Unknown Truth

It’s not wrong to go without, even if it means confronting some of our deepest demons of safety and security or even the “warm fuzzies” we often come to rely upon in our lives. It has become too easy for any of us to go and get what we need or want when we want or need it. I wouldn’t think twice about running to the store, the computer, Amazon, a church or place of worship, whatever it may be to satisfy often the unease I desperately try to avoid within myself, as if I’m somehow lacking. If there’s anything about this pandemic experience we can learn, it’s just how convenience has ruled our lives. It’s not until we’re forced to stop, shops close, churches lock doors, sports shut-down, where we begin to see just how easy our lives have been and how uncomfortable we are with unease. We begin to “see” how much we’ve been able to avoid the acute pain within ourselves by running and avoiding the darkness, the hell, which has loomed. Quite frankly, more often than not we don’t stop until we’re forced to and are left with nowhere to run, hit square on by our own darkness.

There are more examples than I can write of here how we have projected this darkness onto society and the world rather than confronting our own demons. We simply want life to return to “normal”, one for the sake of routine and ease, but also because of our uncomfortableness with the unspoken and the “virus” which has hovered below the surface of our own lives and society at large. This may very well be the first time for many having to confront the “stuff” lingering below the surface, unable to know where to turn or who is going to understand since it is so new and the natural inclination is to “stuff” it. I don’t know about anyone else, but there are moments, in particular around the sleeping hours, where I’ll awaken in the darkness of night feeling short of breath. It seems impossible to distance ourselves from stories of respiratory failure wondering when it’s going to be my turn. As someone who’s dealt with respiratory issues in the past, including pneumonia, it’s easy to say I’m not going to worry but another to actually believe. There are so many unknown factors at play since it really is, novel. It isn’t, though, a respiratory condition, but rather a deeper reality trying to emerge from the drowning waters of the subconscious.

It may be one of the greatest factors at play in all of this. Living with the sense of ease and convenience, we’ve become accustomed to certain degrees of certainty and now trying to navigate without. As litigious as we are, or were, as a society, we tend to thrive on certainty. The more knowledge, facts, knows we have, the more comfortable we are as people. As it is with avoiding pain, we avoid the uncertain and the unknown out of fear. Yet, much of this experience has been about the unknown. As a matter of fact, it seems as if the more we know by watching news and reading about the pandemic, the greater the degree of fear and anxiety becomes attached to us. If we can extrapolate anything from the experience, it should be the degree of trust we place on what we believe to be certain, what makes us feel safe and secure. We want answers! The level of blame going on, and not simply on the political level, points to how much trust we place in something which is merely an illusion in the first place and how much we lack in faith and the deeper sense of trust which defines it.

We tend to associate experiences of the “dark night” as moments of depression, and it can be, or bad days and weeks, also can true. There would certainly be many stories of such an experience going on in people’s lives at this moment. However, there is a deeper sense of the dark night unfolding within and beyond us at the moment and an invitation to a new way of living rooted in faith and trust. It doesn’t necessarily come in the form of depression or despair or the unsettlement of our lives. Rather, the invitation lies within the experience of the unknown and this sense of aloneness and lack of meaning we find ourselves in during these days and weeks. Even our faith traditions have fallen prey to the illusions of safety and security over the years and the certainty the illusions provide. “If I do all the right things and follow all the rules, I’ll ‘go to’ heaven.” Unfortunately, this isn’t faith. However, when it begins to fall apart, and I question, and life doesn’t seem so ‘black and white’, there is the beginning of what can be a dark night, something truly to be grateful for! Otherwise “faith” is simply a means of control, who’s in and who’s out, especially when the world around us feels out of control. When it begins to feel as if we’re drowning in our own pain and grief, we will find anything to give us this sense of certainty, as if something in our lives is controllable.

Yet, now we even find ourselves in the absence of this version of faith. Doors of churches, mosques, synagogues, places of worship have been closed and locked. It alone can be seen as a dark night, but I would add at this moment of history, a necessary one for the future relevance of religion on our lives and society. The codependent relationship of religion and politics has done nothing to further the rich traditions of the contemplative and meditative natures a dark night like we are experiencing demands. The relationship has clung to safety and security and the demand for certainty which only something like a pandemic can begin to unfurl. We can almost expect the thirst for power to exist in politics; it always has. However, more is to be demanded of our faith traditions than mere fabrications of certainty when the only truth we can cling to in moments of unknown is Trust and learning to accept it in the unknown, in the darkness.

