Softening Gorge

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“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”     Norman Maclean

I have spent a great deal of time sitting, walking, and hiking along the Lehigh River and the endless paths of the Lehigh Gorge these two months of distancing. I’ve watched it from a variety of angles, different times of the day, even in differing weather conditions. There’s something quite captivating about listening to the running water as it washes over the rocks. During this time, I could only imagine the chill of it as it rushes along, always seeming like it has somewhere to be and yet nowhere to go all at the same time. The rocks, although we know otherwise, are rather ill-phased by the rush of the water, as if they stand as a stabilizing force against the youthful nature of the water. Maybe it is part of the attraction of the water, knowing there were days earlier in life when I felt invincible against it and now relate more to the grounding rocks than the rage of the water, as if I have learned there’s more to life.

The draw to the water, though, is something internal. It’s the youthfulness of the heart that draws back. I suppose over our lives we fight this spirit, thinking the rocks know better and are going to outdo the waters. We become jaded, hard-hearted, and bitter before life, fighting this youthfulness. However, in these days and weeks sitting there listening to the waters flow, it’s as if my heart leaps for joy, as if it has returned to its home and natural state. Isn’t it always the heart which takes the brunt of our rigidness, fighting off its natural capacity to soften our edges, as if we know better than the heart? We don’t. I don’t. The heart, like the waters, are relentless in their pursuit of our attention.

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Glistening waters along the Lehigh in Rockport

Sure, at times it seems to subside to nearly no movement and even stagnant, but never arid enough to quiet the possibility. The water always seems to make its presence known even when it slows to nearly nothing. Our anger, hurt, pain, seem as if it’s going to do everything to kill the spirit and, of course, at times it does. It often takes something radical or an abrupt change before it once again is awakened and movement becomes unstoppable. The amount of energy it takes to hold onto and to try to control the contours of the water is unbearable. I can try all I want. However, the force of the water far outweighs the grounded dams we construct for ourselves. We are surrounded by plenty of Wonders which remind us of the relentlessness of the spirit of water and its ability to change a landscape, even if over centuries. It is the tireless pursuit of the spirit of the waters keeping it so young and glittering against the spring sun. It is the same relentless spirit determined to change the landscape of my heart.

As Maclean writes, I am haunted by the waters. The waters, at times, have wreaked havoc in my life. The haunting isn’t as much a hallows eve scare as much as it is a deep respect for its nature and ability. However, now in retrospect, it was a fear of the spirit coursing itself through me. It was the edges of my own mind and ego which thought it always knew better than the spirit, and did all it could to suppress it and change its course in order to avoid spilling over the edges. Think about it, when water forces you to confront your own mortality, won’t you do anything you can to avoid such pain again? Little did I know, at such times, of how relentless it would be in vying for my attention, to the point of nearly feeling like I’m drowning on a daily basis, of fear, hurt, pain, and grief. The cleansing power it carries seemed all but a theory in those moments, but now, a recognition of my own self avoiding such a cleanse as if all which stood so firmly was my deepest identity, yet always coming up short. It is this spirit, after all, which defines me and you. It is the heart which claims our deepest self, where waters run freely and consistently.

So, I sit here, simply listening to the movement, as if it aligns itself with the movement of the heart. While here there is a oneness like none other, kids playing together without a care in the world and the rocks sit quietly and patiently no longer needing to control but allowing the waters to flow freely. It’s like the elders and icons of the natural world enjoying the moment for what it is. There’s something quite captivating about the glittering evoked, like the sparkle in the eye of child, a return to innocence. It’s not there to reminisce of who I once was but rather to remind me of who I always am and how easily it is to let the sparkle go. Rocks can be just as relentless, trying to tell us to be something or someone other than. Not these rocks, though. They simply allow the waters to flow where they will, reaching every crevice and crack to reignite an aging earth and for the first time capture the aged truth where all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

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Caught In Between

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Browning, Montana. Now for most people this means absolutely nothing. Unless traveling through Glacier National Park, most would have no reason to know Browning let alone even hear of it! Browning sits at the base of the mountains, and when visiting during the winter months, you’d think you were going to be blown back to Kansas as the wind whips down the side of the mountain amidst blowing snow into this small town. Browning sits within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and is neighbor to one of the most beautiful and spectacular national parks around, even during the dead of winter.

I never knew much about life on a Reservation until I had the opportunity to visit on three different occasions, chaperoning with high school students. It’s a rather unique experience because much of life is contained to the particular space, not only because of the heritage, but also practically there is nothing in sight for hours All you see are endless fields.  Needless to say, groceries are quite expensive since there’s no competition and requires more to import into town, addictions run rampant, education is less than stellar, poverty only continues to escalate, and opportunity for long-term work and success has all but vanished beyond any visitors from Glacier who straggle through during the summer months.

So why has it been on my mind? Well, I’ve been spending this time of pandemic back at the town I grew up in and spent more than half my life. Since then I’ve not only visited Browning, but Third World countries, various places around this country, as well as Europe and Israel, so I’ve had the chance to see and experience many places over the course of my life. Yet, here I am, back where I began. I have seen, though, many similarities to some of the places I have visited, like Browning, and this town which I now find myself writing. No, it’s not an Indian Reservation, but has become similar to many other small, more rural towns in America. Like Browning there is but one grocery store with high prices. At a normal time, it’s much cheaper to drive to the Wal Mart fifteen minutes away. Most industries have all but left, and driving through the “downtown” area, a place I spent hanging out with friends in all types of weather, is vacant, dilapidated, and mirrors a war zone much more than the booming feel it had as a kid and teenager. Unless you hit the one red light in town now, there isn’t much reason to stop anymore.

Just like ourselves, when life simply becomes about survival, rather than thriving and booming, as many small towns have become, we begin to attract people who are like-minded. We begin to become depleted without much vision or purpose along with a lack of funds. Learning begins to falter in education systems unable to keep up with current trends, even more glaring during this time. Creativity seems to be all but lost as to how to move forward. We literally become stuck between two worlds, seemingly at odds with one another, when in reality we’re at odds with ourselves, more often than not. It is, after all, a small town with a big heart. However, it’s a hurting heart which doesn’t beat as quick as it used to in days past, weighed down. Like most things, it has a lifespan, but it doesn’t mean it has to end.

If you don’t know the history of Reservations, the long-term intent was an extinction of Natives. It was not some kind of gift to them but rather a way of ridding the country of a problem. They too become trapped between tradition/heritage and the guilt of losing it or sacrificing it for a new way of life, or better yet, thinking. Like most of our problems as a society, we’d rather try to get rid of it than to deal with it, but unfortunately in the process of trying to be rid of it only tends to deepen it, including the resentment and anger associated with it. We’ve seen some of the problems rear their head during this time of pandemic, consistently finding ourselves stuck and reacting, as if playing a game of whack-a-mole all with a silo mentality in a global world. It was Einstein who’s quoted saying, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” There’s much truth to the statement. Yet, we try and it moves us to the place of confinement, unable to let go despite a wanting to move forward. We see it not only in small towns but in cities and in the country as well.

