Love’s Moment

Matthew 2: 1-12

The feast of Epiphany always comes at the right time because we’re finally far enough away from all the expectations that surround Christmas Day itself.  We are given an opportunity to step back as the world has moved on, to look more closely at what the season is truly about and it comes in the form of a timeless story of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s another one of the Christmas stories that has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and even misinterpreted over the years and has managed to maintain a place in the celebration of the season.  Of course, over time they’ve become kings even though there is no mention of kings in the story.  They are, though, the archetypal seekers that Israel would be most familiar, a people that understands the significance of wandering and seeking a given promise.

Here’s the thing about these Magi, though.  They were the experts of their day in reading the stars and understanding the heavens.  They were people who in some sense were other-worldly and connected to the cosmic levels of the universe.  They knew that there was significance in this particular star, that a new king had been born, quite possibly the one that has been long awaited and attached to the very promise that Israel clung to over the centuries.  Yet, despite all of that, the magi, these heavenly experts, got it wrong.  They got it wrong and show up at the wrong location.  Granted, it’s pretty close but it’s still not Bethlehem where the fulfillment of the promise is rooted.

Like the Magi and their own journey towards love, it’s often their greatest gift that becomes their obstacle to love.  All the expertise in the world and even their knowledge that extended beyond the realms of this world didn’t seem to land them where they most desired, their deepest search for love in the newborn King.  The journey, though, doesn’t disappoint them, mindful of Israel’s own journey through the desert, it’s often on the cusp of that moment of crossing over that a final test is introduced.  Do they really desire this gift of love incarnate?  The final test of the magi is getting over themselves and letting go of even their greatest attribute, their knowledge of the stars, in their confrontation with Herod, the lord of their day.  It was the most obvious of places to find themselves in seeking a king.  You go to the seat of power.  Yet in the process of this encounter with fear, the insecurity of worldly power is exposed and their own holding on begins to slip through their fingers and an opening for love begins to change the Magi from within.  It wasn’t simply the birth of Jesus, it was the birth of the kingly power in their own lives, magi with kingly power now being led by love.  Love leads them to Bethlehem not simply to pay homage to the newborn King but to become the very love in which they gaze.  The magi will have no other choice but to go home by a different route because now their lives are moved forward not by expertise and knowledge of the heavenly realms, but by love.  They tap into the greatest of powers and when it meets love in the Christ, their lives are changed forever.

Their stop in Jerusalem can appear as a mistake or simply as a necessary stop on the journey in seeking love, seeking out this newborn King.  The path to Bethlehem always comes through Jerusalem just as the path to Jerusalem is through Bethlehem.  The challenge for us, as it was the magi, is our own discernment in Jerusalem and not overstay our welcome.  We have a tendency in our lives to take up shelter in Jerusalem and setting for something other than what gives us live and manifests that love in our lives.  It’s much easier to cling and attach ourselves to our own “expertise”, whatever that may be.  It gives us a sense of certainty that we can hold onto in the uncertainties of our time.  It, however, often leads to further chaos and becoming trapped in the darkness and mistaking it for the light.  Who knows whether the magi knew for sure in their encounter with Herod but the one definite of the story is that when they do finally encounter love and love their navigational tool, they know they are not to return the same way.  We can’t go back to through the womb just as much as we can’t through the tomb.  They are simply passage ways, albeit it painful passages at times, but they are the path to love and in us sharing in love and becoming that love in our lives.  It is the deepest desire and what we long for the most in life if we can just allow ourselves to get out of our own way and surrender even our greatest gift that we believe defines us to love.

As we enter this final week of the Christmas season, culminating with the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, what is it we’re seeking in our lives these days?  Are we like the Magi as they enter into Jerusalem, holding onto our own wherewithal, thinking we know the way, mapping out the destination only to come up short?  What is our Jerusalem that we’re being housed in?  It is the most difficult of the journey until it no longer is, until you begin to catch glimpses of the more you desire, you seek.  It is only love that can pull us outside ourselves and yet move us to the deepest places within ourselves, navigating us through the ups and downs of life.  The magi have become timeless because they are so symbolic of our own lives and our spiritual journey.  If we continue to go home by the same route, more often than not we’re clinging and have a sense of being closed off from love, resisting a change of heart.  God finds a way, though, even with the magi.  Even in the face of the horrors and insecurities of Herod, love begins to break through for the Magi.  The desire for change and for more was already there.  In the moment of finally surrendering even the greatest parts of themselves, they realize there’s more and the burning love of the heart will now become the deciding factor.  It’s what we desire and it’s what we seek in our own lives, to love, to be loved, and most certainly, in that very encounter as we do at this altar, to become love and to be changed forever.