I could understand wanting churches to be packed on Easter Sunday, even if it was a highly unlikely goal. However, in a time of pandemic and utter darkness for so many, maybe the best gift we can give is to delay Easter for a later day. I mean, there really is no reason why it can’t be delayed. If there is a greater need for us as a society, it’s to know what suffering is and learning to trust within these moments. Instead we’ll fabricate an Easter in the absence of people, who not unlike the disciples, found themselves hunkered down, isolated, questioning, fearful, within the upper room, trying to make sense and meaning out of the events of suffering and death. Even after resurrection Easter could not be fabricated for the followers. They had to come to the place in time and it often didn’t happen until they allowed themselves to get out of the way, enter deeply into the sense of “going without”, and learn to trust in their own very darkness, unseen by the naked eye throughout the unfolding story and not made visible until life and death intersected.

We’ve settled for so little and often because of our inability to go without, sacrifice, and to feel the “pinch” so many other previous generations learned to live. We’ve settled more often than not for fabricated Easter’s, saying we no longer need to live with the suffering and darkness. However, this is not faith and trust. It’s living with the illusion of truth and certainty all while closing a blind eye to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. We’ve settled for a fabricated Easter by throwing money at problems, always having heady and pious answers, clear definitions, blaming others for problems, weaponizing and polticizing scripture, and spiritualizing real problems. It’s all a fabrication of our collective ego in order to protect what we believe to be most important, but it’s not faith nor trusting. It’s believing a truth we can live with one and without the other. Faith, however, is learning to live with both and feeling the tension between life and death, light and darkness, suffering and joy.

What’s dying is the illusory ego. How do we know? We know because of the lack of certainty, no quick answers or fixes, no foreseeable return to “normal” (nor should we), confusion, darkness, death. It’s all there fixed on our screens not unlike the scenes of 9/11. We were given an invitation then and we let it pass us by, trying to consume our ways out of it. We are now given another invitation to understand our complexity as humans, the truth of life and death are all of us, when we have nothing to consume as doors remain locked, where all we can do is sit in the darkness of the moment and feel. It’s a painful feel, as if I can’t breathe, a sense of isolation, lacking purpose and meaning, trapped in the upper room, fearful of an unseen virus and maybe the unknown of my own life. We are given a dark night at a time when we need it the most. We are given time to “go without” so many ways of life we have become accustomed. I’m not saying it’s easy. As a matter of fact, it’s growing old quickly. However, there’s more to learn. Even as I write I can feel it within myself.

Are we going to continue to settle for mere fabrications of safety and security? Are we going to use this time to grow exponentially as humans, learning to see each other as ourselves, understanding the suffering of others? Are we going to continue to settle for a faith rooted in certainty rather than trust and truth? Are we, as a society, going to finally deal with a broken heart of a life which hasn’t been as expected and finally allowing ourselves to be led by a healed heart rather than an injured ego? Are we going to continue to allow ourselves to be victims and blame “the world” for all of our problems rather than take responsibility for our lives? These are questions we ask in the darkest of nights we are living in this pandemic.

It’s not a moment to sulk, even if I feel it at times, but rather to find glimmers of light within the confusion, chaos, darkness, fear, uncertainty for we are both and not one or the other. It’s a moment to accept our own mortality and commit to living life differently as we go forward, day by day and choice by choice, to live from a deeper level, a higher consciousness, filled with faith and trust. It’s a moment to learn to live without, without certainty, safety, security, knowns, facts, ins and outs, convenience, ease, and to leap into the unknown. The great promise and truth I can give is it’s the best thing you can do for yourself, we can all do for ourselves. It’s uncomfortable, there’s grieving, it’s dark, and all the rest, but it’s the hero’s journey, a faithful journey, and truthful journey, one leading to meaning and purpose and a faith rooted not in certainty but in the darkest night of the soul, wandering lost, where life no longer makes sense, only desiring and wanting nothing more than to feel the “presence of the Soul” once again.