I’ve only had the experience of living in the city of Baltimore in my life so it’s the only one in which I can speak. Like small towns, it lacks a vision and is always behind the eight ball in dealing with issues. The number of lives lost to murder and homicide is staggering. There is, though, also a tension which exists. With the lack of vision on a larger scale for a city like Baltimore, neighborhoods take it upon themselves to change. You can see it driving through various locations. For those of us wanting to see a bigger picture for such a place, it looks like an experience of gentrification, and is on some level. It’s pushing the problem to other locations and often feeding into the level of crime existent in the neighborhoods. Like minds gravitate to like minds. If life is about survival, it’s about survival and we’ll go to a place where we can simply hang on for dear life but it’s not a mindset which will bring about change because it’s not even possible when in triage. Parts of cities, small towns, Reservations, end up becoming about extinction than about booming and thriving, a place to die. It feels rather hopeless.

Yet, it doesn’t need to be about blame or feeling hopeless. We often settle for a victim mindset because we’re comfortable there. There’s a sense of safety there because I can avoid looking at my own life and actions as to how they have contributed to the problem. It’s easy to blame the federal government for creating Reservations. It’s easy to blame suburbanites for fleeing cities for a “better way of life”. It’s easy to blame outsiders coming into small towns and destroying them and making them unsafe. But when looked at through the lens of a mindset, it should not come as a surprise. Rather than being in the uncomfortable place of change and letting go of what no longer works, we’d often rather settle for one or the other, past over present, tradition over change, the way it was over the way it could be. We don’t have to choose, in this regard, but rather take the wisdom of the past, the learned experiences, and allow them to be the framework for the future. Sure, there is a letting go needing to take place, even if it’s our anger and resentment for a life which hasn’t necessarily turned out the way we wanted it to be or the feeling of being overwhelmed by all which needs to be done. Change isn’t a leap but rather a step-by-step process, and before you know it, you’re on the other side of the river, once again booming and thriving.

It takes a will and desire for change, an acceptance of our present reality as it is, not in the illusion we often create it to be, and a heart freed of the hurt which has held you back. Whether it’s individuals, towns, cities, countries, or even companies, if they cling too tightly to what was and not wanting to change, you’ll always be playing from behind because life has become too cluttered. We become victims and do what we’re so good at, blame. It’s not to say we don’t take responsibility for problems which exist. If it is a problem plaguing any part of humanity or this world, we all have a responsibility. It’s not just the neighbor, the mayor, the president, Congress-men and women, or anyone else. It’s a mindset and mindset is the hardest to change. It can only be changed by a higher consciousness and this time is providing us the space to move to a deeper and yet higher place in our lives and society. We have a responsibility to one another, not just to ourselves. We mustn’t create a safe space for ourselves and forget about everyone else; that’s selfish. We must create a world which seeks the common good of humanity.

It is a daunting task but it’s step by step. In order to become unstuck we must make the conscious choice to do so, to have the desire to be free in order to move forward. This place of tension in which we find ourselves, between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, will either paralyze us or free us and our imaginations for a better world. I’ve seen both at play daily. Hunkering down in great fear will only continue to paralyze you and deepen the anger and resentment which already existed. Yet, being cautious and using time wisely, as we used to say back in the day, can bring about great change in the future. It’s a time for self-reflection for all of us as to what world we will choose to live in as we move forward and begins with not only a vision for our own lives but for our towns, cities, nation, and world.

An Instinctive Call

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More often than not, we can learn more from watching the natural world in all of its complexity than we ever can among humans. We’re too invested in our own to often see clearly and freely. There appears, although there’s not, a separation providing us the space we need to look with a “third eye” and to assess our own ability, or even lack thereof, to lead in various ways through the multifaceted social structures of the natural world. In 1903, Jack London published Call of the Wild, now a major motion-picture starring Harrison Ford, depicting such a reality after spending time observing in the Yukon and writing a story around the Klondike goldrush, sending worldwide travelers to embark in search of riches in contrast with finding what matters most, his own inner voice, witnessed through the wild.

Like humans, dogs become domesticated once out of their natural habitat and begin to live an enclosed life. Buck, an overzealous and oversized dog not only has the issue of being enclosed, but also has the energy of a toddler, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. A nuisance, as he’s treated, Buck is stolen and sold only to find himself in the natural habit of Alaska and the Yukon, both of which more ideal for an animal of such presence and stature. Once free of the contained life he lived, something begins to change. Despite his unruly wild side, Buck begins to find a pack, a team, better suited for him in a dog-sled team delivering mail throughout the Yukon and matures beyond that of the humans whom he comes in contact.

In the story, and cinematic performance, Buck begins to reveal his natural leadership capability. Over time he no longer needs to run from his wild side, his risk-taking instincts in which he was punished in the enclosed and tamed life. He’s aware of the other members of the team and the lack of care given them by their supposed leader, Spitz. Spitz stands in contrast to Buck, one of greater servant leadership, putting the team before himself. Spitz, on the other hand, ego-driven and all about himself, fighting off hungry and thirsty dogs for his own nourishment, consistently slowing the team. Of course, like any great story, it culminates in conflict between the two only to find Spitz humiliated by Buck and the other dogs who once feared him. Shear jealousy on the part of Spitz reveals his own ability to lead, managing simply to keep the others of the group in line out of fear and by holding them back, wanting to be centerstage. The irony, they were never on-time.

If there is one element missing in our world it’s true leaders. We typically settle for the Spitz’s of the world because it’s all we really know, pushing demands on others rather than assisting in helping them find and pull out their own inner authority. It seems unfounded to us when a true leader steps up who doesn’t use fear to hold back the masses simply to make him or her-self look good. That, however, is not a leader. As a matter of fact, it’s antithetical to what makes a true leader, one who leans into the fear knowing how it obstructs. Buck does nothing extraordinary to step into the role as leader of the pack. If anything, he simply seems to be aware and care about the other dogs. He doesn’t do it to show off to Spitz. He does it in such an innate way that it comes from a place deep within himself, as if he can’t help himself but to put others first, making the pack, the team, successful. It’s what the other dogs admire. Yet, they don’t know what they’re missing until they experience it through Buck. In a single moment, we know things can be better and we can no longer settle for mediocrity at best when someone, a true servant leader, begins to reveal the deeper parts of ourselves.

I dare say, we starve for such leaders today. They are a rare commodity within our institutions. We settle for a mentality ingrained in us of needing to working harder and longer while often deeply rooted in fear of the loss of work, lack of trust, inability to please or keep up, or whatever reason resonating within us. All of which are good indicators we are operating in an environment that lacks real leadership. It’s an environment lacking a courageous leader who’s willing to deeply trust while being open to change in order for the good of the people. An environment leading to unhealthy behavior and mindset lacks real leadership. Period. When we’re so invested in the culture, though, we succumb to it, feeling we have no other choice, often out of fear of retribution for “Bucking” the system. Unfortunately, there are many out there who settle for such an environment. It’s a product-based environment rather than one rooted in value, most importantly, value of the human person.

Leaders know what they know but also know what they don’t know. They rely on the expertise of the team to shore up in the weaknesses of others in order for the whole team to succeed and avoids our reactionary nature to blame everyone else. When we have a need to believe we are the true expert in all, we suppress others for our own good, as Spitz does in contrast to Buck. When we fail to recognize our own limitations, we incur a debt in our lives and the places we are expected to lead. We see it incurring at rapid rates when we separate from that inner authority for the simple reason of trusting so many external authorities who may have positional power but are all but void of inner authority and lack real leadership ability. It’s a sad state of affairs in our institutional worlds, worlds which have become so consumed with holding on and control, power rather than the good of the people. The debt continues to incur and the price will be heavy.

