Avenge Not

**Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything about the movie read no further!

There are threads of movies, in particular hero and heroine, as well as all the great comic book characters, that stand the test of time of what even this blog’s namesake, the hero’s journey. The latest Avengers: Endgame is no different, maybe even more tied to the threads than many others.

From the very beginning of the movie, characters are put in a position of making the choice of going back in time. Of course, they go for a specific reason, but once they find themselves traveling back, there’s more to the storyline than simply picking up a stone. The characters, like ourselves, are often faced with our own life in moments passed. They are put in a position where, even at times, they need to confront their own life in those moments before they can once again jump forward to the present moment.

If life has taught me anything, the same is true for us. We can all face moments, like Hulk does, where he’s simply embarrassed for his level of rage in his past. All he could do is shake his head and move on knowing that it’s no longer him. However, he has to see it for himself, that that’s who he was in those moments, pick up the pieces, and allow himself to be even more whole as a character. In his first appearance he admits to finally accepting who he really is, no longer the human character but the green man who no longer needs to be tied to his own rage against himself. We all miss pieces in our own lives growing up, often at no fault to ourselves, but are necessary for us to continue the hero journey as well. Until we confront our own self, even in past memories, it is often quite difficult for us to move forward as well. We continuously fall into the same traps in our lives, leading to more suffering, or as it is with Hulk, a raging against evil in the end is simply a rage against ourselves.

There is the unexpected turn, though, of Captain America, who appears to live with some regret in his own life as he goes back to pick up pieces. There’s the possibility that he stands before the woman of his dreams when he returns to earlier days and begins to question how his own life had panned out. It’s not until later in the movie when we find out that it was more than simply a regret, often at the hands of being a super hero, recognizing that there was more to his life than “saving the world” and it was an experience of love that he desired more than anything. Although there is no turning back in our own lives; we are to live with the choices that we make for good or for ill, he found himself in the conundrum that many find themselves, living with regret and how do we change course in life so that we are more aware and more conscious of the choices we’re making so as to not live with regret in the future. When in doubt, so it seems, choosing love never seems to be the one to doubt but rather the one to act upon in life.

All of it, though, eventually prepares us for the final battle, the journey that goes even further into the depths of our being when we finally have to face our own mortality. There never seems to be any doubt that someone in the end is going to have to pay the ultimate price. Certainly, the major religions of the world are often centered around the mystery of life and death and the journey towards the true hero is no different. There may be no more touching scenes in the entire film than those with Iron Man and even his ultimate reconciliation with Peter Parker. For too long he blamed himself for the death of the kid and yet is finally given the chance, before his own death, the reconcile. There was a necessary healing that needed to take place in his life before he could finally let go of his own, his past, present, and future. As much as there is joy in the characters in the end, following the untimely death, it is a joy that is rooted in that very mystery of life and death.

Like so many of the other movies before, there is a difference in the characters in the end of the movie. Something has changed that is not always seen or explained; you just know it has happened. You know everyone of them, in facing their own past and learning to reconcile with it, confronting their own mortality, looking the demons of their lives square in the face, even death itself, their lives are changed. They become the hero in a variety of different ways, learning to reconcile, despite their own superpower, that they too have a shadow side that is a part of who they are and helps to define the character.

All too often the characters stumble over that shadow and do everything to avoid that reality. No one ever wants to rush in and face evil’s stalwart characters because they appear and seem to be larger than life. That part of ourselves that we often choose to avoid, the parts of pain and hurt, have a way of dominating our lives until we make the timeless journey towards hero and heroine. It is the people that choose that journey who become our mentors, spiritual directors, lovers, guides, and many others who have done the hard work of facing life square on. Rather than avenging against our own lives, the hero journey invites us to face it square in the face, despite the overwhelming darkness that it seems to hover over us.

Much can be learned from movies like Avengers: Endgame. It teaches us that tears on life’s journey are necessary to letting go and learning to engage the dance between life and death. In the end, something changes within us as well. Something changes for the better when we enter into the journey. There’s a depth to the wisdom that we acquire when we pick up the pieces of our lives towards wholeness, knowing that it will prepare us for the further journey and the battle with darkness and our own shadow that can drag us down. Ultimately, though, it frees us, our hearts and souls, from fear, even fear of what appears as the greatest enemy, death itself. We may fight it along the way, but like Hulk, at some point we have to learn to accept even the parts of ourselves that we have found grotesque for one reason or another. They often become our greatest tool and our deepest sense of beauty because we no longer need to fight the fight, raging against ourselves. Rather, we embrace the tension that exists between life and death, knowing full-well that it’s the journey to what we most desire, to be the hero and heroine of our own life story.

