An American Lament

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Vincent Castiglia – “Lament”

When life began shuttering for all of us back in March, I found myself once again on the run and beginning to feel as if I couldn’t breathe.  If you read back to the blogs I posted back in March, the sense of darkness was surfacing, tossing and turning at night, overwhelmed by once again the feeling of drowning.  It was the sense of loss, feeling homeless, a looming pandemic, and admittedly, the humility it takes to move home, even if temporarily, after more than twenty years away.  I could literally feel it on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.

If you’re a regular reader, you know it’s nothing new for me, the sense of having my breath taken away.  One of the most pivotal moments in my life was nearly drowning while whitewater rafting on the Ohiopyle River in Western Pennsylvania.  It was not only the weight of a raft atop me, but the weight of the handful of men in the raft, and even the weight of a life flashing before my eyes, my life as it seemed to be coming to an abrupt end in a matter of seconds although feeling like minutes.  I couldn’t breathe.

If we can ever admit, or take the time to become aware, most of us at one time or another know that feeling of drowning or being unable to breathe.  We’ve witnessed the story of George Floyd this past week, a man pinned to the ground for what we now know to be nearly 9 minutes with a knee to his throat.  I’ll never admit to understanding I know what it feels like, but I do know the feeling of oppression and the weight of the world and all powers plopped down on top of me, unable to move, breathe, or even live life fully.  It’s the point which often goes unspoken, but believe it has more to do with the fact most don’t know their drowning because it’s often in their own grief.

It takes a great deal of humility to admit something is wrong and needing help, especially for men.  It’s not a surprise to anyone, men are more prone to suppress and repress how they feel and takes a lot of pushing before it begins to spill over.  We’re much better at taking it out on others than we are on allowing the pain to be transformed within us.  If we compound years of anger, hurt, and resentment, with now nearly three months of quarantine and lock-downs, it shouldn’t shock us when it begins to reach a boil and no one willing to turn back the heat.  It becomes, sadly, a political game with each of us as pawns, pushed to stand against so-called beliefs rather than with a hurting people.

We have before us many failing institutions.  It doesn’t mean their surmise; however, it does mean change is necessary, now more than ever.  We find ourselves surrounded by institutions which have become self-serving, which naturally take an oppressive approach because they become about power, and inevitably, an abuse of power.  We certainly see it in our political system, crumbling infrastructures, waffling cities, irrelevant religious institutions driven more by politics, money, and keeping the natives intact.  Is it any wonder we find ourselves now at a boiling point with the fear of only getting worse as this political season heats up?

I, of course, can only speak of my own experience.  There is even a part of me lamenting the rush of churches reopening.  As someone who’s been on the inside, there is great value and still have a resounding faith, but like most institutions, we refuse to look at the whole.  Now more than ever, churches need to move beyond the walls and out into the streets.  The thought of closing church into the confines of a wall gives the sense of suffocation, unable to breathe.  Over time we gradually are lulled into believing the world is bad, dark, evil, or any word you choose to describe.  However, it’s no different than an individual closing in on him or her-self. 

Over time, we become isolated, self-consumed, and breakdown communication.  It doesn’t mean we can’t function in the world; we still work, gather around people, and do what we need to do, but all in anticipation of locking ourselves back up again, feeling like we can once again breathe as we “leave” the world.  Before we quickly return to get our “fix” of comfort, we need to take a look at the world and what’s happening.  Again, I must say, I’m not against any of it; however, more needs to be expected of such an institution claiming transformation at its heart.  It’s also not simply my own faith background; it’s religion in America which fears the world and change and yet paradoxically choosing death over life by not changing systemically.

There is much to lament these days.  There are the countless people killed, hundreds of thousands dying of disease and viruses, at times looking like we don’t care, inequalities we prefer to make judgment of than deal with, failing institutions, increasing debt, anxiety through the roof, thousands upon thousands on prescription drugs for depression and other mental health issues, people yelling at one another unable to listen, pain boiling over, lack of care or concern for the other, selfishness, survival over living, transactional mindsets, empty words and speeches, generational trauma, and the list goes on an on.  Who are the people benefiting from this “normal”?  Is it “normal”?  Why is there a rush to return to “normal”?  Do you see why we shouldn’t rush to once again close off from the world?  It’s understandable why we make it “normal”; who wants to confront the pain of others when we can’t deal with our own!

When we break it down, we’ve lost our ability to dialogue as humans.  We’ve disconnected from our heart and try to understand through an ego which will always try to defend and protect.  Our greatest lament is the loss of our humanity in our institutions and beyond.  People are suffering on levels requiring self-aware leaders, free of the confines of institutional boundaries of cufflinks, dress and three-piece suits, a willingness, as Pope Francis says, “to smell like the sheep”.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed in the pain and suffering of the world, we find ourselves unable to breathe by our own hypocrisy as a fellow human on the journey.  I know; I’ve been there.  Even writing about it brings up the feeling within me, reminding me of a life once lived not my own.  We lament the institutional freedom for true freedom.

As Americans we must lament.  We must grieve in these days.  We must learn to let go of our expectations, dreams unlived, our resentments and anger.  We must go out among the ones we deemed “profane” and listen to their story as well.  It’s not only our story which we find crumbling; it’s everyone’s story.  We need to write a new story for future generations, weaving together the great parts of our tradition with their own vision for tomorrow.  It’s not going to be the same.  It can’t be the same.  It mustn’t be the same.  We need to lament, most of all, a return to “normal”.  If one does not benefit from a return, then none of us do.  We must understand the one who’s been pushed from the top, being held underwater.  They have a perspective and a voice which must be heard, whether we agree or not.  For lamenting is not about agreeing or disagreeing.  It’s about grieving a heart which has hurt, a heart which will continue to scream out from underneath the raft until it’s given its voice to speak.  As Americans, it’s time to lament…

Playground’s Parable

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Hazleton News 1 Parks have been closed throughout the pandemic but have been in disrepair long before

As a child, there’s nothing like time at the playground.  It’s a place for imagination to flow as you fly free on the swings, daringly climb to the top of the monkey bars, and see who can get the other to fall first on the teeter totter by abruptly jumping ship, followed up with belly laughs!  I still walk near that park practically daily and am simply mindful of the memories, laughs, and even tears from falling atop the bars only to climb back up, renewed and ready to go, a sense of resiliency learned at a young age.