We always have the option to change. It’s the way we break the cycle of insanity we’ve come to expect in our lives and workplaces. It begins, though, with learning to lead ourselves. It begins when we begin to expect more of ourselves than what any job or employment often demands of us. It must begin with our own examination of fear in our lives. Fear is a powerful factor and can be harnessed to invoke change rather than succumbing us to being backed into a constant corner, taming our own inner authority often squelched by so many who feel they know better for us than ourselves. It begins with us, each of us, wanting more out of our own life. When we find ourselves working ourselves to death, lacking balance and variety, having no sense of adventure out of shear exhaustion, we’re not leading ourselves in a healthy way and nor can we lead others. It all begins with one step, a seeming risk, one choice a day changing the trajectory to a healthier and effective life. We may fail and it’s ok. We won’t have the fearful regret and it becomes a learning experience enabling us to grow. Paradoxically, we’ll actually be able to work smarter and better simply by taking charge of our own lives and learning what it really means to be a leader, pulling the best out of others rather than pushing down. We need leaders now more than ever.

Should We?

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For a couple months now I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Patrick Grach, pastor of Lifehouse Church in Hagerstown, preaching on a variety of topics. His current series, “Let’s Talk” may be one of the most intriguing and not sure I would have even thought of doing it when I was a preacher. Last week he spoke about politics and our citizenship of heaven and this week on Gender and Gender Identity. The whole series is on hot-button issues we face as a society and culture. You can find Lifehouse Church at http://www.lifehousechurch.org. His style, if you’re curious, is similar to what I had done, trying to make you think rather than, at least most of the time, spell things out. I call it a discerning and conversational style of preaching, rather than authoritative and “on high”. Something struck me as he spoke this weekend, pushing me to expand on a topic he mentioned when speaking about gender and related issues to roles, men and women play, in our society.

He spoke early on about the level of confusion and chaos we live with as cultural and society as a whole. On a side note, he spoke all of it while suffering with a kidney stone; yikes! The natural inclination when there is chaos and confusion is to try to control, to bring order, because none of us likes the feeling of being wrapped in the winds of a raging hurricane. We will do everything we can do avoid it in our lives, if at all possible. I dare say, and some would be critical of such a point, is the choice we have made to allow children to make choices for themselves, not wanting to box them. “I want them to decide.” Here’s the truth. Kids, no matter the time growing up, need to feel safe and secure, to know boundaries. It’s part of their development process, so when the time comes for them to begin to break away from parental thinking and beliefs, they actually have something to push and rebel against. It’s part of the natural stage of becoming a teenager and hopefully a mature adult.

Now, though, we are finding more and more young people living in that state of confusion and chaos and not knowing what to do with it, where anything goes. They don’t have the familiar pushbacks that most of us would have, such as values and religious beliefs, and so they simply keep pushing against a movable wall, making it increasingly difficult to establish themselves as individuals separate from the traditional family and societal role. Whether we want to believe it or not, teenagers are supposed to do stupid things. Everything about their neuro-wiring tells us they will, if they’ve been given a proper set of boundaries and something confining them in one way or another (safety and security) they will rebel. They literally can be neurotic at that age! We all know it; we were all there!

We mustn’t forget that we as a society have created this space of “where we used to be and this place of reckoning” in which we find ourselves, practically bouncing off and talking past one another. Rather than allowing ourselves to be in the uncomfortable space of unknown and confusion, we typically, as culture and society, have a way of sending the pendulum swinging hard right or left rather than trusting we will be moved to a place of legitimate change and growth. When it comes to the issue, I take a much more conservative approach, knowing full well the psychological world is inconclusive as to the attempts to changing pronouns, one’s gender, and identifying in ways other than male or female. Beyond that, I’m not even sure I could argue a point for or against knowing the other aspects, the nurturing side of development, young people have grown up in during this century. We’re still too close to it all and have not had the space to evaluate fully and with objectivity.

I would argue, though, the reading often cited, Genesis 1:27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NIV), can be interpreted in a variety of ways and for our own growth needs to be. There is the mainstream belief that God created two, male and female, of which there is great truth. We can see that with our own visible eyes. However, the creation stories are much more about creating a new world order out of chaos and confusion. There is a great separation taking place, between heavens and earth, and all the rest from the writer of the Genesis account, but then there’s the reconciliation of bringing what was separated, divided, and chaotic into one. It is, in the spiritual realm, the primary goal, two becoming one.

It’s short-sighted to limit it to marriage, although a legitimate interpretation. There are, though, many of us who are not married and do not enter into such union. Does it simply eliminate the rest of us and serve no purpose or value to our own lives? Does, somehow, the illusion of the other, complete us, resonate within us, even though it’s flawed thinking? In my experience, the healthiest of relationships are between two who have done their own hard work and sought that interior reconciliation within themselves. In other words, people who have learned to love themselves first. It certainly does not indicate perfection, though, since the work is never done and the other often does reveal blind spots as to what we need to confront about ourselves.

The marriage of male and female, on the surface is one thing. However, there is a deeper marriage we’re invited into, within our own spiritual journey, our own given gender of male and female and the masculine soul of the woman and the feminine soul of the man. It may be needed now more than ever! Patrick, the pastor, made a very necessary point and a reality we at times have witnessed in politics and religious life. Strong, authentic women who have done their work expose the insecure, boyish men who we have often settled for in many aspects of our life, boys in a man’s body, never having had to mature beyond teen years. It is one of the great crises of our time, and more often than not, we just accept it as normal simply because it is so predominant in our culture. It leads to immature and underdeveloped me in positions of leadership often leading to scandal and heartlessness. His simple point, men need to love and women need to honor. When both step up their game it creates a more whole person and society.

There is, though, the issue of confusion and chaos and the challenge we now face with gender identity, gender politics, and gender roles. Like most realities, we focus on our own need and forget to evaluate the long-term implications for not establishing boundaries for young people. As I said, safety and security are key for kids. As adults we hopefully outgrow it and recognize there is no guarantee of tomorrow, all while maintaining healthy boundaries ourselves, modeling and mentoring for younger people. Young people aren’t in a position to handle such gray areas and yet it’s what we have created for them. Life is full of gray, but for kids, it’s this or that, like it or not. I was recently filling out an application asking me what pronouns I refer to myself as. I simply shook my head even though I understand why. I by no means have it all together and have questioned many things about myself and who I am, but I also know that there is a deeper identity that defines me more than a gender. It is the marriage of masculine and feminine in my own life. It’s not like we don’t get into bitter battles at time, of course, the battle within myself. It is, though a marriage requiring constant work and the only one leading to greater wholeness.

At a time when safety and security are necessary, it would behoove us to teach the many facets of ourselves before we go through drastic measures of change, a more methodical approach to development. I by no means claim to have all the answers on such difficult subjects, but I do have the foresight necessary to recognize and ask the question, “Does just because we can mean we should?” Is it any wonder why some demand we put the skids to progress, not simply because of a lack of desire for change, but at times, because it feels like too much is being undone. If we do anything, we’d benefit society’s well-being by asking how what we do and don’t do impacts future generations, despite our reactionary nature as Americans. Living split lives has simply become the custom. We see it in the way people are abused, revealing more about ourselves than anything. We see it in the disdain towards people who are different than ourselves. We see it in the degree of immaturity existing in this moment of time.

