Penetrating Silence

I Kings 3: 5, 7-12; Matt 13: 44-52

The first reading, from First Kings is one that I’m quite familiar.  It’s the reading we use each year at the celebration marking the end of the Pinkard Scholars at the seminary.  There’s a lot to like about it.  Solomon finds himself, like many others in Scripture, in a position he’s not sure he’s capable of fulfilling, despite the call from God.  He’s also free to ask for anything to help him become the leader that he’s being called to at this point.  It’s almost like asking for a wish, and yet, despite all of it, Solomon asks not for what he wants but what he feels he needs in that moment in this momentous call from God.  Solomon asks for an understanding heart.

It appears that even God is taken back by the request, assuming he’d ask for a long life, riches, the life of his enemies.  Anything; and yet, he asks for a heart that understands.  Even in the request, this prayer of Solomon, shows the depth of his wisdom and understanding, a deep penetrating silence, that is already there and somehow, in the midst of the unknown, God is going to take it and use him as an instrument of that wisdom and understanding.

It’s a great reading to reflect upon in our own lives as to what the treasure, the pearl of great price, in which we’d ask of God at this moment.  Not this is not to say that our prayers are futile in some ways, but in my experience, we tend to tell God what we want, as if somehow God is the dispensary of wishes.  We know exactly the way things are supposed to be or should be and we want it that way and so that’s what we ask.  However, that’s not a treasure, nor a pearl of great price, nor the wisdom that Solomon exemplifies.  Rather, it’s so often the God we think we want rather than the God that is trying to reveal in the penetrating silence of our hearts, a deeper mystery, to be able to let go and surrender to the mystery and allow the prayer to fall within.

If there is one thing I have learned up in the mountains of Acadia this week it’s just how much noise we have in our lives.  First, with the noise that I create for myself in the busyness of life but also all the noise that surrounds us and in so many ways violates that deep penetrating silence of our hearts, to the point that we no longer know what it is that we need when God asks and gradually get swallowed up in life, unable to breathe, unable to fall into the mystery in which God is inviting each of us.

More often than not, in my experience, people have no idea what they’d really ask God for.  Sure, there are the standard prayers of praying for everyone else, for the world, and so on, but to understand and touch the deepest desire of our own heart is a whole other story.  One, we often feel unworthy to even say it or even because we already know deep down that if I do ask as Solomon does, it may just happen and something more may be demanded of me, just as it was for him.  So I hold back that desire out of fear, unworthiness, as even he thinks because of his age, and I choose to live with a constant restlessness until I can finally rest in that deep penetrating silence in my heart as Solomon does, realizing that the prayer has already begun to bear fruit in the simple act of naming the desire from deep in my heart.

Solomon is one of the key wisdom figures in Scripture and has much to teach us in our own prayer and in the barrage of noise in our own lives that often prevents us, knowingly or unknowingly, from moving to that place of deep penetrating silence in our own hearts that knows our truest desire, maybe an understanding heart as it was for Solomon.  His invitation and mirror to all of us is, that despite our own fear, our anxiety, our own feeling of unworthiness, can we step away from the noise of our lives long enough to move to that deeper place, that ocean of silence that often reveals what we truly desire and know that we have nothing to fear all at the same time.  In the end, did the disciples really understand what Jesus was trying to convey.  Probably not, but somehow it at least spoke to them on that deeper level, stirring something within them and preparing them for that descent in their own lives, in the face of the cross, to that deep, penetrating silence revealing their deepest desires and the heart open to understanding the mystery of God.

 

 

 

Really Living & Living Really

“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in…where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”  John Muir

“It is astonishing how high and far we can climb mountains that we love, and how little we require food and clothing…No sane man in the hands of nature can doubt the doubleness of his life.  Soul and body receive separate nourishment and separate exercise, and speedily reach a stage of development, wherein each is easily known apart from the other.  Living artificially, we seldom see much of our real selves.”  John Muir

I came across both of these quotes today by John Muir, legendary activist and protector of the woodlands of this country, who in many ways has a love affair with the outdoors.  It becomes not only the avenue for finding himself but for finding a being greater than himself, although rarely wrote about God.  He is considered the Father of the National Parks.