A Weighted Return

“There is a desire within each of us,
in the deep center of ourselves
that we call our heart.
We were born with it,
it is never completely satisfied,
and it never dies.
We are often unaware of it,
but it is always awake.

It is the Human desire for Love.
Every person in this Earth yearns to love,
to be loved, to know love.
Our true identity, our reason for being
is to be found in this desire…” 
Gerald May  Living in Love

“A sense of balance within spaciousness remains within such people, like a window between infinity and the world of everyday experience. They are not only wiser and humbler because of their addictions; they are also more available. Through their spaciousness, they are continually invited homeward.” Gerald May  Addiction & Grace

I’ve never gone back.  At least not to that point.  It seemed as if there would never be a new normal.  Yet, when I began this journey, simultaneously, the spiritual journey as well, I weighed in at over 300 pounds.  It makes me cringe to even type that and admit it at this point in my life.  But I’ve also never gone back.  Sure, there have been many plateaus and stumbles over the years, but now I find myself in a place with more than a hundred of it gone, for good.  By the way, to get to this point has been now over twenty years.  Almost half my life.  Even that seems hard to believe.

I think, more than anything, it’s the reasons for doing it that change over time.  There are, of course, health risks that come with obesity, that are beyond my understanding at times.  Yet, like most, I didn’t like to be told I needed to lose the weight because of those reasons nor did it ever seem possible.  Over time, some of those voices did win out and it became one reason to do it, but it was never the best reason to keep it off nor does it deal with the reasons as to why food and eating were so pleasurable or how it was actually feeding me.  The thought of not having that defense mechanism, though, was too daunting.  If there was one way to protect myself it was to put up a physical barrier around myself, preventing not only me but others from coming in.  Health reasons are noble but not necessarily sustainable in the end.

Without a doubt, others, are a good motivating force and another reason for doing it, but like health, not always sustainable as a reason.  The problem with building that defense mechanism is that it necessarily does more harm to me than others.  It became a way to isolate myself, paradoxically, often from myself.  The desire to please, fit in, be liked and noticed, or even attracted to, was a strong driving force for some time.  Any desire around attraction and sexuality run deep.  They are, though, double-edged swords more often than not.  The more I wanted that to be my reason and my driving force only worked against me, wanting to eat all the more when that desire was not satisfied.  What appeared to be as May writes, a desire for love, was never going to be fulfilled in such a way.  It was looking for approval and acceptance from everyone but myself.  I was convinced, an addiction to my own thoughts, that that was the answer.  If I could only find love, in the way I thought, which was more about approval and acceptance, that would somehow solve the missing link in my life.  That was the answer to the deeper hunger that food satiated, leaving the longing to grow even deeper and an endless pit and dump for more food.  The defense mechanism, the exterior wall around myself, only grew sturdier.

That thinking did finally solidify for me and the defense mechanism, as a means for survival.  It will, though, always mark a significant turning point, both physically and spiritually for me, October 2003.  At that point I was six years into this journey and was at my best, up to that point.  I was at my lowest weight in lived memory, and in an instant, it all fell apart.  I quickly realized just how fragile this new-found way was for me when my life was almost cut short following a rafting accident.  Life became much more about survival and questions that had no answers.  It seemed that the only thing certain in my life was food, or least how I saw food.  Those moments, that turned into months, solidified in a way that I never thought possible, how I felt about myself, projecting it all onto God, questioning why I was plucked from the raging river.  It wasn’t as some would think, as to preferring death, but rather why I was pulled from “the belly of the whale”, as to what was being asked of me in this life and would I have it in me to do it!  It all seemed daunting where all I wanted to do in those moments was crawl into a closet and hide, fearing life all the more, eating as a way to protect myself, when in reality, I was simply feeding the voices of shame and guilt.  Yet, I never went back.  It became an endless cycle of eating and exercising to the point of exhaustion, simply to stay where I was, at least knowing on some level that going back was not the answer.  I knew that and know that, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