We have, after all, forgotten the larger narrative of our lives and the deeper identity we share, in the Creator. It may be spoken in different forms and languages, but at the heart of who we are is love. When we first learn to love ourselves and be in relationship with ourselves, we find the complementarity we desire with people of other genders and find the deeper sense of safety and security in the love we really are, neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile. Simply, at the heart, we are love. It’s this perspective, to love and be love, we need in days of chaos and confusion in order to allow a new created order to be formed, not rooted in the here and now but for the generations yet unborn. Just because we can, by no means, means we should. Let’s dialogue…

To Hell With Rodgers!

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FYI:  Headlines can be misleading!  I’m really a fan of Aaron Rodgers!

“If our love of God does not directly influence, and even change, how we engage in the issues of our time on this earth, I wonder what good religion is.” – Richard Rohr

About a week ago I did something that I often try to avoid. I commented on a Facebook page (Crosswalk.com). I mainly did it because the title of the article posted was misleading. The caption simply read, “NFL Quarterback Aaron Rodgers Questions How Anyone Can Believe in God.” Out of curiosity, I opened the link, listened to the actual interview, and followed by reading some of the comments (always a mistake) only to realize most, if not all, actually read the article or listened to the interview with his girlfriend and podcast host, Danica Patrick. This may come as a shock, but that’s actually not what Rodgers said in the interview.

So, I commented. It was within minutes before a gentleman replied, chastising me and “threatening” me to prove him wrong. He was so certain that it’s what Rodgers said, inferring Rodgers would pay the price eternally. Now, I’m smart enough to know there was nothing that pointed to a sense of “openness” to dialogue with this guy, signaling religion is very black and white, with very little gray in his thinking. If I could only be that certain! Now before I go further, what Rodger’s said was he didn’t know how anyone could believe in a God that would condemn most of whom and what was created by the same God. If you actually take the time to listen to the podcast, Rodgers exemplifies a rather mature understanding of God and faith, practically opposite of what I encountered with the gentleman who replied to me, and quite frankly, proving Rodgers’ point in the first place.

Spiritual writers agree, as Rohr does in the quote leading off this post, that the maturity and health of a society are often directly linked to the health, or even lack thereof, of religion. I am well aware that there are many ministers on the frontline who work tirelessly seeking transformed hearts. I was one of them myself. However, the general degree of healthiness is abysmal, seeming to be hanging by artificial means. Religion, all too often, comes down to dogmatic statements, moral truths, purity codes, and creeds, all fine in and of themselves. However, when religion remains at that level, around means of control, belief, and a fear of a God that Rodgers speaks of, few are challenged to go to the greater depths the gospels demand, you are lacking in one thing…go, then come, follow me. The “burden of proof” needed to be placed upon religion is not about the accumulation, but the degree it teaches in simplicity, letting go, and a radical interior poverty, the changed heart that is desperately needed in society.

When religion begins to fail, just as it is with a failure in leadership, a vacuum is created for other gods to be manifested, and most certainly in the way we want to see the world. We become masters at projecting that image onto God, as if the Divine somehow chooses sides and it’s always our side that stands on the higher ground, moral principle, etc. In other words, pride. Now if we view it in that way, we can see the gods we have created in our political system, seeking a savior that will give us all we want. I believe early on in Hebrew Scripture it’s called the golden calf, with shiny, glittering gold and shrouded in incessant noise. We have two parties (yes, both) who have established creeds, moral truths, dogmatic statements, but maybe most dangerous, purity codes built in as to who’s in and who’s out. It’s a natural codependency that comes from an addictive culture. One will lead to heaven, the other to hell. One will lead to salvation, the other eternal damnation. Of course, both believe they’re right and the way, the truth, and the light.

This is where religion has served so many wrong. Religion, as an American institution, continues to cling, in shameful ways, to an image of God that does not suffice. Too much has been studied to know of the relation between images of God and our own background. Purity codes, in whatever purpose they serve, serve only to maintain the people who want to somehow attain “eternal life” while watching the rest be damned, as if somehow this is God’s plan. The arrogance and ignorance associated with such thinking, in the form of pride, prevents our eyes from seeing others, let alone ourselves, as human beings, but rather winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, heaven-bound and hell-bound. The gods we create become attached to issues and agendas that serve the purpose of the gods and the religion they serve. These gods are not about serving the common good, rather, they are about serving themselves.

Religion has failed us and continues to do so while clinging to a autocratic god that is always out to get us or at times, even a god that has no grounding in truth, both of which are bankrupt of any moral compass to point to the real truth. There’s almost an expectation that politics will fail us. However, when religion fails us there are real consequences. The gods we ascribe to, of winners and losers, rich and poor, or any other way, are never the gods transforming hearts. As a matter of fact, they thrive on division, competition, comparison, so that there is never a level playing field of humans journeying towards the same truth. It’s about pride, a pride that never admits wrong-doing, a pride that shatters the soul.

If you want to work for change, do it first by demanding more out of religion. Whether it stings or not, Aaron Rodgers is correct. If religion is about fear, then consider yourself afraid. If your religion is about winners and losers, consider yourself lost. If your religion is about certainty, consider yourself missing the marrow of life. If your religion is about purity codes and who’s in and out, consider yourself out. If anything is learned of the gospels, it’s that God is much more in the paradox than what we believe to be pure and certain. In the end, it simply leads to blame and victimhood and never affording ourselves the opportunity to look at our lives through a new lens of a transformed heart. True religion moves us towards integration, not separation.

The days of blame and victimhood must come to an end. Both stand in direct opposition of the faith and trust that a mature religion teaches. If our religion is not leading us to freedom, courage, truth, life, then I dare say, as Rohr says, then what good is it? It’s time for each of us to pause and ask ourselves the deeper questions that plague us. It’s time to demand more from religion than the gods we have settled for, lacking real leaders and settling for authoritarians. If we continue to settle, we mustn’t ask why things never change for the change we really desire begins with us, a change of our own heart. For then their eyes were opened and their hearts burned within them…demand more.

When Luck Runs Out

One of the biggest stories coming out as the NFL kicks off its 2019 regular season is the “retirement” of Andrew Luck from the Indianapolis Colts. It’s strange to say retirement for someone as young as him, turning a rather young 30 years old this week, but it was enough to spark much debate. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the amount of money that hangs in the balance when a player chooses to step away, even at the most inopportune time. It goes beyond the Indianapolis Colts, jersey and ticket sales, but also in fantasy football that billions riding on the health and weekly play of the athletes. It is easy to understand why so many would feel rage against him, even if far from being justified, but it also says much about our priorities and values that we hold as a culture and people.

However, if you listen to him speak, or better yet, read the transcript of his press conference, we should be doing nothing but praising him for his decision to call it quits. After his initial statement of the endless cycle of pain and injury, Luck goes onto say, “I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live… I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I’d choose me, in a sense. It’s very difficult; I love this team, I love my teammates, the folks in our building, the folks in this building, the fans, the game of football, and as part of this team, as a member of this team, and because of how I feel, I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”

What takes some a lifetime to figure out, Luck managed to see after six seasons, with the help of pain and injury, coupled with a love for family, to see it just wasn’t working for him. He realized that his heart was no longer, if at all, in the game. When the heart is pulling in one direction but the lure of the ego, success, money, fame, stardom, having it all, pulls in the other, it is only a matter of time when our own pain awakens us to what is missing in our lives. What we do simply remains and the doing level leading to burnout with the desire for greater meaning and purpose constantly tugging at our hearts, trying to awaken us to something more in our lives, often right in front of our eyes.

