Leaning Into Life

Although not discussed in great detail, I was watching an interview this week from a representative from WebMD about trends on searches during this time of pandemic. It was interesting to note the shift taking place in what people feel they need during this time, first on how long the virus survives on surfaces, when it first began, to now loneliness and depression. It seems like a radical shift as a majority of us quickly approach the second month of quarantine and social distancing and what it’s doing to us psychologically and spiritually. It may be true this pandemic is making us somewhat “stir-crazy”, understandable knowing what it’s been like together and individually. However, what we fail to recognize is the pandemic, in many ways, is simply allowing what has been for some time to rise to the surface and making sure we have nowhere to run, giving us the opportunity to no longer run from our own shadow, scaring us half to death. It begins to rear itself in our dreams and other means demanding our attention.

I’ve been depressed and experienced a deep moral loneliness, as so many readers’ have experienced in their lives or may be for the first time during this pandemic. I have had to take medication along the way in order to assist me in the process, giving the necessary bump to deal with the shadow of my own life in which I was running. If we stop simply at meds, though, we never actually deal with the problem of loneliness and moments like we find ourselves begin to feel excruciating. It truly is an invisible enemy easily masked until we are forced to stop or tragedy strikes, no longer making logical sense of the lives we’ve learned to box up and wrap neatly. It leads, unfortunately, to living a double-life which deepens the loneliness. Now, though, we find ourselves no longer able to run.

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of it. However, most of us have had the experience of living double-lives, growing the gulf within us leading to this sense of darkness. Our identities have a tendency to be wrapped up in what we do, in our work, so when we find ourselves at home, week after week, our ability to run from the pain associated with this loneliness seems nearly impossible. It’s no wonder places selling alcohol become “essential” places because it so often is used as a numbing drug in order to take away the pain, when in reality, only deepens the pain to the point where it feels like there’s an abyss within our soul and we find ourselves freefalling into the darkness. There is a reason many need to go back to work. Certainly, there is the financial element for millions of people right now, but on a human side, so many do not know who they are without working, and working to the point of addiction. If we’re not producing then there must be something wrong with us.

I can recall days in my own life, when, upon finishing working, I dreaded going home. I dreaded the pain which would begin to surface within me because I was feeding an identity not my own. I can recall the level of pain I experienced at times in my life because of the gulf existing between work and home. Home became a place to fear and dread because I couldn’t outrun the pain. All I could ever do was numb it with whatever was available, often food for myself. I feel for the people who find themselves in this position today, after nearly decades of their lives working and being able to leave home to escape themselves. As ridiculous as it seems, I can even feel for people protesting. In the various images I have seen, you can literally see the pain in their faces as they arm themselves with guns and such, giving them a sense of power, in which has felt lost. They’ve lost their outlet and can no longer avoid themselves. Unfortunately, though, there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the pain of others. I remember needing to deal with the regrets in my life, the resentments I was holding onto, all aimed at myself, blaming myself, living out of my own victimhood. It was a feeling as if the world was consistently working against me and I allowed it. Anything to avoid the inevitable flip of the mirror of me staring back at myself, unable to run from my own hurt and pain. I will say, in my experience, men are much more susceptible to this type because they are driven by work.

We have a tendency to limit the pain of loneliness to elements of this pandemic, such as social distancing and the absence of physical touch. This may be true to a point and we can allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation in this way. However, I don’t believe it’s the deep loneliness and darkness some are experiencing these days. There is certainly a level of grief connected to the pandemic. I too am living in the same way, at the house I grew up in, but I by no means feel lonely. I don’t feel the sense of separation from myself. If, though, our identity isn’t wrapped up in our work and what we produce, it can also be tied to what others tell us we are, dependent upon what others think and believe about us. This too leads to a separation from ourselves. As shallow as our culture can be, generally speaking, we’ve lost the sense of transformation and even how to go about doing it and so we live in a perpetual state of anxiousness because of this gulf within ourselves.