If there is one thing I have learned in spending time in the outdoors, whether it’s here at Acadia, the Grand Canyon, the vast forested area of Alaska, or even the shores of Maryland and Jersey, it’s that deep down what defines the soul is something much more than an urban landscape but rather a never-ending twist and turn, yet explored area that very much resembles these wild and uncharted lands that I’ve had the opportunity, and really, privilege, to explore.

His sentiments have been mine through these experiences, that the natural mountains that we climb or even the vast chasms that we descend throughout this land, how little, we begin to realize, that we truly need.  What becomes our challenge as humans is that we often climb illusions of mountains in our lives, seeking power, prestige, so often missing along the way just what it is we’re losing, forgetting, ignoring, that we become blinded by the climb itself.  A return to the mountains is a good reminder of how we fall prey to the illusions that power and climbing seems to offer, leaving us insecure and fearful of losing something that was never really real in the first place.

Of course, descending the chasms can be just as challenging.  The fall from the illusion of grandeur can be a humbling experience when we begin to see what it is that we have forgotten or ignored along the way.  I had that experience climbing, and descending, in Acadia this week, so intent on getting to the top of the mountain and not until I started to descend did I begin to see things differently, as if the hardness of the climb began to dissipate, noticing a fallen tree, a sparkling stream, an unnamed path that leads to one of the most spectacular views and serene locations in the park.

It seems in either instance, our temptation to remain at the top or simply climb, as we see so often in our culture and society, but also to become attached to the bottom, walked upon, taken advantage of or needing to please, both begin to increase what it is that we seem to need in our lives, when the insecurity and fear begin to take root in our hearts and souls, no longer free.  In the words of John Muir, a separateness of heart and mind begins to form, creating a deeper chasm within ourselves.  In some ways, we become needy and no matter what it is, nothing seems to be enough.

The more I give myself the space to explore the outdoors, which in turn frees me to explore myself, the more I see the value in protecting our lands and leaving them as a place of wonder and exploration.  Whether it was watching a group of young boys play the 21st Century version of “cops and robbers” on Cadillac Mountain or even getting lost myself and being aware of the anxiety it brings up within myself and learning again to trust that deeper instinct and voice.  Over and over again, the natural world has something to teach and to help us to understand not only about itself, but about ourselves and even about God.  In not only helps to fill the chasm between the head and heart, it helps to fill the chasm between humans and the natural world, where everything belongs.

The freedom necessary to not live an “artificial” life as Muir speaks about, requires a letting go, surrendering, and living a life filled with the grace of detachment.  No, not in the sense of not caring, but rather in its natural sense, where I can surrender outcomes and trust God no matter what happens.  Otherwise, we predict the outcome, which in and of itself, is an illusion, artificial.  And we’ll do it to ourselves again and again.  The natural world teaches us to be free, to go where the wind blows, and to accept not what should be, but rather, what is, gradually dispelling the artificialness and leading us to a holiness and a wholeness, reminding us how Muir is correct, in how little we really need to experience the fullness of our lives.

 

Rubber Hits the Road

Acts 6: 1-7; IPeter 2: 4-9; John 14: 1-12

For the first four weeks of Easter much of what we’ve heard from Acts of the Apostles were these great speeches of Peter on Pentecost, reminding the people of what they are about as followers of the Way.  It’s about Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and the descent of the Holy Spirit moving them forward.  He was a witness of these events and expresses that experience of this paschal mystery, as the Opening Prayer eluded to today.

But today the rubber hits the road.  We all know from our own lives and experiences that all the talk of Peter can be just talk when it rubs up against the realities of people’s lives.  Despite Peter reminding them of who they are in this deeper inherent dignity that they share in the Christ, today it appears that it’s about to all fall apart around them.  There are these two groups referenced to today in Acts.  There are the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking followers and the Hebrews, the Aramaic-speaking followers and those who we might refer to insiders.  Many were witnesses of the events and hold true to the letter of the law and it begins to push against this new-found freedom of the Hellenists who are taking the community in another direction.  It creates this tension and animosity between the two all hinged on this prejudice that the Hebrews have against the Hellenists.