Hopeful Grief

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There are times where I just can’t work. I feel like I don’t have the energy to do much of anything and push myself to go outside for a walk, get fresh air, escape the confines of “stay at home” orders. It can be quite depressing and with very little purpose. The saving grace is some arts and crafts time with the kids which focuses me on their youthful energy, despite the feeling of wanting to go right back into hibernation when they leave. These are hard days, even for an introvert. Sure, it may be my natural inclination to find time for self-reflection, but I’m also a person who loves making connections, not only with others, but within myself and even assisting others to do the same. There is, if I could ever admit it, a grief unlike any other I find myself going through right now, after a year of tremendous moments of grief, all seemingly to be different than the one before.

As I stand on the proverbial threshold of another year of life, my 48th birthday and the beginning of my 49th year, I am mindful of this grief. Although there’s often a grief on such thresholds, this one seems very different, one coupled with hope. It was a year ago at this moment in which I officially resigned my position of pastor and found myself, what I like to call quasi-homeless, and searching for a place to land and land quickly. I think back to such moments now and wonder how I had the muster within me to do what I was doing, stepping away from a life I knew well and yet was killing me on another. There I was, on the threshold not quite knowing what was lying ahead but willing to take a step, and it is just one step at a time, to a healthier life. It is a threshold, as I didn’t know then, leading me to the “home” within myself and not necessarily needing to know a street address I could call my own because somehow this home would give me all I needed.

Thresholds and transitions are always staged within grief. It always marks the end of one chapter or book and the beginning of another. I didn’t know when I stepped through how it would look, and at times, still do not. We can never fully know what we are getting ourselves into at any given moment. The threshold we find ourselves standing at these days seems only to vastly grow wider. It seems as if there’s no end in sight to the confinement of our homes and lives. It explains the lack of energy at times of simply wanting to lie on the couch, slide the screen of my computer, and every other distraction I manage to find during the day, all because I know there’s no crossing this threshold at the moment. All any of us really can do is stand and dream of what lies on the other side and begin to tap into the creative energy which seems to have laid dormant in our society for all too long.

We can’t seem to run from the “stuckness” we’ve found ourselves and the lack of creativity associated with it. It feels all the more visible these days, unable to outrun. When we’ve allowed ourselves to create and recreate reality television programming, sequels to endless movies, is it any wonder we’d be somewhat drawn to movies like Groundhog Day when it’s the life we’ve often settle for before we’ve reached this threshold. It has been about doing the same thing over and over again, insanely believing it will somehow be better the next time around. It never is and yet we try. I’m reminded of the words of a therapist who had told me the trick with eating a delicious slice of cake. There is nothing like the first bite when we can taste all the succulent flavors hitting the various parts of our tongue. However, we’re never satisfied with the first bite. I know I’m not. We immediately live with this false sense of hope each bite following the first will not only compare but outdo the first. It never does. Yet we try, over and over and over again, believing if I try just one more time somehow this will work and be the best. Take it from me who loved to jump around, it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with the cake in the first place. It was the lack of satisfaction and creativity in my own life, numbing the grief rather than confronting my own pride, filled with arrogance and ignorance as if I knew what was best. I didn’t. It wasn’t about the cake. It was about me. It’s hard, packing up, nowhere to go, quasi-homeless, looking to land, standing at thresholds, wondering what’s next, a new year beginning, confined to home. Who wouldn’t be grieving? It appears we are now unable to avoid it.

Grieving, though, can easily turn into depression. We see it everywhere around us. Whenever the cruel parts of this world catch up with us and force us to slow down and even stop, we’re simply left with ourselves. Sure, there have been other moments but not in my life do I remember being confined in such a way. I’m not who likes this feeling to begin with, knowing my own anxiety as I wrote in the previous post. It has led to restless nights, questioning in ways I haven’t before, and lots and lots of writing, trying to make sense out of things beyond the rational mind. It’s hard to listen to reports knowing there’s nothing I can do. I suppose some of the grief comes from feeling helpless in these moments, when we know there is greater risk in venturing out than there is staying home.

