time divide, leaving a gaping hole of pain in the soul of me, you, and a nation, that can only be filled with a God who’s love surpasses all and fulfills all, a God so often unseen and yet so present, gently opening our eyes and hearts to the other and their story.  A story you don’t know.  A story we mustn’t judge.  A story that is unfolding.  A story we must learn to care about in order to understand and in order to close the gap of our own humanity.  It’s the story of the Christ. 

It’s was an extremely sad day but a day in which we are once again invited to enter into the mystery of our own lives, feel the pain of the other, and together we learn to find true freedom from what binds and hurts our hearts and souls as a nation because in the end the story is the same.  It’s a sad day when we can no longer weep for all humanity who suffers because of our inability to put ourselves in their place beyond our symbols and institutions.  The more I am freed of my own gods of judgment, condemnation, and fear, I find myself trusting in all I can trust in, a God who doesn’t reign bullets nor insults down upon humanity but rather love, understanding, and forgiveness. 

The Problem of God

Much has been written on the problem of Evil. It’s the ageless question of how to make sense of so much evil and destruction in the world and still believe in a loving and just God. One of the most famous of books was written by Jewish Rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writing of the process of trying to reconcile these seeming opposites in our lives. It’s a challenge for the most astute and keenly aware people, let alone those who have such sudden changes in their lives when it begins to feel as if everything is falling apart around us, when we feel as if we’re losing control over things, including our own lives and all that we have considered normal.

All of that is true, but I firmly believe that the struggle between God and Evil is so closely intertwined that it becomes not just a problem with evil as much as it is with God. It seems rather hard to believe that an issue in our lives is with God, but in my experience it’s so often more the reality, even in the face of evils and great suffering. Even in our political discourse in this country has a God problem, since politics and religion also have been so intertwined and institutionalized, parties often hijacking religious beliefs in order to support their own self-interest.

On the right, there is a very legalistic image of God that leaves very little wiggle room for encounter and the struggle with sin and human suffering, often leading to greater suffering but blinded by it. This view of God holds God tightly in a box, black-and-white, right and wrong, and so on and so forth. Sure, there are morals and boundaries that help us to function as society and are necessary in many ways, especially in raising future generations. However, that’s not an entirety of God. Quite honestly, whenever God is boxed in in that way there’s very little room for mystery and depth in life, God remains a distant reality that is always watching our every move. It often leads to a god of shame and judgement.

On the left, often quite the opposite. “Everything and anything goes” can rarely be sustained. There’s often more a pursuit of a utopia than of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches in the Gospel. It’s often a more acceptable means because at first it’s pursuit is good, equality for all and progress. However, it too has its shortfalls. In pursuing such a perfect place and institutionalizing it, we begin to lose the perfect and gradually no longer have a need for God, for the perfect is found here, in another ideology, but often at the expense of excluding others and thought that differs. We see this playing itself out in “safe spaces” and even the upheaval on college campuses of having opposing speakers come and voice opinion that differs. Again, if it’s of God, the factor of human limitation must be accounted for in our lives. It’s short-sighted in that it becomes yet another way to box God in but in a different way.

Both lack a desire for a seeking of truth and a deeper knowing, shallow in their approach when it becomes concrete and lived with such certainty. This problem exists in our politics but also in our churches around the globe, fearing a movement towards something deeper in our lives and using our own god to judge others and exclude. Sure, there is a problem with evil and we can name many of the atrocities that exist in our world, such as poverty, war, refugees, racism, and many others that have taught us to separate and to judge and to often believe in a God that isn’t even close to the deeper mystery that God truly is and can never be fully appreciated or experienced in our lives, managing to live patiently with the tension of these realities and learning to respond differently, not with ideology but with love.

What we’ve done over the past decades is to institutionalize these gods in one form or another rather than seeking the incarnate God in Christ Jesus. We have given them foundations that have become hard to break, but as time now presses on, we gradually see the collapse of the institutions on all levels, these internal structures that have defined us all for years now no longer serve the common good as gaps and divisions continue to widen. However, when it begins to happen, even in our own lives, and we are invited into something new, into deeper mystery, we fear the unknown and where it may be leading us because we have made them into gods for ourselves, giving us comfort and assuring us of some kind of known. All that we desire from religion becomes projected onto our institutions, which people no longer trust, which begin to make us feel boxed in, and become self-serving. Quite frankly, leads to an evil in and of itself. In other words, nothing to do with God but laced with godly language to cover-up. Both sides of the argument are just as guilty as the next for the death of God in this way.