For someone who recognized that football was all about team and the other, it almost seems selfish, in the end, that he’d call it quits. All the expectations of fans for another great season, receivers and others who have become comfortable with Luck’s methods, if not aware themselves, can see it simply as that, a selfish act; hence, all the hoopla around his retirement. It’s even difficult for him to say it in that statement knowing that it is all about the team and the other. However, Luck had to choose the deeper self that called out from within him reminding him that he’s more than football and stardom, which over time naturally wears off for someone not playing with heart and soul.

I’ve heard more than enough of my share of people who end their lives with regrets about their lives and the choices made as to how to live it. For so many, it is about getting by, work enough to get the kids through college, have a nice home, and simply being able to breathe. We’re often convinced that that’s what it’s all about; the pinnacle of one’s adult life. Hopefully, though, there should always be something tugging at us like it did for Andrew Luck. There should always be something in us reminding us of something bigger than ourselves that there’s something more for us out there that becomes flushed out with each choice we make every day not to settle or get by, but to live.

This is what makes Luck so hated by some and yet praised by others, like myself. He got to that point in his life long before I ever did. Sure, he had the help of physical pain and suffering that was taking a toll on his life. But for him, and me, for that matter, that’s what it often takes. It’s when we start to feel the pain that lies within of ignoring the deeper call for meaning and purpose that goes beyond a title or position. It never goes away. We simply live with the daily choice to ignore and regret or to feel more deeply into it and live. It’s the invitation that Luck has accepted for himself by stepping away from it all, no matter the circumstances, reaction, or anything else from anyone else. In the end, he knew in his heart of hearts that it was the right thing and would no longer live with regret.

Luck has a great deal to teach us if we allow ourselves to step back and ask ourselves what’s most important to us in life. We can continue to be “stuck in this process” and come to the “proverbial fork in the road”, choosing what leads to further pain and a sense of violence against our own hearts and souls, and at times it seems like all we can do. However, the “proverbial fork” does not always return. When the moment comes, and knocks us off our feet, we know at that point that we have no other choice but to walk away what has hurt us, whether work or relationship. It’s what Luck chose in that very moment, even if it seems to be the most inopportune time. We often don’t get to choose when that moment arrives. All we can do is choose in that moment, when all luck seems to have run out in our life, to allow ourselves to be pushed towards life and what first gives meaning and purpose.

Passing Under

causeway

For years now, Acadia has been a place to not only vacation and separate, but a place to connect and reconnect with what is most real about myself and the known fragility of a life that finds itself twisting and turning in ways that are often difficult to comprehend with the given mind but only more clearly seen when lived into and experienced in an incarnate way. There’s one spot, with such value in Maine simply known as “the causeway”. The causeway, just as its name implicates, connects different areas of land, homes on one side and a golf course on the other, only separated by Norwood Cove, leading out to the endless blue of the Atlantic.

I can’t even begin to speak of the number of times I have stood on that causeway and wondered and prayed, often looking for answers and dreaming to life’s difficulties and my own dissatisfaction with life over the years, only to come up short, leaving it behind one more time to simply a dream of what stands on the other side. This year, though, was going to be different. I could just feel it upon arriving in Southwest Harbor that after a year of tremendous loss, professionally and personally, the trip to “the causeway” was going to be different. There was no more time for dreams and questions, getting lost in my own thoughts; rather, it was a time to experience the causeway in a new way that would spark images and thoughts that went beyond the head to the very heart and soul that stood, year after year, yearning and dreaming for something more out of life.

It wasn’t long after arriving that I changed course and rather than standing at the center of the causeway, I jumped in one of the kayak’s and began to experience the space from a different perspective. After so many run-ins with water over the years, I’ve hesitated kayaking there, always feeling fearful that I would get pulled into the undertow of the current. Something told me, though, that Sunday evening, that I was to brave it and pass through the causeway. I didn’t know when it would happen but I did know that I had to time it perfectly when the tide was just right, coming into Norwood, when, at least from the surface, it looked as if the water was perfectly still.

As the week wore on, the passing through remained on the back of the mind. I climbed Acadia Mountain, grieved along Bass Harbor’s rocky coast, sat with the stillness of Long Pond, all before the time had come, early one morning as the vision quest was drawing to a close, I pulled out the kayak with a particular mission. I left shore with many unknowns, whether the time was right, was the tide high enough, questions and doubts whether I should put myself through the experience, knowing that the water had already broke and the passing through was all but necessary. The cove, over the years, had become to well-known and confining. I knew every inch of the area, where to look for sunsets, the name of each mountains, even a sense of the golf course on the other side. It was no longer about what was on the other side in terms of landmass, but what was on the other side of the cove that had become so comfortable over the years.

The Cove, though, was summoning me to go forward and so there I was early Friday morning, sun already over the horizon, water slowly coming to the necessary stillness, and as I stared down that causeway, what rushed over me were all the voices that have held me back over the years, telling me to settle for the fear I was trapped in, the comfort of the cove, and simply try to forget about what was lying beyond it. There all the voices stood on that causeway that morning sending up flares to stop, to turn around, to forget, to stay with what you know and what’s comfortable. All of it, though, standing against a heart and soul that knew and knows better. All of it standing against a heart and soul that knowns and understands its value and wanting more, pushing against the negativity and the mindfulness of a tortured soul for many years.

As hard as I could, I paddled. The rush of the incoming tide seemed insurmountable at times. It would have been much easier to allow myself to get pushed back into the all too familiar Cove, staying trapped in the unhappiness and dissatisfaction of life. In the end, though, the fire of a heart and soul, like a quiet thunder, beat with great life, to go and to push and to push hard. It would be a birth like none other, a new life with so many unknowns and great lessons in trust that all will be well. All I could remember was paddling as hard as I could, fighting the current, fighting all the thoughts, in order to experience what was lying beyond and ahead of me. I looked down, doubting, only to lift my eyes forward one more time knowing this time was different.

The push seemed almost like nothing when I finally arrived on the other side, now facing the endless water of the Atlantic that lies beyond the Sound. The most memorable part, as I sat in the kayak, simply taking in life from a different perspective, was that I could breathe, no longer tethered to what was and the familiar. Popping through the water, an unfamiliar guest, a seal that made its way in, sparked my interest. After a week reflecting on spirit animals, it was as if this one followed me for a few days, trying to bring something to the surface. The seal points toward creativity and imagination, a summons to listen to the inner self rather than all the voices that stood on that causeway, to allow a new way of living to come to land. As sea-bearing as seals are, they give birth on land, enfleshed, per se. It is only after that they learn to swim, rather than drown, through difficult situations. The seal, like the causeway, stood as strong metaphors for a life yet to be lived.

Without a doubt, the past months have been times of great trials and loss like never before. I knew that the one place I was to return was Acadia, and to once again seek the counsel of God’s first incarnation in the pristine creation of that area. It’s an area that has brought about great healing over the years but has also challenged me in ways like no other. From the start, that inner voice reminded me that this year was different, and different it has been. On one side of a cove stood the image of artificial means of life support, no longer giving the life that was needed for that deeper imagination. On the other stood a great unknown, waiting to be explored and to give the opportunity to breathe once again. There were tears and laughter, questions and difficulties, but the invitation to allow myself to be birthed drew me over and over again to that causeway. It was a causeway of wonder and fear over the years. For once, though, my eyes were opened to the heart and soul, no longer standing as an obstacle but rather an invitation to something new, and more importantly, someone new.