All of this, over the fact that the Hebrews wanted nothing to do with the Hellenists and wouldn’t help to take care of those in need, in particular, the widows.  They were blinded by their own prejudice and couldn’t recognize the need of the other.  It puts the disciples in a difficult place and they feel overwhelmed by what’s happening and fear an early split in the community and so find a quick-fix.  They appoint and anoint Stephen and these other, now what we call, deacons, to care for the widows who are being neglected.  However, they too are Hellenists and so on a deeper level they never address the real issue.  They don’t address the issue of the prejudice and find a fix to the problem.  It won’t go away, though, and will eventually lead to the first council of the church, the Council of Jerusalem where this tension will come to fruition and will become the stumbling stone to so many of the folks who only saw things one way, creating their own letter of the law, their own blindness.

It is that stumbling stone and cornerstone that Peter speaks of in today’s second reading.  Paul uses that language in his own writings and quite honestly, the stumbling stone and the cornerstone are one in the same, Christ Jesus and what it’s going to be to be followers of the Way.  The resistance they face in that early community is often resistance we face in our own lives.  We become so attached to the way things are done and what we have deemed as the only path that one must follow that we become blinded by our own narrow-mindedness.  It becomes our stumbling stone without even knowing it half the time because it becomes so entrenched in our lives that it becomes our own prejudice that we fail to see.  Like even the early community, for many of us we’d rather die than face the change in our lives that would lead to a fuller life.

That has been the over-riding message of John throughout this season and will be the Way that the disciples will now have to face and decide if they’re willing to confront as the approach Jerusalem and the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus is well aware of the difficulty of choosing to follow the Way and so offers words hope to a make-shift community that is about to experience pain and that stumbling stone in the Cross.  Of course we know that they pass through and experience that same freedom as the Hellenists but doesn’t mean it gets easier.  They will quickly learn as a community that this paschal mystery that we speak of is not a one-time deal but a lifelong process of conversion.  The community will have to learn that it must die and recreate in order to become the new creation that the Gospel has spoken of these weeks and to bring to fruition the words of Peter the past few weeks, that deep down, despite this prejudice that has existed and this tension that has risen up in the community, there is this inherent dignity that lies at the heart of who they all are, Hellenist and Hebrew alike, that can only be realized in this process of conversion and transformation, this process of cycling through the paschal mystery of life and death and life again.

It’s not easy for any of us and quite frankly, we become our greatest stumbling stone to change.  Our blinders become so think that we often fail to see the more abundant life that we are created for and allow ourselves to die for the letter of the law.  We become trapped as individuals, community, even nation and world, when we don’t open ourselves up to these tensions and allow ourselves to fall into them.  It’s messy and it’s difficult but it is the path of the Way and it’s what the followers of the Way had been called to.  Sure, maybe there are different paths, but at the heart of it all, when the rubber meets the road, first and foremost it is about conversion and the transformation of our own hearts, creating space within for the Mystery to change us, free us, and lead us to a more abundant life as individuals and as community.

 

Looking Without Seeing

I Sam 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13; Eph 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41

Helen Keller, who, of course, was not just blind but also deaf had to overcome the obstacle of thinking that she was somehow deficient because of her limitation in hearing and seeing. Many of us have to do the same thing in different capacities over the course of our lives. She goes onto become a great writer as well as activist and humanitarian, despite what she originally saw as a limitation. In the end, she had commented that there was something even worse than being blind and that was having sight and yet still unable to see. How many times has that function of sight really limited us as well, where we have sight and yet still unable to see.

It’s what Jesus is confronting in today’s gospel with the man born blind who sits on the side of the road, a beggar, as John tells us. Mixed up, though, in this story are all these other conflicts that are important to recognize because they will carry through now until Good Friday, and quite frankly, some even beyond that. Of course, there’s the Pharisees. We’re accustomed to that squabble after hearing it week in and week out. They are the legalists. They see everything through the lens of right and wrong, good and bad, sin and not, and in the end, judge and label everyone according to it. In many ways they end up dehumanizing people and strip them of their dignity because of some standard that they hold that pretty much no one else can match, certainly not a man born blind who is a beggar. Quite honestly, they wouldn’t have the time of day for such a person.