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.

 

Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

Fasting for Life

Isaiah 58: 7-10; ICor 2: 1-5; Matthew 5: 13-16

I feel blessed because I’ve had the opportunity to travel to several Third World countries over the years, often with high school students. I still remember the first time I had left the country and had done one of these trips to Honduras. Needless to say, it’s a culture shock when you step off the plane in another country like this and see men standing around in many locations with machine guns. You quickly realize that you’re no longer in the States and are going to be pushed to look at life and people very differently than what we’re used to here. You know, I’m from small town Pennsylvania and I never had an experience of someone of a different color in my life until I had gone to college. My only experience was judgment, stereotype, and fear. That was it; but quickly learned that none of it was true when I began to enter into relationships with others. It didn’t seem to matter color, lifestyle, religion or anything else that is used to separate and put ourselves in a place of superiority.

The one striking thing we’d often push each other on in these different cultures and surroundings was to catch ourselves when we were being over-American. As Americans, we love to fix and we want to help to the point where we want to, in many ways, create “mini-me’s” around the globe. We think we’re the greatest and somehow know how to do this life thing better than anyone else. However, when we want to fix and we want to help, it also puts us in a place of superiority because we know better than “those” people. It automatically puts up a barrier between and prevents relationship. If there’s anything I learned, none of these experiences were about changing anyone else. More often than not, they were about changing me as a person and to let go of my fears and judgements, sometimes even about myself.

At the heart of the first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is about that, about fasting, but not int the way we use that word. Like most things, we water it down to make these things more palatable, like giving up food or something. That’s not the message of Isaiah though. Isaiah’s challenge is a much more radical fasting. He challenges Israel to fast from malicious thought, oppression, false accusation, and as I said, would include, fear and judgment. Israel also has lived with this complex of greatness, but that’s a hard standard to live up to forever. Eventually it begins to crack and Isaiah is inviting them into that place. Like us at times, they want to enter into these relationships thinking their somehow superior and above and thought everyone should be like them. Isaiah says and challenges today, to give it up. To give up that kind of thinking that stands in the way of relationship. He says to go and serve the poor, the hungry, the homeless. In our own day, we’d add refugees which is not a new phenomenon. It’s gone on for some time and we are left wondering what to do with a humanity that is not in need of fixing and helping but of healing and reconciliation. It’s not just about serving for our own need. It’s about a service that challenges us to go to the vulnerable places in our own lives that are in need of healing. It is so often in these relationships that we are pushed to that place.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But not always. We haven’t as a country and we aren’t always in our daily lives. We can’t ignore our own darkness and the moments when we allow fear to control our lives. The light is the only thing that can help to illumine the darkness of our lives. It is so often that fear and judgement that we hold onto and often define ourselves by that prevents us from stepping out of the dark and entering into relationship with the other. Maybe it’s fear of us being moved to change that prevents us the most. When you think you’re the greatest there’s really no need for change. However, here’s the thing about greatness. You can never be it until you give up and surrender all interest in it. There’s no humility in that type of greatness, only pride that cuts our lives short from where it is that God invites us to grow in these relationships with one another.

Relationships are hard, not only others but with God. They require a great deal of effort on our part and an openness to change, me changing! It is much easier to crawl up into my fear and judgement and lock myself into my own little corner of the world but there’s nothing freeing about that. It is so often in the relationships that we have avoided because of our fear and judgment that have prevented us from an experience of the unknown, of another part of God which is then opened up to us. That’s the real desire of Isaiah and also the desire of Paul in proclaiming the mystery of God. The invitation today is to step beyond our own comfort. Maybe it is in service to someone different than myself that I have feared. The challenge is to not go into it with the intention to fix or someone change to your image and likeness, but low and behold, to maybe, just maybe, allow yourself to be changed. The more we fast from this fear and judgment and even malicious thoughts that Isaiah tells us about today, the more we are opened to hearts that are healed and vulnerable to a greater experience of love. In that we continue to grow into our call in being salt of the earth and light of the world.