 

Miracles on Earth

One of the most unsettling things for someone like me is arriving in an unknown place, containing unknown people, and not knowing quite what to expect when you allow yourself to be open to wherever the Spirit may be leading in life. If there is any attachment to any sense of comfort and consistency, it’s probably the easiest and quickest way to unbalance the equilibrium of life. For an added bonus, take away the comforts of a life once lived, showering regularly and the such, and watch any sense of stability slip through your hands while opening yourself to a whole new experience and a whole new way of life being revealed to and through you.

I suppose it’s the nature of the incarnational God moment in Bethlehem that invites us into such a reality, where the most vulnerable becomes enfleshed in the very human reality, one that has existed from before the beginning of time, when we enter into this world and leave behind the confines of what has nurtured us and fed us in ways that we’d now learn how to do on our own. It’s often a painful process that invites us into becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable of our lives, pushing us to the brink of change and the consistent edge of seeking the unknown ways that God still desires to reveal in and through us. It is at Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem of our own lives, where that process begins to unfold in our hearts and souls, where not only us, but God becomes equal with, bridging the divide that separates the authentic being that we are and are so often stands in the way of living a life more fully in the gift of Bethlehem, that somehow even manages to find a way to conquer even death itself.

This week was my first week here at Bethlehem Farms in West Virginia. It’s rather appropriate knowing my own story these months that I’d find myself back at the beginning, in a place that takes pride in a name that recalls for us the gift given and continues to give in Bethlehem. There was and is nothing neat and fancy about Bethlehem, a child born in a stable, straw strewn with animal dung, odors that spill over into the creases of our bodies, reminding us of our humanity and the gift we share with all God’s creation, that there is nothing that separates and divides but we ourselves at times. It’s often in reconnecting with the most basic elements of who we are in the order of creation where we reconnect with Bethlehem in a more real and profound way, waking at the break of day, chores, daily routines, prayer, and of course, the sharing of meals that makes Bethlehem what it was and is, the heart and soul of who we are in God’s plan.

It’s all the discomforts of walking into those unfamiliar places, raising the awareness of our own shame and guilt for living lives disconnected from one another, from creation, and even from ourselves at times. Bethlehem, and the miracle of Bethlehem, like the celebration of birth in any of God’s creation, is it manages to pull us into the most present moment of our lives, where nothing else matters than what lies before us. The pain of such a journey begins to wane. The wonder and awe, dreams of a life given birth is all that lies before us when we allow ourselves to be open to the voice of God enfleshed in others, nature, the natural world, the animals, and all living creatures that when created were good, even very good.

There’s nothing quite as magical as watching life unfold, especially the lives of young people who have their eyes opened to something beyond the life they have lived. Even in their own experience of Bethlehem we have no idea when they enter the world how their lives will unfold, all we know is that it somehow happened in and through us along the way. It will be their own openness to a different way of life and allowing themselves to be connected in varying ways, where they too can find themselves questioning the ways of the world, seeds planted beyond the beds of a garden, but in the hearts and souls of all who pass through the ravines of Bethlehem, looking for a new way of life, a different way of life, recognizing that there must be something more for them in life beyond the phones, games, and fast-paced world of success that never quite satisfies. Rather, finding the treasure of life and birth in the community gathered in prayer, in work, in meal, all moving towards the common goal of making the world a better place, a more sustainable place, and never quite being satisfied with the comfort, but finding comfort in the discomfort of Bethlehem that is always calling and beckoning to come forth to a new life in and through God. It’s the true miracle of Bethlehem.

Many walked through the bowels of Bethlehem searching for the “king” and a new way of life, somehow believing what it is they’d search for all their life would be found in a far distant land only to find that it lies within, that the gift of Bethlehem is in the birth of joy, compassion, and love in our own hearts. More often than not we will search in similar ways, believing that what it is we seek lies somehow and somewhere beyond us, taking us on a journey, at times, seemingly, thousands of miles away. It’s the nature of who we are as humans to seek what it is we desire beyond ourselves. More than anything we seek love and to be loved, only coming with our own oneness with others, with God, with all of creation, when we finally begin to accept that there is nothing, as Paul writes to the Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

The journey to Bethlehem is a long one, arduous at times, wanting even to turn around and go home to what was, questioning whether the journey is really worth the time and effort. In the end, as with any birth but certainly the vulnerability that God takes on in becoming flesh, it is only in that journey where we find our deepest purpose and truly what it means to love and to accept that love in return. Love stands as the only bridge to what separates, heart to heart, flesh to flesh, man, woman, and all creation standing together, hand in hand, reminding the world that great things happen in Bethlehem and because of Bethlehem. It’s nothing that any power structure or any powers that be will ever understand, for they live with divided hearts. It’s only in the great humility of Bethlehem where it begins to make sense, that there is more to life, more to a life once lived but now being summoned in different ways, more life-giving ways, that opens to door to a journey to yet another miracle. By the guidance of a night sky and illumined stars, it once again comes to Bethlehem, surrounded by the most obvious and yet most inconspicuous places, in the comfort of the uncomfortable, God once again gives birth.

A Weighted Return

“There is a desire within each of us,
in the deep center of ourselves
that we call our heart.
We were born with it,
it is never completely satisfied,
and it never dies.
We are often unaware of it,
but it is always awake.

It is the Human desire for Love.
Every person in this Earth yearns to love,
to be loved, to know love.
Our true identity, our reason for being
is to be found in this desire…” 
Gerald May  Living in Love

“A sense of balance within spaciousness remains within such people, like a window between infinity and the world of everyday experience. They are not only wiser and humbler because of their addictions; they are also more available. Through their spaciousness, they are continually invited homeward.” Gerald May  Addiction & Grace

I’ve never gone back.  At least not to that point.  It seemed as if there would never be a new normal.  Yet, when I began this journey, simultaneously, the spiritual journey as well, I weighed in at over 300 pounds.  It makes me cringe to even type that and admit it at this point in my life.  But I’ve also never gone back.  Sure, there have been many plateaus and stumbles over the years, but now I find myself in a place with more than a hundred of it gone, for good.  By the way, to get to this point has been now over twenty years.  Almost half my life.  Even that seems hard to believe.

I think, more than anything, it’s the reasons for doing it that change over time.  There are, of course, health risks that come with obesity, that are beyond my understanding at times.  Yet, like most, I didn’t like to be told I needed to lose the weight because of those reasons nor did it ever seem possible.  Over time, some of those voices did win out and it became one reason to do it, but it was never the best reason to keep it off nor does it deal with the reasons as to why food and eating were so pleasurable or how it was actually feeding me.  The thought of not having that defense mechanism, though, was too daunting.  If there was one way to protect myself it was to put up a physical barrier around myself, preventing not only me but others from coming in.  Health reasons are noble but not necessarily sustainable in the end.