The other squabble is with “the Jews”. We hear that language often in John’s gospel which seems rather odd being that they were all Jewish. Why would they need to be singled out when it encompassed the majority? In today’s language, in these passages they really are the insiders. They view everyone as either insider or outsider and have total disregard for everyone who isn’t part of the in crowd. They grow resentful with Jesus and understand that he’s a Jew like them on some level, but also see him as an outsider and look for every possible way as labeling him as such. They too would have no time for the one they label beggar because he’s not one of them. Ironically, Jesus spends much of his time with them and tries to restore them to their place in the community while restoring their dignity.

There is one other conflict though in this passage and that’s the parents of the blind man. It would seem rather odd, I’d think, for a parent to turn their back on their son, despite his circumstances in life. They deny having anything to do with him regaining his sight because, as John tells us, of fear. Fear holds them back from claiming their own faithfulness to Jesus. As Jews they too would have been with the in crowd and want that sense of belonging. Are they willing to risk it to step out and trust their son in the healing Jesus has brought to his life. It doesn’t seem so.

All that said, the blind man, who happens to be a beggar, has no bearing on the life of the community. He’s an outsider. He’s obviously done something grave that he’s been punished in this way. He’s a nobody and no one wants anything to do with him, except, of course, Jesus. He quickly goes from being a nobody into the one who has the spotlight shining upon him in the middle of all these conflicts that are ensuing. But it takes him time as well. He doesn’t quickly come to an understanding of what has taken place in his life or who this Jesus guy is either. The gospel writer reminds us that he first sees him as a man, then a prophet, then as Lord who has transformed his very life and existence. What he had seen as an obstacle becomes the source of grace in his life.

The same in true for Paul who we hear from in today’s second reading from Ephesians. He uses the image of light and darkness. He had to physically become blind in order to see, knowing his own conversion story. He was a Pharisee as well as an insider and so ingrained in that thinking that he couldn’t see anyone else beyond that limitation. For Paul, if you weren’t an insider, the way he had determined, then there was no place for you. God literally blinds him, even though spiritually he already was, and pushes him to sit in that blindness before he can gain sight and begin to see the other as not someone separate from but one with and not much different than himself. Using his language of today, Paul, and us, are often forced into the darkness of our own lives before God can somehow begin to do something with us. We all have blindspots and darkness as long as we are on this earth, but we also like to avoid them and deny they’re there. The blind man today, along with Jesus, begins to expose those blindspots and yet, they still cannot see as God sees.

It’s where young Samuel is led in today’s first reading. He has no intention on heading to Jesse to anoint a new king. He thought all along that it would be Saul and now fears for his life thinking Saul is going to take his life because of the turn of events. Yet, he goes to Jesse, but once there is still trapped in his own way of seeing. He looks for power, for strength, for someone who can overturn the enemies. This is who he thought should be the next king, but, of course, God has different plans. The writer tells us that Samuel, and for that matter, each of us, see by appearance but God sees the heart. There it is. God knows our story and sees the deepest longings of our hearts.

Our sight has so many limitations. We become blinded by what we see and in turn, label and judge. We see color. We see economic advantages. We see what we don’t have. We see lifestyles that we become envious of. We see people that bring things upon themselves. We see what we wish we had and don’t. We see biases. We see insiders and outsiders. We see, so often the sin of the other and ourselves. It’s hard, as Helen Keller pointed out, to have sight and yet see. The Gospel challenges us to be thrown into the story as the blind man and ask ourselves where we are on our own journey of faith. We all have these conflicts alive within us, the pharisee, the Jew, and even the parental voices that remain, that often hold us back from becoming who we really are in life. When we no longer see them as obstacle but as a source of grace, we’re changed forever. We make the journey of the blind man, of seeing Jesus as man, as prophet, and eventually, as our Lord. We pray for the awareness and acceptance of our own blindspots that prevent us from seeing, not by appearance, but as we heard today, of the heart, as God see us. Like Helen Keller, if we surrender ourselves to the change, transformation, conversation that we are being called to in life, what we have seen simply as limitation opens the door to possibility. I was blind but now I see.