If I’ve learned anything about God and myself over the years it’s that I am a hybrid of all of it. I am never, in this life, going to know and understand the fullness of this God in all God’s mystery nor myself or anyone else. There’s a lot I know from my own lived experience and suffering but there’s also a lot I don’t know. As a matter of fact, it’s that unknown that God seems to always be leading. At times I want to put up the gutter bumpers, somehow trying to maneuver a new territory and at other times desiring that utopia, where all is perfect, avoiding any type of suffering in my life but at the same time, rejecting the invitation to something more in my life. But we don’t live in a perfect world and somewhere in the middle this tension exists between the two which is mysterious in and of itself. It’s where my mind and heart are being invited to being opened to something new. But when I’ve institutionalized something that isn’t meant to be institutionalized, and quite frankly, is bigger than any institution, it becomes increasingly difficult to seek mystery, unknown, because as we hold on tight to what has been institutionalized and is in a dying form, we fear the unknown, and yet, the unknown is where God most often is and invites us.

The pursuit of truth and the ongoing call to conversion in our lives leads us to that place of tension and when we can no longer see or hear the other we’ve once again boxed not only God but ourselves in, closing ourselves off to that pursuit and a life of conversion, closed to finding not our way but a third way. I’ve seen it on both sides; we’ve all seen it on both sides. We have a problem with God because we’ve created gods we can hold onto and yet no longer trust. We have created gods that have been faithful to us to this point but now no longer serve us. Yet, rather than stepping back and allowing even a crack into our certainty, we hold on for dear life even though we know deep down that it’s not leading to life but further into darkness and death. It’s the ongoing struggle with the mystery of life and death that we all are, like it or not.

It’s not God, though, that’s dead or dying. Rather, it’s the gods, the golden calves, we’ve created and convinced ourselves of that are God, that are dying. They have been faithful to us but they’ve also helped create a sick codependency. They have brought us safety and security, in their own way, but have now stifled us from going anywhere. They have brought us certainty and total knowing, we like to think, but have closed us off to creativity and imagination. They have helped us pursue our agendas but at the same time forced us to settle form something less than we are as people. We convince ourselves that they have opened us up to freedoms and liberty, but in reality, have made us less free and bound, chained to our way of thinking. What they’ve done is closed us off to this deeper mystery we call God.

The death of something we cannot see and yet believe to be God is always a daunting reality. It’s almost easier to deal with the death of a loved one or a friend because of their finiteness. In order for us to get unstuck in our lives, as individuals and as country, then we must allow these gods to die and grieve their loss as faithful servants. Our faith, in its deepest liberating grace, moves us to that place in our lives, to let go of our addictions, not only to these tactile gods but also to our thoughts and our own institutionalized versions of these gods that have led to a deep mistrust. We are much more than it all because we are a part of this deeper mystery. We will always be limited and our ideologies will always be limited, but none of it should ever close us off to the pursuit of the limitless even in our finite world. That is not the pursuit of these institutionalized gods, but rather truth and this known and yet so unknown mystery we call God.

Jesus Christ, Public Enemy Number One

Lev 19: 1-2, 17-18; I Cor 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

What happens when the solution to our problems no longer works? Honestly, we have to prepare for it because the typical means of dealing with problems, these evils of the world, and so on, it is typically done through violence and fear. What happens when it doesn’t work anymore? Think about it, Jesus himself was public enemy number one. He was hated by the scribes and pharisees, as well as the political authorities of his day. He rattled their cages. He challenged the status quo. He preached this awful message of loving enemies, and yet, he was that person. For it, public enemy number one faces death, death on a cross. Why on earth would be we surprised that we would do the same thing? If we can do it to God, to Jesus, why not get rid of anyone and everything that stands in our way, our enemies. Yet, the message today is to love them.