Without a doubt, others, are a good motivating force and another reason for doing it, but like health, not always sustainable as a reason.  The problem with building that defense mechanism is that it necessarily does more harm to me than others.  It became a way to isolate myself, paradoxically, often from myself.  The desire to please, fit in, be liked and noticed, or even attracted to, was a strong driving force for some time.  Any desire around attraction and sexuality run deep.  They are, though, double-edged swords more often than not.  The more I wanted that to be my reason and my driving force only worked against me, wanting to eat all the more when that desire was not satisfied.  What appeared to be as May writes, a desire for love, was never going to be fulfilled in such a way.  It was looking for approval and acceptance from everyone but myself.  I was convinced, an addiction to my own thoughts, that that was the answer.  If I could only find love, in the way I thought, which was more about approval and acceptance, that would somehow solve the missing link in my life.  That was the answer to the deeper hunger that food satiated, leaving the longing to grow even deeper and an endless pit and dump for more food.  The defense mechanism, the exterior wall around myself, only grew sturdier.

That thinking did finally solidify for me and the defense mechanism, as a means for survival.  It will, though, always mark a significant turning point, both physically and spiritually for me, October 2003.  At that point I was six years into this journey and was at my best, up to that point.  I was at my lowest weight in lived memory, and in an instant, it all fell apart.  I quickly realized just how fragile this new-found way was for me when my life was almost cut short following a rafting accident.  Life became much more about survival and questions that had no answers.  It seemed that the only thing certain in my life was food, or least how I saw food.  Those moments, that turned into months, solidified in a way that I never thought possible, how I felt about myself, projecting it all onto God, questioning why I was plucked from the raging river.  It wasn’t as some would think, as to preferring death, but rather why I was pulled from “the belly of the whale”, as to what was being asked of me in this life and would I have it in me to do it!  It all seemed daunting where all I wanted to do in those moments was crawl into a closet and hide, fearing life all the more, eating as a way to protect myself, when in reality, I was simply feeding the voices of shame and guilt.  Yet, I never went back.  It became an endless cycle of eating and exercising to the point of exhaustion, simply to stay where I was, at least knowing on some level that going back was not the answer.  I knew that and know that, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

If I could sum up the fifteen years since that moment, I’d say it was one of trying to crawl my way back to where I was and fighting all the way.  I firmly believed that was the answer.  If I could only return to the way life was before that day then all would be well.  I can’t even begin to explain how many times I thought that and said that, thinking somehow I could turn back the clock and erase all that had happened.  What I didn’t know, though, was just how much the “stinkin’ thinkin’” had held its grip on me.  As much as clawing and fighting were the name of the game, there was a gradual process unfolding through it all that was unlearning what had been learned.  It wasn’t, as May points out, the “spaciousness” of what was within that I feared the most, it was that feeling of being trapped, the weight of a raft, an other, atop me, drowning in my own feelings and desires and desiring the dark confines of that enclosed space to that spaciousness.  There wasn’t even space for myself, let alone anyone else, in what I would describe now as some of the roughest seas of my life, often feeling like I was gasping for air.  Fighting it all the way, of course.  Wanting to go back and yet knowing that wasn’t the answer. The weight I carried on the exterior very much symbolized the weight I carried within my own heart and soul, a grief unlike any other.

Food, though, like alcohol, drugs, internet, or whatever the pleasure, is merely a symptom of something much deeper.  That spaciousness only seemed to open up within me as I learned to write, page after page, writing to a God that I needed to listen.  I needed someone that could know my deepest thoughts and desires without judgment.  I had done enough of that myself and couldn’t handle a God doing the same.  I was sick, in my own way, and didn’t have the ability to go to where I needed to in life, to the deepest recesses of my heart and soul that held the key to unlocking the secrets to the symptoms that plagued my life.  There was nothing easy about any of it, quite frankly.  At times I feared sharing these writings with anyone; the shame and guilt of who I thought I was ran deep.  All I could imagine was myself hovering over me, stick in hand, ready to pounce.  Eating became the solution.  Eating became an escape from reality.  It allowed me to create my own reality, one that would protect me from the pains of the world.  Little did I know that it merely fed the deepest pains of my own life.  The desire, as May points out, is to love and to be loved.  I didn’t know what that meant, at least in my own life.  I hadn’t even learned to love myself.  How could I possibly love another?

Page after page and sentence after sentence, it seemed as if God was finally listening.  I was falling less and less into eating.  The more I became with the spaciousness as a new way of life, the more I had room “in the inn” for others who were hurting, and sometimes in similar ways. I learned to let go of unrealistic expectations, that somehow losing weight was the answer to all my problems.  I’ve had to tell myself that one many times over.  I could never quite understand what the deeper hunger was that was driving me to eat all the more.  It was a hunger that never seemed to be satisfied.  It was a hunger for connection.  It was a hunger for intimacy.  It was a hunger for love and to be loved.  It felt, at times, like a freefall into the unknown, and with each fall God seemed to hoist me up all the quicker or I became more aware of the fall each time.

I’m not convinced that it ever goes away.  I suppose that’s why addicts continue to claim that with each passing day.  Yeah, it gets easier.  I get that.  But as much as I don’t like to admit it, I also believe that the fall is the key over and over again.  It seems that with each fall it’s not into spaciousness at first.  Rather, it leads me to that trapped space, the confines of the closet, that becomes the passage way each and every time.  Every time I’m asked to give up a little more, surrender this way of thinking, because my thinking seems to be almost chameleon-like, changing with me and finding new ways to seduce me into believing that acceptance and approval are found beyond myself.  As much as I try to turn it off myself, I know it’s only in the moment of surrender, when I stop clawing and fighting, when something bigger than myself takes hold.

Losing weight, or dealing with any addictive behavior or thinking, is never easy, but it holds the key to the life we desire and the deeper hungers that remind us of our humanity.  At times I’ve said I’d rather be an alcoholic for at least I don’t need alcohol to live.  I’ve learned to live without a great deal in the process and with that I am ok.  All forms of addictive behavior or thinking was designed to protect us from hurt.  We all have some tendencies.  It’s manipulated in a consumer world convincing us that our deeper hungers, which are very much connected with our deepest hurts, can somehow be “taken care of” by something, whether it be food, alcohol, drugs, etc.  Although in the past month or so I have surpassed that point of October 2003, finally, there were mixed emotions through that process of crossing a threshold I had placed for fifteen years.

The very fact that I sit here writing this now has taken a lot of coaxing because it’s very personal to me.  It has been the loss of a great deal of who I thought I was over the years, and now, at times, as I step out of the confines, I’m left often wondering how to live my life.  It’s no longer the question of survival, but about what truly feeds the deepest hungers in my life and how does that love manifest itself in the life God has given me.  I’m left with trying to make sense out of what it all means in the days and months ahead.  There is, if I am honest with myself, a sense of grief and dying that is taking place within myself that I myself am not even able to yet comprehend or even put into words.  That’s not easy to admit.  Everyone wants to assume I feel better and have more energy, and on a physical level that is very true.  I have never been more active in my life.  However, the certainty has vanished and the defense mechanism is no longer standing in the way of the mystery of life and relationship.  I find myself looking for deeper meaning in my own life and in friendships.  It’s caused me to pause and question who is in my life and are they in the realm of that space.

I guess the bottom line is, like the rafting accident, I find myself asking questions that there aren’t really answers to, or not as quickly as I’d like.  But it’s different this time and the questions are open to possibility rather than shutting myself off, vulnerability rather than superficial, free rather than confining.  You see, at some point I finally began to see that it wasn’t about health and it wasn’t about others, as much as I’m still driven to think so at times.  Rather, it’s about me and the life entrusted to me by God.  I needed to learn acceptance.  I needed to learn love.  I needed to learn to feel and express.  I needed to be vulnerable.  I needed to step out of my own box.  I needed more than I could express and thankfully there have been people, friends, along the way who believed in me in that way.  I needed to believe in myself.