If I could sum up the fifteen years since that moment, I’d say it was one of trying to crawl my way back to where I was and fighting all the way.  I firmly believed that was the answer.  If I could only return to the way life was before that day then all would be well.  I can’t even begin to explain how many times I thought that and said that, thinking somehow I could turn back the clock and erase all that had happened.  What I didn’t know, though, was just how much the “stinkin’ thinkin’” had held its grip on me.  As much as clawing and fighting were the name of the game, there was a gradual process unfolding through it all that was unlearning what had been learned.  It wasn’t, as May points out, the “spaciousness” of what was within that I feared the most, it was that feeling of being trapped, the weight of a raft, an other, atop me, drowning in my own feelings and desires and desiring the dark confines of that enclosed space to that spaciousness.  There wasn’t even space for myself, let alone anyone else, in what I would describe now as some of the roughest seas of my life, often feeling like I was gasping for air.  Fighting it all the way, of course.  Wanting to go back and yet knowing that wasn’t the answer. The weight I carried on the exterior very much symbolized the weight I carried within my own heart and soul, a grief unlike any other.

Food, though, like alcohol, drugs, internet, or whatever the pleasure, is merely a symptom of something much deeper.  That spaciousness only seemed to open up within me as I learned to write, page after page, writing to a God that I needed to listen.  I needed someone that could know my deepest thoughts and desires without judgment.  I had done enough of that myself and couldn’t handle a God doing the same.  I was sick, in my own way, and didn’t have the ability to go to where I needed to in life, to the deepest recesses of my heart and soul that held the key to unlocking the secrets to the symptoms that plagued my life.  There was nothing easy about any of it, quite frankly.  At times I feared sharing these writings with anyone; the shame and guilt of who I thought I was ran deep.  All I could imagine was myself hovering over me, stick in hand, ready to pounce.  Eating became the solution.  Eating became an escape from reality.  It allowed me to create my own reality, one that would protect me from the pains of the world.  Little did I know that it merely fed the deepest pains of my own life.  The desire, as May points out, is to love and to be loved.  I didn’t know what that meant, at least in my own life.  I hadn’t even learned to love myself.  How could I possibly love another?

Page after page and sentence after sentence, it seemed as if God was finally listening.  I was falling less and less into eating.  The more I became with the spaciousness as a new way of life, the more I had room “in the inn” for others who were hurting, and sometimes in similar ways. I learned to let go of unrealistic expectations, that somehow losing weight was the answer to all my problems.  I’ve had to tell myself that one many times over.  I could never quite understand what the deeper hunger was that was driving me to eat all the more.  It was a hunger that never seemed to be satisfied.  It was a hunger for connection.  It was a hunger for intimacy.  It was a hunger for love and to be loved.  It felt, at times, like a freefall into the unknown, and with each fall God seemed to hoist me up all the quicker or I became more aware of the fall each time.

I’m not convinced that it ever goes away.  I suppose that’s why addicts continue to claim that with each passing day.  Yeah, it gets easier.  I get that.  But as much as I don’t like to admit it, I also believe that the fall is the key over and over again.  It seems that with each fall it’s not into spaciousness at first.  Rather, it leads me to that trapped space, the confines of the closet, that becomes the passage way each and every time.  Every time I’m asked to give up a little more, surrender this way of thinking, because my thinking seems to be almost chameleon-like, changing with me and finding new ways to seduce me into believing that acceptance and approval are found beyond myself.  As much as I try to turn it off myself, I know it’s only in the moment of surrender, when I stop clawing and fighting, when something bigger than myself takes hold.

Losing weight, or dealing with any addictive behavior or thinking, is never easy, but it holds the key to the life we desire and the deeper hungers that remind us of our humanity.  At times I’ve said I’d rather be an alcoholic for at least I don’t need alcohol to live.  I’ve learned to live without a great deal in the process and with that I am ok.  All forms of addictive behavior or thinking was designed to protect us from hurt.  We all have some tendencies.  It’s manipulated in a consumer world convincing us that our deeper hungers, which are very much connected with our deepest hurts, can somehow be “taken care of” by something, whether it be food, alcohol, drugs, etc.  Although in the past month or so I have surpassed that point of October 2003, finally, there were mixed emotions through that process of crossing a threshold I had placed for fifteen years.