So where do we begin. We first get rid of anyone with brown skin. We lock up black people. We bar Muslims. We can dump the President. We can get rid of Congress. There’s no need for the Church or any institution for that matter. Now, of course, we can throw in the press and the desire for truth and honesty. Let’s just get rid of everyone and everything that has become an enemy to our way of life. There is so much out there right now trying to open us to a place to look at ourselves and where we need to grow. But then what? When all else is gone, using the image that Jesus uses today, after I hand over my tunic and my cloak as well, I now stand naked, exposed, with no one else to blame for my problems, out of solutions, and after I use both my words and actions to take down the enemy, I’m left with myself and the greatest enemy of all, lying deep within myself, my own hurt and pain that I finally come to realize I can no longer outrun and no longer blame everyone else for in my life. If we’re willing to do it to Jesus, and none of us are innocent in this game, the only one left to destroy so often is myself.

Martin Luther King, Jr, in his sermon on this very passage said most of us live with “a persistent civil war that wages within”. It becomes the easiest of paths and the path of least resistance when we choose violence and hatred. It does make it easier, though, when we remove God from the scene. It’s the challenge that Leviticus faces in the first reading today. The writer speaks and writes of a God that is distant from the world. It’s so often easier to justify our wrongdoing and the bitterness that we hold onto in our hearts. It is so often that Christ within that tries to rattle all of our cages, moving us to a place of freedom in our lives where we can begin to deal with the injustices of the world and of our country. We mustn’t allow the oppressed and those who feel oppressed become the oppressor in return. If we are not living in that place of freedom ourselves, we so often resort to violence, and no, maybe not always physically, but with our gossip and talking about others behind their back. Violence doesn’t come just in the form of war, but often from our own mouths. That civil war becomes a persistent part of our lives when we desire to move to the place where we can love our enemies rather than destroy.

Paul warns of destroying God’s temple, which I am and you are and the community is, with Christ as the head. Paul warns them about taking advantage of those who may feel oppressed in the community of Corinth and beginning to think that somehow it’s about me and what I want rather than recognizing that we become instruments of God’s grace, a God who works through and with and in us. When we keep God at a distance we can put ourselves in that place of power, a power that is so then often abused and so the war begins of trying to take out anyone that stands in my way. Jesus was public enemy number one and if we’ve done it to him, who’s next? What happens when this solution to our problems, the deep hurt and pain we so often want to hold onto, no longer works, when we find ourselves, as individuals and as country, standing naked before the true God and the world, with no one else to blame for our problems, but now exposed for our own pain. It’s a humbling place to stand when we no longer have to fight that civil war and we can learn to love our enemy.

Sure, there are plenty of enemies in our world and plenty of evil at play. But the journey of faith that Jesus invites us into these weeks, leads us to that place of pain and the place of humility when I can finally begin to see that that damn enemy that I have been fighting all along is right within me, looking for attention and to be loved. Jesus understood first-hand, knowing that he was that enemy to so many, or so they thought. If he teaches us anything, it’s that when we allow ourselves to go to that place of pain and ask ourselves why we do hate and why we even desire to have enemies and what it is about them, we can finally hold the mirror to ourselves, individually and collectively, and realize it’s not a solution that we desire, but rather healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. An alcoholic will always think that alcohol is the solution to his problems, but in the end, it’s a destructive end to himself and others. Hurting people will always think that violence and “getting rid of” is the solution to our problems, but in the end, it’s destructive to ourselves and others. Sure it may give an immediate gratification and stroke our ego, but it’s never a long-term reality of the Kingdom that Jesus preaches.

The civil war will only persist in our lives if we don’t first deal with the enemy within ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to project it onto the world, continuing to hate and to hurt. We must live a life of resistance that heals, a resistance that forgives, a resistance that leads to a deeper love. That is why this gospel stands as one of the most difficult and most challenging that we hear all year. It’s not easy to love people around us sometimes let along those whom we have deemed enemy. It’s a sad way to live our lives when we give into such hate and violence. When we resist the temptation, and it will always be a temptation, to retaliate and exact revenge, we finally move to that place of freedom, free of any oppression in our own lives, to then begin to tackle the real problems that exist. Hate leads to more hate. Violence leads to more violence. It’s time to accept the challenge for all of us to hold that mirror up, with public enemy number one looking back, leading us to a place of love, forgiveness, and healing, first in ourselves and then for the salvation of the world.