A Weary World Rejoices

star-of-bethlehem-wallpaper-source_bff

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

A weary world rejoices…it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

They are the words of the classic Christmas hymn, O Holy Night, which we celebrate this evening and there’s no denying that a weary world it so often seems…

The two great stories that identify us as Christians, tonight, of course, the incarnation of our God, God breaking in and taking on human flesh, and then the death and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter have many similarities to their surroundings as they unfold. If you reflect upon both there is great upheaval and chaos that is going on all around these events. Yet, all those who are so greatly connected to them don’t seem bothered by the fact. There of course is corruption by the political and religious authorities of the time, who all along plot the death of Jesus. There’s fear beyond belief. There’s yet another boot tramped in battle and another cloak rolled in blood as Isaiah tells us this evening. It is a weary world that Jesus encounters from the very beginning. All of it sets the scene for these two great events that define us.

But they also happen in darkness. It’s almost as if God can only seem to do something with people in darkness, when they are most vulnerable. And if that’s true, and it is true, then imaging the great things God is trying to do at this very moment in a world that continues to stand weary, and yet, on this night, manages to rejoice the birth of a Savior. But it doesn’t seem to destroy the darkness. It’s still there. The most vulnerable still are impacted the most by ongoing war and violence of a world plagued by fear. Who can get out of their minds, and maybe we’re not supposed to, the images of the children running for their lives out of Aleppo. Or as we lie down at night, others continue to remain very vulnerable on these very streets of this city, murder and death, night after night. It is a weary world and a weary world that welcomes the birth of the Savior and begins to make space for a God breaking through the weariness of the world.

But it’s us as well who experience such weariness in our own lives. It’s not just beyond us in outlying areas. It’s us when we are most vulnerable as well, as we lie down in the darkness of the night and we can no longer outrun our weariness and weighs upon our hearts and souls. As the day silences it only seems as if the mind begins to race, thinking of what hurts and worries us at this moment, a dying parent, a sick child, an unemployed spouse, a lost soul, all of this arises in the darkness of the night, when we too are most vulnerable for something, for someone, a God breaks through and begins to bring light to a weary load, no longer needing to figure it out on our own but a God who comes to ease and to point us in a new direction in life. It is the night, a night that lies weary.

It is the story of people Israel whom Isaiah speaks to today. They too know weariness and are searching for something and someone. Long before Jesus even enters the scene, Isaiah knows in his very being this Christ. It’s the only explanation for such words of hope to a people who have wandered in darkness and experience boot tramped in battle and cloak rolled in blood. They know ongoing war and violence. They know famine and poverty. And yet, when a new king ascends the throne, this great hymn is sung as if the past is the past and we begin anew. We no longer need to walk in the darkness and become victims of our own vulnerability, for a child is given us and a new leader will rule the earth. Once again, God desperately tries to break into the weariness of the lives of Israel, who so often try to go it alone. And over and over again, leads to further war and violence, famine and poverty. And once again, it is the most vulnerable that are forgotten, the faces of Aleppo that are now ingrained in our minds and hearts. That’s the irony of the story, it is in the most vulnerable places that God breaks in and it’s the place we will try to outrun and avoid. It is so often the place we fear the most.

Somehow, that fear takes hold. There is Herod, as well, who fears that another king has been born. In his own insecurities, someone is going to try to steal his power away from him, which, of course, isn’t power or peace at all, it’s fear that rules the land and Herod’s heart. But what Herod didn’t know because he was so encapsulated by himself, is that this king was different. This king wasn’t looking to ascend to his throne or somehow knock him off. This King wasn’t about ascending at all. This King was one who was descending into the depths of the earth, into the depths of our very being, to the most vulnerable place, our own poverty, our own weariness in order to give us life. Herod had nothing to fear and yet did and there was a price, a heavy price, that would be paid by the most vulnerable of his time.

And so chaos ensued. Darkness covered the earth and never seemed to lift. Yet, in the midst of it all in this couple, Mary and Joseph. Mary gives birth to the Savior as we see in this manger scene and now will have to confront the fear of Herod and their own fear. But they have nothing to fear. Mary doesn’t only give birth to the Savior into the world. Mary allows the incarnation to birth within her. Joseph allows this incarnation to be birthed within him. The shepherds, the most despised of their day, traitors, thieves, robbers, as they were, hear the message of the angels and their souls felt their worth. They too allowed the incarnation to be birthed in them and their lives are forever changed. In the midst of the chaos and darkness, a weary world rejoices for it is in those very moments that God desires to break into our lives, to meet us in our very humanity. Sure we like an Almighty God who ascends to the throne, but first, and most importantly, descends into the weariness of our lives. This is a vulnerable God, a scandalous God, that desires to love the places where we find ourselves most weary and to birth new life, to break into and through our own weariness. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth and a weary world rejoices.