Bursting Bubbles

I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17; Matthew 4: 12-23

These are often some difficult times to preach. I said it back after the election and I’ll say it again today. There’s always so much uncertainty. We don’t know where we’re always going. There’s so much hurt and division that has taken hold of us, putting us into our camps. But I was thinking about some of the final words of now former President Obama at his farewell speech that transcends political affiliation. He mentioned that night about stepping outside our bubbles and actually speaking to one another. Now if you think you aren’t in a bubble, well, you’re probably lying to yourself and you may even be trapped in one. Maybe it’s good that Saint Paul gives us this reflection in the second reading today on the divisions that existed in the community of Corinth to help us take a look at our own bubbles.

No one can deny that there is a Republican bubble and a Democrat bubble. That one we can all agree on. But we also learned through this election that there’s an urban bubble, a suburban bubble, and a rural bubble that exist. Of course, there’s also a MSNBC bubble and a FoxNews bubble. The Church is not excluded. We can name many factions that even seeps in here. The problem with all of them is the walls of these bubbles become so think that we can no longer hear or listen to something else. If we can’t listen to each other, then there’s a pretty good chance that we also can’t listen to The Other. We become trapped. We start to only listen to people that agree with us. We start to think we know it all. We start to think that we’re always right and demonize the other. Of course, social media has only magnified the problem. Be mindful, also, that these bubbles are really just another word for our ego that takes hold of us, both individually and collectively in these groups we establish. When we know it all, are right all the time, certain without a doubt, there’s no space for God, and quite frankly, no need for God.

That’s the issue Paul also faces in the community of Corinth. In many ways Paul is simply teeing up the ball at the beginning of the letter to begin to reveal to them where they are excluding and beginning to live in their own bubbles. He points out today that some are showing allegiance to Cephas, others to Apollos, and even some to Paul. But throughout the letter Paul is trying to lead them to a deeper place, to a deeper identity that transcends these allegiances. He will go onto say that their great obstacle as a community, and quite frankly, for all of us, is going to be the breaking down of that bubble. It becomes what we know. It becomes where we are comfortable and certain about things. For Paul, and certainly for Jesus, that becomes the great stumbling stone as he calls it. He even speaks boldly about it as this part of the letter continues and the emptiness that can be associated with the cross, which becomes the great symbol of this paradox. If it’s simply something we wear around our necks, Paul would have choice words for us. For Paul, it was everything.

Of course, for Jesus as well. We hear in this gospel today how he departs Jerusalem and heads to Galilee and begins the call of the disciples. It hasn’t changed much even today in Jerusalem. That city, in and of itself, is a very dense bubble. It will be the place where he meets the intersection of life and death. He’ll challenge, more than anything, that bubble that they have placed themselves. Think about the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the political figures of that time. They thought they knew it all. They thought they were always right and certain about everything. It is the great resistance that he faces and the great resistance we often face in our own lives. It becomes the source of war and violence. If I feel that within myself as I struggle with my own ego, imagine what it’s like when it’s magnified on the world stage.

The early call of the disciples is no different. They had their own bubble, but Jesus uses it to lure them out of their comfort zone and promises a fishing of men. They were fishermen. They knew it like the back of their hand. They lived it. There was normalcy and certainty to it all. But today will begin the journey for them of breaking down that bubble and begin the search for soul. It’s what we all desire anyway and yet we fight it and cling to what we know, growing our pride and so often our arrogance. He calls them from their boats, he calls them from their fathers, he calls them from everything they know and leads them on this journey to the great stumbling stone in Jerusalem, the cross. It is the place where life and death come together, where what is known and yet unknown come together, it’s where certainty and uncertainty come together, logic and what seems illogical, and where we learn to doubt and question and realize we too are bigger than our allegiances and what we feel so certain about. Quite honestly, all our bubbles do is make us smaller.