Silence

For those who venture to enter into Silence, don’t be surprised if you find yourself leaving with more questions than answers about the struggle of faith of the lead, Father Rodrigues. Both him and Father Garupe, young priests with a sense of conviction, find themselves questioning where it is that God is leading them, firmly believing that they are being called to head to Japan, despite the known reality that they are to face of severe persecution, living in constant hiding, and the possibility of death as so many others had to face.

Father Rodrigues is a rather complex character throughout the story, especially in relation to the faith of the Japanese who are willing to go to their death because of their faith. Yet, throughout, on a deeper level, Father Rodrigues has this aching fear of death as he watches them, one by one, marching toward their own. Both Rodrigues and Garupe make this journey, despite the doubt of their superior, in order to seek out their once mentor who was believed to have renounced his faith. Garupe never makes it that far. From the beginning there seems to be an intersection of faith and lived reality for him, a disconnect that often follows Rodrigues throughout. Garupe’s blood will be spilled long before Rodrigues encounters their former mentor.

But for Rodrigues, it’s more than just seeking the mentor who, in his mind, could not have apostatized. For Rodrigues it was about seeking this truth that he becomes angered over many times in his questioning by the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor, who’s about as creepy as you can get, feels him to be arrogant. It may be the one quality of his that the Inquisitor is correct in identifying. That place of arrogance, which stands in the way of him finding the deeper faith, in the form of pride, becomes the place of rub for Rodrigues. He knows the truth, which for him, is a belief that he knows it all and is the bearer of it all, a gap between the intellectual faith and this faith he witnesses in the people, and in Garupe, for that matter, at times only seems to wane. He struggles greatly allowing this penetrating silence to enter into the depths of his heart and soul, to feel the pain and be one with the pain that the people experience.

The simplicity of the faith of the people only makes it a more stark contrast to what it is that Rodrigues seeks and believes. They seem to lack the fear that he has held onto about this God. It’s as if they know something that even he doesn’t know about the Christ, willingly accepting before renouncing. As the story progresses, Rodrigues questions time and again who it is that he’s praying to in the moment. He seems to simply pray to silence without any answers, despite knowing what he knows and questions who this God is. It is this God, or image, that seems to crumble with each persecution and death that Rodrigues witnesses but holds to so tightly. The Japanese believers, on the other hand, question who’s willing and able, living not from a strength that follows pride, but one that follows love.

In the end there seems to be no resolution nor reconciliation with Rodrigues. The look on his face mirrors a man who continues to angst up to the bitter end. In the end he too will have to confront his own demons of surrendering while beginning to know deep in his heart that he had done something wrong. He still hangs on to an image of who this God is supposed to be rather than opening himself to a bigger God, a God that can somehow even embrace a mentor who has disappointed and a friend who has betrayed, while he continued to allow perfection to stand in his way. The fear of the Japanese was that the spread of Christianity would begin to break down the world order that they had experienced and created, opening the door to questioning and revolt. Yet, they never much seemed to fear Rodriques, despite their persistence in persuasion. Maybe deep down they too knew of his own fear and didn’t see him as that same threat as it was for the people. It wasn’t the power of fear that threatened, rather, the power of love; and for Rodrigues, it was his deepest fear and struggled to accept.

God, Country, and Football…and not necessarily in that order

I typically don’t hide the fact that I am a football fan. As a matter of fact, I have written about it on this blog before for a variety of reasons. I have written about how I watch it less and less, mainly because of the violence that it does to these men, who, for the short-term may have reasons such as money and fame to participate in it; but, long-term, the impact can be quite devastating. There’s also the impact it has on me and other viewers after watching hours and hours of it, week after week. Even more so, though, recently, I have tried to avoid the sport when I can, and professional sports in general, but particularly football, because of what it has become and the enmeshment of this sense of nationalism that is so often associated with it, as part of us, as the old song goes, apple pie.

This has only been fueled more by the story of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, followed by other athletes who have followed his lead these past weeks. I’m not here to say whether he’s right or wrong. Quite frankly, I don’t even think that’s the issue at hand nor do I really think Kaepernick cares about whether I think he’s right or wrong, as much as some think he does. What I do want to say and speak to, though, is the deep amount of empathy that I do have for him right now and an understanding of the need for dialogue within our culture and country. As much as I thought he was a pompous ass when he first began in the NFL, there’s a different look in his eyes now that wasn’t there before and so it makes it hard not to feel for him and others like him. All he has really asked for, more than anything, is dialogue. Is that really too much to ask?