In our day, parents never knew much of what we were doing on the playground, or so we thought.  We went unsupervised, not because we had bad parents, there just wasn’t a need for supervision.  It was ingrained in us, growing up in a small town, there was always someone watching, someone who would take care or relay the message if need be.  There was a lived reality and belief where we looked out for one another and we weren’t the center of the world; there were others sharing this space with us.  Of course, there are negative connotations as we can assess it from an adult perspective, as if someone was ready to pounce on us if there was an issue, but I suppose as a child it’s a healthy fear to have, always knowing there was a line not to cross.

At times it still feels like I live on this proverbial playground.  It appears, at times, like we’ve gone amuck and the adults have left us to ourselves, not even wanting to supervise, as if orphans in an unknown world.  Now, though, we don’t know where the lines are and no one seems to care whether we’re hurting ourselves or each other, it’s practically each man and woman for him or her-self.  It’s as we like to say, the “inmates are running the asylum.”  It’s no longer about flying free, without a care in the world, swinging back and forth, but rather pushing each other off, mid-air, to see who we can hurt the most.  It isn’t about the fun of climbing the bars, but rather stepping on one another to assume the place of power to lord it over others, all while the park begins to fade and turn into shambles, as if the memories of a war had faded but the scars remain and are always reminding us what we have lost without a sense of moving forward.

The silence, as you walk through, may be the one redeeming quality.  As the children in charge continue to fight with one another, competing, lording, and most especially, simply surviving, it’s in the silence where you begin to cry at the reality, letting go of a world which once was and yet with some fear of what unfolds before the eyes.  Is it me who’s crazy?  Why do I want to remain disengaged from it all?  Why don’t I see the point in what they’re fighting over and trying too hard to hold onto?  It seems rather pointless.  All this while the world around seemingly speeds up its deterioration.  Is it our own inability to accept reality?  Is it our desire to hold onto memories with the fear of losing all that mattered?  I don’t know.

It seems, the one place where as kids we were able to escape, the playground, has been all but shattered.  Rust covers the bars, swings empty, police tape closing it off as if criminal to play and imagine in a time when kids need it the most, overgrown grass, dilapidated basketball courts, often used as a roller-skating rink back in the day.  Now, the wonder seems all but lost.  There seems to be a lost sense of the other, the looking out for one another, while the world burns around us.  Will there ever be a day when we recognize the other as ourselves?  Will there ever be a day, again, when it’s not all about me, my wants, my rights, and to recognize we’re given one chance at this life and there’s more than just me, a day when we help the other climb rather than step on them to get ahead of them in order to get my way?

Everything and everyone has become so transactional.  If someone doesn’t support my view or vision, we toss them.  Heck, there’s always someone else out there who’s willing to sell their soul to get ahead!  Isn’t that the way it works if you want to play the game?  We’ve lost the sense of just playing the game to play with an addiction to winning.  We’ve sacrificed what’s good and right for a gold star and a win to try to feed my own emptiness, only leaving me more depleted.  Heck, we’ve even tried to soften the blow of a sliding board as we can somehow avoid getting hurt.  We’ll go to the furthest ends to avoid the pain of loss and hurt.  The irony and paradox, it only hurts more.

It’s good to imagine in the face of reality.  It’s good to imagine not what the playground used to be but what it can be.  Heck, just a little care and concern would go a long way, a recognition there are still children who need a place to play and use their own imaginations!  Like us, as kids, they too need a place to escape into the world of imagination and dreams, not the seemingly, and all-too-real games, of a pad or gaming device!  If anything, this deadens the imagination.  A place, rather, which is illumined in the evening, where we don’t have to fear our own darkness but even play with our shadows.  How about a place which screams with excitement for their arrival, de-stimulating their minds in order to explore the vastness of their own inner life?  Better yet, a place where they can run free, risk the sting of a bee, falling flat in the mud, and get back up, a true lesson in resiliency.  Resiliency will get them further in life than winning anyway.

We need, now more than ever, a world which dreams for tomorrow.  We’ve settled for rusty monkey bars, overgrown grass, buckled courts, all while being distracted by the supposed adults and elders of society bickering with one another, consumed in their own pain, and failing to see the helpless child, screaming out, just wanting to feel safe and secure to dream and imagine a life as doctor, pilot, president, firefighter, dancer, teacher, etc.  Who wants any of that when all you see being mirrored back is anger, resentment, and a lack of care and concern for your own well-being and caring more about themselves, some unwilling to let go of failed expectations.

I don’t know, maybe we’d all be a little better off if we spent time in a park, feeling free, giving perspective, and using our imaginations for a better world for our children and ourselves.  Don’t they deserve better than we’re offering, and for that matter, modeling?  There’s nothing like the sense of freedom and flying, swinging back and forth, wind in the hair, without a care in the world knowing, all will be well.  I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but we can offer so much more.  Simply stepping into the shoes of a child for a time will enliven the spirit, not to command them to be “mini-me’s” but to be who they are, children, and us, young at heart.

