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.

Hungering For More

Wisdom 7: 7-11; Hebrews 4: 12-13; Mark 10: 17-30

We live in a time often referred to as the “Information Age”.  We all have little gadgets in our pockets that we can pull out and find a wealth of knowledge, information, useless facts, and you name it, all at our fingertips.  It’s become something like an extra appendage of ours as we carry them around, always in contact and answers without any kind of wait.  Yet, there’s a downside to it all.  We have, in many ways, lost a sense of mystery or the unknown, when we would have to wait for information or news and now it comes with just a click.  We’ve also lost a sense of truth and depth.  Ironically, the truth seems to always be the people I agree with and yet a deeper sense of truth is gone.  The very thing that was supposed to keep us connected has in many ways made us even less so, leaving us with a deeper hunger and thirst for something more out of life, a deeper sense of truth, wisdom, and connectivity.  All of us, as well, who learned computers early on learned first hand that they are binary, the ones and zeros, and nothing more.  That too feeds into the great divide that exists and separation that exists.  We never have to leave our corners but it also leaves us wanting more of the wrong thing rather than truth, wisdom, connectivity that can only come by allowing us to grow more deeply in our humanity rather than trying to make ourselves into computers.

Solomon, in the Book of Wisdom, points the way with such beauty.  Like us, he looked for satisfaction out of all the ways of the world, through power, position, wealth, possessions, even health as he points out today.  Yet, nothing seemed to satisfy the deeper longing in his heart.  All of the ways of the world simply seemed to pass and he was left all the more hungry for something out of life.  He takes the turn inward, growing in relation to the living word of God, and his life begins to change.  He begins to grow more deeply into the truth and wisdom that he desired, spelling it out for us today in such beautiful feminine language.  Solomon learns, as we all do, that the only way to wisdom isn’t through knowledge and information, nor even the ways of the world.  Rather, for Solomon it was growing more deeply into his own humanity, learning the nuances of life rather than the binary ways of the world, connecting with the deeper places within his heart and soul.  It wasn’t by accumulating anything, but rather learning to let it go and creating space for the true God and Solomon grows into one of the great wisdom figures.

It was the same for the writer of Hebrews and the community in which he writes.  This is a community that had grown stagnate and drifting away from its mission and purpose.  They had lost sight of their own deeper humanity and connectivity and had grown bored with the word, no longer capable of hearing and listening and being moved by the Word.  The writer reminds them and us that the true Word is living and effective, sometimes even when we aren’t expecting it, cutting us like a two-edged sword.  A relationship with the Word is the only one that can cut through the hardening that begins to happen in our lives or even the numbing that takes place by staring at screens, objectifying our humanity rather than growing more deeply into it.  Ultimately, it’s our own thirst for knowledge and thinking we need to know and accumulating information that leaves us hungering for more while feeling empty.  It begins the slow process of disconnecting us from our hearts.

Of course, we then come to the pinnacle with the story of the rich man in today’s gospel.  Here’s a man who had everything.  He had wealth.  He had power.  He had position.  Heck, he even thought he was perfect in the eyes of God and was in a very binary way.  He had the life so many dream of.  Yet, despite literally having it all, including a knowledge of this God, it wasn’t enough.  He was left feeling empty and still wanting more out of life.  He settled for hiding behind his own screen per se, when it came to God, rather than entering into relationship.  His way of thinking and this desire for perfection, often associated with being right and superior, became an obstacle towards God.  All we know is as the story is told that he leaves sad.  There is a deep sadness that hangs over this man and he walks away.  He’s sad because he couldn’t give up his possessions.  He was even more sad because he recognized that they also would never satisfy that longing within.  After an encounter with the living Word in Jesus, he doesn’t feel all warm and fuzzy, but rather a deep sadness of what his life had become and yet feels trapped within by his own choosing.  We never know if that Word finally penetrates his heart and moves him to a deeper place in his own humanity and to enter into relations with the most vulnerable, the poor.  It was easier to keep them at a distance.  Yet, the two-edged sword cuts him straight through where it needs to, straight through his heart.  Wisdom and truth aren’t found by accumulating knowledge, information, or wealth of any kind, rather, by letting go and for him, that seemed impossible.