There is nothing easy about loneliness, which can lead to depression for many. There is also no quick fix in dealing with it. The rush to normalcy calls to mind just how much we loathe the necessity to allow things to die, especially our thinking and mindset. The rush to normalcy is fed by the fear and anxiety we face in having no where to run from ourselves. Although I don’t know statistics, it would be interesting to see numbers on domestic abuse, alcoholism, increased addiction to pain meds, and all the other numbing elements occurring during this time. It comes down to this very basic principle of knowing ourselves and beginning to close the gap between the persona we present at work, in relationships, etc. and the person who lays his or her head on the pillow at night, the one time when we are truly alone. Our economy, our politics, religion, job, all want to define us in one way or another and slowly we take on their identity as consumer, party affiliate, winner, loser, sinner, hard-worker, and we begin to believe this is finally the identity which defines me.

However, none of them do. None of them. As all of these identities have slowly been stripped of us the past month, we are left with our own poverty, our own sense of abyss within ourselves which doesn’t need to be feared but rather which we surrender to the voice calling us to enter into our own darkness, our loneliness, not to be consumed by it, but to feel our way through the darkened corners of our hearts and souls and to claim it. We need not fear the terror of the night! I have written it in all these posts these weeks, we are all being given a golden opportunity! In an addictive and co-dependent culture within so many of our institutions and organizations, we have been set free from what has bound us most. It’s no wonder they rush to get us back! We help in feeding these masters, these ghouls, decorating us with lavish identities, hiding our poverty and making us feel rich!

My friends, and all who read this day, what is your relationship with the ghouls which have identified you? With your religion, your work, newsfeeds, your political affiliation, your whatever? Most especially, though, what is your relationship like with yourself? Welcome reality as it is and not the way any of them tell you. Recognize what you actually have control over, the choices and decisions you make for yourself and not much else. Become aware of how you feel the world has worked against you and begin to shift the mindset where it works for you. Don’t sit around and simply wait for this to pass, even though it will. Allow yourself to be empowered to change what you can in your life and begin to close the gap causing such deep loneliness. This ultimately leads to the freedom we truly desire in our lives, a freedom which doesn’t come through some official document nor from carrying a weapon.

Think about people like Saint Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anne Frank, and so many others who were imprisoned in their own right and still spoke from a place of freedom. They had the mindset of a world working for them and no need to blame. Trust me, there’s still a loneliness which accompanies such darkness when you feel you stand alone and being crucified. However, they were true to themselves, dealt with their darkness, and learned to be empowered through and with it rather than running away. The wisdom figures of ancient past all point to the same deeply held truth, what appears to be our greatest fear and obstacle, the thorn in our side, is often our greatest gift. Don’t run from the loneliness of these days. Rather, lean into it and allow it to teach by welcoming it in, allow it to be healed, and offer it back to a hurting and often lonely world.

Undeliverable —>

Smack in the middle of Dante’s Circles of Hell is the sin of greed accompanied by the punishment of knocking rocks together for all eternity. It’s a spot often reserved for clergy (a blog for a different day), but one we certainly all participate in, a culture and society fully immersed in consumerism and the need to have, whether for a sense of security or even a sense of identity. Without a doubt, companies will do “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers,” without looking at the consequences of the employees and their own well-being, creating a hostile work environment. It is certainly something to reflect on during this time of gift buying and shipping as we go about the norm of accumulating more “stuff” this holiday season.

If you have read this blog regularly you know that I spent the better part of the past year living and working at Bethlehem Farm. To say that it has changed me profoundly would be an understatement. During the holiday season, though, I opted for a break to intentionally look at what’s next in life. Having a little time, I thought I’d do a side hustle to pass some time and so opted for a temp job with a worldwide shipping company which I began last week and quickly ended a few short days later. As I sit and write this, it was that image of Dante’s circles that came to mind about my experience of what it actually means to “satisfy our customers” at whatever cost.

When I told the supervisor that this was it for me, I explained to him that I have been a boss, a supervisor, worked in retail, delivered pizzas, and a whole other plethora of jobs over the years but none has been more inhumane than this one. There were two reasons I stopped myself from walking off the floor that morning. One, I feel for the people who rely on this for their survival. Second, because I felt for the people who were there, already short in number, who’d be left filling the hole I had left. As much as I often felt pain working on the farm, it was a pain that had meaning and purpose. The pain my body and soul has endured the past few days was empty. It was, as Dante describes, a living hell, and how quickly it left my body as I walked out of FedEx for the last time.