Leaning Into Life

Although not discussed in great detail, I was watching an interview this week from a representative from WebMD about trends on searches during this time of pandemic. It was interesting to note the shift taking place in what people feel they need during this time, first on how long the virus survives on surfaces, when it first began, to now loneliness and depression. It seems like a radical shift as a majority of us quickly approach the second month of quarantine and social distancing and what it’s doing to us psychologically and spiritually. It may be true this pandemic is making us somewhat “stir-crazy”, understandable knowing what it’s been like together and individually. However, what we fail to recognize is the pandemic, in many ways, is simply allowing what has been for some time to rise to the surface and making sure we have nowhere to run, giving us the opportunity to no longer run from our own shadow, scaring us half to death. It begins to rear itself in our dreams and other means demanding our attention.

I’ve been depressed and experienced a deep moral loneliness, as so many readers’ have experienced in their lives or may be for the first time during this pandemic. I have had to take medication along the way in order to assist me in the process, giving the necessary bump to deal with the shadow of my own life in which I was running. If we stop simply at meds, though, we never actually deal with the problem of loneliness and moments like we find ourselves begin to feel excruciating. It truly is an invisible enemy easily masked until we are forced to stop or tragedy strikes, no longer making logical sense of the lives we’ve learned to box up and wrap neatly. It leads, unfortunately, to living a double-life which deepens the loneliness. Now, though, we find ourselves no longer able to run.

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of it. However, most of us have had the experience of living double-lives, growing the gulf within us leading to this sense of darkness. Our identities have a tendency to be wrapped up in what we do, in our work, so when we find ourselves at home, week after week, our ability to run from the pain associated with this loneliness seems nearly impossible. It’s no wonder places selling alcohol become “essential” places because it so often is used as a numbing drug in order to take away the pain, when in reality, only deepens the pain to the point where it feels like there’s an abyss within our soul and we find ourselves freefalling into the darkness. There is a reason many need to go back to work. Certainly, there is the financial element for millions of people right now, but on a human side, so many do not know who they are without working, and working to the point of addiction. If we’re not producing then there must be something wrong with us.

I can recall days in my own life, when, upon finishing working, I dreaded going home. I dreaded the pain which would begin to surface within me because I was feeding an identity not my own. I can recall the level of pain I experienced at times in my life because of the gulf existing between work and home. Home became a place to fear and dread because I couldn’t outrun the pain. All I could ever do was numb it with whatever was available, often food for myself. I feel for the people who find themselves in this position today, after nearly decades of their lives working and being able to leave home to escape themselves. As ridiculous as it seems, I can even feel for people protesting. In the various images I have seen, you can literally see the pain in their faces as they arm themselves with guns and such, giving them a sense of power, in which has felt lost. They’ve lost their outlet and can no longer avoid themselves. Unfortunately, though, there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the pain of others. I remember needing to deal with the regrets in my life, the resentments I was holding onto, all aimed at myself, blaming myself, living out of my own victimhood. It was a feeling as if the world was consistently working against me and I allowed it. Anything to avoid the inevitable flip of the mirror of me staring back at myself, unable to run from my own hurt and pain. I will say, in my experience, men are much more susceptible to this type because they are driven by work.

We have a tendency to limit the pain of loneliness to elements of this pandemic, such as social distancing and the absence of physical touch. This may be true to a point and we can allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation in this way. However, I don’t believe it’s the deep loneliness and darkness some are experiencing these days. There is certainly a level of grief connected to the pandemic. I too am living in the same way, at the house I grew up in, but I by no means feel lonely. I don’t feel the sense of separation from myself. If, though, our identity isn’t wrapped up in our work and what we produce, it can also be tied to what others tell us we are, dependent upon what others think and believe about us. This too leads to a separation from ourselves. As shallow as our culture can be, generally speaking, we’ve lost the sense of transformation and even how to go about doing it and so we live in a perpetual state of anxiousness because of this gulf within ourselves.

There is nothing easy about loneliness, which can lead to depression for many. There is also no quick fix in dealing with it. The rush to normalcy calls to mind just how much we loathe the necessity to allow things to die, especially our thinking and mindset. The rush to normalcy is fed by the fear and anxiety we face in having no where to run from ourselves. Although I don’t know statistics, it would be interesting to see numbers on domestic abuse, alcoholism, increased addiction to pain meds, and all the other numbing elements occurring during this time. It comes down to this very basic principle of knowing ourselves and beginning to close the gap between the persona we present at work, in relationships, etc. and the person who lays his or her head on the pillow at night, the one time when we are truly alone. Our economy, our politics, religion, job, all want to define us in one way or another and slowly we take on their identity as consumer, party affiliate, winner, loser, sinner, hard-worker, and we begin to believe this is finally the identity which defines me.

However, none of them do. None of them. As all of these identities have slowly been stripped of us the past month, we are left with our own poverty, our own sense of abyss within ourselves which doesn’t need to be feared but rather which we surrender to the voice calling us to enter into our own darkness, our loneliness, not to be consumed by it, but to feel our way through the darkened corners of our hearts and souls and to claim it. We need not fear the terror of the night! I have written it in all these posts these weeks, we are all being given a golden opportunity! In an addictive and co-dependent culture within so many of our institutions and organizations, we have been set free from what has bound us most. It’s no wonder they rush to get us back! We help in feeding these masters, these ghouls, decorating us with lavish identities, hiding our poverty and making us feel rich!

My friends, and all who read this day, what is your relationship with the ghouls which have identified you? With your religion, your work, newsfeeds, your political affiliation, your whatever? Most especially, though, what is your relationship like with yourself? Welcome reality as it is and not the way any of them tell you. Recognize what you actually have control over, the choices and decisions you make for yourself and not much else. Become aware of how you feel the world has worked against you and begin to shift the mindset where it works for you. Don’t sit around and simply wait for this to pass, even though it will. Allow yourself to be empowered to change what you can in your life and begin to close the gap causing such deep loneliness. This ultimately leads to the freedom we truly desire in our lives, a freedom which doesn’t come through some official document nor from carrying a weapon.