I really believe that no one can get to that place in their life unless they have faced great suffering themselves. Maybe for him it even could have come in the fact that he is no longer a starting quarterback, but I don’t know because I’m not him. It would be hard to believe that that alone would not shatter someone’s ego like none other, bearing in mind that it was just a few years ago that he was playing in the pinnacle of the sport, the Super Bowl. Some want to quickly judge him in that way. The spotlight is no longer on him and so he has to do something to get himself back to the stage, the arena, into the sanctuary of the sport. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe now he realizes he has nothing to lose. He’s already lost it all and all he has left is a deeply-held belief that now drives him to kneel when others, at times, blindly stand and recite words that don’t mean much more than a creed recited in church, words and not much more. If I give even a perception as being against, I am seen as unpatriotic, bearing the cross of being un-American, whatever that means. We seem to accept freedoms only when they meet our own standard-bearing, failing to often see that others may have a different experience than my own and a wound that stands unique to them that has brought them to their knees and to this point in their lives.

It’s easy for us to say, “God and Country” and probably sports a close third. The problem is when they all begin to enmesh. Honestly, it becomes a real danger when they begin to overlap. It becomes a danger when it’s no longer “God and Country” but rather country as god or sport as god or any other god that we try to hold onto, especially when they seem to be passing through our fingers. We as fans gather daily and weekly in this nave, gathered with the thinking that somehow their lives depend on the outcome; sometimes more emotionally attached to a game than lives being lost by violence across the country and globe. All our hope seems to be intertwined with the winning of a team or being number one in the world. When we begin to make these symbols into gods, we begin to fall down the slippery slope, attaching ourselves to something, for all intensive purposes, that aren’t real in the first place, but supposed to be symbolic and point us to something deeper, which should make us pause and reflect when someone goes against the tide rather than quick to react. In turn, we often end up using people for our own political gain rather than seeking understanding and reconciliation, a dialogue with differing points of view.

Kaepernick himself has made the point that it’s bigger than football. It’s all bigger than football or religion but it’s also much deeper than them all as well. When people are taken out of the equation and symbols and words take precedence, we have distanced ourselves from the humanity, and senseless killing begins to feel normal, detached from my own humanity. When no one speaks up, kneels down, or pleads on behalf of the people, as Moses does for Israel, we find ourselves lost in a chaotic world with a flag, or words, or a sport being the only thing consistent in our lives, feeling secure and yet so enslaved by our inability to see the other as brother and sister and to understand that they too have a story unlike my own, filled with hopes, fears, disappointments, misunderstandings, and so much more. Instead, I judge them by an action without ever trying to understand the person and allowing myself to fall into the hands of a bigger God that can somehow hold it all, even people different from myself.
It really isn’t about right or wrong.  If it is it will continue to divide us.  It’s only divisive because we allow it to be and don’t allow ourselves the invitation to step back and see why it’s causing such a reaction in myself and dialoguing with it. It’s all he has asked and somehow managed to put a mirror up to the culture and began a conversation. It really has nothing to do with Kaepernick, just as much as our spiritual life has nothing to do with Trump or Clinton, even though some will continue to think that it does. If it does, it’s because we allow that as well and we continue to seek a god elsewhere rather than in the place of our own hurts, deep within our souls, including the soul of a nation. Our reactions to these events say more about us than it does any of them, whether individually or collectively. We have been given so many such invitations over these years, which has only led to war, division, hatred, bias, judgment, violence, fear, towards anyone that is somehow different than myself. Maybe even worse than making country or sport into god, is allowing myself to be god. If there’s a starting point for any of us in these lived realities to begin to ask questions, it’s with myself and my own reactions. Until then, I will continue to empathize and silently stand with Kaepernick and others because I know it’s bigger than him and is inviting me to go deeper into my own understanding, and for that matter, my many misunderstandings that I hold onto about others.

God’s Endless Pursuit

Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; I Tim 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32

For those of us who remember, the days of the old Baltimore Catechism, we remember the question and answers that were to be memorized. Some of us can probably still recite them today. I believe the second question simply asked, “Who is God?”. The answer was simply creator of heaven and earth and of all things. It was pretty easy but when we hear these readings this week, it doesn’t seem so easy and certainly portrays God in a very different way. We hear of a God that is in constant pursuit and we the object of that pursuit.