I couldn’t imagine, why, on the first day I had worked, people were cursing while they waited in line for a security check as they leaving the prison-like compound, and once through, running to their cars or to the bus. It didn’t take long to begin to understand the pain that went much deeper than the physical pain of moving boxes from a never-ending line along the conveyer. It was a pain of emptiness, a pain that lacked meaning and purpose. It’s a pain you can’t escape by simply taking a day off because it’s one that plagues the human condition. When it comes to doing anything to satisfy customers, bear in mind it comes at a great price, creating an environment of constant transaction, even when it comes to employees. As the driver approaches your house or business, remember there is a line of people out there somewhere moving all the packages, thousands upon thousands, to try to meet the “demands” and “expectations” of customers who await the perfect Christmas gift, the tree, dog food, heated toilet seats, an endless line of televisions, and anything else you could imagine.

If Dante was correct on anything, it was the placement of greed and gluttony next to one another in hell. They seem to feed off one another seen in the microcosm of that hub. The glutton experiences a personal degradation for overindulging. It comes blasted with selfishness and a coldness that runs deep, most certainly void of a humanity. In the deepest of human conditions there is a desire for more. It’s a “more” that we try to fill with countless possessions we “live to deliver”. We await with bated breath for the package arriving and overreact when it doesn’t, taking it out on another; our own form of transaction. However, what you may be unaware of is what happens prior to that package being delivered, hopefully with a smile, but without a doubt absent of meaning.

Behind all of our desires there are people who’s lives are impacted, lives that are treated more like animals or machines than they are humans, all to “satisfy our customers”. In these few days entering this compound and nearly unable to walk back to my car because of the pain, I’ve had the time to think and observe as boxes raced by me. I’ve had to think about the level of violence that is associated with our gift-giving and our incessant need to have more. Does any of it really satisfy? I have thought about my nieces and nephews a few times, giving me the incentive to work through the pain, especially for the ones that are still believers in the make-believe. I know their anticipation on Christmas morning. For the rest of us, though, there’s something wrong. There is something wrong with our values and priorities because this experience is a microcosm of the countless warehouses we pass driving along the highway, of the retail outlets with shelves bulging at the seams to satisfy our wants, jam-packed delivery trucks making deliveries with unrealistic expectations to satisfy customers but often at the price of an employees well-being. There’s a problem with the hell we have created.

The question I left with today as I limped to my car and sat gingerly behind the wheel, staring out the window as the rain fell was simply, when will it end? When will it change? If we maintain our own blinders as to how we participate in the madness, the price will continue to escalate as to what it does to our fellow human beings. Yet, if it doesn’t impact me directly and don’t see it with my own eyes, it must not exist and I can believe the blowhards that it’s all for the good. I’m not sure I could have believed any of it until I saw it with my own eyes and felt the pain myself.

I know the consistent response is that it offers people a job. That’s the conundrum that we face. It does provide a job, but it needn’t come at the price of violence against the dignity of the worker, where breaks are offered, free of grudge, putting the person along the line above “whatever it takes to satisfy”. I’ve been bullied, yelled at, not convinced I’ll actually receive my paycheck, given unrealistic expectations, witnessed the lack of fairness in the face of competition, lied to, and been the cog in the wheel of an eternal conveyer belt, watching package after package pass by and being sent to someone, somewhere to try to satisfy or maybe to try to take away the deeper longing for more in someone else’s life. You tell me if you’d ever work in such an environment? Will we ever get over our way of looking for more and trying to fill it with “stuff”? Will we ever value the worker, the human person, more than doing “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers”? Will we ever move beyond a simply transactional mentality to something more transformational?

All I know is, as much as I participate in it myself, I couldn’t, in good conscience, participate in this way. Almost every morning I wake up thinking about the other employees who are trapped, seemingly enslaved, in such a sick system. All I could do is feel for them, all who have worked next to me along the line, who stay, and hope for their sake that they too recognize they are worth more than “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers”. For all of us on the outside feeding this machine, just stop and at least remember how that package arrived and the people “on the bottom” who are responsible for getting it there. They, we, all deserve better than hell.