Think about people like Saint Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anne Frank, and so many others who were imprisoned in their own right and still spoke from a place of freedom. They had the mindset of a world working for them and no need to blame. Trust me, there’s still a loneliness which accompanies such darkness when you feel you stand alone and being crucified. However, they were true to themselves, dealt with their darkness, and learned to be empowered through and with it rather than running away. The wisdom figures of ancient past all point to the same deeply held truth, what appears to be our greatest fear and obstacle, the thorn in our side, is often our greatest gift. Don’t run from the loneliness of these days. Rather, lean into it and allow it to teach by welcoming it in, allow it to be healed, and offer it back to a hurting and often lonely world.

Hopeful Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terror of the Dark Night

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It comes in the form of feeling trapped. For anyone who knows my story, you know I nearly lost my life whitewater rafting more than fifteen years ago now. I will never forget the feeling, the feeling of being trapped. For me, it’s the experience of anxiety. Sure, there are many other manifestations of anxiety in people’s lives. I can simply speak of my own experience. It’s the feeling of drowning, for others, death, still others, trapped in a confined place, a closet, the sense of losing it all, things falling apart around me, the loss of control. The way it becomes embodied in our lives, because it does take shape in the body, are far too numerous to spell out here. Anyone who is at least somewhat self-aware knows and understands, to some degree, how it becomes manifest.

I still remember being called by a funeral director asking if I could come to a cemetery while a body is being transferred from underground into a mausoleum. As I began talking to the daughter of the one being exhumed, I began to understand its link to anxiety and an irrational fear. Here she was, making an expensive decision, based on her own fear. This was not the first, but now going to be the third burial place for her mother’s burial. To the rational mind we’d automatically deduce she’s crazy, and on some level, it is a madness or an insanity knowing we make decisions all the time out of irrational fears. She insisted to me her mother was claustrophobic and needed to be exhumed from the ground while never recognizing a mausoleum isn’t much different, going from one enclosed “resting” place to another. It was clear the daughter was not getting much rest herself.

It is a real problem for many, even on a societal level and begins to become all the more evident the further we embark on unchartered, or as we like to define everything, unprecedented, territory with the coronavirus pandemic. Very little is spoken of about mental health during this crisis but all seems to be surfacing the longer we find ourselves confined to a particular place. Again, there is the feeling of being trapped, cornered, confined, loss of control, aggressively moving itself to the surface. Unfortunately, we all find ways to keep it locked inside, but in some ways, now being confined to places, the external world has met up with the internal world we learned to avoid. We do it through overwork, eating, drinking, gluing ourselves to phones and pads, all to take “the edge” off in order to relax. It’s always been there but the pandemic is forcing us to slow ourselves and no longer run from our own pain and fear finding themselves bubbling to the surface.

Now I am not a mental health professional but I am a self-aware individual who’s done a lot of work on himself and understands the interior landscape. I, too, like many still run at times from my own pain. More often than not it’s because I’m just not ready to look at it but know it’s there. The easiest way we learn to deal with it is blame everyone else for our problems. It’s a good indicator of someone who has not done the hard, interior work. We even see this played out on a large scale when we blame, ridicule, put down, others because of our own inability to take responsibility for where are lives are at and an underlying resentment also feeding into our anxiousness. Most successful corporations are aware of the human condition and even hire psychologists to assist in their success. Steve Jobs never hid the fact of the inception of Apple coming from biblical reference and the unsettlement within human beings to want more.

Now we find ourselves at this crossroad, however, when we can begin to turn the system on its head because it has taken advantage of the weakness of our humanity. It’s one thing as an individual to tackle our own uneasiness, angst, or anxiety which remains the great “invisible enemy” in which we are at “war” with on a daily basis. It’s there and now is beginning to surface. We need to keep ourselves busy, it appears, get back to normal and work, so we can avoid the interior reality all the more. What we seem to fail to see is the energy required to blame, to remain victim, as if someone else is still responsible for our lives. Why on earth would we want to go to our grave miserable having never lived the life we wanted to live? There is a great freedom when we finally recognize the war we fight is against ourselves and no one else.

I think about all the energy I expended fighting everyone else. It’s not to say there aren’t times for it, but generally speaking the damage it does to my health and well-being, including my mental health, is a toll all too expensive. I understand it’s a painful process entering into your own anxiety and pain, but it is a necessary one as individuals and as a nation. If we don’t stop the blame game soon, the anxiety will only continue to deepen, the pain widens, and the feeling as if we are suffocating ourselves, as respiratory diseases do, will only begin to intensify. As a country we have shown our pride, but pride too has a dark side. It is the avoidance of our arrogance and ignorance as if we know better than the world and everyone else and our inability to say we need help. How many avoid the care of a mental health professional simply out of pride? The price, your own well-being. Is it worth it?  Ask for help.

Anxiety and pain are real and has an impact on our lives which goes unnoticed and unrecognized. If this time of quarantine and physical distancing should teach us anything, it’s the wake up call we should have anticipated for a long time. It’s not God smiting us for some bizarre reason, that too is blame. It’s not someone trying to do us in, that’s conspiracy. It’s not the world against me, that’s pride. It is, however, the world we have created and have bought into as being “The American Way”. If you still feel you’re not responsible, well, hopefully one day you’ll move beyond the stage of denial. It is after all a grieving process we find ourselves going through these days. Denial is everywhere around us and within us, avoiding the harsh reality that life isn’t always the way we dreamed or expected. It’s only when we move to the stage of acceptance where we can finally say, “you know what, that’s ok.” I no longer need to fight or blame but rather recognize and accept we are complicated people of both great joy and pain, victim and victor, winner and loser, and all the other paradoxes which make up the human condition.

