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.

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.