It is easy for us to get caught up in the nostalgia and sentimentality of the season, and maybe that’s easy for some of us to do. It’s an opportunity to block out the weariness and emptiness of our own lives, the poverty of the soul that desires worth. Yet, it’s not the peace this night provides or desire of us. Because as we gather, chaos still happens. Darkness is still the reality for many. War and violence haven’t stopped simply for Christmas. No, the world remains weary and will be weary, just as our lives very much can be even at a night when we rejoice. The message tonight is of hope, of a God who desires to love so much that is willing to do the unthinkable, a God who’s willing to descend from on high and meet us where we are, to birth us once again, so that we may be the bearers of light to the darkness, to the war-driven streets of Aleppo and Baltimore, and even to our most vulnerable places, where we feel most weary this day, for today we rejoice that our Savior has been born, breaking into our world and lives, and points us to a still more perfect, fulfilling way of life. Merry Christmas!

Pushed Through

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44

In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr gave what would then be his final speech and sermon in Memphis. It is often referred to as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon and then assassinated the following day. It was often scripture, like the one we hear today from Isaiah about climbing that mountain that inspired such sermons. He used some poetic language in that one along with so many other sermons and prophetic speeches that he had given in his life. One of the images was something along the lines of that it is only in the darkest part of the night that we can truly see the brightest of the stars. For those of us who live in the city that should mean something knowing how much artificial light has a way to swallow up the stars as much as darkness can seem to in our lives. We become reliant on the artificial light that we, at times, begin to believe it’s the true light shining through, almost lulling us into a false trust as we often find ourselves journeying through the darkness.

Now in that speech King was addressing the economic injustices that he so frequently spoke out against, along with racial injustice. Of course, even as a message of hope there were some that could not see beyond their own darkness to embrace a larger heart which will lead to his untimely death. But like the prophetic voices, especially Isaiah whom we will hear from during this season, it was a message of hope that was being delivered. King imagined himself being asked by God as to what period of history he wishes he would have lived. In the end, King said right now. He believed, that despite the darkness of his day, with racial and economic injustices, along with others, that God was trying to break through at this very moment and God was using him to do just that, and to offer hope to people that have become swallowed up by darkness. He does this march through history, beginning with people Israel who knew first hand the plight of suffering and darkness.

Isaiah did as well and this theme of light and darkness will follow us straight through Christmas at this point. Not only have they been led through the darkness of the years wandering in the desert, but also in times of exile, war, famine, and this perpetual moaning to a God who had somehow abandoned them through it all. In the midst of such darkness they begin to despair and lose hope that they will ever get beyond it, or better yet, be able to push through or be pushed through. As it was with King, God grants Isaiah this panoramic vision of life in a time when the people needed it most. Israel once again finds itself at a low point and Isaiah, rather than condemning as can often be done, offers a message of hope, to walk in the light of the Lord, and that, even in their darkest of days, God continued to break through and offer hope to a people that hurt and suffer. Like them, we begin to identify ourselves by our darkness, whatever that darkness may be. We begin to identify ourselves by our sickness, by our cancer. Or we begin to identify ourselves by our unemployment or underemployment. We begin to identify ourselves by our addictions or whatever that darkness may be for each of us. But that darkness is not me and it’s not you.

Paul too continues that theme in today’s second reading to the Roman community. He reminds them to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. For Paul, it was a motivation to be love to one another and to recognize that this journey through life is one that we do together. If someone finds themselves wandering in darkness, they we are there to push them along and not to give up, to encourage. If we don’t, again, that darkness has a way of taking hold of our lives and we lose that panoramic vision of our lives and begin to despair and no longer believe that this God is not only breaking through in our lives but pushing us through that darkness. I’m mindful of the giving tree here as we also help people in need. We also mustn’t fall for this idea that somehow my darkness is worse or not as bad as others. Darkness is real in our lives, no matter what form it takes. Rather, it is a journey we do as one.

Jesus is preparing his disciples for the greatest of darkness, this experience of his impending death as King did in his speech. It will be one of the few times we actually hear from Jesus during these weeks. That’s why the message these weeks is to stay awake and to awaken from our slumber. The invitation these weeks is to climb that mountain, as difficult as it can be at times, and continue to allow ourselves to be pushed and not be so quick to give into the darkness of despair. Jesus knew it would not be an easy task for his disciples, but it is one that they must do together. They will quickly scatter but eventually find their way back to one another and push through the darkness of death together in order to be light to others.