Do yourself a favor. In this time of pandemic, look at it is opportunity, even our inability to gather as faith communities. We focus too much on the inconveniences of life. There are certainly economic and personal implications. We mustn’t deny it. However, there is also plenty of opportunity. We were designed for simplicity and not just from material things, but all we hold onto. Take the time to journal and write about your own pain, where life seemed to have treated you wrongly, the incessant uneasiness within yourself, the times you can’t breathe, all of it.  Go for a walk in nature and allow it to speak and allow yourself to listen. It’s the pain often making the decisions of holding you back from the life you had wanted and desired. In the end, we aren’t much different than the daughter unearthing her mother over and over again. We all just find different ways of doing it in order to avoid the most fragile part of what makes us human, our pain, hurt, and anxieties.

Use this time to go there and then you will find hope in the midst of pandemic and see just how much you’ve allowed yourself to be bamboozled by a ruthless world not because they’re out to get you and destroy you, but rather because it’s a world which hurts and acts out of the same place as your own pain, hurt, fears, and anxiety. There is already an anchor within you waiting to hold you down in the storm rather than being swept away in despair and depression. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” It is, after all, a matter of the heart we need to learn to deal with for it is the heart which holds the pain and our head, our ego, trying at all cost to avoid, blame, and make us victim. No one can make the decision for you, not even me, all I can do is act as a guide on this journey to self-awareness. If anything, it will change the way you see the world and yourself. In the end, it’s all we can really ask for ourselves, for we need to fear the “terror of the night”.

Called to More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Family Dis-Unity

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“Does our party choose us?” This was a question posed by Ezra Klein on a recent On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett entitled, “How We Walked Into This and How We Can Walk Out”. It’s a conversation based on his new book, Why We’re Polarized. I highly recommend listening to the extended version of the interview for greater depth and clarity of the points he’s trying to make in the book. Ezra’s primary point is in regards to the volatility of the political parties as they stand, and in some ways, their undoing all at the same time. However, based on so many environmental factors, family, geographic location, urban or rural, socioeconomic background, and any other, it can be seen to be birth that chooses our political affiliation. I dare say, not much different than most religious backgrounds, we find ourselves “born” into a particular sect of religion, and, as it often goes, ours holds the undeniable truth, both religion and political party.

The current addiction to contempt and hysteria, as he points out, is due to the fact all this hurt being carried is currently stacked in an entire political party (all) and round-the-clock media coverage of national politics stoking flames, despite feeling powerless. He rightly makes the point, our greater focus of politics is best served local, despite being sucked into a national amoral, reality television program unfolding now for decades. Our entrenchment continues to solidify a Party ego, difficult to infiltrate and resulting in heartless politics. The political machine has found ways to manipulate “family” members into believing we’re needed for the good of the country as we know better than anyone. Any signs of disloyalty to the “family” begins to shake the party’s core, sensing dis-allegiance to orthodoxy as sin and quickly excommunicating any dissenters from the holy of holies and cast into the bowels of hell.

Sound familiar? “Crucify him, crucify him!” Despite all the talk, God has been all but crucified by the “families” long ago, and often to replace themselves, believing they know better. The immediate reaction is to blame and exaggerate a “family” victimhood, lost in our own blindness and pain as it feels as if we’re losing control. No one listens so we simply yell louder and louder, feeding the addiction to contempt and hysteria. The demand for reform is silenced by threats of doom and fear, less than patriotic, the demise of the family name and a threat, unfortunately, to something that is already dead. It’s so easy to point fingers at one another, talking past one another, because in the end, it’s about the family and protecting what the family holds dear, often an illusion of safety and security fed by an ego desiring to protect and hold tightly. It’s right there in front of our faces, plain as day, and yet fear runs deep. We know what it means to be cast aside by the family. The voices of the mob have a way of penetrating even the most solid of people.

There are some, though, who intentionally separate from the bickering parents, if that’s what you want to call them, still children themselves consumed by their own wants and needs, throwing tantrums. Separating, though, seems nearly impossible. Our identity is dependent on the “family” name. It is, after all, all we know. The thought of leaving and being without seems as if it means the end of our lives or at least the end of all we know. How will we manage? We are left with not much choice as we find ourselves suffocating by an identity outgrown and a fear no longer satisfying. Our affiliation needs to be shed for our own good, and once we do, we begin to see differently, acting more independently, seeing the dysfunction on new levels. After all, being born into something has deep impacts on our lives and when we choose to separate, our natural inclination is to run back into the darkened cave where we have felt comfortable, welcome, safe, and secure. It’s a place where everything has a place, including ourselves, and best to not ruffle feathers for fear of excommunication. The addiction to contempt and hysteria, upon separation, sparks a glimmer of light, begins to bring tears much more than anger, sadness more than hatred and a general grief for a world in pain.

Leaving is, though, a rare occurrence, to step away or speak up in such a way, in such a profound way, because it has been ingrained in us to believe we must fear what we do not know and we’re safer on the inside of the “family”. It has been ingrained in us to mistrust anyone who believes differently than us. It has been ingrained in us to believe that “father” knows best for everyone and to never question that authority even when we’re feeling pushed into a corner. “Father” seems to endlessly disappoint. He seems to not follow through with promises. Deep within the family members, anger and contempt loom large in the heart and the patriarch uses it to retain power. Loyalty and obedience are the name of the game and mustn’t be challenged in any way. Then you step away and you begin to become aware of a life unlived, confined by an authority no longer sufficing, an authority not your own. Stepping away only seems to elevate the yelling, the call to coerce and manipulate, all to maintain the codependent family dysfunction as to not to expose the hypocritical, bankrupt ethic holding it together by a thread.