There is, though, hope. We see it in the world around us as pollution decreases in these days, crime has fallen, people are finding ways to connect and assist, it is a moment when we can all empathize with one another. The place we call is getting a much-needed rest from our utter destruction out of our own selfishness. I was struck on Friday watching Pope Francis walking alone in the darkened square facing out to a quieted and rainy city of Rome. There was simply a light in the midst of it all, guiding him along his way. We have been blinded not by light but by our darkness, our grief. We have believed what has led to darkness to be the light. We seek something and someone beyond ourselves to give us the answers to our difficult questions. It’s not to say we can’t find answers through our relationships and connections, but it is only deep within ourselves, our home, where we find what it is we seek for in life. We can’t help ourselves to be mesmerized by the darkness and its lure of artificial light. We’ve settled for superficial, less than, the loudest voices, glitz and lights, an impossible dream, and so on. We have not sought the light; we’ve wandered in the darkness, and whether we can admit it or not, we’ve liked it despite its ability to fulfill us.

This is the threshold in which we now stand. It feels even more relevant for me as I embark on another year of life following a year of tremendous upheaval and yet great peace and fulfillment. I’m not sure I’d even be in the place I am today, standing on such a profound threshold, if it wasn’t for the year which has passed, resigning, months living and working at Bethlehem Farm, countless miles traveling back and forth as my father was dying and his inevitable death, questioning what’s next, quasi-homeless, do I start my own business, and so forth. Is it any wonder there’s grief? Is it any wonder the threshold carries such magnitude? I know, though, I don’t stand there alone right now. A year ago, I felt it was a crossing I had to do on my own. Little did I know a pandemic would close out an already unusual year for me, and for that matter, welcome a new year. Yet, it’s what is reality at the moment, the one thing we try most to bypass. It’s a time for creativity, questioning, grieving, self-reflection, wandering in a darkness and seeking what really matters, our deepest values. We mustn’t fear the darkness of our own lives; it carries many of the answers in which we seek.

The grief we experience right now is real and profound. It contains all we have become and all we can be. It contains all our regrets and our dreams. It contains all our fears and hopes. We need not pass up the moment being given to us. We are given the time to do, individually and as a society, an examen of who we have become and question what we take beyond the threshold. As vast and wide as the threshold appears, it’s as narrow as the “eye of a needle” and so we only take what really matters now. It feels like tremendous loss, as if we can’t live without so much, and yet it’s the path towards the freedom we love to tout and the meaning and purpose we really desire. If moments like this don’t lead to deeper questions, we may never move to a place of deeper consciousness and continue to settle for our selfish ways, feeding a pain shared by one another and a tired earth. It doesn’t undermine the loss of life, the great suffering, and the utter darkness some experience in these days, but it is only hope and courage allowing us to take the next step for ourselves into the next year of our lives. For myself it comes in the form of a birthday, but for all of us it comes in the form of a new birth and a new world in a post-pandemic world, but first we grieve a world we can’t and mustn’t take with us beyond this threshold.

The Resistant Hero

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In my years teaching I often joked, but with a lot of truth, that it’s more important to understand the “dark arts” than it is anything else. They were the days of Harry Potter! To understand the workings of the shadow and the numerous blind spots of our lives is the true pathway to the wholeness we desire. An obsession with light tends to simply blind all the more, and, well, with darkness it will ultimately take you down in one way or another. The obsession with light often puts us on the run, from ourselves, and over time, darkness becomes comfortable and a life of consistent turmoil and angst becomes the norm. On the exterior is the display of a virtuous life, per se, but quite the opposite interiorly.

There are many scenes in the new box-office smash, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but one in particular personifies the difficulty we face as humans in seeking that life of wholeness. Both Rey and Ren find themselves in a heated battle with pounding waves crashing around them, in, of all places, a destroyed Death Star. It seems almost inevitable that one will lose their life in the process as all the rest flee. The two of them stand on the edge of the world, battling it out. Of all the scenes in the Star Wars saga, this scene, in many ways, is symbolic of the interior struggle of the two characters playing out in their external environment as one learns to act with great courage and the other, love. Rey, resisting her own lineage to the darkness and fighting it with every ounce of strength she has. While Ren, the great resister of love hides behind the machismo, but what lies behind the mask is a little boy, Ben, desiring to be loved and doubting the worth of the Jedi heritage in which he comes. The two grappling with darkness in their own way, resisting what it is that will bring them wholeness.