The very fact that I sit here writing this now has taken a lot of coaxing because it’s very personal to me.  It has been the loss of a great deal of who I thought I was over the years, and now, at times, as I step out of the confines, I’m left often wondering how to live my life.  It’s no longer the question of survival, but about what truly feeds the deepest hungers in my life and how does that love manifest itself in the life God has given me.  I’m left with trying to make sense out of what it all means in the days and months ahead.  There is, if I am honest with myself, a sense of grief and dying that is taking place within myself that I myself am not even able to yet comprehend or even put into words.  That’s not easy to admit.  Everyone wants to assume I feel better and have more energy, and on a physical level that is very true.  I have never been more active in my life.  However, the certainty has vanished and the defense mechanism is no longer standing in the way of the mystery of life and relationship.  I find myself looking for deeper meaning in my own life and in friendships.  It’s caused me to pause and question who is in my life and are they in the realm of that space.

I guess the bottom line is, like the rafting accident, I find myself asking questions that there aren’t really answers to, or not as quickly as I’d like.  But it’s different this time and the questions are open to possibility rather than shutting myself off, vulnerability rather than superficial, free rather than confining.  You see, at some point I finally began to see that it wasn’t about health and it wasn’t about others, as much as I’m still driven to think so at times.  Rather, it’s about me and the life entrusted to me by God.  I needed to learn acceptance.  I needed to learn love.  I needed to learn to feel and express.  I needed to be vulnerable.  I needed to step out of my own box.  I needed more than I could express and thankfully there have been people, friends, along the way who believed in me in that way.  I needed to believe in myself.

The journey “homeward” is never an easy one.  As a matter of fact, each time it appears you’re “getting there” new obstacles appear that open the door for deeper opportunity.  Deep down I have always wanted to do this for myself.  I believe that desire has always been there, that somehow I knew there was more to me than what I carried with me day in and day out.  I was never satisfied, and quite frankly, not sure I will ever be satisfied.  It’s in my DNA to question and to go deeper, either with others or within myself.  With every bite I took I knew there was something that was trying to be revealed.  The more I became aware, the more it was revealed.  I’ve never gone back and never plan on going back, to that place, at least.  When “home” is finally found nothing else satisfies the hunger.  Food, eating, addiction, has something very profound to teach if we’re willing to believe, to unlearn the learned, and to be open to the pain of others to enter in and teach.  The reasons change with age but so does what gives meaning and purpose.  What doesn’t change, though, is that hunger to love and to be loved.  When we recognize it as the eternal addiction we finally learn that nothing else satisfies and nothing will ever be enough except the utter abandonment of it all and a total trust in God as we fall into the mystery of our lives, broken and redeemed.  For “God does not love us if we change; God loves us so we can change.”

 

 

 

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.

 

The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

All I Want for Christmas

Zeph 3: 14-18; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18

So, nine days left until Christmas.  I don’t feel ready, but that’s nothing new.  There have really been two words that sum up this Advent season.  The first is obviously “expectation”.  That’s what the season is all about.  We speak of the coming of Christ at the end times, in our lives, and of course at Christmas, so that word really is synonymous with Advent.  The other word that we’ve heard these weeks is from Saint Paul who again stresses the word anxiety.  That theme will carry through Christmas when we will hear about fear.  Whether we know it or not the two can be very much entangled with one another.

Expectation, or this sense of longing, has been hijacked by the cultural Christmas and even society in general.  The entire structure is built on an expectation that I’m going to find the right gift to make someone happy.  We all have seen with our own eyes the excitement of kids on Christmas but also how quickly the gift gets tossed aside, dashing our own expectation.  I’m no different.  I spent yesterday on my computer, even telling myself that this is crazy, but it’s so embedded in who we are that we start to feel guilty about not doing it or letting people down and all this stuff, none of which is going to ever satisfy that longing and expectation in our hearts.  More often than not we’re not even aware how we’re being manipulated by it because it’s the only thing we know.  That’s where anxiety then feeds into the unrealistic expectation.  This season, though, is not about happiness, which is fleeting.  Rather, as we hear today, is about joy.  It’s about being satisfied with what we have and even grateful for it, not needing something else “out there” to do the trick.  This false sense of expectation and its accompaniment with anxiety has brought down civilizations all for looking for a “quick fix” to the deepest longing of our hearts as individuals and as a human race.