We need to listen. We need to come to accept that we can also be part of the problem. If we don’t, we simply become what we hate. We become what it is we demonize. And why would we want that? We need to accept that we don’t know it all and we need to learn to listen to the other and The Other. If we simply continue to react to everything and everyone that we disagree with, the result is further war and violence. It is the search for the soul, my own, yours, the country, and the world. We pray that we may move to becoming of one mind and heart that Paul speaks of today. It doesn’t mean we always agree or do everything the same, but it does mean that we’ve penetrated the bubbles that we have created and can finally begin to listen, to quiet ourselves and listen. That prayer will grow the space necessary in our hearts and souls that is necessary to break down what divides and unite us as a people because I know longer need to see the other by what they think or their ideology, but rather for who they are and whose they are because we’re more than all of that and quite frankly, we deserve more than that because we’d want the same for ourselves. It is the great stumbling stone but has a great deal to teach, most especially, how to be a fuller human being to ourselves and one another.

Gratefully Living Without

Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 16-21

Like most of you, I spent part of this Christmas week with my family, which includes all the chaos with kids and such but also reflecting back on Christmas past. At one point some of us commented on how much Christmas has changed since we were kids. As you may know, I’m one of six. We were by no means rich but also not living in poverty, but we certainly learned to live without. As a kid, that seems like torture. You always want what is new, bigger, better, more advanced, and so on. But now, I can look back, as I’m sure many others can, and to see that that is a great lesson to learn in life, learning to live without and not having this constant need to be stimulated with the latest gadget. It’s hard to be grateful when I’m never quite satisfied and certainly only plays into the hand of the consumer culture. We can never have enough and yet, in the end, we only find gratitude without.

There’s a lot that stands in contradiction with the stories we hear throughout this Christmas season, including the continuation of the Christmas gospel we hear on January 1st each year. The shepherds finally find their way to Mary and Joseph and the new born babe to share what has been seen and heard. But there they stand at the center, Mary and Joseph, overwhelmed by what has taken place and the enormity of what has unfolded. But the story is really just beginning for them. If they had to carry with them what we have come to expect on Christmas morning they would never be able to make this journey. They really become refugees and go with nothing but what they have and of course, what is most important, the Christ, who will lead them on the way. As a matter of fact, they would face demise if they carried what we carry and maybe that’s the real point of the story. If we keep it at historical level we miss the point as to how their journey is our journey. It’s a journey of faith and trust and learning to take nothing with us along the way. It only slows us down in the first place and quite frankly, if we need to clutter our lives externally, we most likely are doing it internally as well leaving no space in the crib for the Christ. It will even become the message that Jesus conveys to the disciples of taking nothing with them for the journey while learning to trust and have faith in something and someone much bigger than themselves, in the unseen deep within them.

It is a day that we pray for peace, and of course, that’s first making peace with our own lives but we we also celebrate the Motherhood of Mary who ponders all this within her heart. She doesn’t stand demanding anything of anyone. She already has the space within to try to absorb the mystery that has and is unfolding and to be grateful for the real gift that has been given, of Love Incarnate. For today is also a day to give thanks and to be grateful as we begin a new year. But we too must make that space within our hearts to be grateful rather than trying to accumulate more and more. We too must learn to live without and to find God within what seems like nothingness. The journey Mary and Joseph embark on, and we too, demands us to go to that place of poverty. As refugees they must now flee the terror of Herod and head to Egypt only to eventually make their return at another time with an even deeper sense of trust and faith. They allow the Christ to lead them to the place of exile, to foreign land where they are without, only to find what has always been there and leading them along the way, the Savior that walks and meets them in that very place.

It’s what Paul also speaks of in today’s second reading to the Galatians. He speaks of the fullness of time taking on flesh under the law. Now it’s not just law as we understand it, but rather into the suffering of our lives, that place within us that keeps us bound and weighed down by what we carry. Maybe it’s not the Christmas gifts we may or may not have wanted, or the expectations we had of the holiday that weren’t met, but it could be the grief and pain that we continue to carry with us that makes the journey nearly impossible. Again, Mary and Joseph stand as the iconic figures of the season of making this journey while going without and finding the gift in the midst of it all. We so want to find the Christ in the joy and wonderment of the season, and that’s true, but the Christ is more than that. The Christ meets us where we have allowed our hearts to become exiled. This Christmas invites us to that place of poverty and to give thanks for the gift of living without.