The battle between the two is really a battle with themselves, her with the masculine and he with the feminine. As in our own lives, and certainly an unhealthy masculinity, of which we settle for as a society, and I’m only capable of speaking of, we’re tempted to do all we can to abolish the feminine, somehow making us more of a man. Ren, a heartless slab consumed by his own pain and anger, must confront the love of the other in order to let go and reclaim his birthright as Ben, manifested in the healing touch of Rey, but only when pushed to the edge himself. In an intimate moment of touch, Ren can do nothing but cry and be driven to silence. In time he finds himself surrendering to that love, of which he feared most and considered a form of weakness, allowing the mask to fall on his own hero’s journey.

Rey, though, has her own battle. She must confront a history from which she runs, embodied by the darkness she witnesses in Kylo Ren and Emperor Palpatine. Her desire to live the courageous life of a Jedi, as is her birthright, appears to stand in conflict with her lineage and like most of us, finds herself on the run from the darkness. Her history, as part of the Palpatine lineage, points to her demise and to be reduced to the seat of darkness itself. Her history stands in conflict with her heart and spirit, as pointed out by Luke, that she is more than her darkness. She was, like us, going to go to the place she feared the most and confront the Emperor face to face. There is no other way in the hero’s journey. The journey always takes us downward to the places we fear the most and to encounter the demons of our own lives that narrow our thinking and move us to succumbing to a destiny not our own.

The saga that has played out over these past forty years in the Star Wars series is much more than light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong. It wouldn’t have pulled in generations as it has if it were that simple. Granted, some of the movies are better than others, but all the characters have some kind of work to do in their own lives that throws them into the “and” of all the scenarios. They often stand in conflict, and like us, belief life is about getting rid of and keeping hidden what we have deemed as being insufficient, what we see as insufficient or flawed about ourselves. Rey saw that in her lineage and Ren in his own hurt and anger, all of which drove them down into the depths of their being. It’s why the battle takes place on rough seas, on a deteriorating Death Star, and fought alone. It’s their battle to fight and not to win or to kill, as the world often seems all to ready to do, but to find peace with one another and to learn to love all the parts of themselves.

Joseph Campbell, a Jedi in his own right when it comes to mythology writes, “Perhaps some of us have to go through dark and devious ways before we can find the river of peace or the highroad to the soul’s destination.” Rey would never become the Jedi she desired and believed to be in her heart and soul unless she did such a journey. It’s why so few choose such a journey of faith in their lives because it’s what we fear the most. He goes onto say that the tomb and womb are all but one. Something must die, such as Ren’s egoic persona, before the true self, the birthright, is revealed, Ben. Rey too carries that burden and must allow her own persona and expectation of Jedi and darkness, that she is somehow less than, in order to accept her true self.

It is the journey we are all invited into in our lives. We live in a world where all too many settle for something less or simply see it as a movie and irrelevant to our lives. It’s not Lucas’ intent. It’s his journey as much as it is ours. It’s what makes the series more than a series of movies but the unfolding of a story, a life, lives, who have accepted the call to the resistance of “that’s just the way it is” and sees not only themselves as more but the world as well. When the characters, and ourselves, tap into that reality within ourselves, now grounded in more than all the external authorities, there’s no stopping us. It’s why the world, political, and religious leaders fear it the most. It exposes the shallowness of their own authority, an authority that comes not from the deepest recesses of the soul, of one who has done their work. Rather, it comes from position and power.

To experience the wholeness of our lives, light and dark, right and wrong, and all the rest, then the invitation to the Star Wars saga is for us, a journey unique to each but universal in the nature of the timeless hero. In the end they are no longer naïve; it explains the change in facial expression. The hero, rather, learns to embrace and live the tension between what is and what can be, head and heart, and recognize the joy that comes even in the sadness of a life once lived. They are the people we need, now more than ever, to be the Jedi masters to future generations who seek more.

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

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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.