It feels impossible for all of us.  We become possessed by our possessions, whatever they may be.  It may be easier to keep staring at a screen and keep accumulating information, but it will keep falling short and leaving us wanting more in life.  We desire that deeper wisdom and truth, that sense of connectivity and intimacy, but it’s not going to come in the ways we’re told of the world.  Rather, it comes through relationship with the living Word and through our relationships with others.  It comes through getting it wrong and failing more often than trying to present ourselves as perfect.  It comes with growing more deeply into our own humanity where we learn to see the other as ourselves rather than separate from.  Our hearts are easily hardened.  The heart of a nation and the heart of the world often stand frigid, resulting in the divisions and wars and continued poverty, sacrificing our humanity for worldly powers.  As with the rich man in today’s gospel, the choices are all placed in our hands as well.  Will we allow our possessions, whether wealth, information, phones, knowledge, or whatever, continue to possess us, captivating all our attention, leaving us hungering and thirsting for more out of life or will we allow ourselves to be possessed by the living Word, cutting through our hearts?  It comes with great price and cost but the promise of life eternal will always move us towards the truth, the wisdom, and the connectivity we truly desire and leave us fulfilled in this life and the life to come.

However…

Deut 4: 1-2, 6-8; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you want a snapshot of one of the underlying currents shaping up not only in the Church but also in our political system, look no further than our readings this morning.  Whether we care to admit it or not, purity codes and rules are ingrained in all of us but when they’re heightened to the institutional level, it only magnifies the reality.  We certainly see it in our two political parties where it’s all about being cleansed of anyone that thinks, believes, lives, or anything else differently than what is prescribed, and both are at fault for this.  It leads to us deeming the other as evil.  But the same is true in the Church.  There are battle lines drawn that go much deeper than abuse and now it’s all playing out on the world stage.  Yet, we never heed the warning that is presented to us through that very same Scripture.

Moses lays it out for Israel today in our first reading.  There is a place for purity codes, rules, laws, ritual, however you want to describe it.  For Israel it gave them a way to worship this God that has blessed them and continues to provide for them.  Unfortunately our reading ends there today.  It ends with the advantages to their fidelity to this God that always remains faithful to them.  The next word, though, if the reading were to continue is “however…”.  As much as Moses saw the value it in, it doesn’t come without warning.  The reading goes on to warn them of creating idols of the codes, rules, rituals, that it becomes more about that than it does about God.  It’s ingrained in us that way because we like to hold onto things, feel certain, and to know and all of this does it for us.  However, the more we hold onto these human traditions, as Jesus says, the more burdensome they become and end up becoming an obstacle for moving forward.  Its Moses’ warning to them and yet they don’t learn from their own history.  They’d rather toss out history.

The result is that when we get to the time of Jesus centuries later, it becomes like our government and Church, bloated by what we’d call bureaucracy.  Despite the warning from Moses about adding onto these traditions and the burden it would place on often the most disadvantaged, they did it anyway, which is where Jesus enters today.  He’s not there to chastise the codes, the rituals, or anything else, but rather that they had done exactly what Moses warned them of.  They made the laws, codes, rituals, into their own gods and then it misses the point.  All they become are idols that allow them to cling and hold onto, creating a burden on others.  The poor and marginalized often did not have the means to uphold these traditions and so of course they’d be attacked by the ruling class.  Yet, as we’ve seen in these weeks, they too become exposed in their own hypocrisy as Jesus points out today.  They miss the point.  It becomes about something other than God and the change of heart and simply about all the externals.  It’s about making ourselves look good before God with the hope of his love and to pour his grace on thee.  Heck, some will go on and use Jesus against it all when that wasn’t his point in the first place.  Jesus tries to lead them to live their lives from the inside out.  The rituals and codes are to be lived inside out, rooted in love.  When that become absent, well, we end up with what we have in our political system and our Church.

James, though, may say it the best.  He tells us today that religion is most pure when it’s about caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  For James it’s about both, as it was for Jesus.  For James, and for Jesus for that matter, it’s about a change of heart, a conversion of heart.  If that’s missing from the equation, well, none of this really matters in the end anyway.  It becomes more about us.  More about holding on.  More about the gods we create for ourselves.  It becomes about certainty and knowing which only creates an unnecessary burden because we can’t live that way, none of us.  Those that do and think they can, hypocrites as Jesus says today.  It’s not about eliminating others, but rather finding a way to reconcile and bring the two halves together to create one, to move forward rather than this continuous running into a brick wall.