Maybe in the day we live the political parties do choose us. We gravitate quite naturally towards people we want to think like or who feel like we do. We certainly know they do everything to pull in the masses with endless promises and rabid fear. Here are a few things we miss. The political family as we have known them are already dead. We just don’t know what they will look like in the years ahead. The natural inclination is to go to the extremes to retain control and power, holding onto what has already passed thinking it can return. As is typical, the family members most hurt are the vulnerable and both parties do all they can to manipulate the vulnerable to retain their power, hallow promises of better days. People, though, do not always know they are the vulnerable. I have seen it in both urban and rural areas I have lived. In reality, the vulnerable of both areas are looking for the same, this elusive American dream, promised for decades but never fulfilled. Is there any wonder there’s contempt and fear, anger and grief?

The systemic problems we are born into are hard to escape. They encompass all aspects of our lives. The easier way is simply to succumb to the status quo sold under the illusion of change and greatness. The pain exhibited in this country is hard for any of us to explain. Our environment is indicative of the pain running deep to our core. Highways collapsing, mountains shredded, turbulent seas and rivers, unruly weather, all being manifested by the crumbling infrastructures that have served us well and now have become self-serving. As we move towards being more driven by data and numbers via technology, the pain is only going to deepen. In self-serving systems we lose a sense of our humanity, now playing out on the national stage for the world to see. Here’s the other point, everyone else knows. The world knows we’re vulnerable and the more we try to project strength only weakens our viability. We can try all we want to band-aid crumbling infrastructures and cling to dissipating structures, but all it does is expose how disconnected we have become as a nation, disconnected from our humanity. More often than not “families” need to fall apart in order to be reordered, even if it means extreme amounts of chaos. It’s one thing to experience such a collapse in our own lives when we seek change but it’s another when it’s large institutions and structures. The “family” will do everything in its power to cling, especially the patriarchal figures who haven’t grown up themselves and still cling to the greatest fear, death and letting go.

There is no need to look very far to know the political landscape is going to face change. As older generations begin to fade and younger generations step forward, values change as well as the dynamics. At the core there is still that desire to serve and many will abuse it and simply seek power. It’s in our fragile human nature, especially an ill-informed and immature one. It is, and should be, sad to watch if there is any semblance of awareness in your life. I’m tired of being told what I should believe. I’m tired of being told I’m something I’m not. I’m tired of being judged if I believe differently. But I’m not tired of pushing forward, attempting to look it through a third lens, critiquing all sides which aren’t very different in the first place. Maybe we are born into a particular party, but I would challenge anyone, if you have never once found yourself questioning the “family” and seeking truth in a different way, well, none of this will make any sense in the first place or it will be quickly about blaming the other side while rationalizing your own. It’s what gets us into these problems. If we soon don’t return to a sense of decorum and dialogue, actively listening, the problems will only deepen. The most important point, though, is trust. There is very little. It is key to the healthy function of any system. The patriarchs clinging to power will always believe they know what’s best and many will always believe anything they say because it’s what they’ve been taught to do, don’t question. Yet, they are just as fragile and vulnerable as the rest of us, maybe even more so because they have much more to lose. When you’re whole identity and life has been wrapped up in one identity, one way of life, one area, one particular reality, it’s hard to change because everything depends on it and it’s hard to trust otherwise.

No one, and I mean no one, can claim to contain truth in its entirety because truth cannot be contained in such a way. Truth has become associated with facts and knowledge, but as we’ve learned, they don’t always stand the test of time. Truth reveals itself when there is openness and dialogue, when there is freedom and love, when there is understanding and reverence. When contempt and hysteria rule the day, there is very little room for truth and logic. The shouts of crucifixion and demise will only continue until we reach the utter darkness of Friday. It’s inevitable. None of us knows what it will look like but we can only hope for the glimmers of the repentant one or the one who’s eyes were opened in that very moment, recognizing that all the yelling led to the death of an innocent one because of blindness and leaders who cared more about power than the people they were to serve. All they could do was fill their pockets, have little remorse, and hope their “problem”, the one who threatened their “family” was finally out of their hair. Little did they know it was just the beginning…step away, allow your eyes to be opened, embrace the life yet unlived, the unknown, and cross the threshold from blame and victimhood to wounded healer. It is, after all, what the world needs now, is love, sweet love.

 

Unthinkably Perfect Vision

See the source image“For our faith to evolve, we need to look at the old and original in order to build something new and novel.” Richard Rohr

It’s impossible to miss all the memes and jokes that have been circulating as one calendar year closes and a new one begins. There have been plenty about dressing for the roaring 20’s, Barbara Walters uttering 20/20 as she did for years (for those of us old enough to remember), but also plenty of jokes about perfect vision. I have no such thing. The closest I come are through the progressive lenses I wear to assist in seeing more clearly. Heck, I can’t even seem to hear correctly if I’m not wearing my lenses! We make a lot of these new beginnings, facing a new year, with great anticipation, often with the expectation that somehow everything of the past year will fade into the sunset. It may be true in some sense, but really only if we are willing to work on perfecting our own vision and sense of awareness of where we have come from and where we are being led at the ringing in of a new year. If we’re honest with ourselves, we never truly know where it will lead us!

In looking back, to say 2019 was anything but monumental would be an understatement. There have been times the past few days when I’ve looked back and wondered how I was able to come to this point, the threshold of 2020, not being totally destroyed and utterly depressed. It was early in the year, when resolutions and hopes still rang true, when out of necessity of my health and well-being I needed to step away from priestly ministry. Anyone who has stepped away from any type of life commitment knows, that, once you have been pushed so far off the edge, in those moments there isn’t much chance to return. Again, for those old enough, how many times did Wiley Coyote attempt to do such a thing only finding himself falling flat on his face! It feels as if the ground has dropped beneath you and there’s nothing left to stand on at a time when you need it the most. The questions swirl, especially of the critics, including my own inner critic, as to how this is going to look, degrees of shame, hurt, kicked while you’re down, and all the rest that causes great unrest. You quickly learn who cares about you as a person or simply a persona, role, or identity of which you are associated. Your heart screams out reminding you that your worth is in you as a person, a human, but institutionally, unfortunately, not always the same.