That’s where Israel finds itself in the first reading today.  It’s the only time we hear from the Prophet Zephaniah.  As a matter of fact, we hear the only positive message that occurs in the book.  Jerusalem finds itself in a rather usual position, about to once again be destroyed.  It is a city that has fallen into disarray and extreme corruption and now stands on the brink of being destroyed by the Babylonians.  As is history of our people, they too look elsewhere to bring some sense of peace to the longing of the people.  It’s a pain that runs deep.  They, like us, convince ourselves that somehow if things were just this way or I had that thing, all would be right in the world.  Israel always wants to look beyond itself rather than journey inward.  It’s how they become corrupt and separated from their purpose as people.  The more they become separated the greater the fear and anxiety get fed and the more the longing deepens.  It’s a perpetual cycle that we all fall prey to as human beings.  It should be no surprise to any of us that there are so many people that suffer from anxiety disorders in one way or another because that’s all we know.  It’s ingrained in our culture but it’s ingrained in the pain that runs through that longing that we anticipate.  In the end, we find ourselves even with expectations of the expectations we hold and the Christmas culture loves it.  It feeds on our weakness as humans knowing we’re going to go looking.

It is expectation that the people have in seeking out John the Baptist as well.  They think maybe finally he’s the one that is going to satisfy that longing.  Yet, he will forever be misunderstood by them because of the expectation of that expectation that they had, that somehow he was the one that was going to undo the systems of his day in the way he preached and spoke.  Again, more often than not we do the same thing.  Who knows if these religious and political systems will ever be undone, knowing that the power associated with that longing is so appealing.  John knew he wasn’t that person and never could be.  All he could do is point the way.  He pointed the way in actions they could take, but it will only be in Christ where they will find that fulfillment.  They won’t find it simply by doing the right thing.  They do it by entering into relationship with the Christ, becoming aware of when they are falling prey otherwise, and once again accept that the longing and expectation lies only with God, with Christ. That’s a decision that John can’t make for them but one they have to make for themselves.  It me and you that have to decide whether we’re going to keep blaming rather than seeking that change of heart within ourselves. More often than not we’d prefer Santa Claus to God and when neither seem to give us what we want, we bail, only leaving us longing for more and seeking it elsewhere. 

We already have what we need and what will give us the peace we desire.  It’s easy for us to say that but much more to allow ourselves to trust it in those moments of longing and expectation.  We allow ourselves to be fed by the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by the unrealistic expectations of a culture.  The gift has already been given to each of us, yet it’s not going to stop us from looking, thinking that we need to or the guilt overtakes us.  If we want to pass on to future generations it should be a seeking of joy.  It may not be easy but it’s not so fleeting as happiness.  The whole season is moving us to the same place as Mary, a place of yes to the gift.  A yes to the longing and expectations of our heart, to a God that deeply desires us to be people of life and joy.  It’s right there and so close and yet at times seems so far away.  God has already wrapped it in the most beautiful of paper, awaiting us to say yes to pulling the ribbon and to be opened to the true meaning of the season and a recognition of what will truly fulfill our longings and expectations, all while freeing us of our fear and anxiety, our relationship with Christ and our falling into mystery.

Needed Endings

Daniel 12: 1-3; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18; Mark 13: 24-32

In some of his letters written from prison, German Lutheran theologian, spiritual writer, mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged his fellow co-conspirators to think and act of future generations.  Despite the fear and anxiety that will be thrust upon you of that age, and our age, the mindset must be forward and for future generations.  He himself had the opportunity to stay here in the States but felt for the sake of his own integrity and the integrity of the message that he must return to Germany during Nazi control and found himself imprisoned and eventual lead to not only his death but the death of several family members.  He knew how the message would be received by those in power, not as a message of hope, as anticipated, but rather feeding into their own fear of the threat of losing power.  When we become trapped in this moment and cannot see beyond or even trust the unknown, fear and anxiety rule the day.  His message was not only timely in the early 1940s as Germany and all of Europe reeled with a World War, but even to our own day.

His message, like that of Mark’s to his own community today, are meant to be messages of hope to people who find themselves waning on their commitment to the common good, future generations, and doing what is right.  There is an onslaught of pressure at this point of the story from not only political but religious authorities of their day who see not only Jesus but his very followers as a threat to the status quo, to what they are most comfortable with, to their way of life that they have deemed to be most fitting.  Fear and anxiety becomes the name of the game, but the message intended by Mark and Daniel, and even Bonhoeffer, was to persevere in the suffering and the darkness that you are experiencing at the moment.  For the sake of future generations, fear cannot move us to give up and become depleted in the mission that is given us by God. 