Then Come, Follow Me

These words have been with me the past few days in this journey of faith and understanding. Whenever they appear in the Gospels, they are typically preceded by some form of surrender and “letting go” which often does not mean a hill of beans to the disciples until it means everything. The most obvious is always what they can see with their eyes, of giving up possessions, wealth, and all the rest that is demanded of them, but it isn’t until they encounter utter darkness that it begins to mean something all-together different. It changes not only how they see themselves but the very God that calls them. Maybe it’s why we so often avoid the biggest leaps in our lives, knowing that what is demanded of us may be the very life we have grown to embrace over our lifespan, that has given us some form of secure identity in which to cling.

Let’s be real. It’s never easy to give up anything. We can easily convince ourselves in some kind of rational fashion that we can’t live without certain things or people because of some form of attachment that has grown over our way of relating to them. We create for ourselves, a form of dependence, rather than the interdependence that is demanded of us through our way of relating to God and mystery. Once it moves to a point of clinging or dependence, we begin to lose sight of the gift that lies before us, within us, and even beyond us. We create for ourselves our own gods that bring us comfort, certainty, and some form of security that we as humans look for, especially when it feels as if everything else around us is falling away and the world that we had once known ceases to exist.

For the disciples, and I’d say for most of us, it’s our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, and the very illusions, all of which are too small for us, that become our greatest obstacles and even leads to a deep loneliness with and within ourselves because we live our lives separate from our truest selves, the self in which God created us to be. In an act of rebellion and violence against our truest selves, we choose paths and make choices in life rather than allowing the path to be revealed to and within us which demands way too much trust, faith, and patience that we often just don’t have time for in our lives and in the fast-paced world in which we live. This rebellion, violence, and fighting often manifests itself in the world, but at its core, it’s a fight against ourselves, against the darkness which we avoid within ourselves but see quite clearly in the systems, structures, institutions, and world in which we live. It’s not until we begin to become aware of the fight against when we realize we’re often fighting the wrong battle. It’s not that anything of the world need not change; our systems have become dysfunctional and self-serving. It by no way means, though, that the change first must begin with me, with us.

This is where the rubber meets the road for the disciples and us, when we become aware of what needs to change in our lives, what it is we have been fighting within ourselves, and to learn to love in a more radical way, even the areas in which we most fight and cling. When the disciples finally face that utter darkness, the novelty of what it is they see with their eyes, in which they need to surrender, becomes practically inconsequential to the greater battle which lies within and before them. The layers of life which must be shed, often rooted in fear, becomes the stumbling stone of their lives and our lives if we are to live from that truest place. Rather than identifying with the lifestyle in which they want to fit and what will define them, they choose, in freedom, to step out into the darkness of a life unknown, identified with the deepest sense of mystery. Then come, follow me.

It would be great if the gospel ended for the disciples and us when it is mere possessions that they are asked to give up. It would also be great if it ended, as it appears with our eyes to end, as simply gazing at the Cross and awaiting a day of resurrection. Following me, though, if we follow through with the message, isn’t simply about Jesus doing something for us. It’s only a half-truth. The other half is the demand we avoid and seemingly fail to see out of fear of what is being asked. Unfortunately, it’s what creates the co-dependent systems we find ourselves all too often operating within. The other half demands something of us and yet it feels like everything in those very moments. God can surely lead us to the cross just as Jesus does his disciples. But following doesn’t end at a gaze. Rather, following demands a humiliation we’d rather not encounter, a humiliation that leads straight through the Cross, hanging naked and exposed just as it does for Jesus.

The Mystery that culminates in Holy Week and the continuous call to follow is not a play in which we stand as bystanders, looking on and giving praise for a job well done come the Resurrection. If it is, we’ve missed the point of being true to ourselves and to the very God that has created. This is the violence and rebellion we do against ourselves. The journey of Jesus is our journey as well, not only the truth and the life, but also the way. When we allow ourselves to enter into the drama and the utter darkness, the humiliation of coming out of a life, a thinking, an illusion once lived and clung to only then can the mystery we celebrate and live begin to make sense in a deeper way. Like the disciples, all else become inconsequential to the great surrender that is being asked and demanded in order to live the deeper truth of who we are, rather than settling for a gaze or the role of bystander or victim of a world thrust upon us. Instead, we learn to live from the inside out, and for that matter, upside down.