I’ve written before about the level of angst I have lived with over the years, an angst that was norm. The consistent message was to fit into the proper place, but because of my own lack of awareness and deeply-rooted fears, it was easier to not fit than to have to confront what I was running from myself. If the experience has given any glimmer of hope it’s that the angst of trying to fit into what’s not and the necessity to run is no longer the name of the game. They are, though, a part of the story of moving towards that more perfect vision, unexpected as it is. They are moments I will never forget and will even take a great deal of time to heal. I have lost people in my life but have also become much more aware of the people who really matter. If I can offer 2020 anything of myself and the vision that has become more fine-tuned over the past year, it would be a restoration of humanity. We’ve lost touch with our humanity as a society, including many proclaimed Christians who forget it’s the foundational message of Christmas. I suppose it’s easier to dispose of people when we see them as something less, whether some image, their political affiliation, their way of living rather than a part of the human family they are.

The irony in the whole situation, for me, was that I had to step away in order to understand what faith was really about. Taking that step, as for anyone facing change, is to take the first step without knowing where you’ll land or if life really will go on. We have a tendency to get stuck right there, on the cliff, but never willing to step for fear of falling. Of course, there is a fall! There’s a fall from grace and yet into grace. There’s a fall into fear and yet excitement at the same time. There’s a fall into deep sadness but one that leads to great joy! I’m not sure I’d be the man I am standing on the threshold between years and decades without that fall. I can sit and write and find gratitude for the fall because the fall allowed me to reconnect, or maybe simply connect, with my own humanity and no longer shadowed by a role or identity. There have been plenty of times in the past year where I have sat at Mass and wondered how I was able to keep it up for as long as I did. It was about pleasing, all while grumbling within. Of course, there have been plenty of times where I have sat there, left before it ended, and saw for the first time why people don’t return. It felt like I was being fed stones in a moment when, in my own poverty, I desperately needed bread. Vision. How easy it is to become clouded standing atop a sanctuary, looking down, but looking at the wrong thing (that will be the next blog).

After returning from a month-long retreat at Saint Meinrad, I realized that it would be impossible to return at that time; more time was needed more. It was then I was pointed to Catholic Volunteer Network and came across a place close enough, yet far enough way, Bethlehem Farm. It was going to be another act of trust, as much of this experience had been, to keep moving towards rather than running. I began to notice the difference. When they agreed to take me on, another piece of the story, which was unknown just a few weeks earlier, was my dad being hospitalized just four days prior to my arrival date, was also beginning to unfold. After leaving active ministry in January I had started spending more time back where I grew up, not knowing what was about to evolve or devolve for that matter. I hadn’t realized, of course, that the weekend before Easter would be the final time I’d see my dad at home, sitting at the head of the table where he often did.

While his life was unraveling, slowly and quickly at the same time, the farm was beginning to give me what I needed and what was missing in my life, connection to myself and a grounding in the real and in love. For the first two months there, when there was a break from groups, I’d drive up to visit my father in the hospital, slowly watching life escape him. Each time there seemed to be another machine or gadget that was keeping him going. We should have known then, that, when so many artificial means are necessary to live there’s not much longer. It too would be a test of faith. In all reality, death is the ultimate test of faith and trust, not only for the one passing but even more so for those who grieve, despite never leaving. I can only imagine what was going through his mind or anyone in his situation, possibly questions I was asking of myself in those moments. How will I be remembered? Will I be forgotten? Will it be as if I never existed? In the moments of great unraveling lie these existential questions and thoughts of regrets and given but this one life to address them, hopefully before our final breath.

The final breath eventually would come in 2019. It was something not on the radar screen when I had left in January. It was something not on the radar screen when a 50th Anniversary was being planned, or for that matter, an impending wedding, all of which would fall during these months and days. The final breath is that moment of ultimate faith and has a way of perfecting our vision like nothing else. There it was, before our very eyes. After six months of my own tumultuous unraveling and grounding, and despite the sadness associated with death, all I could do was stand in awe. By the end of May I knew the moment would arrive. I could just tell that there was no recovering. Similar to my situation, once you are so far off the cliff, there’s nowhere to go but down. At some point in our lives, the only down is six feet but at others, seemingly a freefall. Little did I know that such an event would solidify that grounding that began at the farm a few months earlier. It was a grounding that would stand the test of the greatest of hurricanes and yet still remain tethered to the real. The vision became clearer and all I could do was continue to walk and walk forward.

It by no means diminishes the grief that needed to be felt; there’s always grief in life’s changes and unraveling. If the year has taught me anything it’s a constant reminder that I can’t think my way through everything, as much as I sometimes try. Some things about life just need to be felt. That’s not easy for a thinker. When the dust finally settled, I landed at one of the great spots for healing in my life, Acadia National Park, and would spend countless hours near the water. There was not only the grief of losing my dad, but the grief of losing relationships and a life once lived. The place which was my escape for so many years, in order to catch my breath, was once again a place of healing. We all have those places in our lives, where we can simply go and find solitude. They are not only the places to encounter the divine but also ourselves. I write these words sitting near the ocean once more, simply allowing myself to slow down and be with myself and hear the roar of the water that stands before me. It is the same roar that lies within me, a roar for life.