We have a real problem on our hands and again, we’d be a lot better off if we’d learn from our history, both as a country and as a Church.  Yet, when all of this is so deeply ingrained, it only proves all the more that we’re missing the point.  It’s about our ideologies.  It’s about our team.  Heck, it’s about winning and when it’s about that we all lose.  All of us.  And maybe we need to.  It seemed to be the only way Israel learned despite the warning.  It seemed to be the only way the early communities learned despite the warning.  We too have been warned.  There is nothing wrong with purity codes, rules, laws, rituals.  It is but one half of the equation.  It’s the substance that we seek and will nourish.  It’s the substance that will change our hearts and open us up to greater depths of love.  It is only allowing ourselves to fall into mystery that will do it for us, into the great unknown, despite our desire to cling to what we see and know and think we can be certain of in life.  It’s our thinking more than anything and that’s all it is.  As Moses reminds, however, there’s something more important.

‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Proverbs 9: 1-6; Eph 5: 15-20; John 6: 51-58

“Watch carefully how to live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore, do not continue in ignorance (and I’d add, arrogance), but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.”  Ephesians 5: 15-17

You know, I didn’t know how I was going to preach today.  Quite honestly, I didn’t know who would show up.  Once again this Church gave us a thousand reasons to jump ship again. If you’ve been on the fence, well, good-bye, gone goes another generation. Yet, here we are, and maybe those of us who are here recognize that there’s more to all of this than the institution.  Maybe we understand, as we sang today, that our firm foundation is in something, or for that matter, someone else, in God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus.  You know I’m a Scranton guy so it’s been a little more personal.  The bishop who accepted me into formation was listed.  Heck, the bishop that ordained me, on the list for covering up and concealing and for what and to protect what.

Yet, what do we get, thoughts and prayers.  Our hearts go out to victims.  Thoughts and prayers?  Where have we heard that before.  Oh yeah, politicians every time there’s a tragedy.  Empty words.  Politicians who get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Politicians who are sorry for getting caught more than for what they had done.  Politicians who’d rather use prayer to push something away and to continue to live in denial that something needs to change.  Thought and prayers.  All the while that abuse of power continues to persist.  Sure there’s been a lot that has been put in place since 2002 but it hasn’t dealt with the heart of these issues and the abuse of power.  What do you end up with?  Just as Paul says, ignorance and arrogance on our part, failing people along the way.

I’ve been criticized over the years for not speaking on moral issues like this and here’s why.  Our foundation is not in morality nor is it in dogma. For that matter, our morality has been hijacked by politicians that it’s nearly impossible anyway without become one of them. Our foundation is in relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus.  Now you’re going to hear people say that the Church will carry on, and that’s true, it’s been through many scandals and crises in its history.  But like all the rest it still remains true that when it arises, it arises for the fact that the institution disconnects from its heart.  It disconnects from the heart of Jesus and ignorance and arrogance continue to persist.  I don’t preach it because I know full well it’s not our foundation and I can never live up to it.  None of us can!  Ever!  And if you want to preach high and almighty, do as I say and not as I do, you’re bound to fall and fall hard.  And for what?  To sacrifice one’s soul and one’s heart?  To protect what?  Quite frankly, it needs to fall a part just as much as our political system does.  They no longer serve the people but rather power.  Our firm foundation is in relationship with God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus that is always calling us to come home, to seek mercy, forgiveness, and love.  When we lose that, well, this is what we end up with, more of the same, ignorance and arrogance.  Thoughts and prayers.  It’s not enough.