What precedes, then come, follow me, is consequential to the call of discipleship and the radical love in which God demands. What follows, though, is even more consequential. Giving up what we see with our eyes is often incomparable to what has been buried within our hearts, often avoided out of the very humiliation that now stands before us and the Cross. For the disciples, and us, to truly follow as Jesus demands, we must move beyond a gaze of the Cross to bearing it in our most challenging moments, knowing that He walks and carries it with us. It is the only path to the freedom our hearts desire and the only path to the radical love that the gospel demands for we are created in the very image to love and to be loved, finding our deepest value, worth, and truth, in love. Then, and only then, come, follow me.

But Still There is More…

I Corinthians 12: 12-30

It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth.  Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community.  If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become.  There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ.  Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed.  It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.

Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen.  Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith.  They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community.  Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable.  If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value.  We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time. 

This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal.  They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community.  They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them.  In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”.  For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year.  Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”.  Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”.  That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.

It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community.  That would miss his point.  The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”.  All of this is important, but there’s still more.  He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught.  As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith.  Read on; it’s right there is writing!  When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity.  It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way.  The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.

Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago.  Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country.  We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life.  It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing.  He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity.  He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof.  For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”.  When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.

Return to the Source

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.

 

Hopeful Longing

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

creche

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night.  On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes.  There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake.  There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast.  I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time.  There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one.  This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.

There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else.  It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are.  It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet.  Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy.  Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt.  That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.

It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading.  It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings.  But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war.  Poverty and famine have become a way of life.  A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game.  Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another.  The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition.  They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people.  Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well.  They are a people that knew pain and suffering.  They are a people that knew separation and longing.  But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness.  Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth.  Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.

The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake.  Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness.  Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this.  The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled.  Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey.  The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time.  Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter.  In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace.  As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day.  They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.

They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey.  There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted.  All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction.  What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it.  Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being.  We will never get rid of darkness.  We will never get rid of sin.  For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us.  It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are.  In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  It’s what Christmas is all about.  In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire.  Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago.  It’s God breaking in.  It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing.  Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope.  We are no different.  The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.

 

#MeTooLord

1 Sam 3: 3-10, 19; I Cor 6: 13-15, 17-20; John 1: 35-42

I would guess that most are aware that the Person of the Year on Time Magazine was not a person, but rather #MeToo.  It was the “Me Too” movement that had begun months ago and then showcased in that edition of women, and some men, who had been sexually assaulted from persons of authority, abuse of power, or however you want to describe one taking advantage of the other.  The first question often asked afterwards is why does it take so long for someone to step forward in such a situation.  My personal opinion, if you even have to ask the question you probably have not done a great deal of interior work otherwise you’d know the courage it takes to confront the truth of our lives and the stories that make us up and that we become identified with, and more often than not, the negative.  They tell us we’re not good enough.  There’s something wrong with us.  I’m not worthy enough.  Yet, it often takes another person whom we can trust, someone who can love us unconditionally in return, and can help us face the truth of our lives before we can take that step forward and begin to see ourselves as something more.  That’s why it takes so long for someone to come forward because it takes us all a great deal of time to come forward in our own lives and have an encounter with the real.

It is that type of encounter that will change the course of the lives of the disciples as we hear their call this morning in John’s gospel.  As much as it is the call, this week is really a continuation of last week, Epiphany, and the Magi’s own encounter with the real.  As you remember, they have the encounter with the Christ, with truth, with that unconditional love, and their lives are sent in a different direction.  There was no going back.  The same is true for all who have the courage to step out of their own social and cultural norms.  We see what happened to many of the women in the #MeToo movement.  No sooner they come out, especially when it involves politicians or famous people, shame is almost immediately cast upon them.  It is the reality of the disciples being called forth as well today.  It’s why the call of the disciples involves often two leavings.  They leave their families and they leave their work behind, the two places where our own image and identities are thrust upon us and it’s not until the encounter, like the Magi and the disciples, where we begin to see that there’s something more about us and for our lives.  The natural inclination, even for the disciples, will be to try to return to what they had known, only to find that it’s no longer enough and the desire for more will push them forward once again.