I sit here now as the sun begins to rise on a new day (preferred to midnight!). It would be easy to say it’s all behind me but I’m not sure a new year means simply dumping what was and starting new. Sure, there is a sentimentality that accompanies it but the year that now stands behind will be teaching me for the rest of my life. No one can experience life in such a way, and begin to see more clearly, without it being carried the rest of life. If anything, it has taught about what faith is really about. After studying about it and preaching it for years, it finally caught up in my own life and made me eat my own words. Life is all about trust and faith. Yet, nothing is desired more than integrity in an age when it is all but absent. Nothing is more desired than faith in a day when we put more trust in failing institutions than we do in ourselves and the eternal. Nothing is more desired than hope in a culture that demands instant gratification and the absence of death. Nothing is desired more than life when it’s what we fear the most that prevents it from happening.

As a new day dawns, with a morning chill still in the air, I sit, still, in awe of a year gone by. It is a year without regrets. It is a year when I connected and reconnected with the people that matter most. It is a year when I faced death in more ways than one. It is a year that taught me about faith in the absence of what was thought to have given it to me. It is a year that taught me all will be well and all will be well. It is a year of new birth, baby steps to a new way of living. It is a year where fear was taken head on and confronted. It is a year that allowed me to be me and experience the freedom associated with it. It is a year of which I will always be grateful for having the courage to take one step a year ago this month, taking that last breath in order to breathe again, cut from an umbilical cord that poisoned. It was a year when I closed my eyes, jumped, and yet saw more clearly than ever. It is a year that taught me to live without while recognizing I had it all. It is a year I can’t simply let go of, but as I stand now on this threshold, I continue to take very little with me for all I need I have. It is, after all, ending as it began and beginning as it ended, in a moment to trust and to have faith in my own birthright and that, in seeing more clearly, all really will be well. With that, I bid adieu to a year that was and welcome a year of possibility, filled with teachable moments of faith allowing the unthinkable to be seen more perfectly.

Over The Rainbow

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She was 47. Maybe it’s out of the shear fact that it is the age I find myself at this point in life and knowing what the past year has been like for me, but I found myself deeply moved and connected with Judy Garland as I watched her life portrayed through Renee Zellweger in the stunning movie, Judy. No, I don’t have the experience of drug use or anything like that, but I certainly know what it’s like to not to be able to get out of bed in the morning, when it feels as if life had all but sucked everything out of you and immobilizes you. I would bet that most of us, at one time or another, have had such experiences when we face loss, life has us down, or the feeling of the weight of the world placed upon our shoulders. Yet, somehow, she digs deep and finds herself onstage, with a smile, as if all was right in the world. Until it wasn’t. Until the time arrived when the darkest shadows’ she carried made their way to centerstage with her, no longer being able to outrun her own self, where the feeling of blue is more deeply rooted than it is in the sky.

Without a doubt, Garland’s most iconic image is of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. As the story is told and how life devolves for her, though, it would seem that the most memorable song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, is emblematic to the tortured life that she lived offscreen. There was always a deeper longing, like the blue birds, to fly high and spur on to the other side of the rainbow. Yet life held her back, a life, at an early age, was chosen for her.   It is, after all, her offscreen life that always remained hidden, living two different lives by day and night. It is the offscreen life that is so intriguing and can teach us about our own longings for better days, where we too can fly high and witness to a promise of a better life beyond the rainbow where clouds are far behind.

Yet, in the moments of darkness and life can be seen as not having any purpose at all, often end up becoming some of the most teachable of all moments. They have a way, like none other, to stop us in our tracks and force us to finally face the stormy clouds and the demons that always find a way to lurk so closely to us. No matter how much we try to ignore, or in her case as it is for many, to medicate ourselves out of the darkness, nothing synthetic or mere substance is ever fully going to take away an experience of depression, grief, and longing. Rather, it is only by walking through the storm where blue skies begin to be seen and the shadows begin to dissipate that eventually catapult is into a more meaningful life, a whole life rather than trying to live two. It doesn’t mean that the demons ever fully leave us. We learn to befriend them and become aware of their presence so that they no longer have control over us.

All Dorothy ever wanted to do, in singing the lyrics, is to arrive home. We all desire to have the experience of “being home” in ourselves. Home was not home for Judy and the longing she sings of in that song, with such passion, was indicative of a mother who, for lack of better terms, sold her off into the slavery of stardom at such a young age. It lingered with her throughout her life. One of the final lines she articulates in the movie, to the audience of London, was not to forget her. A family and a system that had failed her, took advantage of her, and held her captive, practically assured her of a short-lived life but also left her with a longing, for dreams to come true, that had become too hard to overcome. Her time on stage was the only escape she had in life, where the troubles, by no means melting like lemon drops, could at least subside, once she found the energy to take that first step out. The heaviness, though, was too much to bear and yet the addiction to being accepted drove her into an endless cycle of interior poverty and eventually, literally homeless. A life that was out of her control, in that, all she could ever do was dream of a day when she could finally spur onto the other side of the rainbow.

It is unfortunate that she never had the chance to experience that in her life, cut way too short by an overdose. It is sometimes hard for us to imagine such a situation. Trying to manage two different lives, flying monkeys acting as demons, clouds of darkness lingering, have a way of damping the most spirited person. The layers of grief we live with, whether loss or regrets or a hoping our lives were something else, have great power over us if we simply try to medicate it away. It doesn’t go away. More often than not it requires the courage of a step in our own lives to step off stage ourselves and deal with what lies beyond the curtain. It’s the path to oneness and the yellow brick road that points us towards not the fictitious and fabricated world of Oz, but the home she desired and the one we desire as well. It may come in the form of a tornado, or it will often feel that way, but it eventually drops us where we need to be, grow roots, and from there live the life we were given to live. It’s not all rainbows and lemon drops, but the blue skies and birds are always there reminding us not to hold too tightly to the stage life, or better yet, the staged life we often live. It is the place where the dreams we dare to dream really do come true.

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!