This season gives us the invitation to take the journey that so many of the prophetic voices have invited us throughout salvation history, like Isaiah and King, along with Paul and Jesus. We are invited to the journey up this holy mountain of our lives and take a panoramic view of who we are and to ask ourselves where we have allowed darkness to define us. Where have we allowed ourselves to be lulled into believe that this darkness in normal and somehow have become a victim of our own circumstances, even questioning, as Israel did, how God could do this to us? When all along and through it all, God continues to break through. King was right in that it often is in the darkest time of the night that the stars shine the brightest, but it us who are called to be that light. We make this journey together, as one, in darkness and in the light. No, we are not the darkness that often defines us, but it is real. We are called to put on that armor of light and to be that light for all who find themselves climbing that mountain in what often seems as the darkest part of their night.

Illumined Darkness

Luke 3: 10-18

In all the talk this week about Muslims, banning people and the such, I was thinking about the mission trips I had taken out to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. We had spent time with a Native and he spoke about the experience of living on the Reservation and the amount of poverty and addictions that exist. He followed up by mentioning that this model became the model for concentration camps, in some ways it continues with the Palestinians, and have even heard the city described that way, in trying to concentrate in one area the perceived threat and somehow over time it will go away. Of course, when you box people in, strip them of their dignity, it will always lead to problems and greater violence. Those of us on the outside don’t understand and question why they just don’t change, but is it us that need to change? Before we quickly write off the people like Trump, I think it’s important to remember that it’s revealing something about us as people, our blind side, shadow side, which we too try to cut off and pretend isn’t there with the hopes that it will go away. It, to some, will appear as the light, but is a deception. We, now, will be pointed to the true light in Christ. Without us even knowing, darkness has a way of concealing itself as light. We seek the true light.

Here, once again, is John the Baptist. “What should we do?” the people ask him today. Of course, these are not the powers-that-be coming to him today. He’s speaking to the people on the bottom rung of the ladder, who too are being used by the people in power and they’re starting to feel the pressure of it, sacrificing their own dignity. But John’s about to give it right back to them. Each time the question is asked by the tax collector, the crowd, and the solider, another part of that shadow is revealed about the powers-that-be and their abuse by those on the perceived bottom, a shadow that they have come to believe to be their identity, confirmed by the oppressor. Of course, this isn’t going to settle well with Herod who in the very next passage is going to send the Baptist off to prison. He’s aware that his power, albeit an illusion, is being threatened and the illusion is beginning to break. The last think Herod needs or any insecure leader, is a rising up from those on the bottom.

But that’s where John meets these folks today. He meets the vulnerable ones that are impacted by the system. Ironically, when we see things being done to groups of people or even these mass shootings that have become too regular, it’s always against the vulnerable. It’s so often the vulnerable place within us that we want to avoid, where we hurt the most, that we want to isolate and avoid. All of this reminds us of just how much hurt is there. It’s safe to say we have a God problem more than anything! John isn’t confronting the system, though, or even condemning them, although comes close at times. No. Rather, he is leading those on the bottom, the vulnerable ones, to a new place. First he challenges practical changes in what they do, but even those are going to impact the people in power. He begins to reveal the shadow by shedding light on and into it. It’s no wonder that they question whether he is the Christ. Before Jesus even enters the scene, John points the way to a Christ already present within and among the people. Life will not get any easier for anyone in change like this. A system that has benefited from taking advantage of will begin to shake and question what all of this means, doubling down on what was.

Our natural inclination and reaction is to try to separate what we don’t like and what feels vulnerable to us from our lives. It seems as if it’s easier when we don’t have to do it, but just as we have witnessed around the globe, when a voice is trying to cry out, it sometimes goes to dramatic means to be heard. John becomes the voice for so many that had no voice and felt betrayed and taken advantage of. He tries to lead them to a place of freedom that they will find in Christ. In many ways, there no avoiding all of this; it’s so ingrained into who we are. Yet, we don’t have to be controlled by it. We become independent rather than co-dependent, which is how it wants us to feel, as if we need it and somehow it is benefiting us. Yet, all it does is hold us back from living life freely.

As we enter these last days of the Advent season, John points us to the vulnerable place in our lives. Where do we find ourselves hurting and trying to block it out, section it off, separate it from ourselves. The irony is, our greatest gift is often found in our greatest hurt. If we allow ourselves to go there as John points the way, we may find what it is we have always been looking for. We seek a life of freedom and with God’s mercy and forgiveness, it will be revealed to us. It’s no wonder God had to come in the most vulnerable of ways, as a baby, completely dependent on others, born in a manger. Soon after his own birth even he will be seen as a threat. John points the way and reveals that light to us, in our most vulnerable place, hidden in the manger of our hearts, waiting to give back our greatest gift.