When we hear the first reading today from Samuel, we encounter two people who seem to still be trying to step forward in a courageous way and experience God differently.  Even Eli, this wisdom figure, doesn’t seem to understand this call and encounter that Samuel has received.  He too is going to have to let go of his own expectations and who he thought this God was before it begins to make sense.  Samuel, like the disciples, will be called forth with great courage to do what seems to be the impossible, to be that voice of truth, that presence of unconditional love, to speak honestly to Eli and where he has gone astray in his own life, leading to a deeper understanding of God and himself.  So often it’s through that person we trust, that can love us unconditionally, who can be present to us in our story who then lead us to the path of freedom and to become our fullest selves.

Although it may not sound like it, it’s also what Paul is trying to convey to the Corinthian community in today’s second reading.  They are a newly converted community but like most, as it seems to begin to wear off, they want to return to their former way of lives.  He not only speaks of the body, as in ourselves, but that too because some began to look for love and intimacy in the wrong places, seeking encounters not with the Lord but with prostitutes!  Paul challenges them as a community that they must become that encounter for all who have gone astray.  They weren’t to just leave them go off; rather, lead them back to the real, to an encounter once again of unconditional love, to the Lord who gives them life.  It often feels like you’re giving up so much when taking that step forward, over and over again, but in the end we gain everything.  When we have that encounter with the Lord, the direction of our lives are changed and we no longer settle for social norms, cultural norms, and our own past that often holds us back.

As we enter into these weeks of ordinary time, we’ll continue to see that manifestation of that unconditional love in healing stories and forgiveness.  We’ll see it in the encounters Jesus has with people on the way, who’s curiosity is peeked as it was with the disciples today.  Even John knew there was more.  They would leave behind family, political affiliation, religious affiliation as it was with John, to step into and out of something new.  It takes a great deal of courage to face our own past and to become aware of the identities that we cling to in our own lives, running back at times to what gives us comfort, even if it means living in the shame of our hurt as it was with the #metoo movement.  We know it when we have the encounter with the real, with the Christ because like so many who we hear of in Scripture, when it happens, life is changed forever.   They’re never satisfied with the norms anymore and are liberated from their own fear.  We pray for that grace in our own lives, to be cracked open by the invitation to encounter the Lord in a new way, to leave behind our old identities and now seek our identity in Christ.  We encounter that in that presence, in that unconditional love, and the acceptance of the Other, who calls us forth to a fuller way of life and to no longer settle in fear for anything less than more.

A Liberated Critic

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist.  He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter.  There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert.  Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself.  He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.

The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him.  In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within.  He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions.  He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time.  In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ. 

We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead.  We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place.  It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours.  If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy.  Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways.  They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them.  They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves.  As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within.  Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.

Then there is the Baptist.  As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him.  More often than not they don’t like what he has to say.  They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading.  Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from.  That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though.  It’s what they never understood about him.  His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place.  It was coming from deep within his very foundation.  What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul.  That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified.  For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about.  John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ.  One mightier than I is to come.  I must decrease and he must increase.  It’s the mantra of the season.

And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal.  The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert.  Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”.  Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience.  Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within.  Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time.  It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within.  Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal.  This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are.  It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day.  It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.

Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation.  The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that.  Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way.  Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God.  Be eager for peace.

As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated.  God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less.  When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever.  We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything.  This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way.  No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.

The Predictably Unpredictable Master

The parable of the talents is now the second of the three in this chapter of Matthew.  Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and then next week will be the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in this gospel in the judgment of the nations.  It’s the final teaching of Jesus before the real event as to what this all means and what it has to tell them about who this God and who this Jesus really is and what he’s all about.  Like the other two parables this one is filled, like our lives, with many contradictions that are hidden in plain sight.

Our natural inclination, as I’ve said before, is to automatically try to identify who’s who in these parables that Jesus offers us.  It’s almost as if we have to identify roles so we know where we fit and somehow feel comfortable with it, knowing who’s who.  However, that would leave us in a bit of a predicament with calling God the master of the story, considering what we know about the master according to the one who was given one talent.  Even the master makes a pre-judgment about the guy by only giving one, according to his ability.  But this same guy then reveals the identity of the master by telling us that he’s demanding, a lie and a cheat and pretty much leaves them to their own accord by leaving.  Now I can’t necessarily say that’s how I would identify God, and yet, when we rush to judgment and trying fill in the blanks, it’s the God we’re left with.  But maybe that’s Jesus point.