The readings all touch upon it.  Today from the Book of Proverbs, Solomon compares lady wisdom with fools.  Now lady wisdom, as we heard today, has a sense of openness.  There’s freedom.  Lady wisdom is welcoming of all to the table and does not exclude or exude force upon people.  Lady wisdom finds power within that relationship with God.  Now we didn’t continue the reading today, but if you read on Solomon will compare that with following a fool.  Don’t follow a fool Solomon says.  A fool knows nothing and yet is enticing.  A fool looks to take advantage of one who is naïve and lacks sense.  A fool is unstable and senseless, all about themselves.  A fool cares only about self-interest, that same power that is abused.  There’s a difference.  Lady wisdom is more than just thoughts and prayers.  Lady wisdom understands the one who’s been abused and taken advantage of, welcoming all to the table, especially those who recognize that need.

Jesus personifies Lady wisdom as we’ve been hearing in the sixth chapter of John the past month.  You know, the one thing that gives hope is that it is often the crowd that begins to understand who this Jesus is.  They may not necessarily know what the words mean.  They may not necessarily know what he’s all about, but they do know there’s something different about him than who he’s often compared, to the Pharisees of his day.  They recognize he’s feeding them with something that is nourishing rather than the stones of the Pharisees.  It’s the Pharisees that want to fight Jesus because he becomes a threat to their power, ironically.  He threatens their control over the people who are also, do as I say, not as I do, holding people to a standard that no one is capable of!  Of course, it will lead to his death.  He becomes the scapegoat simply for gravitating to the poor, the abused, the disadvantaged.  Even he recognizes that it’s impossible for the heart of a Pharisee to be converted in their own ignorance and arrogance.

And it’s no different today.  What do we do, and this you will see as well because I’ve already seen it out there?  We scapegoat.  Well, if we get rid of this one it’ll take care of the problem.  If we get rid of gay people all will be well.  If we dump Vatican II it’ll fix everything.  If we get rid of whomever lacks the purity somehow it’ll make it all right.  Wrong.  That’s denial.  That’s trying to live with a 1950 Church in the year 2018.  We must return to the foundation.  Without a foundation we fall.  When the storms arise, and they always arise, we run.  Honestly, running is easy.  It’s much harder to weather a storm.  It’s much easier to blame.  It’s much easier to live in denial and offer our thoughts and prayers than to change.

Now, there’s only so much I can do as an insider in this institution, and I’m well aware of that.  However, it doesn’t mean I stop fighting.  I will continue to fight, especially for the younger priests who are going to have to live with this ongoing mess.  However, the real power is with you.  It’s with you.  What do the Pharisees as well as any institution or political system want you to believe, that you’re powerless.  You’re not.  You have the power to force institutions to change, including this one.  You have the power to push institutions to move beyond denial, beyond thoughts and prayers.  If you’re here today you already know where and who the foundation is, the one who continues to feed us with life-giving bread rather than stones of shame and guilt.  It’s all of you that need to push us forward.

And so we pray for God’s grace this day for more than thoughts and prayers.  We pray for God’s grace to return to the foundation that, never, no never, forsakes, as the hymn goes.  We pray for this Church and all of us to return to the heart of Jesus in these moments.  As I said, it’s too easy to leave and run.  The disciples did it.  Heck, we’ll hear it in John’s gospel shortly as well because it’s too hard.  We’re more than an institution when we put relationship first and allow all else to flow from the source.  We’ve had enough thoughts and prayers.  We’ve certainly had enough ignorance and arrogance.  We pray that we take Lady Wisdom’s advice to us today, to open the doors, to be vulnerable in the face of adversity, to lay aside old ways of thinking, and to personify Wisdom in the heart of Jesus.  It is this relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus that will change us and move us forward while returning us to what matters most.

Napping for Answers

I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

I think Elijah has the right idea.  Go find yourself a tree and take a nap.  You can’t beat it.  Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey.  I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all.  He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment.  Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him.  Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away.  We all have our ways of running away.  Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape.  The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand.  It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life.  Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet.  A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.

Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel.  She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time.  Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves.  They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure.  They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God.  So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead.  Any one of us would run at that point.  Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though.  So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore.  That’s not what happens to Elijah.  He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel.  Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found.  He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found.  It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.

We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God.  God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart.  All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found.  We can all relate in those moments of our own lives.  We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.

The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John.  We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers.  Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all.  Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen.  They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God.  Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts.  The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen.  In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth.  Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it.  Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found.  There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.

If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days.  There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end.  We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith.  More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found.  It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith.  It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome.  We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander.  None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call.  Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters.  It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.