As we continue this Christmas season and begin the new year, we pray for the grace to accept the invitation and walk with Mary and Joseph to our own hearts. Maybe we have to drop things and let things go as move along, but they promise us that what we find, that has always been, will satisfy every longing, where we will no longer be nagged by what seems to be never enough in our lives. Ironically, in the gift of going without, in our own nothingness, we learn the greatest gift, the gift of being grateful not just for what we have but for who and whose we are. Happy New Year!

Expanding Our Vision

I spent this past weekend helping to lead a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat which I believe I’ve done for nearly eight years now. I never leave the experience without some sense of wonder and awe, not only at what people manage to live through in their lives, but undoubtably the courage they have to see it through to the other side. Or if anything, to begin the process of passing through.

If there’s one thing about pain and suffering, it has a way of narrowing our world view and often to the point where the sense of the eternal seems all but lost. Everything that we see and experience is viewed through that one narrow lens that does not lead to reconciliation and conversion, but to greater isolation and separation. It seems like the endless spiral of life for so many, choice after endless choice only leading to greater violence towards life and to ourselves.

It is the story of salvation history, though, as well. All this season we hear these great messages of hope from the Prophet Isaiah, including this Sunday. It is certainly the story of people Israel who often found itself in conflict after conflict, leading to greater separation. In today’s reading, despite the message of hope, Jerusalem once again plans for an impending attack from beyond its walls but also from within as this ongoing separation that leads to greater injustice and suffering. Heck, even if you go today it isn’t much different from thousands of years ago. It’s probably one of the craziest cities I’ve visited. They are so focused on their own pain and the need to protect that it has led to building walls that separate, from our own faith, the place of birth from the marking of death, a separation of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s led to great problems beyond the walls and in places like Bethlehem, leading to a greater degree of poverty and injustice towards the people. Their vision had become so narrowed and they start believing that they really are the eternal rather than seeing it all metaphorically, that it eventually leads to their demise and destruction, time and again.

Yet, the message for Jerusalem and for us this weekend is of hope. That somehow these seeming opposites in the natural world will somehow lead the way and bring example to us humans as to how it’s done. Is there possibility for reconciliation? Is there possibility for less separation and a working towards greater justice, especially for the most vulnerable? Isaiah likes to believe so. For as hard as Isaiah can be on people Israel, this season offers a message of hope to those who have only known darkness and despair, to those who have viewed their lives through their constant suffering and the greater degree of poverty it leads to in one’s heart and soul. Like so many of our own sins, even those who walk this horror movie through the experience of making a life-ending choice, are so often symptoms of something much deeper going on in our lives, both individually and collectively.

Certainly John the Baptist was aware of this and everyone around him was aware of it. It’s why he was such a threat to the leaders, who often perpetuated the darkness for their own benefit, but also to the structures of his time. He was leading a revolution to call out the injustices of the society of his time, but for John it began with himself and for those who followed. He called them to look at themselves and how they too have sinned on this deeper than cellular level of their lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew it and did everything to avoid the fear that arose within themselves before the one who threatened their perceived power. John’s message is to repent, to do an about-face in life and to be awakened from their slumber to a new way of life, a life with greater vision, expanded vision, of a true and lasting God that sets them free.

This is the God we celebrate today and the God we prepare for all at the same time. There is no denying the greater darkness that has ensued so many lives, defined lives, ceased lives, and has caused us so often to stop growing ourselves. We get to a place that begins to seem hopeless as our world continues to shrink and dissolve around us, as the storm seemingly collapses over and over again before and within us. But there is hope. With just a crack in the walls we have created, the light begins to shine forth and God once again begins to break through and we submit ourselves to the invitation. This is a season of hope and a season to not only celebrate but to prepare for as the eternal breaks in and is broken open before our very eyes on this Table. As we gather and go forth, we pray we may continue to allow ourselves to be open to something and someone bigger than ourselves, to expand our vision while healing our pain and suffering. It is the fullness of life God desires of each of us and a fullness of life promised in this season of Advent.