Let’s look at the other two who obviously were very successful in turning the talents into great wealth.  According to our standard today we’re talking millions of dollars, more money than we know what to do with.  They make this money by becoming the likeness of the master and his success which means they too become demanding along with liars and cheats.  It was common knowledge in that time.  Also common thinking, as it often is to this very day, that wealth and this accumulation of it was how they viewed God.  The more I had the more somehow God has blessed me and graced my life, as if grace and blessing can somehow be quantified.  Today we’d call it the prosperity gospel.  The more I have the more God must love me and well, if I don’t it’s probably my own fault.  You see, God is not the master in this sense.  The master is a god but they serve the master of success of wealth and power.  It stands in total contradiction to what they are about to witness about the true Master facing the passion, death, and resurrection.  Yet, we’ve adopted in our own churches serving the wrong master at times.  It may bring us joy, as we hear, but it’s a fleeting joy, not the joy that comes through the true Master, the eternal.

That does, though, leave the third one hanging out there.  Mindful of all we know of Jesus and all the stories we’ve heard from Matthew this year wouldn’t it make sense that he’d be drawn to this final character of the parable.  You can almost imagine him huddled over out of fear seeking the Lord of life.  But the master of success in the parable has already made a judgment about him, just as the Pharisees have done about anyone that has not been somehow blessed by God, by not having.  Here’s a guy who even stands up to the master of success, facing him with a sense of authenticity and courage, humbling confronting the master and just as the Pharisees do, he’s tossed into the darkness.  He comes with nothing and leaves with nothing.  Isn’t that just how our lives are designed?  We always want more and the more is never enough.  Success for the true Master is more about less being more, it’s about coming as we are, with nothing, in humility and with authenticity standing up to the many masters we serve.

That is what’s behind this rather unusual proverb we hear in the first reading.  What the heck does the ideal wife have to do with talents and all the rest in the gospel?  What makes her the ideal is that she’s not there to serve the master in her husband.  Rather, she’s mindful of the true master and does all she does in the name of that Master.  The proverb tells us that she finds all the superficialities as fleeting, charm and beauty are simply joys that will pass.  She keeps her eye on her one God.  She is a woman that fears the Lord in its truest sense, a hope and joy that is eternal and she finds that through serving the true Master, as we’d say, in Christ, through the grace to trust and have a deeper sense of faith that transcends what the world offers her, which at that time was not a great deal.

Paul reminds us through his letter to the Thessalonians today that the moment comes in all of our lives, like a thief in the night, when we’re questioned and when we should begin to question the master that it is that we are serving.  He tells us when it arises in us it’s like labor pains, a painful experience when we are awakened to the reality that we’ve been serving our own master rather than the Master.  It will not only be what master we decide to serve but also what we do with it.  Do we continue to seek fleeting joy and the instant gratification in our lives or do we look for more?  Ironically, when we look for more it’s often less that can fill.  The more we try to fill ourselves with our own masters the more empty we become, lacking meaning and purpose in our lives.

We are now just over a month away from when our lives become all about the “more”.  We’ll need more gifts, cards, parties, stuff to have ourselves a successful Christmas.  Yet, we’ve probably all been in that place, that, when all is said and done we feel empty and unfulfilled.  More often than not it’s because we’ve spent our times serving the wrong master and then we’re faced with the holiday blues.  We pray this day for the grace to become aware or maybe even just to begin to ask ourselves who is the master we serve in our lives.  The master we serve says a lot about the God we choose to serve.  This god of success and prosperity is so tempting in our lives and yet often comes at great cost.  Maybe not in the moment but at some point it happens.  The true Master calls us to a life of humility, faith and trust.  The more we keep our eye and heart on the true Master the more we begin to realize that we don’t need much, that less is often more.  It’s a God of deep mystery that we are invited to fall into, as the ideal wife does in Proverbs, trusting in the promise of the eternal joy that arrives when we finally let go of our own masters and learn to trust the fall into the true Master of our lives, the eternal Christ.

 

‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.