As Mark and Daniel tell us today, it will certainly feel as if the world is falling a part and feel like all we know is crumbling around us, but it has to.  It has to.  Many things need to die in order for the next generation, which may even have conflicting values, but for the betterment of society.  Instead, like in the time of Jesus, we have political and religious leaders looking more like bumbling fools at times, stumbling through, trying to avoid the pain, often all in order to cling to what was and what was is dying and has to die.  What was can no longer be.  The name of the game with God is surrender, trust, letting go, even learning to die, pushing through the pain, in order to learn to trust the unknown and the unfolding of mystery in our world today.  It’s a message of hope in the face of the many trials and tribulations that we have faced as generations of people.  Yet, every generation, as Jesus tells us today, clings, and all these things will come to pass before they learn to let go.  Do we really want to leave a mess for future generations in the church and country?

Whether we like it or not, things are going to change and many things will die, and need to.  People from other countries are going to come here, as they have for generations.  We need not fear as Bonhoeffer had written.  We need not fear people that are different and that we even perceive as a threat to our way of life.  Our way of life, for that matter, is also dying.  If you know anything about future generations, they live very differently.  They don’t necessarily value what older generations value, even in terms of economics.  At some point the trials and tribulations are only enhanced by our own need to control and to hold on to what was.  We become nostalgic of the past, as if everything was great.  Yet, all generations that have passed have lived through the same trials and tribulations and the same uncertainties that we face in our present day and age.  The more we learn to embrace the reality of life and death, that the two are so intertwined, the more we learn not to cling, but to let go, surrender, even the face of persecution and in the midst of the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by political and religious leaders, along with a great deal of our media that continues to feed into the narrative of the end times.

Well, guess what?  The end times are upon us.  They’re always upon us.  We’re always on the threshold being left with a choice to cling to what was, leading us further into despair, or we learn to trust the unknown, trust what is unfolding within and beyond us, the mystery of life and death.  All of creation, as the readings tell us today, knows that process better than any of us.  Despite the horrific loss of life and property in the wild fires of California, it’s all the forest knows.  Fires, despite the loss of life, are the only way forests recreate themselves and foster new growth.  As naturally as creation does it and allows it to be done unto it, here we are, the advanced ones of creation, clinging rather than embracing the freedom of the unknow, opening ourselves to future generations.

Bonhoeffer’s words continue to ring true to this day.  We too have a great deal of fear and anxiety thrust upon us from many different directions.  There is nothing easy about any of it.  His message, though, that in order to think and act in that way, we must learn to walk through the darkness, the pain, the suffering, that comes with letting go and surrendering ourselves over to the will of God.  If we find it as an ominous message rather than the message of hope that was intended, we probably find ourselves clinging in life, as if something is being taken away from us.  The message of hope delivered by these prophetic voices, Daniel, Jesus, Mark, Bonhoeffer, was one of trust in the face of adversity.  It may be painful in the immediate moment, but that more than ever is the time not to fall prey to fear and anxiety.  When we trust, despite the trials and tribulation, life is promised in death.  Sure, it’s hard and we’d rather hold on, but the message of hope is one of life, despite our fears.  Lean in and trust the unknown for the fullness of life awaits.

A Fractured Humanity

Of all the world religions, I’ll never begin to understand or grasp the level of disdain that exists for the Jewish faith.  Now maybe it was my own upbringing or simply the fact that over time my own image of God has expanded, transcending any of the ideas, theories, metaphors, or other means of trying to box God in to a convenient package that we can somehow control, and even worse yet, understand the motivation of the workings of God and Evil in our world, hearkening back to the original accounts of the desire to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the knowledge of good and evil.  The temptation to know and to control, if anything, limits our purview of God and over time distorts our ability to see clearly, a God who leads us to fall into greater depths of mystery.

Shortly following World War II, Karl Rahner, SJ, wrote warily of the shunning of our humanity, after witnessing the annihilation of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the concentration camps, recognizing that it is only in our limitation as humans where we can experience and find the existence of this mystery.  He writes, “They say there is no God because they are confusing the true God with what they took to be their God.  And as regards what they are actually referring to really does not are quite right.  The God they were referring to really does not exist:  the God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches in upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment.”  It is precisely, he’d go onto say, in our often felt despair when clinging to such a God where the true God, the God of this mystery, of unknowing, resides.