However, many aren’t even aware of this God who is constantly revealing and in constant pursuit, desiring relationship with us because we often get hung up on the illusions of who we think God is. It’s tough to penetrate these illusions because they are so deeply rooted in who we are and often connected to deeply-seeded wounds that exist in the human race and so we cling to the simple illusions we’ve been taught and never quite experience a relationship with what seems to be a rather foolish God in these readings, constantly in pursuit desiring only to love. God pursues from so far beyond and yet in the depths of our being. Unfortunately, these illusions end up impacting our relationship not only with God but with the people around us and even collectively as a people, unable to experience this God in a new way.

These illusions create a distance between us and this God, despite His constant pursuit. We hear that in today’s first reading from Exodus. It appears that it is God that is distancing Himself from the people in the reading. We’re so used to God referring to Israel as my people, but today it’s different. He’s ticked off at people Israel and tells Moses, “go to your people.” It’s as if God wants nothing to do with them at the moment because of how lost they have become. Despite the constant pursuit of this God to His people, they wander again and again. Over time people Israel tries to make themselves god and creating gods in the molten calf today, that they lose sight of all this God has done and the mercy that He has brought upon them. It impacts all relationships. We’re not much different. This country as well has tried to put itself in the place of God and creates gods not only out of objects but out of ourselves as well. Yet, God still pursues Israel as Moses mediates on their behalf, leading them to a changed heart once again.

It is the story of the prodigal in today’s gospel as well. It’s somewhat easy for us to understand the younger son who goes off doing rather dumb things. We’ve all been there and over time eventually, hopefully, work our way back somehow. Even that, though, the father is in pursuit of that son before he ever returns. But there remains the issue of the elder son, the one we’d rather not deal with and face. Remember Jesus is addressing the scribes and pharisees and so the elder son is really a reflection on them. He too has an illusion of not only God but his father in the story. He holds tightly to this illusion of a father who demands perfection and so in turn a God, as it is with the Pharisees. Yet, he has so much animosity towards the other that he too wants a break and a distance with his younger brother. Notice how he refers to him in the say way that God does to Moses in today’s first reading. He doesn’t acknowledge his as his brother, but rather says, “your son”. He wants no association with him. His wound runs so deep that he can’t see beyond this illusion of perfection. However, the father, seeming rather foolish, still pursues him and loves him and desires life for him. But he can’t get beyond thinking seeing beyond the illusion that some how his father is out of his mind and has betrayed him. God doesn’t demand perfection. God desires relationship and whether we know it or not, we can’t have a relationship with an illusion.

Paul knows that better than anyone and he tells of his own journey today to Timothy. Remember that Paul was a chief pharisee and held tightly to that sense of a God that demanded perfection. It’s not until he finds himself blinded in some way that that illusion begins to break down and Paul encounters God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. He comes through a changed man with a changed heart. The good news is God never gives up. God continues the pursuit and we remain the object of that pursuit. There are the pharisees today, God in the flesh before their very eyes, and yet they can’t see beyond their own illusion and their own pride to encounter God in Christ. Jesus himself pursues them and yet there isn’t that openness to see and experience this God in a new way, in a seemingly foolish way, a God not demanding perfection, but freely offering love, forgiveness, and mercy. Why would we not want such a relationship?

We live in a time when we can almost sense that same distance in our country. Like the elder son, we want nothing to do with the other. We tend to rather enter into relationship with, demonize the other. Our pursuit is the destroy the other, take them down. There is deeply rooted pain and loss that we suffer that we continue to hold onto. But God doesn’t give up on us either. God continues to pursue. Like people Israel, though, we wander and wallow in our own pain, holding onto illusions of what was, of who we think God is, putting ourselves at times in the place of the god we create, creating further distance. What we need, though, is to allow ourselves to be found by the living God, the seeming foolish God that smashes all illusions and moves us to a place beyond separation and violence, to a place of reconciliation, love, and mercy. It’s what we need. Yet, if we can’t bring ourselves to enter into relationship with the other we will continue to suffer at the hands of ourselves and create our own gods, worshiping false idols. It will always seem foolish to the pharisee within us and yet a gift to all who can allow themselves to be open to something new, a God that always is and always will be so far beyond and yet so imminently in pursuit of our hearts that we will never desire anything less than love and mercy.