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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What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.

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.