It is quite difficult listening to news stories of tragedies as what unfolded in Pittsburgh, PA earlier this morning, as a people who awoke from the darkness of the lingering night sky, began their sabbath as they do weekly, gathered in prayer.  Who would have ever thought that their day would unfold the way it had?  Who would have thought that they’d be the ones now facing that despair in the face of a God that had been faithful throughout the trials and tribulations of a people on a journey to greater depths and understanding.  A people that has such a storied history in the face of evil, and more often than not, in the name of another religion, whether historically with Christians, Muslims, or the rise of atheism and secularism that has contributed a great deal of animosity towards all religion, clinging to their own Gods and yet blinded by them at the same time.

In reading of the gunman, it was rather ironic or maybe even paradoxical, that his own animosity had grown even more acutely in thinking in his own mind that “the Jews” were somehow sympathetic towards the “caravans” of people fleeing Latin America violence, blaming them in this way.  If there is any truth, it’s in the metaphorical reality of a people that has the history of being a “caravan” people, fleeing the violence of Egypt in seeking the Promised Land.  It’s not to say that people Israel has been perfect, rather quite the opposite.  It is only in their own recognition of their limitation in fleeing persecution and slavery, that they begin to see the frail side of freedom and power, and, at times, become what it is they hated about Egypt.  Their story is our story, all of us.  We are a caravan people who continue to seek the Promised Land, but in the process of seeking and being found, we continue to cling to our Gods, as Rahner writes, and only then can we begin to catch glimpses, and only glimpses, of the deeper mystery we call God.

We live in an age when we find ourselves not only disconnected from our storied history but from our own humanity as well.  The warning of Rahner following World War II remains a warning to us all, maybe even more so in the age of technology when a persistent barrier prevents us from looking the person we loathe in the face and seeing them for more than a religion, a belief, a color, their gender, or any other means that we’ve accustomed to separating ourselves from one another. 

Certainly our own history, as a Christian, has often fed into these realities with faulty interpretations of Scripture that have long been outdated for our age and a clinging to our own Gods of dogma, security, and this senses of certainty that only gives an earthly assurance to us but never moves us to a place of trust and faith as it did people Israel in their own time of wandering.  It is in wandering that we find ourselves, blindly following the Gods of our times, calling us to consume information, consume by buying, consume by taking in and hoarding, somehow giving us the satisfaction and security we desire but creating a blockage in our hearts to understand and accompany the other in the caravan we call life.  The story of our Jewish brothers and sisters is our story as well, never fully known and always unfolding.  When we lose sight of that, we begin to not only box God into what we want and choose to define, but we box ourselves in as well.

We are a people held captive often by our own doing.  We are a people held captive by our thinking, our ideology, our politics.  We are a people that fails to recognize and accept our own limitations in freedom and of our humanity, seeking a “more” that is never fulfilled, leaving us angry and resentful towards the other that we have deemed worthy of such life, resorting to violence, hatred, judgment, bigotry, and all personified by a political system that is fed in that same way.  We are a people held captive by our own doing, still thinking that we too can eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the knowledge of good and evil, taking matters into our own hands, not being abandoned by God but rather abandoning God all together.

Today, as so many in the past, one person took matters into his own hands, thinking in his own mind that what he was doing was good and failing in the way humanity has since the beginning of time.  We consistently toss ourselves from the garden, the paradise we desire, in order to create our own rather than living in trust and faith.  Our distorted religious culture continues to feed into a narrative that evil can be eradicated from the earth by our own doing and more often than not, violently.  Despite the fact that our Jewish brothers and sisters have at their helm the celebration of their own Passover and we Christians, a Cross, we still fail to learn that the only answer, and the most difficult, is the power that comes in and through love and forgiveness.  Once again we are given an invitation from the true God of our faith to respond to a senseless violent act against a people of faith, how will we respond?  Do we respond by arming ourselves with guns, failing to learn from our past of becoming what we have hated or do we respond in the way all people of faith are called to respond, with love and forgiveness?  If we desire to restore a humanity to our civil discourse, our religion, and even our culture, it is only through the deepest desire of our frail humanity, as Rahner states, with love and forgiveness, even in times of despair.