The journey “homeward” is never an easy one.  As a matter of fact, each time it appears you’re “getting there” new obstacles appear that open the door for deeper opportunity.  Deep down I have always wanted to do this for myself.  I believe that desire has always been there, that somehow I knew there was more to me than what I carried with me day in and day out.  I was never satisfied, and quite frankly, not sure I will ever be satisfied.  It’s in my DNA to question and to go deeper, either with others or within myself.  With every bite I took I knew there was something that was trying to be revealed.  The more I became aware, the more it was revealed.  I’ve never gone back and never plan on going back, to that place, at least.  When “home” is finally found nothing else satisfies the hunger.  Food, eating, addiction, has something very profound to teach if we’re willing to believe, to unlearn the learned, and to be open to the pain of others to enter in and teach.  The reasons change with age but so does what gives meaning and purpose.  What doesn’t change, though, is that hunger to love and to be loved.  When we recognize it as the eternal addiction we finally learn that nothing else satisfies and nothing will ever be enough except the utter abandonment of it all and a total trust in God as we fall into the mystery of our lives, broken and redeemed.  For “God does not love us if we change; God loves us so we can change.”

 

 

 

Shema Yisra’el

Deut 6: 2-6; Mark 12: 28-34

Even if we tried we couldn’t have chosen better readings than these, summing up the Jewish faith as the Tree of Life Synagogue continues to bury their dead and deal with the tragedy of last weekend.  For our Jewish brothers and sisters and for ourselves, it all comes down to the shema, the great commandment that Moses passes along to Israel today.  It’s a prayer recited three times a day, a consistent reminder to a people throughout the centuries, that, when faced with so many false gods and idols, even to our own day, there is but one God that sees us through this life.  Yet, like many of our own prayers, they tend to be words.  They can come easily off our lips and not have much meaning or while we continue to cling to our own gods that provide us comfort and safety.  It helps to know their meaning and why they stand as so important to people of faith, especially in the face of such tragedy.

Today we hear that context from the Book of Deuteronomy, in our first reading.  It’s Moses that passes the prayer along to his fellow Israelites.  If you can imagine yourself on the cusp of something new, that’s exactly where Israel finds itself in this reading.  After forty years of wandering in the desert they have finally arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land.  They can finally see it with the naked eye, lying just before them, and now there is this pause before passing through.  Of course, like us there is a sense of excitement and anticipation as they prepare to take that last step, but there’s also fear and resistance in facing the unknown, of what lies ahead for them after years of slavery and then wandering in the desert, Moses assures them that before the pass over, they can finally let go of all the other false gods and idols that they’ve had to confront about themselves in these forty years and finally enter into relationship with this one God that has seen them to this point.

It’s bittersweet, though, because as Moses passes on this message, Israel will now be left with a choice.  A choice that can no longer be made by him.  It’s now going to have to be their doing and from their own heart as to whether they trust this God so much that they’re willing to step into the unknown, into the life that has been promised for ages to come.  For Moses, though, it marks the end of the journey.  He never has the opportunity to walk into the Promised Land with them.  He’s taken them as far as he could and will die before they arrive.  It’s as if Moses himself becomes the final stumbling stone for Israel.  He had become their crutch in difficult times.  He’s led them through this, often with trepidation and his own sense of insecurity.  He’s gotten angry at God and at his people.  Despite not crossing over, Moses has already experienced the Promised Land.  He doesn’t need to go to this physical place because he’s already at home in himself and with God, within his very being.  It’s why the words mean so much coming from Moses at this time.  He’s done the journey with them and now they must cross over at their own doing, by affirming their own trust in this God.

Then there’s Jesus, who of course takes it to a new level.  He intertwines the two commandments, and as we’ve heard him say before, he’s well aware of how easy it is for everyone to recite this prayer and not really mean it.  Jesus, the one who manifests the shema now points the way that the same it true for us.  To come to an understanding, as his student does today, we have to make it our own and it is manifested by the way we live our lives, with a sense of integrity, that the prayer isn’t just something we say but rather prove by the way we love our neighbor.  The twist, though, is that we don’t get to choose who our neighbor is.  That doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t try.  It’s what often causes tension between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his time.  They want to decide who’s worthy of that love, a conditional love at best.  They want nothing to do with the Samaritans.  They want nothing to do with the Gentiles.  Of course, even when Israel finally passes into the Promised Land, even their immediate response is revenge and vengeance against their enemies.  It will lead them, time and again, into exile because of their own failure to embrace the fullness of love of God and neighbor.  Their false gods that Moses had told them they can finally let go of, find ways of creeping back in, wanting security, safety, fear, territory, and all the rest to rule the day and the prayer becomes words once again.  It’s not to say we don’t experience that tension between what God desires and demands of us through the gospels and our own frail humanity.  That’s a part of our human condition.  It’s when we abandon it and create gods for ourselves when the prayer becomes hallow and shallow, as we so often see in our own time and day.  As much as they desire the freedom that comes with loving in such an unconditional way, they’d prefer their own way and their own gods.

We can say the same of our own society and country.  We love to say how much we love God and how central God is to our lives and what we do.  But does it really?  Aren’t we just simply offering lip service as well?  We cling to false gods and idols in our day and age, reminding us that we find ourselves wandering through the desert as Israel had for forty years.  We want to decide it all rather than learning to trust the God of the unknown, of mystery, of the promise for all ages, the God who strips us of all of our own gods and teaches us what it truly means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and all the other ways we translate it, ultimately with our entire being.  Moses points the way.  Jesus points the way and is the way.  Yet, we still want to decide who’s worthy of our love.  We can’t say we’re anti-black, anti-brown, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, and all the rest, and still have the audacity to utter such words as the shema, of loving God with all our heart, soul, being.  That’s not the God of mystery and promise.  It’s our own god we’ve created for ourselves.  They’re words, and hallow words at best, at that point.  If we love any God, we love our own gods, as Israel did in those forty years, the gods of fear, safety, security, of what was known, of vengeance, and all the others they were forced to confront in those days in order to learn to love in the way God loves, unconditionally.

Like Israel, we’re given a choice as we stand at the cusp.  Our faith reminds us that we’re always on the cusp, the threshold of something new by this God of mystery and unknown.  Israel is given the choice to take that leap of faith, as we are this day and at this time, the leap of faith into the unknown.  Sure, with a sense of anticipation and excitement, but also with fear and trepidation grounding us in our humanity.  Are we going to take that leap of faith or do we run back, as Israel so often did, clinging to our gods and idols of fear, hate, resentment, certainty, safety, security, and all the rest.  All of those gods require so much energy on our part and only lead to a greater gap between each other and with God, trapped wandering in the desert, and without the freedom of love we desire.  The shema, and our own prayer, must be more than words.  Like Moses, it must become a very part of our being, a central part of who we are so that they are no longer simply words, but the very way we live our lives.  Words matter, especially when they’re prayer and a declaration of the one God over all other gods.  We stand at the cusp and are given a choice to love God with all our heart, soul, being, and only then our neighbor, all people, unconditionally, as ourselves.